Part 3: ‘As If’ Thinking and Transcendent Ethics

Metamodernism and 21st Century Media

Part 3: As If Thinking and Transcendent Ethics


In their article Misunderstandings and Clarifications Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker make it clear that they see metamodernism as a structure of feeling and not a philosophy, stating:

“To say that something is a philosophy is to suggest that it is a system of thought. This implies that it is closed, that it has boundaries. It also implies that there is a logic to it”. (1)

Despite this, Vermeulen and van den Akker feel the need to devise a metamodern epistemology (theory of knowledge), in order explain the mechanism by which History has been ‘kick started’. In opposition to the Hegelian theory of dialectical progress, which led to Francis Fukuyama ‘s claim that liberal democracy signalled ‘the end of history’,  Vermeulen and van den Akker fashion a metamodern epistemology that “aligns itself with [Immanuel] Kant’s “negative” idealism”(2), describing this as ‘as if’ thinking. Vermeulen and den Akker assert that:

“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”. (2)

However, instead of providing an ideological framework for metamodernism, this raises questions regarding the ‘newness’ of Vermeulen and den Akker’s theory. The idea of committing to an ‘impossible possibility’ is analogous with strands of poststructuralist theory, in particular, the deconstruction and the transcendent ethics of Jacque Derrida. Daniel W. Smith describes Derrida’s deconstruction, a modification of Kant’s notion of ‘conditions of possibility’, “as the experience of the possibility of the impossible- that is the (impossible) possibility of the impossible ‘marks an absolute interruption in the regime of the possible’”. (3)

Vermeulen and den Akker go on to explain their metamodern epistemology in a ‘donkey and carrot’ metaphor, in which the metamodern:

“chases a carrot that it never manages to eat because the carrot is always just beyond its reach. But precisely because it never manages to eat the carrot, it never ends its chase, setting foot in realms the modern donkey (having eaten its carrot elsewhere) will never encounter, entering political domains the postmodern donkey (having abandoned the chase) will never come across”. (2)

Again, it is difficult to locate anything new in this conception of metamodernism. Vermeulen and den Akker insist that “metamodern irony is intrinsically bound to desire” and their donkey and carrot metaphor bears a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud’s theory of desire. For Freud the carrot would represent a state of pleasure that temporarily defers desire; “a false imminence, a pseudo-immanence, a kind of delusion or illusion. Desire is calmed for a moment- but then begins again.” (3) In a Freudian spin on this metaphor, the donkey can eat as many carrots as it wants, it will soon get hungry again and continue its endless chase.

Vermeulen and den Akker metamodern epistemology appears to share a lot with Derrida’s notion of transcendent desire, and in particular the ‘infinite Idea of justice’. Which, according to Gilles Deleuze, exists in three moments:

“(1) the ‘call’ to justice has its as its object an ‘infinite’ Idea that is unrealisable, and that transcends any determinable context; (2) what comes to fulfil the call to justice are ‘decisions’ (e.g, by judges in a court of law), but these ‘decisions’ as such cannot be determined to be just, so the call to justice is continually reborn; hence (3) the call to justice can never be fulfilled or satisfied, it is the experience of something fundamentally impossible”. (3)

If we replace ‘the Idea of justice’ with ‘history’s purpose’ in the above text, we arrive at something incredibly similar to Vermeulen and den Akker’s metamodern epistemology. In addition to this there are numerous allusions to transcendent ethics throughout their work.

Whilst Alexandra Dumitrescu sees ethics as an important element of metamodernism, she is critical of Vermeulen and den Akker’s foregrounding of transcendent ethics, claiming that:

“Vacillation, acknowledgement 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”. (4)

It is interesting to note that, whilst writing about roughly the same time period (the year 2000 onwards), the media theorist Steven Shaviro observes a different regime of ethics in contemporary culture. Shaviro notes the prominence of what he calls ‘post-cinematic affect’ in contemporary culture. Instead of following an ethics of transcendence, this embraces an ethics of immanence, an alternative ethical path forged by figures including Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze and Brian Massumi. In an immanent ethical framework ‘affect’ describes a being’s “‘intensity or ‘degree of power’, a degree which is actualised at every moment in terms of the whole of one’s ‘affections’” (3). Vermeulen and den Akker use ‘affect’ in a different sense, to describe “humanist values such as empathy and mercifulness”. Immanent ethics asks a different set of questions than transcendent ethics does, for example:

“Given my degree of power, what are my capabilities and capacities? How can I come into active possession of my power? How can I go to the limit of what I can do?”. (3)

From this point of view, transcendent ethics’ “demand to do the absolutely impossible is nothing other than the concept of impotence raised to infinity”. (3)

It is evident from this examination that Vermeulen and den Akker’s metamodernism does, contrary to their claims, subscribe to a ‘system of thought’ – that of transcendent ethics. The question that arises now is whether this model is adequate to describe such a broad and complex structure of feeling as metamodernism, or whether it was simply chosen by Vermeulen and den Akker as it happens to fit in with their, essentially limited, observations and their predilection towards romanticism.


1. Misunderstandings and Clarifications, 2015, Vermeulen and van den Akker
2. Notes on metamodernism, 2010, Vermeulen and van den Akker
3. Derrida and Deleuze, Immanence and Transcendence: Two Directions in Recent French Thought, 2003, Smith
4. Metamodernism in Art: Oscillation vs Integration and Interconnections, 2013, Dumitrescu