Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #4: What Zavarzadean Metamodernism Is and Is Not

In the fourth of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I forcefully rebut misperceptions of Zavarzadean metamodernism and attempt to remedy these misperceptions by close-reading Zavarzadeh’s seminal text. This reading emphasizes how closely interconnected Zavarzadean metamodernism is to other writings on metamodernism that have appeared through the years. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #3: Developing a Guiding Metaphor for the Metamodern

“…the “snap-back” quality of metamodernism described by Vermeulen and van den Akker is merely a re-entrenchment of postmodern philosophy by way of confirming that opposing positions are in fact irreconcilable.”

It must now be stated rather baldly that Vermeulen and van den Akker’s circumscription of Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism bears no obvious relation to either the views of the man or the manner in which he articulated those views in “The Apocalyptic Fact” in 1975.

For instance, Zavarzadeh’s clearest and most oft-repeated circumscription of his own reading of metamodernism is that the term denotes creative and cultural phenomena that contain “zero degree of interpretation”; yet in dismissing Zavarzadeh as an only slightly idiosyncratic postmodernist, Vermeulen and van den Akker attribute to him a diametrically opposite usage of the “meta-” prefix: they claim, that is, that his metamodernism aims for “a rumination upon” contemporary culture in the manner of postmodernism. The text you’re reading right now—a six-part, blog post-like essay—is a reasonable exemplar of rumination; texts that aim to achieve “zero degree of interpretation” are manifestly not.

How Vermeulen and van den Akker read “zero degree of interpretation” as an invitation for “rumination” we cannot say, nor do we actually find in Zavarzadeh the assignation of metamodern intent to “black humour and parody” that Vermeulen and van den Akker claim to have uncovered. Both black humor and parody—discussed in more detail below—constitute precisely the sort of ironic, satiric rumination upon present affairs that Zavarzadeh explicitly, repeatedly, and forcefully distinguished from anything to do with the metamodern. Just so, though Vermeulen and van den Akker locate a postmodern bent in Zavarzadeh’s belief that contemporary culture precludes a single interpretation of reality, in fact Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism has nothing at all to do with (as Vermeulen and van den Akker imply) “a discrete number of competing interpretations of reality,” and everything to do with the absence of reality and the impossibility of unifying interpretation(s) acting as co-extant, generative cultural activators. This is an entirely different premise. I believe that part of the problem faced by both Zavarzadeh and the Vermeulen/van den Akker partnership is that in order to discuss metamodernism one must first internalize certain basic principles of postmodernism—the former being a transcendence rather than a rejection of the latter. The issue with this is that Vermeulen and van den Akker seem to treat as a terminal logic even Zavarzadeh’s barest acknowledgment of postmodern thought as influential to metamodernism’s circumscription. This, despite the fact that the same sort of necessary acknowledgment is present throughout the research of Vermeulen and van den Akker themselves.

Even more confusing, Vermeulen and van den Akker find in the metamodern philosophy described by Andre Furlani in the 1990s “another modernism [other than postmodernism]”—something they do not see in the presumptively postmodern Zavarzadeh—by virtue of the fact that Furlani, presumably unlike Zavarzadeh, locates in metamodernism “contrasts absorbed into harmony.” Yet those who have read Zavarzadeh at length know that the most critical passage in the seminal text of Zavarzadean metamodernism, indeed the one that best summarizes the whole of the paradigm, is this one:

“The fusion of fact and fiction blurs the dichotomy between ‘life’ and ‘art’ and indeed such a sharp division between the two does not exist in the emerging aesthetics which I shall, for lack of a better term, call ‘Metamodernist.’ [Metamodernism in literature]…combines such allegedly antithetical elements as the ‘fictional’ and the ‘factual,’ ‘critical’ and the ‘creative,’ ‘art’ and ‘life.’”

One wonders why Furlani’s “contrasts absorbed into harmony” heralds a “new modernism” for Vermeulen and van den Akker, while Zavarzadeh’s “fusion of…allegedly antithetical elements” does not. Just so, Vermeulen and van den Akker locate in Furlani the ambition of “transcending postmodern disorder,” yet somehow this cannot be equated to Zavarzadeh’s understanding of metamodern reality as “non-selective” but “inclusive.” Much like Furlani’s “transcendence of postmodern disorder,” Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism proposes a sweeping away of chaos-inducing designations like “significant” and “absurd” in favor of a harmonized “empirical fiction” that simply “is.” This sanguine acceptance of (in Zavarzadeh’s view) a now-nonextant reality/fiction interface is, as in Furlani, effectively a transcendence of postmodern disorder.

Alexandra Dumitrescu’s mid-aughts writings, too, dovetail with the work of Zavarzadeh and Furlani rather than that of Vermeulen and van den Akker. For instance, in conceding that Dumitrescu is invested in a new modernism—just not the one they are—Vermeulen and van den Akker note that Dumitrescu’s “metamodernism” is typified by “holism, connectionism and integration.” These three principles are, of course, endemic to the research of both Zavarzadeh and Furlani as well as Dumitrescu. Meanwhile, in direct contradiction of the past writings of Zavarzadeh, Furlani, Dumitrescu, and (in full confession) myself as well, Vermeulen and van den Akker argue that “harmony is not the dominant sensibility of present culture…[but] irreconcilability,” a phrasing that could be the mantra of every contemporary postmodernist both inside the academy and without. The one addition made to this perspective by Vermeulen and van den Akker—not coincidentally, an addition none of the foregoing metamodern scholars would disagree with—is that in contemporary culture individuals nevertheless feel a “need to occupy [multiple positions] at once.” This is the same reason why Zavarzadeh saw, in the nonfiction novel, an attempt to conjoin the attitudes of the fabular and the mimetic; this is why, in Dumitrescu’s now iconic metaphor of metamodernism as a boat being rebuilt and repaired as it sails, the metamodern sailor wants both a) to sail in the boat she presently has, but also b) to sail in a very different boat that’s a rebuilt and repaired version of the current one. (Separately, we might also note that this idea of “occupying multiple positions at once” is, metaphysically, a direct contradiction of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s oscillatory and dialectical “snap-back” metaphor. “Oscillation” is not simultaneous occupation—it wasn’t in Plato’s time, it isn’t today.)


While it is true that we find more conspicuous evidence of individuals’ “tragic desire” to simultaneously occupy disparate positions in the writings of Vermeulen, van den Akker, Furlani, and Dumitrescu than we do in Zavarzadeh, this is in part because of readers’ unfamiliarity with the metamodern literary genre at the very heart of Zavarzadean metamodernism: the nonfiction novel. The nonfiction novel is, to be clear, a sincere autobiographical text which the author knows can and will be read as fiction (and/or simply an irony-laden monologue) by its audience. Yet the author of the nonfiction novel inescapably bears a “tragic desire” to tell the story of her life while acknowledging that the conditions no longer exist for her history to be read as resolutely empirical. Indeed, Zavarzadeh’s most notable citation of the sort of “tragic desire” Vermeulen and van den Akker identify as metamodern is actually the second most oft-quoted sentence from “The Apocalyptic Fact”: Zavarzadeh’s observation that “each individual in our time is…a knight errant engaged in a bewildering quest of the self in an atomized society.” What better statement of “tragic desire” could there be than this one? What better example of the need to occupy two positions at once than to be simultaneously a) a Romantic quester, and b) a clear-eyed resident of an atomized society, i.e. one in which quest-like truthseeking is evidently futile?

Vermeulen and van den Akker have now, five years after their first published article on metamodernism, settled on metamodernism as “an attitude dependent…on the overall state of the organism, its level of energy, the level of resources at its disposal for coping with environmental challenges, and the degree of tension it finds itself in as a result of the ratio of its resources to its challenges…” This reference to organic energy appears to be an implicit citation of the scholarly concept of “entropy,” which, too, was critical to Zavarzadeh’s 1975 essay “The Apocalyptic Fact.” There, Zavarzadeh posited that metamodernism’s response to contemporary crises features both a) “local viewpoints…imposed on narratives” (with these “local viewpoints” analogically similar to Vermeulen/van den Akker’s stranded swimmer, who must develop a “local” strategy in the face of a non-selective pantheon of options), and b) “entropy,” which Zavarzadeh defines as synonymous with what we now understand to be “personal metanarratives.” (Zavarzadeh’s specific phrasing, in describing entropy, is “a shaping factor of contemporary realities…[that is not] a controlling metaphor”). One is hard-pressed to see between these two perspectives the gulf of distinction Vermeulen and van den Akker posit as being so vast that their metamodernism is a difference not just of degree but of kind to Zavarzadeh’s (in their view) oddball postmodernism.


As we have seen, the distinctions drawn by Vermeulen and van den Akker between their own views and those of others who have used the term metamodernism do not withstand much scrutiny, even as the ways in which they distinguish their approach to the topic from those of others suggests that what is being described by them is in fact not a “paradigm” in the fashion of modernism or postmodernism at all. This is all to reiterate that metamodernism has, since 1975, consistently been defined by theorists on multiple continents as constituting a) a mediation between modernism and the direct reactions against it (whether we call these reactions “postmodern” or “anti-modern”) as well as b) an attempt to generatively juxtapose opposing poles in a central space. This juxtaposition is then seen—by Zavarzadeh; by Furlani; by Dumitrescu; and, for what it’s worth, by myself—as actuating or at least making conceivable the future transcendence of entrenched dialectics, such as, for instance, those which were found (albeit in very different forms) in both Modernist and postmodernist philosophy. In this view, the “snap-back” quality of metamodernism described by Vermeulen and van den Akker is merely a re-entrenchment of postmodern philosophy by way of confirming that opposing positions are in fact irreconcilable.

The next entry in the series can be read here: #5: Reading Frederic Jameson Against Mas’ud Zavarzadeh

Metamodern mash-ups and remixes like Robot Chicken’s “Star Wars” and Bad Lip Reading’s “Medieval Land Fun-Time World” create idiosyncratic narratives out of existing public ones—without destroying their original sources: