When Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker first published their Notes on Metamodernism in 2010, they made it explicitly clear that they had no desire to conceptualize a new program or philosophical framework for the analysis of aesthetical experience. From day one, the term has always been meant to be viewed as “a structure of feeling”–one that is fundamentally apolitical in tone. According to their notes, “metamodernism” is derived from Plato's metaxis, in which it is used to express “being simultaneously here, there, and nowhere.” It was originally discussed as an interjection between the slew of isms that were being speculated on what would come after postmodernism. The gist of people's opposition to postmodernism comes from multiple backgrounds, but it's mostly grounded in accusations of anti-intellectualism due to its fundamental skepticism to all claims on objective knowledge. As a cultural paradigm, postmodernism puts an emphasis on questioning power in society by looking closely at the details and underlying assumptions of everyday life. Simply put, how many layers of irony are you on? Five, maybe six? You are like a little baby; watch this:
A detachment from grand narratives is what postmodernism is all about; yet hesitating to take a stand on virtually any issue is what its more liberal proponents have made it known for. This culminates in a superficially nihilist worldview that often gets lampooned as cultural depravity, in favor of something more Modern like putting Enlightenment values on a pedestal and showing off what "truths" we do know. Metamodernists, for a relatively short time, have been suggesting that maybe there's something in-between; so from this perspective, historical movements go from observing truth (Modernism), to the absence of a singular truth (Postmodernism), to finding more truthful.. truths (Metamodernism). In a video published by frieze in 2014, Vermuelen and van den Akker's best example of the metamodern sensibility was taken from Guido van der Werve's nummer acht: everything is going to be alright in which we see a man walking towards the camera atop a sheet of ice, with an icebreaker ship in tow. They used this to create a metaphor to describe what they saw as something that can be, “characterized by the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment.” This conception of metamodernism remains dissonant, however. With “oscillation” they imply a constant swaying between poles while at the same suggesting that we are capable of inhabiting them both simultaneously. Literary theorists like Alexandra Dumitrescu are inclined to agree, whose conceptions of metamodernism predates their own:
"This proposition 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 state, a progression rather than vacillation … vacillation, acknowledgment of longings that cannot ever be fulfilled, a reluctance to take stances, the oscillation between possible options, and hesitations between truths and fear of commitment–describe a postmodern sensibility" (Metamodernism in Art: Oscillation vs Integration and Interconnections, 2013)
In 2013, I remember reading Luke Turner's manifesto prescribing a sort of utopian vision for a metamodern sensibility, but even he admits to it being incredibly ostensible. Which, for the most part, I'm glad. His collaborations with Shia Labeouf seem to have taken on the simultaneity that was evident in Vermeulen and van den Akker's original conceptions of metamodernism—conveying a sort of sincere sentiment through ironic means. This is mostly how Shia became the bag-head wearin', red-carpet roamin', motivational speech performance artist with which he's since become; a well run dry of any pop culture significance. Turner has nevertheless echoed the same sentiments in recent years, too:
"..metamodernism itself is not intended as a philosophy or an art movement, since it does not define or delineate a closed system of thought, or dictate any particular set of aesthetic values or methodologies. It is not a manifesto—although, as an artist myself, I couldn’t resist the temptation to imagine it as if it were" (Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction, 2015)
Like Shia, The Metamodernist Manifesto was what initially sparked my interest in what is sometimes referred to as "post-postmodern" thought and the multiplicity of dilemmas found therein, so I can't help but express my sympathies; we all should've known better. However this still contradicts the desire for a transcendent position the term seemingly alludes to. In “oscillating” between two diametrically opposed narratives, are we not capable of finding some manner of truth, aesthetic value or even methodology? David Foster Wallace is often seen as the go-to for some indication of this in his desire for a “new sincerity” within literature during the 1990s. In his aversion to the deterritorializing potential of global capitalism, Wallace sought to reterritorialize, if not re-enchant society's culture in such a way that would keep it in check–contrasting early accelerationists like Nick Land and the rest of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit's appraisal for the former. This raises important questions regarding the reterritorializing potential of a metamodernism distinguished in its “new sincerity”, as its elasticity or oscillation can give the impression that the rise of authoritarian figures, veiled by repressive nostalgic sensibilities masquerading as something new, are in fact justified. With that in mind, Vermeulen and van den Akker's romantically-infused, "oscillatory" metamodernism seems to embrace the crises and calamity of the world with complete reverence for the consequences.
Dumitrescru's criticism of Vermuelen and van den Akker's conceptions of metamodernism is grounded in their utter blatant aversion to creating a more cohesive ethical framework from the start; y'know, despite them going out of their way to create their very own epistemology to describe the aforementioned “structure of feeling”–one that seemingly explained the reterritorializing potential of their metamodernism.
"metamodern discourse ... acknowledges that history’s purpose will never be fulfilled because it does not exist. Critically, however, it nevertheless takes toward it as if it does exist. Inspired by a modern naïveté yet informed by a postmodern skepticism, the metamodern discourse consciously commits to an impossible possibility."
Guido van der Werve's video is still applicable here. The man has an “informed naivety” in his persistence to walk despite knowing the futility in doing so; yet he keeps walking, “as if” he could reach his destination. I'd like to apply Albert Camus' conceptions of "the Absurd", here. In his 1942 book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus cites the Greek legend of Sisyphus, a man who defied the gods and was sentenced to roll a rock up a mountain for all eternity. For Camus, the moment when Sisyphus summits and notices the rock rolling back down is the moment that interested him the most. As only then would Sisyphus be able to acknowledge the events that were currently transpiring, while also understanding that his fate could never be surmounted by scorn. The only solution to this existential conundrum, then, would be to accept the absurdity of our experiences; for in this acceptance not only are we free to revolt, but we can imagine ourselves happy in a world absent of truth.
Notice how there isn't any kind of oscillatory mechanism required to come to this conclusion. Sisyphus was never committing to an “impossible possibility” as Vermuelen and van den Akker may prescribe. They are correct in saying that there will never be an end to history, but oscillation does nothing to describe our developmental process let alone enable those with a penchant for direct action. What they've described is a gutted, nihilist sensibility that is devoid of any meaningful expression; it really begs the question as to why they sought to discuss metamodernism in the first place.
Alexandra Dumitrescru's criticisms of this "oscillatory" metamodernism offers us a glimpse of a desire for what almost seems like a dialectic of transcendence. Other literary theorists like Seth Abramson echoed this sentiment by replacing Vermuelen and van den Akker's original prefix meaning from metaxis, to Mikhail Epstein's metabole which can be defined as:
"An intermediate link between the literal and the figurative that, in being raised to the level of discourse, is centralised and therefore paramount ... roughly translatable to “place of transfer”. Explicit here is that the metamodern is indeed a place, a “somewhere”, but also that this place is a site of continual translation and mistranslation that is locomotive rather than locational.” (On Transcendental Metamodernism, 2014)
This sounds very similar to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's poststructualist, “rhizome” philosophy in which they modeled culture after an endless series of connections that emphasized heterogeneity. An immanent, “rhizomatic” culture would certainly be non-hierarchical–anarchist, even. It by no means necessitates the exacerbation of capitalist systems thereby acceleration (contrary to what Nick Land would have us believe); but it is in fact locomotive. Abramson gets stuck in a rut on his quest towards a transcendental metamodernism, however; he equates Kantian sublimity to metabolic reasoning in an attempt to rationalize Vermuelen and van den Akker's rose-tinted epistemology.
"Normally hidden, the proving ground upon which individuated realities intersect and interact rises to the level of discourse in the metabolic, and to the level of cultural paradigm in metamodernism.” (On Transcendental Metamodernism, 2014)
Here, the metamodern sensibility tries to be transcendentally empirical first, and brutishly idealist second. This has little to do with completely rejecting Kantian ideas, but the empiricism that is ultimately endemic to this interpretation of metamodernism isn't very sublime either. This appears to really be the one flaw with Abramson's interpretation of metamodernism. An immanent ethical framework may very well be momentarily complementary of the transcendent and nothing more. So why exactly did Abramson think this entailed a reverence for the sublime wherever he saw fit? It just reeks of desperation.
“In short, there's a desire in popular culture for a new form of unity, even a sublimity, that the careful deconstructions of the postmodern period made all but impossible. “ … “..metamodernism is a recurring historical phenomenon in which ambiguous yet sublime reconstructive deconstruction is ascendant in the arts.” (On Transcendental Metamodernism, 2014)
There is no such thing as an "ambiguous sublimity" as the two concepts are irreconcilable. If Abramson intends to maintain the image of a “transcendental metamodernism”–one that is capable of political commentary, then he ought to emphasize what are distinctively grotesque phenomena–the kind that are still grounded in some manner of materialism. To clarify: when it comes to the grotesque, I don't necessarily mean it by the contemporary connotations of the term with which are typically used to, “refer to one of the extremes on the spectrum of our reactions to visual or imagined experience.” Such definitions are rife with stigma that are best left at the door. No, I'm primarily referring to Frances S. Connelly's usage of the term. Yes, grotesques have often been subsumed as "ornament" or more broadly an elusive "other", but that was because they were sublimated as forces of persuasion rather than by some manner of logical argument. The defining aspect of the grotesque is that it's always “in play” – Connelly refers to this phenomenon as a sort of Spielraum in which she suggests,
“It always represents a state of change, breaking open what we know and merging it with the unknown. As such, the one consistent visual attribute of the grotesque is that of flux. Whether aberrant, metamorphic, or combinatory, grotesques are all in a transitional, in-between state of being.” (The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture, 2012)
This sounds much more comprehensible than Abramson's “reconstructive deconstruction.” It can be easy to mistake a grotesque Spielraum for embodying the very concepts that have been endemic to the problems surrounding postmodern deconstruction. For Connelly however, the grotesque is more than just deconstruction; rather, "it's a vehicle for meditating the ever-collapsing boundaries of the known." She holds nineteenth-century writer John Ruskin in high regard for recognizing the momentary, overtly expressive nature of the grotesque. That, it not only confounds language and logical sequence, but creates a liminal space full of ambiguity and contradiction. The name of the game here is liminality, not sublimity. Were a metamodernism to emphasize the grotesque, then it too leaves itself open to a wide variety of aesthetical experiences found throughout history. The grotesque cannot necessarily be characterized as a style in of itself, but it is in fact an interrogation of style; rather than rely on unified historical narratives that seek to identify where a style or art movement reached its "purest" realization and distinction from its predecessors, a grotesque history focuses on the "impure" boundaries, where intermixing and negotiating contest the normative center and pull it into flux. If metamodernism is as much of a recurring historical phenomenon as Abramson suggests, then a grotesque history should be seen as one and the same—extending its tendrils as far back to just before the Age of Enlightenment. Connelly conveniently categorizes her grotesque history into three separate styles: improvisational, subversive as well as traumatic; these aren't mutually exclusive terms, but it's helpful in distinguishing cultural products of societies that are grotesque in stature. All fill the criteria for that aforementioned "transitional, in-between state of being." Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portraiture of humanoid figures made of things commonly associated with nature display an improvisational metamorphosis of organic material. Carnivals in medieval periods during the months leading up to Lent implied a grotesque sensibility thanks in part to peasants subverting the status quo, as previously expounded by Mikhail Bahktin more than a century ago, ultimately causing the latter to quell any real opposition that formed. Practically every twentieth century art movement that reacted to both world wars can be keenly placed under rationalizing some inert trauma; artists who're typically associated with freudian analysis are certainly worth a second look with this in mind.
I only mention these because while Abramson's attempt at bringing metamodernism into the twenty-first century was certainly welcome, there were scarce examples that might've shown it as a truly recurring historical phenomenon. It's been said in the past that what Abramson was ultimately vying for was an accelerationist interpretation of Vermuelen and van den Akker's original conceptions of metamodernism; only that given the fact that he's a poet, this got shrouded in his whimsical prose. Central to Connelly's grotesque history is what she sometimes refers to as a kind of "inverse sublime". I feared that she was making the same mistake as Abramson with his "ambiguous sublimity", but this sounds similar to what he's more recently expounded upon,
"Metamodernists allow for a conditional return of metanarrative; essentially, they condone metanarrative when it helps you do something generative and productive for yourself, your family, sub-community, community, or nation. But they also insist that you acknowledge, if implicitly, the imperfections — and, more broadly, the illusory nature — of the metanarratives you adopt."
There's no real reconstruction happening here, only ephemeral reactions that merely compliment whatever was deconstructed in the first place. Any transcendentalist sensibility that relates to a kind of unequivocally sincere state of being—giving a platform to unironic traditionalists, for example, is almost immediately nullified as there's just no escape from ridicule.
Take Shia Labeouf's most recent antics with Luke Turner for example. Not just how it pertains to contemporary American politics, specifically Donald Trump becoming President of the United States, but rather how it's presented. "He Will Not Divide Us" (Henceforth, #HWNDU) is their most recent project, and arguably the one that has received the most controversy as it is intended to go on for the entirety of Trump's first term—that's a full four years of initially inviting the public to inhabit a space at any given time, stream themselves chanting that same godforsaken phrase for all of the internet to see, in the hopes that it'll be conducive to some kind of unifying solidarity in opposition to you-know-who. Try subverting the status quo today, and you end up attracting trolls at your doorstep; such has certainly been the case with #HWNDU. Practically all of Shia's art collaborations have relished in their ability to go viral, but this takes the cake; it managed to attract the attention of chan culture, of which have low-key lampooned Trump for his incompetence while also embellishing him all the same. I don't know about you, but for me, chan culture has always been the internet's premiere gateway into détournement. If you were to corner any self-proclaimed kekistani in a chatroom I bet you'll find them saying that they aren't actually being serious; contrary to popular belief, there's nothing all that nihilistic about their behavior. Just because the internet has blurred the lines between "underground" and "mainstream" does not justify an unconditional return to metanarrative. There's no reason to bitterly rattle our sabers at the castle walls of the "MSM" anymore because those walls have been torn down; all attempts at reconstructing something along those lines result in bipartisan dissonance and outrage. Everyone knows how culture is disseminated online, right? The whole appeal with it is in the fact that content-creators can have as much of a direct connection with their peers as they want; it's blatantly anti-organization.
When it comes to politics, much of contemporary chan culture is symptomatic of the carnivalesque—it's just lowkey reactionary drivel masquerading as something new. These people have nothing meaningful to say about our very real material conditions. They do understand their precarity at least on a very superficial level, but then proceed to settle for what are ultimately shortsighted conclusions and the pundits who embellish them. Like, I would know; I was once that guy. Imageboards left a remarkable impact on my personal development upon discovery through Newgrounds' BBS sometime in 2006, and has stayed that way up till now. It's no more of a contradiction than it is stumbling onto potential avenues for actual, radical self expression; aimlessly circlejerking until something sticks.. reacting to a normative center after being pulled into a liminal space. Many anons fit the bill for being classically liberal; this supplants them among bourgeois elements that merely seeks to reinforce itself rather than deconstruct, and subsequently lend themselves to fascist sensibilities. Chan culture's conflation with the alt-right for instance is merely the result of its metanarrative having infused itself with bullshit phrases like "conservatism is the new punk rock"; the broader alt-right is less a counterculture and more of a byproduct of the internet in general. This byproduct, however, has the potential to give way to either what can be described as an entirely new third position that is reacting to postmodernism, mirroring fascism's relation to the modernism that preceded it, or something far more conducive toward progressive ends. From doing things "for the lulz" ten years ago to "meme magic" in 2016, the battle between persistent and ephemeral content rages on and whether we like it or not, imageboards as a subset of social media have been markedly influential at the forefront of reaction. The people who've managed to capitalize on such reaction have merely become more diverse than initially expected.
So when I see both Shia Labeouf and Luke Turner's first real foray into political commentary through their "metamodern" performance art, working under the same, ill-defined "structure of feeling" with which Vermuelean and van Den Akker have been espousing for more than half a decade, I just don't know what to make of it anymore. Connelly would likely place #HWNDU as an afterthought of the carnivalesque among the annals of grotesque history, not only due to its utter failure at any actual subversion, but also because its organizers incessantly backpedaled after coming to the realization that they were sublimating the very reactionary forces they were trying to oppose. It is quintessentially liberal in the most classical sense of the word, but even that is stretching it namely because of its subsequent opposition to chan culture. An emphasis on chan culture is necessary, as it offers us a glimpse at not just the negation of nuance, but the sublimation of the forces of annihilation itself. The metamodernist question of having more truthful truths, amounts to an albeit reluctant but accelerationist tone. There is nothing but immanence; how does entrusting future generations to remind themselves of modernity's influence prove useful in staving off newer interpretations of apocalypticism? It comes across as just one giant waste of time that's not at all conducive to anything but bench-warming for true believers; there's simply no room for any reterritorializing arguments here. A grotesque metamodernism, would ultimately be an accelerationist one, the kind whose aesthetical value is determined by what media theorists like Steven Shaviro have referred to as a sort of "enlightened cynicism." Showcasing a gratuitous amount of cultural products piled on top of one another in the hopes that it will relieve us of the struggle in actually consuming them on a daily basis. Modernity in excess, improvisational metamorphosis, traumatic experiences behind every hyperlink; this is what metamodernism is all about.