Metamodernism and Social Theory

Anthony Elliott and the Reflexive Scanning of Imagination

In 2003, one year after Furlani’s study, Anthony Elliott used the term “metamodern” in relation to social theory in Critical Visions: New Directions in Social Theory, to lament the inability of twentieth-century concepts to comprehend contemporary social process (2).

This incapacity is due to the complexity of the twenty-first century: “ours is the era of globalization, reflexive metamodernism, and postmodernization” (Elliott 152).

Elliott’s metamodernism is qualified by the adjective reflexive, and refers to a self-contemplating attitude on the part of (post)modernism – modernism reflecting on itself. The meaning of the prefix meta- in this case is self-referential. Elliott discusses concepts of self and citizenship in relation to a discussion of “the Enlightenment’s privileging rationality and individuality”, as well as concurrent critiques of modernity and modernism from a postmodernist perspective. The model Elliott proposes is a composite one, in which modernity and postmodernization coexist: “postmodernization does not spell the end of the project of modernity” (152). For Elliott, “postmodernity is rather modernity without illusions – as social practice is increasingly geared to reflect back upon itself, to examine its guiding assumptions and aspirations” (152). Identity formation or transformation is at the core of both modernity and postmodernity, Elliot believes:

Much talk is these days about identity: identity and its problems, the transformation of identity, and, perhaps more fashionably, the end or death of the subject. Nowadays notions of identity seem inevitably to capsize into either modern or postmodern forms of theorizing. In postmodern theorizing the catchword is that of “project,” in postmodern theorizing, it’s that of “fragmentation.” (153)

For Elliott modernity and postmodernity seem closer to modes of being in the world than period terms. They are “life strategies” (152) that present different ways of coping with or making sense of the world. Modernity is preoccupied with a project of edifying the self, where free choice supplants the role of traditions, while postmodernity presents the self as fragmented.

Elliott proposes the phrase, “the reflexive scanning of imagination”, to draw “attention to the complexity of fantasy itself, as a medium of self-construction and directness”. Elliot’s phrase is more meaningful than simply pointing to the complexity of imagination, for it reconciles the modernist self-construction of identity and the postmodern imagination.

Although he mentions “metamodernism” only in passing, and even then in the sense of self-reflexive modernism, Elliot’s position, his understanding of contemporary culture as a coexistence of paradigms, and especially his concept of “the reflexive scanning of imagination” is relevant to the definition of metamodernism prevalent in this study. Elliott opens a discussion which relates to the aspect of metamodernism that acknowledges the limitations of both the reason-based project of modernity and the postmodern unleashing of emotions and imagination.

1 The difference between postmodern heterogeneity and metamodern coexistence of competing theories is that while the postmodern self and the world it inhabits are fragmented, the metamodern self is cohesive, despite and acknowledgement of the the diverse agencies of the self. Emotions, analytical thinking, contemplation, instincts are seen as manifestations of an underlying spirit in continuous dynamism and evolution (what Luce Irigaray calls “becoming”).

© Copyright note. The text above is an excerpt from Alexandra Dumitrescu, Towards a Metamodern Literature, PhD thesis manuscript

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