Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #1: What Is Metamodernism?

In the first of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I address the question of whether and how metamodernists can come to an agreement on the basic principles of the philosophy. I develop a rudimentary outline for metamodernism and begin the process of distinguishing between different readings of the term. The current choke-point in the discipline—a single, narrow reading of the term proposed by a specific cadre of individuals—is introduced.

“I think the term “metamodernism” offers ample room for spirited debate and disagreement among peers—including, importantly, over how to read the “meta-” prefix itself.”

Recent years have seen metamodernists from around the world struggling to create an international dialogue around the topic due to disagreements over what the term “metamodernism” could or does signify. In some respects this is no different a state of affairs from that faced by early postmodernists in the mid-twentieth century, and is endemic to any dialogue about an emerging cultural paradigm. In other respects, the persistent fragmentation of metamodern discourse is an unnecessary and damaging condition that remains—for a little while longer, at least—capable of redress. If there are, going forward, to be international convocations of metamodern scholars at conferences and symposia, one thing that will have to change, and soon, is this: different readings of the term must no longer be recast as entirely different conversations, whose participants would no more naturally expect to engage one another than would car salesmen and cheesemongers.

While metamodernists in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia may disagree on certain important questions—e.g., can metamodernism be instrumentalized, and if so, how? Does metamodernism permit the transcendence of postmodern dialectics, or merely change our relationship with postmodernism?—these are the sorts of inquiries that can and do get discussed at conferences and symposia convened for and by (for instance) scholars of postmodernism. What can no longer be indulged or tolerated, however, especially in discussions of a term that naturally engages both Modernist and postmodern principles, is the claim that some metamodern philosophers are participating in an entirely different discourse from their peers.

From wherever they hail, and howsoever they approach the term metamodernism, all those publicly exploring the topic of metamodernism seem to concur on a number of points:

      • The term was coined in 1975, by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh. It thereafter appeared in a variety of contexts, albeit mostly academic journals, in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
      • The term did not enter common parlance until the early 2010s, and when it did so it was owing in substantial part to essays (and a website) authored by Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker.
      • While certain trends and events in the nineteenth and preceding centuries may have exhibited qualities now popularly termed “metamodern,” as a discrete and reflexive cultural paradigm metamodernism is best and currently discussed as having manifested sometime in the last half-century. While some see proto-manifestations of metamodernism in the early 1970s, and while nearly all agree that the great metamodern novel written thus far in English (Infinite Jest) was begun in the mid-1980s, metamodern cultural detritus did not become ubiquitous until the late 1990s or early twenty-first century.
      • The Internet is a significant inflector of metamodern phenomena.
      • Metamodernism is a mediation between principles of Modernism and postmodernism.
      • Metamodernism is a cultural paradigm discrete from Modernism and postmodernism.
      • Metamodernism proposes a system of thought and feeling—for both individuals, groups of individuals, and even institutions—that is distinct from the systems enacted by the Modernist and postmodern paradigms.
      • As was the case with Modernism and postmodernism, there will be those who seek to “instrumentalize” metamodernism for artistic, political, or other ends. Metamodernism can also exist in a purely scholarly or retrospective sphere that is not invested in instrumentalization.
      • Manifestations of metamodernism are ubiquitous; there is no sphere of human activity in which we do not presently find the metamodern.
      • Metamodernism arises from a yearning; that yearning most commonly relates to the dissatisfactions produced (or simply maintained or exacerbated) by postmodernism.
      • Metamodernism is a global phenomenon with local but necessarily interconnected manifestations.
      • Metamodernism will be read and/or actuated differently by different scholars, artists, activists, et cetera; having a different reading of the term’s minute valences does not make one a liar, “hoax artist,” troll, or “closet postmodernist,” provided that one accepts most or all of the exceedingly basic presuppositions listed here.
      • Metamodernism (and research into metamodernism) is still in its very, very early stages.
      • Research into (and investigations of) metamodernism may manifest differently depending upon the discipline in which the scholar or artist is working. For instance, literary metamodernism may diverge in some respects from metamodernism in the visual arts—simply because the cultural philosophy is interacting, in these two cases, with different media.
      • Metamodernism does not so much signal a wholesale rejection of either Modernism or postmodernism as a subsuming of principles endemic to each for a new purpose and structure. In other words, postmodernism has not so much “ended” as it has been subsumed within and then superseded by a new cultural paradigm.

In reading (and speaking with) metamodernists from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, I’ve found the basic outline of the term offered above to be consistent. What has not been consistent is a willingness to further explore specific valences of metamodernism as part of an international dialogue.

Recently, some associated with the longstanding website Notes on Metamodernism have sought to distinguish their consideration of metamodernism from all others with the claim that they are discussing an entirely different term and concept from other metamodernists. In some instances they accuse other metamodernists of being closet postmodernists; in other instances they call them liars or hoax artists; in still other instances they concede their peers are discussing a new “modernism” but reject the idea that this modernism has anything whatsoever to do with metamodernism as Notes on Metamodernism discusses it—so much so that the idea of regular international conferences or symposia of metamodern scholars increasingly seems unlikely. While the position of Notes of Metamodernism toward other metamodernists internationally would normally be immaterial, at this vulnerable early stage of metamodern discourse it matters because—the times being as “early” as they are—a single website, no matter how provincial, can still wield substantial influence. This won’t be the case five years from now, but it’s where things stand today. The result is that while conferences and symposia relating to the readings of metamodernism found in Notes on Metamodernism have already been held, prerequisites for attendance have been set which insist on common readings of the term “metamodernism”—for instance, a belief that “oscillation” is at the center of the concept because it is and must be at the center of the concept’s “meta-” prefix.

Within the last two months, however, there has been a breakthrough of sorts, and this six-part blog-like rumination on where metamodernism stands today is related to that breakthrough. The breakthrough came in an essay recently published by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in which the two Dutch cultural theorists a) concede that the first consequential usage of the term pre-dates 2010, and in fact harkens to 1975; b) allow that “metaxy” (and thus “oscillation”) may not, in fact, be an intractable feature of metamodern philosophy, thus opening up the possibility that those who demur from “oscillatory metamodernism” may also be metamodern scholars worthy of serious and ongoing engagement; and c) situate at the center of their own view of metamodernism an analogy for the paradigm—a complicated one involving an abandoned swimmer and several islands offering possible rescue—which is not, in fact, far removed from the paradigm as understood by metamodern scholars elsewhere in the world.

The idea now accepted by Vermeulen, van den Akker, and their website Notes on Metamodernism—that metamodernism constitutes not so much a dialectical operation as a yearning to escape one’s present, postmodernism-enabled circumstances, and a concurrent difficulty in doing so—offers new hope of a heterogeneous international dialogue about metamodernism. It suggests that we can finally move beyond the false accusations and false distinctions (along the lines of, “your term is not my term, so we’ve nothing to discuss”) that have plagued this budding scholarly dialogue in the past.

By accepting Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s place in the history of metamodernism-qua-term, Vermeulen and van den Akker have invited, too, a response from those who believe Zavarzadean metamodernism to be one important reading of the paradigm—if not (still) one that Vermeulen and van den Akker accept as constituting a new modernism. Because I find Vermeulen and van den Akker’s reading of Zavarzadeh not just thoroughly unconvincing but indeed a dramatic misreading of the scholar’s seminal text on metamodernism (1975’s “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives”) and because I myself have come to approach metamodernism primarily through the lens first offered by Zavarzadeh, I’ve written this rumination to attempt a sort of reconciliation. In the future my hope would be to do the same for metamodernism as discussed on Metamoderna, for metamodernism as discussed by Alexandra Dumitrescu and Gary Forrester (and many others) in Australia and New Zealand, and for metamodernism as discussed by artists such as American poet/filmmaker Jesse Damiani and Spanish poet/novelist Vicente Lopez. By “reconciliation” I mean here only a better situation of these readings with respect to one another, not a paving over of differences. Again, beyond the basic principles articulated above I think the term “metamodernism” offers ample room for spirited debate and disagreement among peers—including, importantly, over how to read the “meta-” prefix itself.

The next entry in the series can be read here: #2: Metamodernism Across the Disciplines.

Bo Burnham’s “what.” and Reggie Watts’ “Why Shit So Crazy?” are tours-de-force of metamodern performance art: