Metamodernism and 21st Century Media
Part 1: Introducing Oscillatory Metamodernism
In 2010 Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker published their essay notes on metamodernism in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture. This frequently cited essay served to raise the profile of metamodernism, galvanise a group of theorists and practitioners around the webzine metamodernism.com, and led to an ongoing collaboration between London based artists and the Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf. As Vermeulen and van den Akker’s conception of metamodernism appears the most prominent at present it will serve as the starting point for a wider examination of metamodern theory. However, this is not to overlook that the term was originally coined in 1975 by literary theorist Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and that Vermeulen and van den Akker were, by their own admission, latecomers to metamodern theory.
For Vermeulen and van den Akker the prefix ‘meta’ refers to Plato’s ‘metaxy’, as developed by the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Metaxy is used to express “the extent to which we are at once both here and there and nowhere”(2). When applied specifically to metamodernism it names “the tension […] of a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all”(2).
Vermeulen and van den Akker situate metamodernism “after the postmodern moment and within the development of western capitalist societies”(1) This metamodern ‘moment’ corresponds to our current “social situation in which History […] kick-started after that relatively brief ‘pause’ of the dialectic at the End of History” (1).
Vermeulen and van den Akker identify metamodernism as a ‘structure of feeling’, which they describe as “a sensibility that many people share, that many people are aware of, but which cannot easily, if at all, be pinned down.”(2) or “a mood […] an attitude” (1). This emerging metamodern structure of feeling is “characterised by the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment”. (2)
This conception of metamodernism does not describe a formal structure or system but refers to a general ‘attitude’ prevalent at the present. Vermeulen and van den Akker clarify this point in a subsequent essay by providing a extensive list of what metamodernism is not:
“Metamodernism, as we see, it is not a philosophy. In the same vein, it is not a movement, a programme, an aesthetic register, a visual strategy, or a literary technique or trope.”(1)
It follows from this that when Vermeulen and van den Akker discuss the decline, or end of postmodernism, they are referring to the sensibility or attitude usually associated with it; the dominance of irony, cynicism and non-commitment. They are not referring to the material structures and systems associated with postmodernism. Vermeulen and van den Akker frequently cite the work of Frederic Jameson when discussing postmodernism, but it can be argued that his observations in the early 1990’s are even more relevant in our current situation.
When Jameson and Jean Baudrillard wrote about postmodern depthlessness, hyperreality and simulacra they focused their ideas on television and video. Since then, screen based media has grown in dominance and the flow of images has accelerated exponentially. We can safely conclude that postmodernism, in this structural or material sense, has only been exacerbated since the year 2000. All of this indicates that the metamodern structure of feeling observed by Vermeulen and van den Akker exists independently of the material structure or medium that they are contained within. We could say that the metamodern sensibility exists as semantic content housed within the framework of postmodern media.
Vermeulen and van den Akker claim that the transition from postmodernism to metamodernism initially took place at the beginning of the 21st century but emphasise the transformative effects of the financial crash in 2008; in which “the global debt crisis put an end to the myth of the middle classes, exposing the monumental gap (previously papered over by debt) between the one percent and the rest of us” (3) Vermeulen and van den Akker claim that the financial crash was a key event in the ‘kick-start(ing)’ of History, evidenced by the “re emergence of the figure of Utopia today” (4), the grip of hegemonic liberal democracy and neoliberalism being loosened. Vermeulen and van den Akker cite “Alter-globalists and the Indignatos / Occupy or the European populist right and the Tea Party”(4) as groups and movements that reject established values and centrist politics. We could update this to include the return to social democracy advocated by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the neo-nativism of Donald Trump, UKIP and elements of the Brexit movement.
For Vermeulen and van den Akker this unveiling of capitalism has led to a shift in attitude; from irony, cynicism and deconstruction in the 1990’s to sincerity and hopefulness in the new millennium. (3)
At the peak of postmodern theory in the 1990’s, Nick Land and others at the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit celebrated the free flowing deterritorializing potential of global capitalism, its accelerationist tendencies explored in the fields of cybernetics, science-fiction, rave culture, and occult studies. In contrast, Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism could be associated with the process of reterritorialization that, according to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, always accompanies deterritorialization. This reterritorialization keeps capital flows in check, whether through active resistance against it or through social conservatism and nativist policies that cause it to slow, creating blockages. Vermeulen and van den Akker see metamodernism evident in the various factions of pre-neoliberal romanticism, situated on both the left and the right, that act in opposition to unfettered capitalist deterritorialization.
Art students at Central St Martin who attended a talk by Vermeulen raise important questions concerning the reterritorializing function of metamodernism. They ask:
“When we pick up history again, do we pick up the suppressive hegemonies that it contains? Ironically, metamodernism tends to forget as it re-engages history. Are these ‘new engagements with history’ actually new, or are they re-implementing an ideological and suppressive history in contemporary culture? Although postmodernism might be dead, it taught us (via feminist, queer and postcolonial deconstruction) that ‘history’ is a white straight, masculine project. The ‘End of History’ that it advocated is just as much an ending with that violent history that unjustly misrepresented (or not represented at all) minorities. To draw on some of Vermeulen’s own examples, the work of Wes Anderson has a tendency to romanticise historical gender roles (Moonrise Kingdom) and colonialism (Darjeeling Limited) – but in a contemporary setting, which might be even more dangerous”. (5)
The dangers of hastily proclaiming the end of postmodernism are made clear here. A metamodernism that foregrounds romanticism can lead to the repetition of past failures, leading to dead ends and even more worryingly, the possibility of undoing the progress already made.
The students at Central St Martins are cautious in their engagement with Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism and provide us with a succinct appraisal of it:
“Metamodernism can be useful to describe a kind of culture we are seeing today- neo-romantic, nostalgic, forward-looking. That doesn’t mean that we should approve of them, or forget to be critical: in the metamodern, it might even be more necessary to constantly reflect on the issues of modernity”.(5)
Whilst Vermeulen and van den Akker claim that they “have no difficulty in pointing out other developments […] that are stylistically very different from New Romanticism yet express the same structure of feeling”(1), the examples they provide only serve to confuse the matter further, and they do not spend adequate time clarifying how they fit into their conception of metamodernism.
1. Misunderstandings and Clarifications, 2015, Vermeulenand van den Akker
2. Notes on metamodernism, 2010, Vermeulenand van den Akker
3. Art Criticism and Metamodernism, 2011, Vermeulenand van den Akker
4. Utopia, Sort Of: A Case Study in Metamodernism, 2015, Vermeulenand van den Akker
5. Notes on Metamodernism – A Critique, 2015, Ugelvig