Part 5: Seth Abramson and Metamodernism 2.0

Metamodernism and 21st Century Media

Seth Abramson and Metamodernism 2.0


For an alternative take on metamodernism we can turn to the literary theorist Seth Abramson, who seeks to develop a strand of metamodernism that emerged out of literary studies, following Mas’ud Zavarzadeh (who coined the term in 1975) and others such as Alexandra Dumitrescu and Andre Furlani.

Abramson’s metamodern theory is equal parts baffling and enlightening, buried underneath layers of misunderstandings and conjecture are the blueprints for a new way of understanding metamodernism.  Abramson theory has three key achievements; firstly it moves metamodern discourse away from the romanticism of Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, secondly it acknowledges the important relationship between metamodernism and the internet, and thirdly it introduces elements of Deleuzian philosophy into metamodernism.

Abramson sees metamodernism as “a new cultural paradigm”, (1) having more scope than the limited ‘structure of feeling’ outlined by Vermeulen and van den Akker. He claims that “there is no sphere of human activity in which we do not presently find the metamodern”. (1) The application of metamodern principles is universal, paving the way for a metamodern cultural movement, politics and philosophy.

Abramson brings metamodernism into the 21st century with his assertion that “the internet is a significant inflector of metamodern phenomena” (2), realising that metamodernism, a 21st Century phenomenon, finds its best expression in 21st century media. Highlighting internet video is one way in which Abramson provides us with up to date examples of metamodernism. One of these examples is the music video for Alison Gold’s single ‘Chinese Food’, Abramson observes how it:

“captured the attention of a contemporary population deeply unsure of what they were watching but nevertheless enthralled and reinvigorated by the state of suspended confusion into which they’d been put”.(2)

For Abramson the music video for Lisa Gail Alfred’s ‘3 Second Rule’ produces a similar effect, “whose status as either parody or earnest self-expression is again so opaque as to somehow be beside the point”. (2) He also draws our attention to the rapper Riff Raff, whose work he sees as a breaking away from postmodern self-consciousness, describing him as a “a total intuition seeking no evident relation to, or discourse with, the world outside”. (2)

Abramson is successful in moving the discussion away from New Romanticism and towards contemporary media,  claiming that those producing such content:

“no longer wish to be aligned with either irony or sincerity, cynicism or optimism, but rather to produce decidedly non-interpretive works whose generative ambiguities render them essentially non-absorptive as anything other than sublime experience”. (2)

Three terms that Abramson uses here (‘non-interpretive’, ‘non-absorptive’ and ‘sublime experience’) are important in linking metamodernism with other strands of contemporary media theory. These terms seems to be analogous with ‘affect’, as used by theorists aligned with Deleuzian philosophy, such as Brian Massumi, Simon O’Sullivan and Steven Shaviro.

The philosopher Brian Massumi defines affect in term of intensity, “embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin- at the surface of the body”. (3) These intensities are described as a vital function “outside expectation and adaptation, […] disconnected from meaningful sequencing, from narration”. (3)

O’Sullivan subscribes to Massumi’s conception of affect and calls for a ‘non-representational’, affect driven approach to art that is “less involved in questions of definition and more with notions of function”, or put it another way, the importance of an artwork doesn’t lie in what itmeans but rather what it does“. (4) Shaviro applies this conception of affect to certain 21st century film and video works that he labels as ‘expressive’:

“they provide indices of complex social processes, which they transduce, condense, and rearticulate in the form of what can be called, after Deleuze and Guattari, “blocs of affect”. But they are also productive, in the sense that they do not represent social processes, so much as they participate actively in these processes and help to constitute them”. (5)

Adramson’s conception of metamodernism is made more effective when articulated using established terms, by replacing ‘non interpretive’ with ‘non-representational’ and likewise ‘sublime’ with ‘affect’, his conception of metamodernism serves to enhance a substantial body of theory.

In addition to this, several theorists have found Immanuel Kants’ conception of the ‘sublime’ problematic within the framework of contemporary aesthetics. Shaviro calls into question the possibility of sublime experience under the conditions of advanced capitalism, following the shift from “formal subsumption” to “real subsumption”, in which “all aspects of personal and social life […] are appropriated and turned into sources of surplus value”. (6) He claims that:

“The two most crucial qualities of the aesthetic according to Kant- that it is disinterested, and that it is non-cognitive- are made to vanish, or explained away. Aesthetic sensations and feelings are no longer disinterested, because they have been recast as markers of personal identity: revealed preferences, brands, lifestyle markers, objects of adoration by fans. Aesthetic sensations and feelings are also ruthlessly cognized: for it is only insofar as they are known and objectively described, or transformed into data, that they can be exploited as forms of labour, and marketed as fresh experiences and exciting lifestyle choices”.(6)

A similar point is made by James Trafford, Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell in their introduction to Speculative Aesthetics, who argue that the way we experience the world has seen a shift in recent times:

“The contemporary structure of representation is the product of an interlocking series of augmented conceptual and sensory frameworks that make the boundaries of our perception transitional and provisional rather than fixed and impermeable”. (7)

With this in mind they suggest that “realities perhaps cannot be encompassed in anything like ‘an experience’ in the individual phenomenological sense” and that “a speculative aesthetics may well have to operate in other terms altogether, rethinking aesthetics as a part of an exercise in collective cognition”. (7)

Describing metamodern experience in terms of affect enables us to move away from Kantian philosophy and opens up the opportunity to explore it using the theoretical terminology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

Abramson opens this opportunity further when he proposes a new etymology for metamodernism- rejecting Vermeulen and van den Akker’s prefix metaxis, Abramson favours Mikhail Esptein’s metabole, which he describes as:

“An intermediate link between the literal and the figurative that, in being raised to the level of discourse, is centralised and therefore paramount”

“[…] roughly translatable to “place of transfer”. Explicit here is that the metamodern is indeed a place, a “somewhere”, but also that this place is a site of continual translation and mistranslation that is locomotive rather than locational”. (2)

This locomotive ‘place of transfer’ bares some resemblance to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘rhizome’- a system founded on the principles of connection and heterogeneity, which has “no mother tongue” and in which “any point […] can be connected to anything other, and must be”. (8)

Abramson makes several strides towards a Deleuzian conception of metamodernism- but ultimately he falls short. His ‘transcendent’ metamodernism and its eventual surrender to Vermeulen van den Akker’s transcendent ethics, is irreconcilable with Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence. It is unclear whether metamodernism will ever constitute anything more than a structure of feeling- whether an effective cultural movement, politics and philosophy can be formulated, but any attempt to do so would involve a firm and sustained commitment to the ethics of immanence.


1 Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, 2015, Abramson
2. On Transcendent Metamodernism, 2014, Abramson
3. Parables for the Virtual, 2002, Massumi
4. Art Encounters Deleuze and Guittari, 2006, O’Sullivan
5. Post-Cinematic Affect, 2010, Shaviro
6. Accelerationist Aesthetics : Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption, 2013, Shaviro
7. Speculative Aesthetics, 2014, Mackay, Pendrell & Trafford
8 A Thousand Plateaus, 1988, Deleuze & Guattari