Metamodernism: The Basics II

{NB: Below is the second part of a multi-part essay; the first part can be found here. This essay was written in response to a call by Timothy Green, editor of the literary magazine Rattle, for literary metamodernists, and this author in particular, to be clearer about what metamodernism means and intends.}

When metamodernism first experienced a resurgence in 2010, two elements of the idea were considered most important: first, that as a cultural philosophy metamodernism was responding to the political, economic, sociocultural, and ecological ruptures of the 1980s and 1990s, and was therefore a direct rebuttal to the idea of societal collapse these events seemed to foreshadow; and second, that the key feature of any metamodern text was oscillation--that is, a rapid but observable movement between opposites. Opposites particularly eligible for an oscillatory treatment in metamodernism included sincerity and irony, optimism and cynicism, Life and Art, and naivete and knowingness, as well as a roster of additional "polar spectra" (that is, imaginary lines with directly opposite ideas on either end) too long to provide here.

Since 2010, both of the above ideas about metamodernism have been superseded -- or, more accurately, they've simply been refined. Refinement of cultural philosophies is to be expected, of course: postmodernism, which at its inception faced just as much criticism from the arts community as has metamodernism thus far, is still refining its sense of itself -- and those who work in and through it are still refining their sense of themselves as "postmodernists" -- even today.

The first major change in metamodernism since 2010 is a growing feeling that "metamodernism," as a system of logic, is a recurring phenomenon rather than one that's especially tied to a single moment in world history. Also, metamodernists are more inclined now than they were in 2010 to believe that, just like metamodernism, modernism and postmodernism -- the two major predecessors to metamodernism -- are cultural phenomena that recur over time.

The idea of metamodernism as a recurring phenomenon is attributable to metamodernist poet Jesse Damiani. While it's too complicated to discuss in detail here, another recent and important idea in metamodernism -- and once again an idea attributable to Damiani -- is that modernism and postmodernism exist in relation to one another in the same way a "thesis" and an "antithesis" relate to one another, with metamodernism acting as a subsequent "synthesis" of the thesis and antithesis that preceded it. This idea of a three-part framework for our triad of cultural paradigms (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis for modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism) is inspired by Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher to whom the former triad is usually attributed.

Generally speaking, a thesis is an intellectual proposition; an antithesis is a reaction to the proposition that seeks to negate it; and a synthesis is a means of reconciling the thesis and the antithesis with an aim of creating a new -- and presumably a more functional -- thesis.

All of this is why metamodernists, both in 2010 and today, tend to say that metamodernism makes substantial use of both its modernist and postmodernist inheritances, as every synthesis needs both a thesis and an antithesis to do its important work. Damiani's sense of metamodernism's place among the major cultural paradigms distantly echoes the a proposal first made by seminal metamodernist Mas'ud Zavarzadeh in 1975: Zavarzadeh argued, in "The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives," that the broad category of postmodernism was a misnomer, and that in fact three terms were needed to accurately describe academics' and artists' differing reactions to modernism.

"Antimodernism," as Zavarzadeh termed it -- foreshadowing Damiani's use of the Hegelian term "antithesis" -- is postmodernism as we presently understand it. "Metamodernism," another term Zavarzadeh coined in the same article, was something else altogether. Finally, Zavarzadeh coined the term "paramodernism," but in this he referred merely to extensions of the modernist project that had survived into the successive eras of postmodernism and metamodernism.

Many metamodernists still think today in the terms Zavarzadeh proposed decades ago: that is, that the modernism of pre-WWII America was followed by a period of "antimodernism" (now popularly called "postmodernism"), which cultural philosophy has now, with the dawn of the Internet Age, given way to a period --an important one, but not necessarily the first one -- of "metamodernism."

If the notion of "oscillation" has gradually faded from view in metamodernism, it's because it depends on the idea that each piece of metamodern literature -- for instance, each metamodern poem -- moves slowly and observably between ideas associated with the two traditions that preceded it, those being the modernist and postmodernist (antimodernist) traditions. The problem here is both a literal one and a figurative one: "oscillation" is almost certainly too slow a process for the sort of rhetorical motions we actually see in metamodern art, and moreover the metaphor of oscillation suggests a horizontal rather than vertical relationship between ideas that really isn't reflective of metamodernism either.

As discussed in the first part of this essay series, metamodernism offers us a vertical layering of ideas and identities in which all ideas and identities (whether those of the poet herself or those she's borrowed from elsewhere) are given a roughly equal footing -- either equal in fact or, more broadly, equal in their ability to be discerned by a reader -- and not a series of elections between one thing that's over to your left and another thing that's over to your right (which is what the word "oscillation" really makes us think of.)

The only issue with thinking of metamodernism as a vertical layering of ideas and identities is that it sounds very much like the idea of a "palimpsest" -- a term poststructuralists have loved talking about for decades. In a palimpsest, an original text or idea is "written over" in a way that leaves it still visible but -- critically -- clearly disadvantaged with respect to the "newer" material that's on top of it. In other words, a palimpsest occurs when you can see what was previously beneath something, but only with enormous effort and never in full. It's in the space of this relative disadvantage between layers that poststructuralists insert their "dialectics." In a palimpsest the top layer wins, the thinking goes, and all layers beneath it implicitly lose. The end result of thinking this way is the creation of yet another zero-sum game, though this time it's a zero-sum game as between vertically layered phenomena rather than opposites staring one another down from across a long, horizontal spectrum.

In poststructuralists' use of the "palimpsest" as an important metaphor for postmodern cultural and linguistic operations we see a basic problem with poststructuralism as a political instrument. Namely, though poststructuralism requires that interactions between people and ideas be seen as zero-sum -- for instance, if one person talks over another, the second person has been "silenced" or rendered "invisible" and not just demonstrably disadvantaged -- a palimpsest does not, in itself, qualify as a zero-sum situation. While the top layers of a palimpsest may be much more readable (and therefore much more authoritative) than the lower layers, the lower layers are still visible in part. Attaching a zero-sum way of thinking onto the idea of "palimpsest" makes both ideas -- both the idea of a winner-takes-all scenario and the idea of a layering of increasingly obscured texts -- mutually non-functional. The ultimate non-functionality of these two ideas so central to postmodern thought often leaves poststructuralists feeling emotionally, intellectually, and even politically torn by their own cultural philosophy.

One of the jobs of the metamodernist is to layer texts (and ideas, and identities) but leave ambiguity as to which should -- or even can -- be privileged. Generative, "mimetic" ambiguity (that is, the sort of ambiguity that reflects real-world ambiguities and therefore helps us think and act through such ambiguities) is central to metamodernism; those who suppose metamodernism to merely emphasize "making sense" misconstrue metamodernism if they think the "sense" it offers us is an uncomplicated or easily disentangled one. It's the difference, for instance, between a remix of "found" text that appears superficially to be an original, self-expressive document (metamodern) and a poem that is, without formal/thematic complication or constraint, a purely self-expressive document (a Romantic tendency we might also associate with early modernism).

Metamodern ambiguity, which sometimes creates confusion for readers and sometimes a sense of the sublime -- the "sublime" being an overawing of the senses in which we briefly can't process something we've seen or read -- makes impossible the sort of zero-sum dialectics that postructuralists favor. After all, if we don't know which layer in the palimpsest is on top, how can we possibly say which layer "wins"? If a poem seems equally committed to lying and truth-telling, cynicism and optimism, artifice and sincerity, multiple authorial identities and a single authorial identity, resemblance to unfiltered Life and resemblance to deeply worked Art, how can we decide which reading of the poem is "right"? Instead of being herded toward these sorts of dialectical readings, readers of metamodern literature are asked to consider carefully both the places where texts, ideas, and identities converge, and also how the mere fact of their layering creates an entirely new "whole" that's somehow qualitatively different (and perhaps of even more scope and utility) than its individual parts were originally.

We can see in the above rendering of metamodernism how metamodernism solves a central paradox of postmodernism, and therefore just how much more politically capable metamodernism is as a overarching philosophy than is postmodernism. Where poststructuralism (and the Marxism with which it often associates) is zero-sum and winner-takes-all, metamodernism -- as far back as its discussion in the academic field of "arts pedagogy" in the 1990s and 2000s -- has been associated with the words "dialogue" and "collaboration." If the prototypical High Modernist poet was an iconoclastic, go-it-alone sort, and the prototypical postmodernist poet a would-be collaborator with a cultural philosophy unfortunately damaging to long-term effectual collaboration, the metamodernist both wishes to collaborate and subscribes to a cultural philosophy that makes collaboration enormously fruitful. The dialogic and collaborative components of the metamodern philosophy are almost as old as the philosophy itself, and unlike the term "oscillation" or the sense of metamodernism as non-recurring, the importance of dialogue and collaboration in metamodernism has not waned over time.

By way of putting all of the above in more concrete terms, we can think of how a real-life metamodernist might deal with a real-life political obstacle versus how a poststructuralist might tackle the same task; and in thinking of this, we can see how metamodernism is much more aligned philosophically with the way real-world activists operate, and postmodernism with how activists whose only sphere is academia or the Internet operate. For example, in the same way that real-world activists always seek as many allies as they can find (however much they may disagree with those allies on certain topics) in order to effect change in the particular areas the activist and his or her allies agree upon, metamodernism seeks points of overlap rather than distinction and, too, seeks to map how combinations of opposing forces create entirely new and structurally "whole" forces more powerful than their constituent parts. By contrast, in poststructuralism one wouldn't be able to organize a coalition of activists until everyone in the coalition agreed on every particular of the agenda -- with the only alternative option under poststructuralism being the one adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement, that being to have no agreed-upon agenda whatsoever (so that no one in the "movement" has cause to disagree with anyone else -- as a disagreement would immediately spur a winner-takes-all brawl).

Just so, our hypothetical metamodernist looks much more like a real-world activist because he or she expects to be forced to converse at great length with individuals whose ideas are unpalatable; these conversations are difficult to have -- as they require as much (or more) listening than talking, and listening to people you disagree with violently is a miserable experience even under the best and briefest of circumstances -- but the hope is that eventually such conversation leads to a slow but steady progress on the contested issue. By comparison, what poststructuralists call "conversations" are in fact -- consistent with the postmodern philosophy underlying them -- "dialectics" in which only one party can win, and therefore in which the party that has longest been kept silent must now coerce its opponent into a period of prolonged silence. Because no one who feels anything particular on an issue is likely to willingly stay silent for long, the requirement of an opponent's silence (let alone the requirement that an opponent acknowledge their domination of the conversation up to the present) as a prerequisite to conversation is nearly always a nonstarter. It probably shouldn't be, but in the world of real-time activism it is.

When poststructuralists suggest that a conversation should take place on a political topic, they do not mean the term "conversation" in the sense that real-life activists do; whereas a real-world activist understands that "conversation" means joining with imperfect allies and spending time listening to as well as talking to opponents one strongly disagrees with, a postmodernist thinks a good conversation is happening if dissenting voices have been successfully removed from view and one's allies are unambiguously in agreement with the current agenda. Because these two conditions never really arise at the same time -- except in secluded online echo chambers, or sometimes in the larger echo chamber of academia -- postmodernists never effectuate political change. In fact, though this is a very cynical thing to believe, some do argue that, because Marxism requires the total collapse of our nation's current market structure to achieve its political and philosophical ends, postmodernists sympathetic to Marxist ideology don't actually intend for their dialectics to lead to real-world progress. (A less cynical view would hold that as neo-Marxists think "progress" in the context of a capitalist structure is always an illusion, they merely believe that there's no point nibbling around the edges of the problem.)

The poststructuralist model for political activism -- avoiding explicit consensus on an agenda, for fear of offending any members of the alliance whose views are incrementally divergent; exhibiting little willingness to engage with allies whose views overlap but are not identical to the activist's own; exhibiting little willingness to dialogue directly and in prolonged fashion with those whose views are not just divergent but possibly offensive, despite the fact that real-world negotiations often require this legitimately tiring exercise -- has rarely been successful in human history. So in addition to metamodernism's desire to more accurately depict the vagaries of the Internet Age in art and in philosophy, it also seeks to intervene in postmodernism with an eye toward creating more effective political allegiances and advocacy.

Poststructuralism deserves credit for doing a great deal to make individual persons and small groups of precisely like-minded persons feel empowered in their ideas and their subcommunities. Yet any accounting of the political cost of postmodernism for progressive political ideologies and advocacy must concede, too, that postmodernism has done more than any other cultural philosophy before or since to segregate individuals from their potential political allies by way of "deconstructing" each person's political and psychosocial perspective into such small parcels it's impossible to find points of agreement.

For instance, the fact that police brutality unquestionably occurs at a higher rate in impoverished majority-minority communities need not alter the fact that, politically speaking, the most effective real-world anti-brutality alliance would be one in which lower-income communities of every racial composition come together to combat a scourge which (however unequally) affects all of them significantly. In the "either/or" world of postmodernism, however, a precondition to the millions of Americans aggrieved by police brutality coming together to fight it is resolution of several zero-sum questions on the topic, such as a host of contentious issues involving the operations of law enforcement generally. Though the answer to the central question in this hypothetical is clear -- all right-thinking persons should abhor and militate for an end to police brutality -- under postmodernism the fact that prospective alliance members might not agree on other things having to do with law enforcement precludes the formation of an effective political alliance in the first instance.

Just so, and without taking either side on this question, there are those who argue that institutionalized and/or pathological misogyny hinders women exclusively, while there are others who imply that institutionalized and/or pathological misogyny equally hinders women and boys, the latter of whom are so often bullied or marketed to on the basis "not acting like women" that by the time they're men their self-worth is corrupted by both misogyny and self-loathing. If one group of activists (affiliated with the first viewpoint) agrees internally that men should oppose misogyny primarily on the grounds that it hinders women generally and the women they care about specifically, and if a second group of activists decides internally that men should enlist in anti-misogyny battles primarily if not exclusively on the grounds of self-interest, can an alliance between these two groups still be formed? Postmodernism says no; metamodernism says yes. It's dialectics and a winner-takes-all ethos versus an ethos of dialogue and compromise; it's "conversation" in name only, and with no real-time political efficacy, versus a collaboration conducted publicly and in real time -- as opposed to only at certain institutions and/or only online -- that produces (slowly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly) measurable change.

The result of all this is that, in a world in which postmodernism is the prevailing cultural philosophy, people feel at once empowered and isolated; they feel smarter than ever before about the particularities of their own situation, but less able than ever before to change their circumstances. It's out of this joint feeling of empowerment and isolation -- a paradoxical feeling the Internet both embodies and broadens daily -- that the present period of metamodernism was first born. And this is the reason why, consistent with its seemingly paradoxical principle of "a vertical layering that obscures no layer," metamodernism doesn't dialectically erase or silence postmodernism so much as thank it for its many decades of service and enlist its most useful principles in a new reality whose most accurate descriptor is "metamodern."

Meanwhile, the historically destructive elements of postmodernism -- for instance, a lack of investment in progress in and through our current political reality; a cynicism toward the possibility or value of reconstructing fragments into wholes, however imperfectly; a self-assurance that certain things (like abiding personal happiness) are nearly impossible and ought not be actively and optimistically sought -- are replaced with more hopeful ones borrowed from modernism, the "creation"-oriented philosophy that postmodernism succeeded.

Seth Abramson is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). Additional collections are forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. He serves as co-editor of the Best American Experimental Writing series (Wesleyan, 2015) and is a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison.