Metamodernism in Art: Oscillation vs Integration and Interconnections

Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s definition of metamodernism (2010) presents an admixture of postmodern and metamodern elements.

On their website, Notes on Metamodernism, the art critics distinguish between the term and the concept of metamodernism:

´Metamodernism as a term – but not as a concept – is or has been associated with altermodernism, reflective modernism, reflexive modernism, and a counterstrategy within modernism. And it has been applied to developments and disciplines as diverse as economics, politics, architecture, data analysis, and the arts.¨1

Vermeulen and van den Akker’ list the fields where metamodernism as a term has been discussed (“economics, politics, architecture, data analysis, and the arts”), but fail to engage in a dialogue with these previous uses either on the website or in their article published in The Journal of Asthetics and Culture (2010).2

Given that a few earlier articles go beyond simple lists, and are dedicated to full-fledged contributions on metamodernism as a concept rather than only a term or a method, Vermeulen and van den Akker cannot ignore them. They briefly acknowledge two discussions of metamodernism in literary studies in their second footnote:

¨Although we appear to be the first to use the term metamodernism to describe the current structure of feeling, we are not the first to use the term per se. It has been used with some frequency in literature studies in order to describe a post-modern alternative to postmodernism as presented in the works of authors as far apart as, amongst others, Blake and Guy Davenport. However, we would like to stress that our conception of metamodernism is by no means aligned to theirs, nor is it derived from them. It is in so far related to these notions that it too negotiates between the modern and the postmodern; but the function, structure, and nature of the negotiation we perceive are entirely our own and, as far as we can see, wholly unrelated to the previous perception.¨

This disclaimer seems to say that when they wrote their article, Vermeulen and van den Akker were aware of Furlani’s 2002 article (on Guy Davenport) and of my 2007 “Interconnections in Blakean and Metamodern Space.” However, although they distance themselves from previous definitions of metamodernism, they do not trouble to explain in what consists the difference. Nor do they acknowledge the previous scholars who employed the term.

This lapse is only partly remedied in the wikipedia page they dedicate to Metamodernism, where Furlani’s name and mine are mentioned in passing (under the heading “Previous uses of the term”). They fail, however, to refer to Feldman’s discussion of metamodernism in philosophy. Moreover, although they describe metamodernism as a paradigm of dialogue, Vermeulen and van den Akker appear to reject any discussion with these “previous uses of the term,” and disregard them with a wave of the hand.

Hence, they seem to wish to assert themselves as the first proponents of the term and concept of metamodernism “to describe the current structure of feeling.”3

Meta- vs metaxý- 

Vermeulen and van den Akker approach the definition of the concept of metamodernism in a manner which copies Furlani’s, that is, by starting with the prefix meta-:

“The prefix ‘meta-’ allows us to situate metamodernism historically beyond; epistemologically with; and ontologically between the modern and the postmodern. It indicates a dynamic or movement between as well as a movement beyond. More generally, however, it points towards a changing cultural sensibility – or cultural metamorphosis, if you will – within western societies.¨

Here my definition in “Interconnections” and theirs converge: indeed, the “changing cultural sensibility – or cultural metamorphosis – within western societies” may be described as metamodern. In “Interconnections” I proposed that a metamodern paradigm of interconnections grasps the complexity of “contemporary cultural phenomena:”

¨Positing metamodernism as a period term and a cultural phenomenon, partly concurring with (post)modernism, partly emerging from it and as a reaction to it (especially to its fragmentarism, individualism, excessive analyticity, and extreme specialization), [..] metamodernism [is] a budding cultural paradigm. Allowing for diverging theories, metamodernism champions the idea that only in their interconnection and continuous revision lie the possibility of grasping the nature of contemporary cultural and literary phenomena.¨ (Dumitrescu)

Vermeulen and van den Akker position metamodernism both beyond and within postmodernism:

¨Thus, although meta has come to be associated with a particular reflective stance, a repeated rumination about what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, it once intimated the movement with and between what we are doing and what we might be doing and what we might have been doing. When we use the prefix meta- we do NOT refer to the former meaning. Meta- for us, does NOT refer solely to reflectivity, although, inevitably, it does (and, since it passes through and surpasses the postmodern, cannot but) invoke it.¨

The quotation seems to echo the tone of the first four lines of the quote from my article above. What I referred to as the coexistence of theories within metamodernism in “Interconnections” is presented by Vermeulen and van den Akker as a continuous oscillation:

¨Meta, for us, signifies an oscillation, a swinging or swaying with and between future, present and past, here and there and somewhere; with and between ideals, mindsets, and positions. It is influenced by estimations of the past, imbued by experiences of the present, yet also inspired by expectations of the future. It takes into account and affect the here, but also the there, and what might or might not happen elsewhere. It is convinced it believes in one system or structure or sensibility, but also cannot persuade itself not to believe in its opposite.¨

Nothing in the meanings of the prefix meta-, as expounded by Furlani, justifies this meaning of “in-betweenness” or oscillation. However, the preposition μεταξύ (metaxý) has the meaning of between, amid, betwixt, twixt. The wavering invoked by this preposition evokes a movement in the same plane, without transcending it, or the alternating extremes. By contrast, my definition of metamodernism involves transcending extremes, sublimating them into a new stage, a progression rather than vacillation. Moreover, nothing can develop or grow on grounds that are continuously moving, as the idea of oscillation implies in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s essay:

¨Indeed, if anything, meta intimates a constant repositioning. It repositions itself with and between neoliberalism and, well, keynesianism, the “right” and the “left”, idealism and “pragmatism”, the discursive and the material, the visible and the sayable. It repositions itself among and in the deconstructed isms and desolate ruins that rest from the postmodern and the modern, and reconstructs them in spite of their un-reconstructableness in order to create another modernity: then one, then the other, one again, and yet another. […]

¨Meta- does not refer to one particular system of thought or specific structure of feeling. It infers a plurality of them, and repositions itself with and between them. It is many, but also one. Encompassing, yet fragmented. Now, yet then. Here, but also there.¨

I agree with Vermeulen and Akker that adherence to one system is not the metamodern way. One cannot prescribe a certain advisable structure of sensibility. Luce Irigaray thinks that each has to discover his or her own sensibility, but that this must be done with respect: for oneself and for the other . While vacillation between aesthetic theories and systems is important for Vermeulen and Akker, a central aspect of metamodernism is the ethical, as I have previously intimated. This aspect of metamodernism is considered by the two authors of “Notes on Metamodernism” in a conjunction with the aesthetic:4

¨new generations of artists increasingly abandon the aesthetic precepts of deconstruction, parataxis, and pastiche in favor of aesth-ethical notions of reconstruction, myth, and metaxis.¨

Although the ethical is one aspect where my definition of metamodernism and that of Vermeulen and Akker converge, most aspects of the definition of metamodernism on Vermeulen’s and Akker’s article capture the latest developments of postmodernism, rather than postulate a new sensibility.

Vacillation, acknowledgement of longings that cannot be ever fulfilled (Elliott 153-54), a reluctance to take stances, the oscillation between possible options, and hesitations between truths and fear of commitment – describe a postmodern sensibility.

Consequently, Vermeulen’s and Akker’s metamodernism provides an umbrella term for developments in art that typify the postmodern tormented consciousness, for their metamodernism is just another bric-a-brac with no unifying or organizing principle(s), another layer in the multi-layered cake of postmodernism.

The in-betweenness that Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker claim as metamodern is hardly new since Andrei Codrescu and other postmoderns have long inhabited the gaps between cultures.5 Yet their position expressed on their website “Notes on Metamodernism” has the merit of constituting a platform where dialogue regarding contemporary trends in art and culture is made possible, through reader’s reactions to the ideas presented.

A reply to ¨What meta means and does not mean¨, by G. Croes

In his reply to the article What meta means and does not mean, one of the respondants, G. Croes, touches upon a different understanding of metamodernism. Metamodernism rescues what is valuable in the past and integrates them in the present:

¨Looking, searching for where we are (in the West) in the history of evolution I try to fathom what metamodernism can mean. What kind of bric we can use for building the next layer of culture. We cannot build on substance that has not dried out completely. And this last is the case. In my view the development of many things went so fast that most people lived too superficially and therefore are unstable.¨

When he deplores superficial living, Croes also implies nostalgia for the roots, as well as a longing for a paradigm in which not accumulation but depth, not speed but quality of live matter, as in an Italian proverb, “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano.”6 The idea of going too fast and thus eschewing stability is the mechanical metaphor for Charles Jencks’ concept of complexity that goes past its optimal point. Complexity increases until it renders itself redundant, Jencks suggests:

¨In effect, systems such as large, fast aeroplanes get more complex as they evolve in size and speed, until like the Concord, they become too complicated. The route from simple to complicated is made by adding more elements along the way, rising up a hill until an optimum “effective complexity” is reached, after which adding more elements makes the system less complex. From this perspective, complication is a type of simplicity, but at the far end of the scale, increasing entropy and chaos.¨

I agree with Jencks that there is an optimal point, at which complexity is at its most effective. After this point is reached, complexity becomes redundant, oppressive, its sophistication an impediment to effective functioning.

G. Croes’ solution implies the articulation of a new kind of humanism in which the ethical and personal stories figure large:

What we need is rehumanizing, tell each other our personal stories and thus become human again in our togetherness, our society. And yes, pick up pieces from the past, here and there, choosing the most positive but also most reliable ones and solidate (sic!) them in our memory. Then a new philosophy and culture can go forward to the unknown with faith. Is that what metamodernism can mean?

The final question suggests Croes’s disagreement with Vermeulen’s position of vacillation and indeterminacy, rather than the uncertainty of his position towards metamodernism. Whether Croes is right to believe that postmodernism has not entirely dried out is debatable.7

However, Croes is certainly correct in saying that rehumanizing, the telling of personal stories, and recapturing the past are imperatives for our times.

1 Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, Notes on Metamodernism, 2009, Available: http://www.metamodernism.com/.

2 Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, “Notes on Metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 2.0 (2010).

3 However, three years previously metamodernism is discussed as an emergent tendency in theory and arts in my article on “Interconnections.”

4 The ethical as a pragmatic life choice with regard to the built environment, as an attitude of respect for the natural setting, and pointing to a sensibility different to the modern tendency to dominate nature, is expounded in note 37 of “Notes on Metamodernism:”

Of course, there is widespread agreement that contemporary architecture is no longer postmodern. The end of the postmodern is most clearly signaled here by the return to commitment. The growing awareness of the need for sustainable design has led to an ethical turn in the attitude toward the built environment. Roof gardens and solar panels are heavily subsidized, carbon neutral buildings and ecologically friendly neighborhoods are widely commissioned, and, yes, even entirely green cities are being designed from scratch. Necessitated by a competitive market, urged by demanding politicians, and inspired by the changing Zeitgeist, architects increasingly envision schemes for a sustainable urban future. But it is also, as we intend to show, increasingly paired to a new form.

Metamodernism appears here as a resurgence of responsibility for nature and for the future, probably in the vein of Prince Charles’ architectural projects, characterized by “the [esthetical] consideration not just of buildings themselves but also the [ethical consideration of] communities and places” (Jamieson).

5 Margaret Rogal, Inhabiting the Gaps with Andrei Codrescu, 1998, Available: http:/www.rc reader.com/39 cov.htm, May 5, 1999.

6 He who proceeds slowly, goes healthy and for long time (tr. m).

7 It is true that discussions of postmodernism in the Western academia are less fashionable than a few years ago, if not altogether dated; but a few scholars, mostly from the periphery or from outside the Western academic networks, still find the concept of postmodernism useful, while the media still loves to label as postmodern such things as contemporary abstract art which escapes discoursive commentary, or does not make much sense to them.

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

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