Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #6: Transcendence of the Dialectical in Zavarzadean Metamodernism

In this last of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I offer a detailed outline of Zavarzadeh’s approach to both conventional narrative and postmodern dialectics. This outline confirms Zavarzadean metamodernism—both literary and cultural—not only as a new paradigm but also one which, albeit without direct citation to Zavarzadeh, contemporary metamodernists have continued to explore in their own writings. My hope is to re-situate Zavarzadeh as not only the man who coined the term “metamodernism” in the mid-1970s, but also a (still living) scholar who’s given us much of the term’s contemporary valence. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #5: Reading Frederic Jameson Against Mas’ud Zavarzadeh

The chief trait of the literary “metamodernism” identified by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh in 1975 was its resistance to the dialectics of both Modernism and “anti-modernism” (postmodernism). Metamodern literature, wrote Zavarzadeh, “refuses simplistic either/or approach[es] to the experiential situation and establishes, through its dual fields of reference, a double perspective” that is neither exclusively “self-referential or out-referential.” We hear in this statement by Zavarzadeh the assignation to metamodernism of the “both/neither” status (or, as I’ve theorized it, “both/and”, as to be two very different things at once is to be a new thing altogether) that Vermeulen and van den Akker have likewise attached to metamodernism in replacement of the “either/or” reasoning of the dialectical.

Other “aesthetic and ideational approaches to the art of narrative” Zavarzadeh associates with the metamodern are:

1. A philosophy of “zero degree of interpretation,” meaning that an artwork does not seek to either construct a private or universal metaphysics nor deconstruct any existing private or universal metaphysics. According to Zavarzadeh, metamodern authors do not seek to offer any explicit, conspicuous interpretation or critique of reality because reality has become so indistinguishable from fiction that attempting to speak of “reality” at all is a non-starter. We can distinguish this immediately from the view of (say) neo-Marxist postmodernists, for whom the question of how to deconstruct reality into a series of cogently analyzed dialectics is not merely a parlor game but the entirety of their enterprise past and present.

2. A belief that art ought aim to be neither “significant” (as we often saw was the ambition of the High Modernists) nor “absurd” (the sort of pejorative we might associate with work like Warhol’s “Pop Art”). Metamodernists eschew both the “significant” and the “absurd” because, as Zavarzadeh put it in 1975, “daily experience…simply is.” What this suggests, in the work of individual metamodernists, is that idiosyncratic daily experience can and should be presented “as if” it is merely workaday data—no matter how strange it might seem to a casual observer. This idea of treating the extraordinary as ordinary, and vice-versa—aligning the two not in a dialectical relationship but a juxtapositive one—calls to mind the “as if” reasoning of Kant that would later be mentioned by metamodern scholars Vermeulen and van den Akker. The idea here is that even that which seems impossible or uncanny or otherworldly can be treated “as if” it is simply daily experience: neither significant or absurd, merely what “is.” Likewise, daily relationships and occurrences can be rendered and indeed experienced as if they were, in a sense, sublime.

“As a “post-postmodernism,” metamodernism asks, “What happens when postmodernism has not only crystallized in the arts but become so ubiquitous and saturated in the culture—so terrifyingly universal—that art can only respond from ‘outside’ this condition by somehow transcending it?”

3. An interest in treating facts—at both the “international, national, and personal levels,” per Zavarzadeh—as simultaneously eternal and unstable. Whereas postmodernism underscores the contingent nature of “facts” by dialectically presuming that the end of facts-qua-facts means also the “end of history” (that is, an inability to, using facts, construct any ongoing metanarratives whatsoever), Zavarzadean metamodernism presumes that fact-dependent metanarratives continue to exist (and must continue to exist) and be given practical import by their creators, but are nevertheless necessarily “unstable” at the international, national, and personal levels. Easily read into this Zavarzadean principle is that the instability of metanarrative is caused primarily by the tension between how metanarratives operate at the international, national, and personal levels. For instance, an idiosyncratic, fact-based metanarrative may remain “stable” at the personal level for quite some time—even a lifetime—even as it has virtually no purchase whatsoever, or simply an exceedingly brief lifespan, at the local, national, and/or international levels. We can contrast this view of metanarrative to the critiques of capitalism inherent in postmodernism, which critiques do not so much presume either the death or the multiplicity of metanarratives but rather that the single culturally dominant (“neo-liberal”) capitalist metanarrative was and is simply wrong—and that a new, neo-Marxist metanarrative (say) offers an adequate replacement. This is why we find, in postmodern scholarship, not the embrace, as in metamodernism, of simultaneous and multiple/infinite metanarratives, but rather promulgation of a discrete number of passionately defended and resolutely counter-institutional metanarratives (like those offering resistance to colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny, and transphobia). To be clear, nothing in metamodernism seeks to invalidate any of these critical metanarratives; metamodernism merely conjoins them with others—international, national, local, and, yes, entirely personal and idiosyncratic—and in turn complicates their public valences.

4. While Zavarzadeh observed, in 1975, that themes of “alienation, deracination, and victimization” have often been “symbolically incorporated into the concentrated experience of modernist fiction,” he also noted that these conditions—ubiquitous thematically in Modernism—have become the lived (not merely fictionalized) experience for most people. In writing that alienation, deracination, and victimization had become “universal conditions” by 1975, Zavarzadeh correctly observed the operation of late capitalism in American culture by the time of the Ford Administration. What was new, however, in the analysis—in other words, what permitted Zavarzadeh to project this state of affairs forward to the production of literature in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond—was the scholar’s belief that this “alienation, deracination, and victimization” would be fed back into literature as a sort of invisibility. A controversial claim, Zavarzadeh’s belief that alienation, deracination, and victimization were registered as “no longer realistic” in metamodern writing (simply because universal, and thus no more “realistic” than anything else) pushes against even the postmodernism of today—which remains typified by its formal instantiation, in literature, of alienation, deracination, and victimization. The idea that popular culture (e.g. the Internet Age) might so alienate, deracinate, and victimize all persons subjected to it—not merely discrete classes of persons—and that literature might therefore, in metamodernism, no longer be able to register that state as an isolated phenomenon, was in 1975 a radical submission. It remains so today. Moreover, it’s one that not only surprises but deeply offends the postmodern sensibility. Yet this is the very reason why, say, the metamodern animated programs on The Cartoon Network (e.g. “Adult Swim”) do not investigate or ruminate upon alienation, deracination, or victimization but rather baldly demonstrate how life is when these conditions are always-already fully internalized and thus environmental.

5. Per Zavarzadeh, metamodern literary art implicitly responds to “the continual upheavals and the ongoing crisis in values in recent times [of] our total environment…an extended ‘extreme situation.’” As the “ongoing crisis of values” described by Zavarzadeh is clearly not a Modernist invention—indeed, the very purpose of the Modernist novel discussed by Zavarzadeh was to resolve values crises using purportedly universal, fully-interpretive metanarratives—it is clear that he is describing an “ongoing crisis” which, by 1975, was conspicuously the product of the postmodernism of the late 1950s and much of the 1960s. In this respect metamodern writing is a response to the “crisis of values” produced by postmodernism’s relativistic-yet-dialectical relation to truth. Moreover, Zavarzadeh situates metamodernism as a direct response to “a technetronic reality that defies human moral understanding,” referencing “computers” (and even something as specific as the then-unheard-of oddity of “cybersex”) as one particular culprit of our contemporary “ecological and demographic environment.” No postmodernist worth his or her salt would call the dialectics of our computer-driven ecological and demographic environment “beyond moral understanding,” as in fact postmodernism strives to use moral relativism and deconstruction as tools to tame into cogency—not spin into ambiguity or literal impossibility—a moral understanding of our world. Zavarzadeh’s position in 1975 thus remains, again, every bit as radical today as it was in the 1970s. It was, and remains, a rebuke of what has come to be thought of as the postmodern position.

6. Zavarzadeh describes literary metamodernism as a series of “empirical fictions” constructed of contradictory elements (“empirical fiction” being itself, of course, just such a paradox). Specifically, Zavarzadeh does not identify metamodern literature as “ironic”—for to say so would have been merely to describe postmodernism—but as an interplay between “heavy symbolic load” (a vestige of Modernism) and “ironic overtones” (an appearance or sense—but not necessarily the reality—of irony that we even today associate with early metamodernism rather than postmodernism). A word Zavarzadeh specifically used in 1975 to describe metamodern art was “uncanny”—precisely the term used today by cultural critics like Jerry Saltz or Vermeulen and van den Akker to situate work we might consider metamodern. Postmodern artwork, such as Warhol’s visual art, was neither uncanny nor a defiance of any/all moral understanding; it was both literally and figuratively “canny” inasmuch as its critiques were material, relevant, and, to any trained eye, conspicuous. One cannot enter into a dialectic with capitalism, or with Modernism’s artificial separation of High and popular culture, without staking out a position that is anything but ambiguous. Metamodernism, in contrast, not only abides in but derives its strength from a series of ambiguities that are particular to it as a cultural paradigm. (Other terms and phrases used by Zavarzadeh to describe metamodern art, all of which are still used today for the same purpose, are “weird,” “constantly unfamiliar,” “extravagant in its contradictions,” “almost escapist,” and attributable in large part to “science-fictional technology.”)

7. As a “post-postmodernism,” metamodernism asks, “What happens when postmodernism has not only crystallized in the arts but become so ubiquitous and saturated in the culture—so terrifyingly universal—that art can only respond from ‘outside’ this condition by somehow transcending it?” What was clear in Zavarzadeh’s 1975 analysis was that he was describing “emerging” phenomena in literature that responded to an ongoing and in fact worsening condition: as he wrote, “the perplexing fictivity of the real increases as the century wears on.” Those who misread Zavarzadeh’s essay as a “retrospective” of some kind grossly misstate the ambition behind the scholar’s coinage of metamodernism, which was, simply, to imagine how literature might continue to develop for the remainder of the twentieth century and beyond. While Zavarzadeh did identify early adopters of what he referred to as an “historical and cultural period”—for instance, Thomas Pynchon—many of those novelists who are now universally acknowledged as metamodern, such as David Foster Wallace, not only self-describe as being in the mold of Pynchon but indeed in some instances began conceptualizing their metamodern work (such as Wallace with Infinite Jest) in the early to mid-1980s, just a few years after Zavarzadeh coined the term “metamodernism.” To the extent that at least one prominent metamodernist who demurs from Zavarzadeh’s reading of the term insists that “no work prior to 1990 can properly be termed metamodernist,” it bears repeating that Wallace—avowedly metamodern in the view of this and nearly all other metamodernists today—began writing his metamodern magnum opus in 1984 and (by his own admission) began experiencing the cultural logic that informed his later work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This too is consistent with the timeline envisioned by Zavarzadeh—as opposed to those who now affix metamodernism to a post-9/11 world (if not a post-9/11 mentality).

8. Finally, critical to Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism was the juxtaposition of “supposedly antithetical elements” in a central space: for instance, per Zavarzadeh, “the fictional and factual, critical and creative, art and life.” This notion of juxtapositive ambiguities residing in a central space between poles—which ambiguities force us out of any single received construction or deconstruction of reality (whether Modernist or postmodern)—is one we also see in Furlani’s ascriptions of metamodernism in the 1990s, or Alexandra Dumitrescu’s research into metamodernism in the aughts. More specifically, Zavarzadeh presaged the ambiguous “affects” of metamodern artists like Wes Anderson, Miranda July, or David Foster Wallace by noting that in today’s “fluid, heterogeneous society…subtle personality markers are not always easily recognizable.” The reason for this ambiguity of affect is the same as for the ambiguity of position Zavarzadeh associates with metamodernism: where the nature of reality is forever in doubt, the comforts of demographic association or moral authority, much like the comforts of readily readable affect, are mere Band-Aids atop the irreconcilable condition of a non-extant reality-fictuality interface.

Despite all of the above, Zavarzadeh, like most contemporary metamodernists, saw certain contrivances—particularly the personal metanarrative—as an ongoing necessity, even in the face of the impossibility of choosing individual affects or moral positions to the exclusion of all others. To repeat, one of the most important observations of “The Apocalyptic Fact” was Zavarzadeh’s contention that “each individual in our time is…a knight errant engaged in a bewildering quest of the self in an atomized society.” By noting this confluence of Modernism’s “bewildering quest of the self” and postmodernism’s “atomized society,” Zavarzadeh set the table for the metamodernism of today—still, as ever, an intervention in the post-postmodernism debate.

Importantly, however, Zavarzadeh’s reaction to all of these developments was not a cynical one. Zavarzadeh described metamodern literature, in 1975 and going forward, as a “radical response” to current crises that exhibited not only “volcanic energy” (suggesting a propulsive and creative rather than merely reactive postmodern mode) but also “by no means implies the death of the imagination. It means narrative energy is finding new channels.” As and when we hear of metamodernism as a “romantic response to crisis,” this valence of the metamodern echoes—rather than supersedes—what Zavarzadeh offered in his seminal essay on metamodernism. Today, as in 1975, our best response to crisis remains the radical, imaginative, volcanic narrative energy (call it “hope”) that Zavarzadeh witnessed exploring new channels in the seventies. This original energy continues to explore new channels today, now with the aid of the same “technetronic culture” Zavarzadeh envisioned with surprising clarity.


“Postmodernism created the appearance of collapsed distance by (for instance) combining High and popular culture, but its maintenance of dialectics to “absolve” the postmodern artist of this collapse distinguishes it—eternally—from the cultural paradigm that superseded it, metamodernism.”

The misreadings we’ve seen of Zavarzadeh in recent years are obviously not willful, even as some may seem, to certain proponents of Zavarzadean metamodernism, clearly—if benignly—negligent. For instance, Vermeulen and van den Akker propose that when Zavarzadeh mentioned black humorist Thomas Berger in 1975, this citation was intended to offer “black humor” as itself metamodern; this, as with other misreadings of “The Apocalyptic Fact,” is merely unfortunate. In fact, Zavarzadeh mentions Berger not as an example of a metamodern writer, but rather for a much more esoteric proposition: the fact that Berger was chosen by the New York Times to be its serious political critic in the 1970s was a sign that the Times had given up on “serious political criticism” (my phrase) as a possibility—not that it believed postmodern “black humor” to be an effective response to crisis. Indeed, in “The Apocalyptic Fact” Zavarzadeh specifically rejects conscious “parody” (like black comedy, a subgenre of satire) as metamodern, as parody—like black comedy—presumes a space of ironic detachment from which a critical analysis can or must be delivered. Instead, wrote Zavarzadeh, “mere quotation” of personal experience and/or empirical observation serves the same function in metamodern writing. Here another comparison with Andy Warhol’s visual and performance art is apt: if Warhol executed a postmodern critique of fast-food consumerism by parodying such consumption—for instance he once filmed himself, inside his art studio, eating a fast-food hamburger—a “metamodern Warhol” would have merely “quoted” the behavior he wished to comment upon. That is, he would have filmed himself sitting in a McDonald’s eating a hamburger. Just so, the late-postmodern poet Robert Fitterman is known for delivering lengthy sob-story soliloquies that seem earnest but maintain an ironic remove by virtue of the fact that Fitterman puts on a hat—a hat he never normally wears—before delivering his address. Again, in metamodernism the mere quotation of facts (whether they are personally derived or broadly environmental) is sufficient; therefore, a “metamodern Robert Fitterman” would deliver the very same soliloquy without donning a new hat first. The collapse of distances is endemic to metamodernism, and it’s precisely this sort of collapse that is forestalled by black comedy and ironic hat-donning. Postmodernism created the appearance of collapsed distance by (for instance) combining High and popular culture, but its maintenance of dialectics to “absolve” the postmodern artist of this collapse distinguishes it—eternally—from the cultural paradigm that superseded it, metamodernism.

So what artforms did Zavarzadeh explicitly associate with metamodernism? His 1975 essay gives us several examples, all of which are analogous to artforms we today consider metamodern. For instance, Zavarzadeh imagines an entirely fictitious story upon whose front cover the author has written simply, “What I Believe.” This paradox—an author claiming as a “true” personal metanarrative a story impossible for anyone else to believe—calls to mind the metamodern fiction of Tao Lin, whose simultaneously workaday and unreliable narratives are associated with “The New Sincerity.” How can Lin be considered to earnestly “believe in” the experiences detailed by his unreal fiction? Zavarzadeh well understood why. Just so, the reverse of this phenomenon, the “nonfiction novel,” is cited as metamodern by Zavarzadeh. Nonfiction novels manage to be received by their readers as fictitious even when they are entirely true. If forms of critical and creative writing that assume what Zavarzadeh called “moral and metaphysical certitude”—for instance, the postcolonialist critical tract or the black-comedy novel—are postmodern, Zavarzadeh identified as metamodern work that “denies…an integrated view of reality and the innocence of moral or metaphysical certitude.” No Literary Studies doctoral student studying postcolonial studies, or surveys of white supremacy in America, would say that such tracts demur from “an integrated view of reality” or “moral certitude”—it’s merely that they demur from conventional metanarratives in constructing their own (integrated, and, non-pejoratively speaking, highly moralistic) new ones. If augmented reality, virtual reality, and manipulations of reality like fan fiction, “cross-over” TV episodes, and wholesale re-boots are now considered metamodern, these align with the suspicion of reality and “impossibility of interpreting the actual via the fictive” described by Zavarzadeh in 1975. For instance, any hope that a given television program is a viably discrete interpretation of reality is lost when a wholly different reality (from another television program) intrudes violently via a “crossover episode.”

In view of all the foregoing, it must be said that to analogize Zavarzadeh’s “metamodernism” to Jameson’s “postmodernism,” as Vermeulen and van den Akker have done, is an impossibility. Likewise, we can see Zavarzadean metamodernism as both paving the way for and participating in the reorganization of philosophical terms and relations hypothesized by Dumitrescu, Furlani, and (not to put too fine a point on it) nearly every Literary Studies scholar who looked at “metamodernism” in the 1990s and 2000s—before Vermeulen and van den Akker had entered the conversation at all. The further exploration of Zavarzadean metamodernism, as well as its consequential expansion into new realms (such as the political and economic) now lies before us all as metamodernists—if only we will embrace metamodern discourse as global and heterogeneous, and clear our collective decks of unhelpful defensiveness, pretension, and vitriol.

The offensiveness and intent of art like Alison Gold’s “Chinese Food” and Cameron Carpenter’s “Birth of the International Touring Organ” are complicated by their uncertain status as earnest expression or parodic treatment of similar (vanity) projects. Metamodern art either eliminates or dislocates the “sincere grin” or “ironic wink” to the audience that lets us assess a work’s intent: