A Very Brief History Of Metamodernism
the foundational foibles and ideological pitfalls of the metamodern, or why metamodernism is bad and if you disagree you're wrong
One recent revelation in the world of vague, amorphous philosophical concepts is that of Metamodernism, an attempted follow-up to the chart-topping smash-hit: Postmodernism. Metamodernism, much like working public transport, wooden clogs, and blacking up for Christmas, was thought up by the Dutch. Not collectively, of course. It’s the work of two of them: Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker.
The movement (paraphrasing somewhat) seeks to find a synthesis between the Modern and the Postmodern; a cure for Postmodern irony with a small helping of Modernist optimism, but not enough to fully forget the bitter taste of cynicism. The claim is that Metamodernist art is that in which one can find an appreciation of the ironic, nihilistic and sarcastic, but also a willing naivete and childlike enthusiasm. To illustrate this, Vermeulen and Akker use the example of Wes Anderson’s cinematography and its odd mixture of the quirky and the solemn. The best example of this is probably The Darjeeling Limited, which seamlessly combines moments of ludicrous slapstick with the tragic consequences of children falling into rapids.
Slapstick but with dead kids
Despite claiming that the world has largely moved on from Postmodernism, the two are keen to point out that Metamodernism seeks not to find the next critical outlook, but that it is an observation on the current state of the artistic world, the media, and the like. In their own word, Metamodernism is a “rhizomatic” perspective (2), which exhibits a certain self-awareness of the limits of Metamodernism and sounds awfully impressive, until you realise that it means that they don’t have to stick with what they espouse in their essay should they happen to change their minds later on.
From a Postmodern perspective, I appreciate a new critical outlook as much as the next character. However, my aim for this essay/rant is to tell you (or persuade, your choice) that it’s vague, hypocritical and doesn’t unseat any of the Postmodern values and complaints that it claims to. Now, while I have already flouted every piece of essay writing technique I’ve ever been given, I shall dig myself a deeper academic grave by mixing metaphors and telling you that you should read the source material and probably have an opinion of your own first so you’re not just going to be swallowing the guff that I have plated for you today.
They Do Not Know Of What They Speak
The first of my issues with Vermeulen and Akker’s Metamodernism is their definition of Metamodernism. Or rather, their definition of Postmodernism, since it is from this that their definition of Metamodernism comes, and thus their movement as a whole. The fundamental issue in writing on such nebulous terms is that it is incredibly difficult if you and your subject seem to have different ideas of what a word means. There was a lot of fuss about this idea in the literary criticism world at the break of the twentieth century, then again in the late fifties – early sixties, but that’s beside the point. The important part is that if you’re both talking about different things, it’s a hassle. I must concede that, frail human as I am, I am unaware of how Vermeulen and Akker define Postmodernism in their private lives and as such, cannot tell if their definition of it is the same as mine, but I can point how they have described it in their Notes on Metamodernism and confidently say, with full sincerity, ‘no’.
Their interpretation focuses on “nihilism, sarcasm, and the distrust and deconstruction of grand narratives, the singular and the truth” (4), which I might say, sounds pretty Postmodern. So what do I mean by ‘no’ in response to this? Very astute observation of myself by myself if I don’t say so myself, which I do. Postmodernism, as I understand it, does possess these traits but simultaneously, it is a little more nuanced than what their definition seems to imply. The primary focus of Postmodernism, as I see it, is the self which acts as a lens through which all things are viewed warped; objective truth, morality and reality are all impossible. Every character that one can encounter is wrapped up in their own conscious and perspectives: it is only from these separate perspectives that we can parse a sense of truth, morality, narrative and so forth, but there is no objectivity in this; only a plethora of subjectivities. From this lack of objective truth comes the irony, nihilism, distrust of all things, etc.
While this is an equally lacking interpretation on paper, it places at the centre of Postmodernism the idea of self, and it’s what Vermeulen and Akker lack. This idea of the Postmodern raises the possibility of – dare I mention it – the profound, which sits by the nihilism and irony as comfortably as you probably would if you actually went for drinks with that one friend you’ve been promising drinks with but have actually been avoiding for several months. It is conceptually contradictory, but it is the self that is the focus and you can’t expect to introspect without conflict (/conflect). It’s with the absence of the self that I find Metamodernism’s founding precept properly problematic. I will come to the definition of Metamodernism itself, but for the very foundations of its conceptions to be as shaky as they are, in my opinion is shoddy at best and shambolic coming in close behind it.
But if their definition of Postmodernism is off, that’s fine because their paper isn’t about Postmodernism, right? It’s about Metamodernism isn’t it? No and yes. By which I don’t mean that you’re partially correct – it’s not alright that Vermeulen and Akker fail to define Postmodernism, but yes, the paper is about Metamodernism.
‘So what is Metamodernism?’ you ask, ‘What does the article actually say and how ever shall I continue without your opinion?’ And so, to the deafening clamour of the two people who might read this article I answer: ‘Metamodernism is feelings and stuff except when you don’t want to be feely then it’s not’. Yes, from the stone tablets of Vermeulen and Akker I have read and I return with a shaky, refracted simulacrum of what they wrote. But do you want to read for yourself? From their associate’s ‘Brief Introduction’ comes this excerpt:
“... rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, Metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and Postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The Metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”
It’s not really vague as much as it doesn’t mean anything new. The middle-ground between old fashioned modernism and everyone’s favourite Postmodernism is where it sits. It’s not committing to anything, it’s imprecise and unoriginal. The argument that ‘it’s not Postmodern because it’s nice’ is just as invalid as ‘it’s not modernism because it’s ironic.’ The sincere existed before, during, and will exist well after the Postmodern period just as irony has existed for the entirety of human history. And what do I base this on? As I have already argued, and almost certainly proved to you, the existence of sincerity is just as integral to Postmodernism as irony, since it’s focused on the self. Look at Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for example. Yes, it’s got its ironic parts: it’s nihilistic, bleak, it has a scene in which a woman crawls into the protagonist’s nose and another where some guy eats a turd. But does that mean it’s without the profound? Is the love and separation of Jessica Swanlake and Roger Mexico meaningless? Is Tyrone Slothrop’s descent not motivated by his emotional core being torn from him by the horror of war? The Postmodern is as sincere as it is ironic: Vermeulen and Akker’s blunt dismissal of Postmodernity fails Metamodernism as a concept, it fails their argument, it fails them.
Or maybe I’m being too cruel, choosing the wrong examples deliberately as we nasty literature students are wont to do. After all, it’s not like you can generalise Postmodernism with “the post-modern novel” (Pöhlmann). Perhaps I should look to television instead, since that’s where half of their training lies. In that case, look at the British 1999-2000 sitcom Spaced, with the ever loveable Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. Despite falling within the boundaries that Vermeulen and Akker define for themselves in their ‘Brief Introduction,’ Spaced is simultaneously ironic and sincere, just as nihilistic and meaningful as any of the examples they extract from the last ten years. We empathise as we laugh, we deride as we sympathise. So it was with media then, so it is with media now.
The former part of Velmeulen and Akker’s Modern/Postmodern spectrum remains untouched at the moment, and I will now stoop to look at it, disapprove of it, then find something else to complain about. As I have pointed out, the Postmodern is full of the sincere. However, the modern and everything before it are just as infused with irony as any other period. It’s a fundamental facet of human communication and this should go without saying – the concept must have originated a while ago to be as widespread as it is. I do not need to preach the screamingly obvious to you – irony always has, is and will be a looming idea in the human conscious. Look at Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal – an essay from the 1700s advocating the Irish eat their own babies in order to solve starvation in Ireland. Or if that strikes you as being too new, look at any ancient Greek play for your daily dose of irony and irreverence. But, again I’m getting sidetracked. The point Vermeulen and Akker raise is with modernism specifically. They claim that it’s unironic. Do they assume that all modernism is inherently sincere and lacking in irony? I find it odd after Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism that this is the case: the piece advocates the destruction of all museums, libraries and academies and claiming that war is “the world’s only hygiene.” It is difficult to picture this as being intended as sincerely as Vermeulen and Akker seem to imply. If the world of literature again proves too elusive for these two, then perhaps the world of art would be better fit. If that’s the case, then let’s cast our eyes towards Dadaism, the early 20th century movement. The one that put a urinal in a museum. The one of which Katherine Sophie Dreier said “Dada is irony.” Was it ironic? Wasn’t it? You be the judge of this, but I’ve decided and am going to draw my conclusions from it.
The most sincere thing you’ll see all day, or a piss take?
As I see it, Vermeulen and Akker’s argument pertaining to what Metamodernism is without flaw, since it simply cannot exist. Metamodernism as they define it seems an arbitrary word that exists without base, since none of the generalisations from which it contrasts itself in order to exist work. They’ve boiled down Postmodernism and modernism into indistinguishable pastes, then daubed their viscous residues over the windows of their academic ivory towers so every time they try to see any art, literature or media that exists below, it’s only visible through this opaque, grimy screen that doesn’t do any service to the modern, the Postmodern or the present. The point of this unnecessary metaphor is to say that Metamodernism does and can only exist through gross generalisations that discredit generations of artists. Personally speaking, I find it incomprehensible how a pair with such poor knowledge of art, literature and media have the gall to propagate such poorly informed rules which have so little bearing on, yet are somehow inherently focused on these three entities.
Dreier, Katherine. http://www.defaultlogic.com/quote?s=Dada
Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. “Manifesto of Futurism”. 1909
Pöhlmann, Sascha Nico Stefan. "Gravity's Rainbow". The Literary Encyclopedia. October 2006
Pynchon, Thomas. “Gravity’s Rainbow”. 1973
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal”. 1729
Turner, Luke. “A Brief Introduction to Metamodernism”. http://www.metamodernism.com/2015/01/12/metamodernism-a-brief-introduction/
Vermeulen and Akker interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dH6zJULTVgQ
I'm a survivor of the Groningen English Language and Culture programme who's currently enjoying the fruits of an Arts degree. My writing interweaves through my past like memory. That is to say, unreliably, irregularly and it’s shaky if it does appear. In my free time I like to get angry at the television, complain about David Foster Wallace and eat.