Periodising the 2000s, or, the Emergence of Metamodernism
Thinking at once negatively and positively about it is a beginning, but what we need is a new vocabulary. The languages that have been useful in talking about culture and politics in the past don’t really seem adequate to this historical moment. (Jameson on postmodernism quoted in Stephanson 1988, 12–13)
In 1989, the social theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article in the National Interest under the title ‘The End of History?’ In the article, he argued that with the pending demise of the communist empire, History with a capital H – that is, not simply the chronology of time passing, but the chronicle of mankind’s evolutionary process – had ended. With the ‘unabashed victory of liberal democracy’, he suggested in his subsequent book The End of History and the Last Man (1992, xii):
mankind had achieved a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings… . This did not mean that the natural cycle of birth, life, and death would end, that important events would no longer happen, or that newspapers reporting them would cease to be published. It meant, rather, that there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.
Some twenty years later, in 2012, Fukuyama wrote another article broaching the subject of History. Published in Foreign Affairs, it was entitled ‘The Future of History’. Here, Fukuyama wrote that calling the End of History may, in retrospect, have been just a bit premature, for the alleged ‘unabashed victory of liberal democracy’, he conceded, had since come under some scrutiny. Democratic governments all over the world increasingly failed to deliver on its promises: most national economies have not proliferated but have stagnated or gone into long-term recessions; political extremism – left and right, liberal and conservative, secular and religious – is on the rise; the middle classes, the traditional stronghold of twentieth-century liberal democracy, are shrinking; and social media have problematised twentieth-century notions of freedom of speech and the free press. In addition, a serious contender for geopolitical hegemony has emerged: China’s state-regulated market system. There are, in other words, plenty of ‘big questions’ left to answer.
Since the turn of the millennium, it has become increasingly commonplace to declare that History has not halted and has not come to a standstill. Various authors from across the political spectrum have, for instance, written about the remarkable ‘return’ (Kagan 2008), ‘revenge’ (Milne 2012) or ‘rebirth’ (Badiou 2012) of History after the End of History. These authors all agree, as a premise, that History has been rebooted by recent world historical crises of an ecological, economic or (geo-)political nature. Arquilla perhaps most aptly summarises the current historical moment with his notion of a ‘bend of History’ (2011). A bending of History may simultaneously imply forcing History into a different direction or shape as well as causing History to deflect from the more or less straight line of teleological narrative. It also captures the increasing awareness across culture that there is something at stake, yet we are still very much unsure what this something – hidden around the bend, as it were – might be (and we will only really know in hindsight).
To an extent, this book is about the bend of History and its associated ‘senses of a bend’ that have come to define contemporary cultural production and political discourse. Our use of the phrase ‘senses of a bend’ is, of course, both a wink and a homage to Fredric Jameson’s canonical essay ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ in which he tried to come to terms with all of the – by then very dominant – ‘senses of the end of this or that’ (1991 , 1) in postmodern art, culture and politics. For Jameson, the main casualties of all of these postmodern ‘senses of the end’ might have very well been History and the historical imagination.
Now that History appears to have, once more, been kick-started, the postmodern vernacular has proven increasingly inapt and inept in coming to terms with our changed social situation. This goes for discussions of History as much as it goes for debates about the arts. We can think, here, of the waning of a host of different postmodern impulses, which nonetheless share some kind of family resemblance (Jameson’s ‘senses of the end’, if you will): pop art and deconstructive conceptual art (from Warhol to Hirst, by way of Koons); punk, new wave and grunge’s cynicism in popular music; disaffected minimalism in cinema; spectacular formalism in architecture; metafictional irony in literature, as well as the whole emphasis on a dehumanising cyberspace in science fictions of all kinds. Moreover, since the turn of the millennium, we have seen the emergence of various ‘new’, often overlapping, aesthetic phenomena such as the New Romanticism in the arts (Vermeulen and van den Akker 2010), the New Mannerism in crafts (van Tuinen, this volume), the New Aesthetic in design (Sterling 2012), the New Sincerity in literature (Konstantinou 2009, 2016a), the New Weird or Nu-Folk in music (Poecke 2014), Quirky Cinema and Quality Television (MacDowell 2012; Vermeulen and Rustad 2013), as well as the discovery of a new terrain for architecture (Allen and McQuade 2011), each of them characterised by an attempt to incorporate postmodern stylistic and formal conventions while moving beyond them. Meanwhile, we witness the return of realist and modernist forms, techniques and aspirations (to which the metamodern has a decidedly different relation than the postmodern).
Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism seeks to map and conceptualise the artistic and cultural phenomena related to the various senses of a bend and the return – in critical discourse and the popular imagination – of History (as the sum total of our objective conditions as well as the narrative that ties our present to a distant past and a distant future). In the seventies and eighties, critics like Linda Hutcheon, Charles Jencks, Hal Foster and Brian McHale began speaking of postmodernism (regardless of what they meant by it) because they believed the modernist ideals, methods and sensibilities had been superseded by something else entirely. Alongside other contemporary scholars (such as Lipovetsky 2005; Eshelman 2008; Bourriaud 2009; Kirby 2009; Moraru 2011), we feel that the postmodern discourses have lost their critical value when it comes to understanding contemporary arts, culture, aesthetics and politics. As Searle, writing about altermodernism, noted: ‘Postmodernism is dead, but something altogether weirder has taken its place’ (2009). Thus, what is needed is a new language to put into words this altogether weirder reality and its still stranger cultural landscape.
This book is an attempt to create such a language, or at least series of linked dialects, to come to an understanding of our current historical moment, a language that allows us to come to terms with the gap between what we thought we knew and the things we experience in our daily lives. For us, this language is metamodernism. There, we’ve said it. Admittedly, the hubris of delineating a historical moment and describing a social situation in terms of yet another ‘-ism’ opens us up for Homeric laughter at best and fierce scorn at worst. Indeed, as Barker and Jane suggest in the most recent edition of their handbook Cultural Studies, such attempts are ‘easy to mock’ (2016, 251). This may be so – and we are happy to take the flak – but let us explain why we think our attempt deserves more than an easy laugh.
This book is part of an ongoing research project in which we – alongside many others – seek to: (1) map today’s dominant cultural developments by way of the arts; (2) develop an adequate language to discuss these dominant ways of feeling, doing and thinking; and (3) relate these contemporary concepts, percepts and affects to recent reconfigurations of Western capitalist societies. These exercises in mapping, translating and situating are necessary to be able to discuss the ground tones in contemporary culture and, by extension, its undertones and overtones. It enables, in other words, discussing the dominant patterns in contemporary culture by means of a shared language, while allowing for the ‘presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features’ (Jameson 1991 , 4). Doing so leads to an understanding of what can and what cannot be done and thought – and, hence, what may still remain to be done and thought – in light of the most recent reconfigurations of Western capitalist societies and global capitalism.
As we have defined it, metamodernism is a structure of feeling that emerged in the 2000s and has become the dominant cultural logic of Western capitalist societies. We use the term metamodernism both as a heuristic label to come to terms with a range of aesthetic and cultural predilections and as a notion to periodise these preferences. In other words, this book is neither a Greenbergian plea for a specific kind of art nor a Jencksian pigeonholing of individual architects. It is an attempt to chart – in much the same way Jameson has done for postmodernism – the dominant cultural logic of a specific stage in the development of Western capitalist societies, in all its many forms and disguises. It is an attempt, however flawed, to come to terms with today’s condition as well as its culture, aesthetics and politics, by way of the arts.
The term metamodernism is by no means a new one. It has been used in geographical contexts as diverse as South America, Asia and Western Europe and has been used in disciplines as varied as experimental poetry and technology studies, physics, economics, mathematics and Eastern spirituality. The term has, in other words, a long and scattered history, the full lineage of which still has to be traced. Abramson (2015b) uncovered some of its prior uses, pinpointing its first articulation in the 1970s when it was used by Zavarzadeh to describe a tendency in literature to ‘move beyond the interpretive modernist novel’ (1975, 69). This tendency, Zavarzadeh argued, is exemplified by tropes (black humour, parody, metafiction, the abandonment of depth-models) and authors (Robbe-Grillet, Barth, Barthelme, Wolfe) that make apparent that his use of the term ‘metamodern’ indicates what is today generally considered (a variant of) postmodernism. This book is not the place for such a full-blown archaeology. Still, a few observations regarding the ways in which we use the term, and how this usage differs from others with similar interests in the post-postmodern, are in order.
When we wrote our initial essay ‘Notes on Metamodernism’ (2010) in 2008, our notion of the metamodern was constructed on foundations as diverse as Raymond William’s notion of a structure of feeling (and its function in Fredric Jameson’s (1991 ) and David Harvey’s (1990) studies of the interrelation between late capitalism and postmodern culture), Jos de Mul’s (1999 ) canonical study of the Romantic roots of modernism and postmodernism, and the recent neo-romantic turn in the visual arts of the early 2000s. In researching the term, we were aware of at least two other relevant uses of metamodernism. The first was Furlani’s (2007) thorough, evocative study Postmodernism and After: Guy Davenport in which he discusses the oeuvre of writer Guy Davenport in terms of complementarity and ‘contrasts absorbed into harmony’ that aspire to transcend postmodern disorder (2007, 158). Second, in her essay ‘Interconnections in Blakean and Metamodern Space’ (2007), Dumitrescu describes metamodernism as a ‘budding cultural paradigm’ (2007) that is characterised by holism, connectionism and integration. Studying work by two very different authors – Blake and Houellebecq – Dumitrescu puts the emphasis on three particular strategies that for her defy postmodernism: ‘connectionism (as a mode of thinking), bootstrapping (as a way of identifying connections) and the principle of theory overlapping’ which, she argues, ‘are but aspects of metamodernism’ (2007). Both Furlani and Dumitrescu seek to develop an alternative – solution, even – to what they perceive to be the artistic dead ends and cultural failures of postmodernism; both look for these alternatives in dated and/or isolated forms of art, and both propose some kind of synthesis or harmony between modern and postmodern modes. Given the shared use of nomenclature, there are – unsurprisingly – some overlaps between their use and ours. Nevertheless, our employment of ‘metamodernism’ is different on at least three counts: (1) the aim and line of inquiry; (2) the selection of cultural texts and practices, and, inevitably given these differences; (3) the (preliminary) findings.
First of all, the cultural texts and practices we would describe as metamodern do, in our view, not offer a solution to the problematic of postmodernism (however the postmodern is perceived). Despite suggestions to the contrary (see Turner 2011; Eve 2012; Abramson 2015a), our conceptualisation of metamodernism is neither a manifesto, nor a social movement, stylistic register, or philosophy – even though it takes into account a number of developments that may well be regarded as social movements (Occupy, the Tea Party), stylistic registers (the New Sincerity, Freak Folk) and philosophies (Speculative Realism, OOO). Metamodernism is a structure of feeling that emerges from, and reacts to, the postmodern as much as it is a cultural logic that corresponds to today’s stage of global capitalism. As such, it is shot through with productive contradictions, simmering tensions, ideological formations and – to be frank – frightening developments (our incapacity to effectively combat xenophobic populism comes to mind). In some ways, there is reason for optimism; in many ways we think we are even worse off than before. Thus, we wish to state very clearly that we are not celebrating the waning of the postmodern – nor, indeed, are we pushing a metamodern agenda.
Second, and crucially, metamodernism – as a structure of feeling or cultural logic – is developed through a systematic reading of dominant tendencies in contemporary artistic and cultural production rather than isolated or dated phenomena. These tendencies, moreover, are – in their insistence on the impossibility of reconciliation, their slipperiness, their adherence to postmodern tropes – markedly different from those discussed by Furlani and Dumitrescu (or indeed the many others we do not mention here). Our study of the romantic turn in the visual arts of the early 2000s is a case in point (Vermeulen and van den Akker 2010). This study comprised of dozens of contemporary cultural texts – from individual works to whole oeuvres to group exhibitions to museum shows. It is a flawed essay, for sure. We failed, for instance, to recognise and include the emergent nationalist, if not fascist, tendencies in contemporary culture as mediated through, say, the overtly neoromantic work of Dennis Rudolph. A consistent feature, though, of both our work and the chapters included in this volume is the textual analysis of culturally dominant phenomena as a starting point for any critique of the current historical moment.
Third, metamodernism – as a heuristic label and a periodising term – is characterised by oscillation rather than synthesis, harmony, reconciliation and so on (Vermeulen and van den Akker 2010). This oscillation could be said to be shorthand for the dominant way in which the various senses of a bend are manifest in today’s artistic representations, cultural mediations and political discourses. Whereas the postmodern ‘Holiday from History’ (Will 2001; Krauthammer 2003) amounted to the sensibility that the dialectic came to a standstill in the mediatised and commoditised comfort zones of the Global North, the current historical moment evokes the sense that the dialectic is once more in motion or, indeed, as is its unstable nature, in constant oscillation, continuously overcoming and undermining hitherto fixed or consolidated positions.
A STRUCTURE OF FEELING
It should be clear from our discussion earlier that we understand metamodernism first and foremost as what Raymond Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’: a sensibility, a sentiment that is so pervasive as to call it structural. ‘Structure of feeling’ is, in some ways, a confusing concept. As O’Connor writes, scholars have used it in all kinds of ways, not all of them compatible (2006, 79). Some treat it as a cultural superstructure in the classical Marxian sense or as cultural hegemonic following a more Gramscian notion; at times, it features as a sensibility, then as a literary strategy. Part of the blame must be placed on the shoulders of Williams himself (see Simpson 1995; Filmer 2003; O’Connor 2006). Surprisingly, considering how central the concept was to his thinking, Williams never systematically developed it. He fleshed it out in fits and starts, across essays and books years apart, more often than not while pursuing other lines of thought. Consequently, as Simpson has noted, the ‘key formulation’ of the structure of feeling was used ‘at times quite loosely’, with ‘some fundamental problems and unsolved ambiguities in the exposition’ (Simpson 1995, 36).
Williams first introduced the notion of the structure of feeling in a thin volume of film criticism that he co-authored with Michael Orrom in 1954. A Preface to Film is, perhaps because of its theoretical slightness, often overlooked in accounts of the concept, yet it offers a keen insight in the intuition that spurred Williams on to propose it. A structure of feeling, Williams wrote, ‘lies deeply embedded in our lives; it cannot be merely extracted and summarized; it is perhaps only in art – and this is the importance of art – that it can be realized, and communicated, as a whole experience’ (Williams 1954, 40). In other words, a structure of feeling is a sentiment, or rather still a sensibility that everyone shares, that everyone is aware of, but which cannot easily, if at all, be pinned down. Its tenor, however, can be traced in art, which has the capability to express a common experience of a time and place. If this today, after decades of (post)structuralism and the quantification of the humanities, sounds vague, it is precisely what Williams intended (2001 , 33):
While we may, in the study of a past period, separate out particular aspects of life, and treat them as if they were self-contained, it is obvious that this is only how they may be studied, not how they were experienced. We examine each element as a precipitate, but in the living experience of the time every element was in solution, an inseparable part of a complex while. And it seems to be true, from the nature of art, that it is from such a totality that the artist draws; it is in art, primarily, that the effect of the totality, the dominant structure of feeling, is expressed and embodied. To relate a work of art to any part of that observed totality may, in varying degrees, be useful; but it is a common experience, in analysis, to realize that when one has measured the work against the separable parts, there yet remains some element for which there is no external counterpart. This element, I believe, is what I have named the structure of feeling of a period.
As drinkers of Scotch whiskey will know, single malt island and coastal whiskeys tend to be characterised by a saline savour. None of these whiskeys count salt among their ingredients, however. Like all single malts, the spirits only contain malted grain – often barley, occasionally rye – yeast and water. Their distinct saltiness, presumably, is blown into the brew via the sea winds. In A Preface to Film, Williams describes the concept of the structure of feeling in much the same way: it is that element of culture that circumscribes it but nonetheless cannot be traced back to any one of its individual ingredients. It can be ascribed, instead, to the particular experience of time or place. Subsequently...