Saturday, August 16, 2014

What is Metamodernism?

This brief essay comes from Notes on Metamodernism, a blog founded n 2009 by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker (tomorrow I will post a longer intro to metamodernism from these authors), but now home to more than 30 writers from around the world.

The text beneath the title provides as much introduction as one needs to the essay.

What is metamodernism?

Metamodernism is neither a residual nor an emergent structure of feeling, but the dominant cultural logic of contemporary modernity. It can be grasped as a generational attempt to surpass postmodernism and a general response to our present, crisis-ridden moment.

Editorial on July 15, 2010

The ecosystem is severely disrupted, the financial system is increasingly uncontrollable, and the geopolitical structure has recently begun to appear as unstable as it has always been uneven. This triple crisis infuses doubt and inspires reflection about our basic assumptions, as much as inflaming cultural debates and provoking dogmatic entrenchments. History, it seems, is moving rapidly beyond its all too hastily proclaimed end.

Since the turn of the millennium, moreover, the democratization of digital technologies, techniques and tools has caused a shift from a postmodern media logic characterized by television screen and spectacle, cyberspace and simulacrum towards a metamodern media logic of creative amateurs, social networks and locative media – what the cultural theorist Kazys Varnelis calls network culture. [1]

Meanwhile, architects and artists increasingly abandon the aesthetic precepts of deconstruction, parataxis, and pastiche in favor of aesth-ethical notions of reconstruction, myth, and metaxis. These artistic expressions move beyond the worn out sensibilities and empty practices of the postmodernists not by radically parting with their attitudes and techniques but by incorporating and redirecting them. In politics as in culture as elsewhere, a sensibility is emerging from and surpassing postmodernism; as a non-dialectical Aufhebung that negates the postmodern while retaining some of its traits.

What we are witnessing is the emergence of a new cultural dominant – metamodernism.

We understand metamodernism first and foremost as a structure of feeling, which can be defined, after Raymond Williams, as “a particular quality of social experience […] historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period.” [2] Metamodernism therefore is both a heuristic label to come to terms with recent changes in aesthetics and culture, and a notion to periodize these changes. So when we speak of metamodernism we do not refer to a particular movement, a specific manifesto or a set of theoretical or stylistic conventions. We do not attempt, in other words, as Charles Jencks would do, to group, categorize and pigeonhole the creative work of this or that architect or artist. [3] We rather attempt to chart, after Jameson, the ‘cultural dominant’ of a specific stage in the development of modernity. [4]

Our methodological assumption is that the dominant cultural practices and the dominant aesthetic sensibilities of a certain period form, as it were, a ‘discourse’ that expresses cultural moods and common ways of doing, making and thinking. To speak of a structure of feeling (or a cultural dominant) therefore has the advantage, as Jameson once explained, that one does not “obliterate difference and project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity. [It is] a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features.” [5]

These different, yet subordinate features can alternatively be described as ‘residuals’ of days gone by or as ‘emergents’ that point to another day and age. [6] Postmodernism might have passed, it might have “given up the ghost”, but, as Josh Toth rightly argues, to speak of its death is to also speak of its afterlife. “The death of postmodernism (like all deaths) can also be viewed as a passing, a giving over of a certain inheritance, that this death (like all deaths) is also a living on, a passing on.” [6] The spectre of postmodernism – but also that of modernism – still haunts contemporary culture.

Others have started to theorise emergent structures of feeling that might, or might not, become dominant in the (not so near) future. The most obvious examples of such an emergence are all those practices that have become associated with the commons. Several theorists have argued, for instance, that these practices, ultimately, point towards an altermodernity, a future beyond modernity as we currently know it. Whether or not we agree with these visions of the future is besides the point here. What matters is that it is our contemporary culture that enables these visions; or rather, that opens up the discourse of having a vision at all.

Metamodernism, as we see it, is neither a residual nor an emergent structure of feeling, but the dominant cultural logic of contemporary modernity. As we hope to show in this webzine, the metamodern structure of feeling can be grasped as a generational attempt to surpass postmodernism and a general response to our present, crisis-ridden moment. Any one structure of feeling is expressed by a wide variety of cultural practices and a whole range of aesthetic sensibilities. These practices and sensibilities are shaped by (and are shaping) social circumstances, as much as they are formed in reaction to previous generations and in anticipation of possible futures. We contend that the contemporary structure of feeling evokes a continuous oscillation between (i.e. meta-) seemingly modern strategies and ostensibly postmodern tactics, as well as a series of practices and sensibilities ultimately beyond (i.e. meta-) these worn out categories.

The metamodern structure of feeling evokes an oscillation between a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness; between control and commons and craftsmanship and conceptualism and pragmatism and utopianism. Indeed, metamodernism is an oscillation. It is the dynamic by which it expresses itself. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather it is a pendulum swinging between numerous, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings towards fanaticism, gravity pulls it back towards irony; the moment its irony sways towards apathy, gravity pulls it back towards enthusiasm.


[1] In Digimodernism. How new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. Alan Kirby makes a similar observation concerning the end of postmodernism and the emergence of network culture. Although his book is insightful and provocative, he tends to be wholly negative, ignoring the paradoxes and potentialities of network culture.
[2] Raymond Williams (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 131
[3] See, for example: Charles Jencks (1977). The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. New York: Rizzoli.
[4] Jameson, too, uses William’s conception of a structure of feeling to conceive of his notion of a cultural dominant.
[5] M. Hardt and K. Weeks. (2000). The Jameson Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp, 190-191.
[6] R. Williams, p. 122
[7] J. Toth (2010). The Passing of Postmodernism. New York: State University of NewYork, p. 2

Image: Occupy Wall Street by Aaron Bauer, Creative Commons Licence

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