Metamodernism and 21st Century Media
Part 4: Hauntology’s Shadow
As noted previously, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s conception of metamodernism shares similarities with ‘hauntological’ cultural artefacts observed by theorists such as Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds. Whilst Vermeulen and van den Akker primarily cite examples of contemporary art, and Fisher / Reynolds tend to favour music, they share enough common ground for a comparison to be made. By considering the two side by side we can assess the extent to which they are related, and determine whether they are using different terms to describe the same phenomena.
Both metamodernism and hauntology involve a romantic return to the past, but crucially with a renewed sincerity, not readily apparent in postmodern culture. Discussing the rise of romanticism in contemporary art, Vermeulen and van den Akker state:
“If these artists look back at the Romantic it is neither because they simply want to laugh at it (parody) nor because they wish to cry for it (nostalgia). They look back instead in order to perceive anew a future that was once lost from sight”. (1)
This is similar in sentiment to how Reynolds describes hauntological music:
“music that doesn’t leach off the past but allows the past to leak into it, to pass through in an almost mediumistic way”. (2)
Expanding on this, Fisher states:
”In hauntological music there is an implicit acknowledgement that the hopes created by postwar electronica or by the euphoric dance music of the 1990s have evaporated […] yet at the same time, the music constitutes a refusal to give up on a desire for the future. This refusal gives the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism”. (3)
This refusal to give up on a desire for the future is mirrored by Vermeulen and van den Akker’s claim that a certain kind of utopian thinking has returned:
“not be perceived as a new ideological blueprint […] it should be understood as a tool, say, a looking glass, for scanning this world and others for alternative possibilities”. (4)
In addition the above parallels, Vermeulen and van den Akker cite hauntology directly when describing the work of Cyprien Gaillard, an artist they label as metamodern, claiming that he “creates a hauntology of the modern by evoking Romantic paintings”. (4)
The close association between Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism and hauntology raises issues regarding its status as a ‘structure of feeling’. As outlined by the theorist Adam Harper, hauntology does not function as a end-in-itself, rather it is seen as a transitionary stage, a way of re-invigorating culture in stasis. Harper states:
“hauntological art’s moment seems to be passing; it’ll always be a fascinating and pertinent movement, but in aesthetic culture as a whole it’s starting to feel like the focus has been on the past for rather a long time now, even if it was wrapped in our problematic present and (as it seems to stand at the moment) weakly, only implicitly anxious about the future. It feels like the past is practically exhausted and the future is getting impatient”. (5)
It is interesting to note that Harper observed the decline of hauntology, its ‘passing’, around the same time that Vermeulen and van den Akker claim to have discovered it. If metamodernism is intrinsically linked to the principles of hauntology, (romanticism, a transcendent ethic, lost futures) it cannot rightly be described as an emerging structure of feeling or a cultural paradigm, but instead it describes a temporary phenomenon, marking the transition between the postmodern ‘moment’ and the next cultural paradigm.
For metamodernism to be a truly new structure of feeling it needs to break away from its romantic roots and propose a more positive way of engaging with the realities of the 21st Century, it needs to offer “better, more direct ways of addressing the future through art and music – more striking and effective ways of creating something new”. (5) Vermeulen and van den Akker claim that new romanticism is only one part of a larger metamodern structure of feeling- however, as long it is built upon the ethics of transcendence, with its impotent commitment to ‘impossible possibilities’, romanticism (and its tragic desire) will remain a deeply ingrained feature. To arrive at a conception of metamodernism that is genuinely broad, and open to the future, would require a complete reworking of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s theory- after which very few of their original ideas are likely to remain.
1. Notes on metamodernism, 2010, Vermeulen and van den Akker
2. Haunted Audio, 2006, Reynolds
3. Ghosts of My Life, 2013, Fisher
4. Utopia, Sort Of: A Case Study in Metamodernism, 2015, Vermeulen and van den Akker
5. Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present, 2009, Harper