Part 2: The Problem with Oscillation

Metamodernism and 21st Century Media

Part 2: The Problem with Oscillation

Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s employment of oscillation to describe the mechanics of metamodernism can be easily overlooked, and tends to be accepted without much consideration or challenge. As this forms one of metamodernisms central tenets (and is frequently referred to by contributors to the webzine,  it is important to examine its implications in more depth. For example, the following questions arise; how does metamodern oscillation actually function? What are the reasons for this particular mechanism being used over others?

In notes on metamodernism Vermeulen and van den Akker attempt to clarify metamodern oscillation in greater detail:

“One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather, it is a pendulum swinging between 2,3,5,10, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment it’s irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back towards enthusiasm”. (1)

Several important explanatory elements are missing from this description of oscillation, namely; acceleration, velocity and speed. It is almost impossible to grasp a full understanding of metamodern oscillation without this information. A pendulum swinging at an infinite speed, so that it reaches both poles instantaneously, conjures up a radically different conception of oscillation than a swing that takes seconds, days, minutes, or even years to complete.

The use of oscillation also tends to be inconsistent throughout the work of Vermeulen and van den Akker. Just a few sentences later in the article, metamodernism is described as “at once modern and postmodern and neither of them”(1). For metamodernism to be ‘at once’ modern and postmodern, a strong case is made for them to co-exist simultaneously, rather than an oscillation taking place between them. This seeming contradiction surfaces again later in notes on metamodernism when Vermeulen and van den Akker quote the art critic Jerry Saltz, saying: “young artists […] grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time.”(1)

Another point left unexplained is the nature of the ‘gravity’ force that causes the ‘pull back’ and ‘sway’ between poles. This ‘gravity’ would appear to be the central motivation for metamodern oscillation but it is neither clarified nor expanded on by Vermeulen and van den Akker.

Seth Abramson, the metamodern theorist and poet, observes a discrepancy between Vermeulen and van den Akker’s theory of oscillation and the cultural examples of metamodernism that they provide:

“To the extent Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism is focused on what they perceive as an “oscillation” between opposing poles, we note how hard it is to find even a whisper of conspicuous “oscillation” in the individual artworks Vermeulen and van den Akker have identified as metamodern”. (2)

Alexandra Dumitrescu, a metamodern literary theorist whose concept of metamodernism predates that of Vermeulen and van den Akker, also takes issue with the idea of oscillation, stating:

“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 stage, a progression rather than vacillation”.(3)

Here Dumitrescu proposes a dialectical relationship between the modern and the postmodern which is at odds with Vermeulen and van den Akker, who explicitly reject any link between dialectics and metamodernism.

Following Dumitrescu, Abramson also favours the idea of transcendence over oscillation, claiming that:

“Metamodern art occupies a space-time in which such polar spectra can be overleapt entirely by virtue of their antecedent internalization by creative artists”. (4)

In a later essay Vermeulen and van den Akker seem to question the importance of oscillation in metamodern theory and instead frame it in terms of multistability. The reason for using the oscillatory mechanism seems to have been a technical one, arising from the belief that “we do not have the critical capacity to perceive both categories, melancholy and hope, at once”. (5) Favouring metamodern multistability, over oscillation, and having in mind multistable images (for example, the necker cube) does appear to iron out some of the contradictions outlined above. The multistable model is able to accommodate Vermeulen and van den Akker’s implication that metamodernism inhabits both poles simultaneously.

Also in the same essay, Vermeulen and van den Akker choose to frame metamodernism in slightly different terms. Describing it as the process of:

“Bringing the postmodern into the realm of what one might call the modern and vice versa by dragging the modern into the realm of the postmodern”. (5)

Again this idea is rebutted by Abramson, who sees metamodernism as a separate entity, a ‘transcendence’ of the modern and the postmodern entirely. He states:

“When metamodernism is spoken of as simply an extension of the project of modernism, or as an extension of the project of postmodernism- in the form of a mediation of or intervention with one or both- the claim that metamodernism is a discrete paradigm becomes counterintuitive if not unthinkable. It is, in this imagining, no more than a subcategory of either modernism or postmodernism or both”. (5)

Abramson is not alone in this criticism, bringing into question the ‘newness’ of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism. Dumitrescu asserts that:

“[…] most aspects of the definition of metamodernism in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s article capture the latest developments of postmodernism, rather than postulate a new sensibility”(3)

In addition to this, it would be useful to compare Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism with Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds’ conception of Hauntology. The emphasis on romanticism, transcendent ethics and lost futures draw up strong parallels between the two.


1. Notes on metamodernism, 2010, Vermeulen and van den Akker
2. Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, 2015, Abramson
3. Metamodernism in Art: Oscillation vs Integration and Interconnections, 2013, Dumitrescu
4. On Transcendent Metamodernism, 2014, Abramson
5. Utopia, Sort Of: A Case Study in Metamodernism, 2015, Vermeulen and van den Akker