This essay began as a review of Antony Rowland’s Metamodernism and Contemporary Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2022). The review was intended for Manchester Review of Books. At some point, I looked back over what I had written, sweating, and saw that Rowland’s book – which is in many ways very good – was really just the hair trigger on a bigger subject, that of Metamodernism and contemporary culture. This is important to place upfront.
I have been trying to scratch the itch of this supposedly new academic paradigm Metamodernism for a few years. I don’t think it is new. It seems to me bound up in bigger social structures. In universities, yes, but on the left, and in the arts, too.
Back in 2019 I wrote a paper for JCEPS on the ‘real but greatly exaggerated death of Postmodernism’. In it, I wanted to understand what had happened to Postmodernism. Bluntly, nobody talks about it anymore, and Rowland doesn’t talk about it enough in his book.
Postmodernism is clearly on the wane as a discourse, particularly in universities, but we are still in it, as a culture, in the west, but also in the east. And there are problems with the interpretative paradigm that is being hastily rushed in to replace it. In that paper I declared my scepticism about the usefulness of ‘neomodernism’, ‘Metamodernism’ and the ‘New Sincerity’ as suggested paradigms coming after (or within) Postmodernism. According to Rowland, its adherents are trying to move away from ‘theories of Postmodernism’ which ‘appeared less able to engage with postmillennial developments in history and culture.’ But I will go on to argue here that a culture of untruth which is strikingly Postmodern can be found all over the world, and in the east.
My reflections came after attending the AHRC Metamodernism Research Network, a day of paper presentations at MMU. Rowland was involved. I saw Peter Boxall speak there, who is also sceptical about the Metamodernism thesis, finding it all ‘limited’. His paper was more solid. Rowland brings him in here and acknowledges this. So there are people in the institutions with more sceptical takes.
To be fair to the believers, I also argue that Postmodernity is bound to change shape with austerity, climate change, and increased geopolitical risk, making a speculative comparison between access to credit curves and library loans of postmodern literature (this was meant to be viewed as a sketch, rather than hard data). In this, I am on the same page as the Metamodernists. When a discourse is clearly on the wane, something is happening. But thereafter I leave them to what I see as a practice little different to scrying with animal entrails.
We knew that Postmodernism was dead in the university already, no big conferences, no new books. I wrote about ‘the final affirmative absence of a pulse in the university.’ Of course, the books are still in the library for now, and students may still get them out, but no new work on Postmodernism is coming through from behind. There have been other declarations of the death of Postmodernism, for instance Kirby in 2006, but back then we did not have a ‘sense of what is coming.’
I decided back in 2019 that ‘what is coming is The New We Do Not Know What. The Neounknown, The Pseudovoid, and it is not “sublime” because there is absolutely no beauty in it.’ I wrote all that at the end of my Postmodernism paper, before the pandemic, and before the new Ukraine war. I was right. And then we saw what was coming, and we couldn’t believe our fucking eyes.
I wrote in 2019 that the announcement of ‘Depthiness’ or a new term in ‘Metamodernism’, even as a development of Postmodern theory, is cracked with problems. Tim Vermeulen – a key academic of Metamodernism – has discovered that although postmodern culture is vacuous, it actually means things to people and causes emotive responses. That people’s meaning is contradictory and unreal, but of great emotion-inducing importance – in short, real to them – has been understood by social anthropologists for decades. It may be true to say that just because it’s fake you don’t feel it, or that just because you feel it, it doesn’t mean it’s real, but all of that has been the territory of anthropology, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and ‘false consciousness’ for decades. It is also, crucially, the territory of Postmodernism and not a new cultural epoch.
Adorno understood that the cinema-goers were resistant to the supposed truths they were seeing on the screen back in modernity. And Fredric Jameson was sceptical of the pomo-positive. Jameson’s take on postmodernity was not that it is a good thing, but that it is a new geist to explore. When I look back at Jameson, it seems to me that the new Metamodernism academics are no further on than he was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Crucially, in relation to Rowland’s book, Postmodern theory never said that people would stop making innovative, difficult work. In fact Jameson said that an avant-garde continues, only underground, and it did, which is exactly where it still is. And this is essentially what Rowland describes across his central chapters.
Rowland cites Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling suggesting that the ‘residual’ and ’emergent’ are now the Metamodern. He then immediately capitulates to the criticism that these will only be a few among many different local cultural states. Rowland caves-in, then, precisely to the state of Postmodernism’s continuity, to the state of things as they already are. Metamodernism thus far neither describes the world nor puts new forces into play. You can be as radically innovative as you like, via tiny presses that sell 100 books tops, or in £100 monographs, but you always do so from under the flabby white buttocks of ironic daytime TV, mass consumerism and mendacious postmodern politics.
Of course, Jameson was not the only voice on the subject either. But much of what passed (and passes) for the evidencing of a new or hidden cultural paradigm in ‘the Metamodern’ is generative. I was sceptical about the early ‘findings’ – the material seems pareidolic – and I am even more sceptical after following up on the latest developments.
It is not just the case that Postmodernism is being thrown out, several discourses are on the wane. I also wrote a pamphlet called E is for Enlightenment back in 2020. This pamphlet tried to explore the way the new left were rejecting Post-structuralism, along with Postmodernism. Yet at the same time they were pro-modernity and used the techniques of structuralism and post-structuralism in their teaching. I thought these tensions were curious. In fact all the posts- were being thrown out, and that seemed to match a similar rejection over on the right, as a harder and darker Tory Party returned to the supposedly ‘simpler’ values of the 1950s.
The Metamodernists state that we have reached the-end-of-the-end-of-history. It might be tempting to read the ditching of the posts- as a symptom of this new tempus manifesting itself. Maybe we have just stopped living in the fake eternal present and broken through into a realer ‘now’. I don’t believe this either, although the new left and the Metamods seem to believe it is happening. I believe the opposite in many ways, that Postmodern untruth is more virulent and dangerous than ever. The Fukuyama thesis is the most misunderstood zone, it outlines a generally agreed settlement of neoliberalism in the west, not the end of time. History never stopped, not even for Fukuyama.
These rejections seemed to return us all to a default philosophical ground of Enlightenment humanism. Even Extinction Rebellion (XR) are Enlightenment, after all they too wish to manipulate global conditions. They may have switched from the goal of the total extractive domination of nature, to a strategy which aims to secure humans a place within nature. But the human urge to alter environments, in many of their discourses, is no less marked. It is an urge to have control over forces at a planetary scale. I don’t think this urge is wrong, but I think that the ditching of the philosophy of the last sixty years is a wrong turn.
Opening, Rowland cites Luke Turner’s (2011) meta-modernist manifesto as ‘an impassioned plea to reembrace concepts such as truth, progress and grand narratives, as opposed to the “cynical insincerity” of Postmodernism.’ But Turner’s manifesto is deeply flawed at best, meaningless nonsense at its nadir. I could just as easily make a convincing argument that ‘Oscillation’, given in the manifesto as a Metamodernist trait, is the condition of Postmodernity. Again, if you are re-embracing ‘truth, progress and grand narratives’ are you not Enlightenment humanists? And aren’t there a lot of problems with that which many people have written about?
The adherents of Metamodernism herald its arrival as a return to depth, ‘difficulty’ in literature, and general seriousness. The weakest critique that I am prepared to give of all of this is that the Metamodernists don’t figure in the wider dominant state of Postmodernity as conditions change (and they are changing/will change radically). That their focus on tiny evangelical signs in the cultural fabric make them miss the underlying state of mendacious Untruth.
In any case, films, books and records with feeling, with depth and performed ‘hope’, have been coming out right across the Postmodern period.
The strongest critique which tempts me is that this is in fact a regression preparing the ground for a situation in which man (sic) will no longer make himself – in an of course limited liberal sense – but be made. This is probably inevitable, considering the crisis shocks that are coming. It is a kind of philosophical anxiety function. Strapped in to a futureless future, one looks desperately for signs of potential liberation from it.
But this is far too grand. Metamodernism has opened another frontier across which academics can generate a kind of innovation. This is part of what is happening. But I don’t think anyone is really considering the full ramifications of these turns, as they gleefully ditch huge slabs of past philosophy, in order to glorify themselves in this new present moment they are creating.
As Derrida explained, the historical substitution of centre for centre is both structured and structuring.
Rowland’s book is about British Poetry through the lens of Metamodernism. He states that British poetry – as if it is a thing – has not discussed Metamodernism in any great detail and that this ‘abstention is curious.’ This abstention may actually be sensible. It may be the only sensible thing ‘it’ has done for some time. Perhaps they sense the tenuousness which those fully cosseted in the institution don’t?
Rowland’s book is perfectly good as an exploration of contemporary poets who are making innovative, difficult work, across a particular time, sometimes via readings of Adorno. I am personally enthusiastic about many of the poets he deploys as examples (and Adorno). But as soon as you try to connect the poetry – or its surrounding cultural discourses – to the idea of Metamodernism as a new cultural paradigm, it all seems much less stable.
Rowland seems to distance himself from the Metamodernism thesis several times anyway, including when setting out the conclusion. That the Metamodernist theorisers have really just ‘allowed me to focalise the primary concern of this book, that the concept of enigmatical poetics should be central to any discussion of “innovative” and mainstream poetry influenced by modernist antecedents.’
Modernist-influenced innovative poetry is enigmatic. I thought we already knew that? But the central chapters of Rowland’s book are very rich. It is just that the thread of why this is Metamodern sometimes disappears.
The text is also brave in its tackling of the cultural bifurcation which has been hiding in plain sight for many years: Carol Ann Duffy’s inclusive lit-lite, which leans towards a BBC public, primarily trying to keep ‘poetry’ on the surface of the UK mediasphere, rather than service a practice that has always been used to encrypt and incubate the unsayable. Laureate Simon Armitage is of course part of this. They are the bloated end of what began as ‘the New Poetry.’ Rowland handles this sensitively and although he is clearly sympathetic to some aspects of Geoffrey Hill’s renunciation of the state of play, he nuances the debate extremely well.
Personally, I think that our babyish contemporary cultural conditions should be directly attacked. The same Lemn Sissay poem is painted on no less than two public walls near where I live:
‘Said the sun to the moon, said the head to the heart, we have more in common, than sets us apart.’
Both of these murals are decorated with painted birds and bees. The birds and the bees? Have you any idea what some birds do to insects? On the mural near me, an Owl is in the centre, just under the word ‘heart’. All I ever see is its beak, tearing out a vole’s liver. Last year, as though in reaction to the philosophical error the mural presents, a boy was stabbed to death not 30 seconds walk from it. A few weeks ago, another was stabbed – fatality or not unclear – in a park just five minutes away.
I am returned to my thesis that in Manchester simply invert any notion you find, to make it more honest. Of course the mural has a longer history of being located in troubled places, making them rhetorical by default. Here, they are becoming bleakly ironic. I could make a start on Manchester’s Bee symbol, but you can probably already guess how I read it.
Rowland tackles the issue of public-poetry-lite more sensitively than I do here – admittedly not difficult – and his efforts to gently tease a debate to the surface are appreciated. Within other sections he explores what is great about innovative poetry and how (by implication) it is far stronger than the default poetry of a withered public culture. I align with all of this strongly, and enjoy the way Rowland ushers us through the debates. But the book’s title should have been related to these things, rather than the dirty M-word.
Geoffrey Hill may be right about the postmodern marketplace of lit-lite, and about Carol-Ann Duffy, but Metamodernism in this sense could mean that someone – probably in a university – is going to decide for you what is Metamodern and what is Pomo, what mainstream is, and who is innovative, but innovation is already going on under their noses outside the building. Publish on demand means the old gatekeepers need these people less and less. Hill is a Judge and he wants his gavel back. One secret meaning of Metamodernism could be the reinstallation of the same kind of ballaches who were in charge of the game in the fifties and sixties. At the very best it is neo-Arnoldism. A return to the best of all that can be thought and said, with appropriate middle class gatekeepers, and a return to those shitty poetry rejection letters (my friend’s favourite, ‘I’m not touching these turkeys’).
Otherwise why create these structures of difference, which can be used to other? ‘Mainstream’ and ‘innovative’? Those words incubate – intentionally or otherwise – their more casual ‘boring’ and ‘exciting’. I sense the desire to be able to judge literary quality again. It has been partly removed from monetised environments, in which it is convenient to say everything is good. These, yes Postmodern, environments of ultimate relativism are nonsense, I completely agree. Can you imagine someone grading work along with the sentence ‘of poor literary quality’ now? This is a problem of the Postmodern university. Metamodernism, it seems to me, conceals an attempt to re-install a critical vice of some sort, which can grip literary quality, which can make distinctions again, while hanging on to relativism at the same time. The word ‘committed’ creeps in. I realise this is because of Adorno’s premise that innovative work is dialectically committed and autonomous. But there are plenty of shit poets who are deeply committed to what they do. And autonomous. And ‘enigmatical’. As committed as Geoffrey Hill. You have to make a distinction, between them and effective art, which is what the M-word is partly for. It is a little crown or laurel wreath. Maybe this is better way of making distinctions than the endless rounds of meaningless prizes. But no, it all collapses because the category of distinction called Metamodernism is totally flawed. Like a phone-tapper, Metamodernism sneaks in to install a set of values, under the cover of installing a new interpretive paradigm. It is just that the new interpretive paradigm doesn’t work, so the covert exercise is pointless. We are bounced back to subjective judgements again. We are back at the panel discussion for the prize-giving.
Geoffrey Hill believes in ‘universal value’. But he seems monomaniacally focused on classicism, then Shakespeare and finally Pound and Eliot, which is by now neo-classicism of a sort. These are the new keepers of the Canon, they are not radicals. But I agree that something needs to happen.
Hill’s book titles Orchards of Syon and Scenes from Comus seem made for Ed Reardon’s Week. Which is also to say that we cannot view them from outside of Postmodernity anymore. Rowland describes Hill withering Eliot for his pompous man-of-letters tone. Is Hill kidding? Has he heard himself speak?! Rowland does not ultimately align himself with Hill, to be fair, not fully. But seen this way, one strong function of Metamodernism for those already in the building is going to be its use simply as a filter, the mechanism by which they might stem the flow of the masses who make culture, hoi polloi and their access. New movements happening both within and without the university continue, with no need for their approval or disapproval.
This is not a new crisis for the arts in the academy. When photography became far less technical, roughly around the same time that digital became a mass popular market, new photo theory books appeared, which were rather up themselves. I believed (and still believe) that the intended function of these books was to re-inscribe exclusivity into a practice that was rapidly losing it. Everyone could do the practice now – whatever you might say about the variable quality of the outputs – but not everyone was going to be able to get their head around this bullshitty essay on photography and Deleuze, and so here it is.
It was, at root, an attempt to cling on to the position of gatekeeper, as technology swiftly eroded that position. You no longer needed to go and learn how to process colour film and prints in a darkroom. You did not need that gatekeeper. So they made new but less justifiable gates, to keep themselves in the building. The thing is, like Metamodernism, nobody needs to go through these new gates, because they are doors to nowhere.
Of course, this opens up another set of debates about quality and who decides what that is. Peer-review is often a kind of legitimated bullying, which hides careerist machinations. But that is not to say a completely open process is fully desirable either, it isn’t.
Still, I suspect that Metamodernism is a desperate attempt to re-exclusivise a field for people who feel to be losing their hold. They are re-building Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magic Mirrors for themselves. But Metamodernism does not describe the state of the world, it describes the desires of a particular social class.
Metamodern theory so far is sketchy and contradictory because it is hedging. Of course, culture is going to change – we are witnessing what I file in my head under the balkanization of globalisation – the Metamodern is just academics pre-booking their seats at the top table. ‘How could I not define our new epoch for the rest of the world?’ Like annexing a country, once the re-naming has been done, the details can be filled in as history shows itself. There is something of the Napoleon Complex in it. Actually, when I take myself to it, I always find Metamodernism funny. It is tragi-comic in its pathetic, grasping gamble. The narrow pareidolic gaze, the desperate myopic scanning of details, followed by the unlikely – miraculous even – megalomaniac ballooning into a description of History. I know, because I have done all of that too. But it is time to look at it all sober again.
I was reading Gombrowicz yesterday. He was saying that philosophy is always utopian in character and that its systems always ultimately fail. But each one is useful in its own way, if read critically. Obviously Gombrowicz wasn’t the first to say that, but saying it is the mark of a real philosopher.
Of course, Metamodernist originators Vermeulen and van den Akker refute that they are doing anything so systematic as philosophy, affirming and denying at the same time, like true Postmodernists. But I think that they are pushing something they think is an emerging pseudo-philosophy, which they have invented. And so how are we reading this emerging philosophy?
‘Historicity of the present’ is a ludicrous coupling of words, signifying at such a scale that it can only ever arrive to us stripped of meaning. And there it is, on page three of Rowlands’ book. Postmodernism, when announced, was partly an observation of different tendencies within modernism, partly a media construct. And to an extent it became self-fulfilling. But once embedded, ‘Postmodernism’ did present a working description of the present, of sorts. It too was flawed and far too broad, but Postmodernism, once explained, clearly described a state of western culture that was relatively new. Postmodernism was the state of things, it was all-encompassing, it was an attitude to everything, including older forms of culture (by which I mean the things that were not conceived or made as pomo, which for instance postmodern architecture was).
Metamodernism is in many ways similar. Tease out tendencies already within Postmodern culture and give them a new name, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, it may take hold. But the thing Postmodernism had, and still has, which Metamodernism does not, is the end of central state planning and the switch to markets and ‘play.’ This is Postmodernity’s ‘historicity of the present’: Its superstructural phenomena were and are connected at the infrastructural level. Metamodernism doesn’t have that, at least not yet.
It is currently a dream space inside crisis Postmodernism. I could end this review-essay there, but there is much more to say.
I dislike much Postmodern culture, but Postmodernism is still the Dominant state of things and it has turned very bleak indeed. I also think that one cannot say this about Metamodernism. It does not describe the state of the world. It is evangelistic.
However, democracies are collapsing all around the world. Perhaps Metamodernism will also come to describe those new undemocratic spaces, as well as the few utopian ones which manage to get built. But maybe that won’t happen, because one glaring omission in the Metamodern archive is that of negative examples: nobody has called the far right’s hope in a mono-nationalist future a return to sincerity. But is it? Maybe it is? They aren’t afraid of grand-narratives. The anti-vaxers, actually, are exercising belief again. Are they not, then, also Metamodern? This is perhaps the most obvious moment of my role as Devil’s Advocate here: my mask may slip, but the points stick; the far right and the anti-vaxers are deeply Postmodern in their collaged conspiracy theories, but they also, like, really believe.
For the Nazis, so often sketched in cartoon form as cold clinicians, science is actually disastrous – because as stated by Joachim Fest – it ‘leads away from instinct’. The idea of a free science subject not oriented to an external direction, for the Third Reich, was ‘absurd’. How neatly does this seem to fit the anti-vaxers, as a description? But can we not describe the anti-vaxers as Metamodern too? They perform belief right in the heart of its antinomies, is this not depthiness?
There is far more going on, then, and far more at stake, when someone selects something and crowns it with the term ‘Metamodern.’ There is a whole broadly leftwing politics under the surface. But over there, on the right, a simplistic set of signifiers around nation and patriotism are also being deployed to try to re-inscribe ‘hope’ and feeling. A philosophy that is also a science would find Metamodern examples over here, too, but this is not happening. Owen Hatherley’s work on Keep Calm and Carry On, actually, might be a place to start. Keep Calm and Carry On trash culture is utterly Postmodern, the original poster was never used. It isn’t quite a copy with no original, Baudrillard’s fourth stage simulacra, more an original that was never copied in its time, but it is involved in a subjective process of dreaming and hoping at street level which could be described as Metamodern, if the Metamodernists were not a themselves a dreaming faction of the left, which I think they are.
Metamodernism is neither Philosophy nor Science.
As I have begun to outline, Rowland’s book makes a bit of a risky bet when it is trying to link to Metamodernism: It tries to heave a comfortable, cloistered practice of close-reading into a future sky, but the object is too heavy, and it often crashes down, smashing into a million Postmodern pieces.
Rowland’s book frames Metamodernism via that subject’s originators, for instance Timotheus Vermeulen, one of a handful who outlined it as a new term and interpretive paradigm. Its justifications are given as 9-11, the 2008 crash and austerity. Postmodernism can no longer explain the world after these things, they say. But this does not scan at all.
The Metamodernism academics seemed to think – or at least back before the pandemic they did – that the turn which will come out of austerity will react directly against iniquitous capital, or mean a switch to a more authentic, connected and deeper cultural meaning. Even if this is bracketed by having been through postmodernity, they say, something is happening.
Something is happening, I agree, but what we have also seen has been quite the opposite: an alignment with rightwing, capitalist, populist politics; a rise in conspiracy theory as a way of explaining the world. Conspiracy theory is so ‘pomo’ it hurts.
In contemporary western culture the signal may or may not be real and the noise it generates will take many forms, but it is not guaranteed to share your politics. Thinking bad times equals good reactions seems like those early web enthusiasts imagining that the internet might overcome all cultural barriers. A new world may arrive! And it did, just not like that…
As things get worse people – on the surface only – become more reserved and conservative, less outspoken. The negative is dropped and there is a turn to inward-looking affirmation, right at the point where the opposite is needed. The irrational also spikes. This is not seminal knowledge.
Rowland reads Ahren Warner’s third collection in which he claims ‘government taxes, elections, and economic disparities can no longer mean that his behaviour can be conceived as taking place in a postmodern city in which nothing matters, because nothing is “true.”‘ I could argue the direct opposite: that as iniquity has bitten, it has injected more unreality poison to further befuddle its victims, and that poison is Postmodern. I guess these people don’t live among the lower working classes anymore, or see how skewed their worldviews can be. I see it, clearly, in my own family (don’t get me started).
Again, maybe one major problem with Metamodernism is that almost all of the examples being given are left-liberal. I have yet to see a paper which describes the new far right as a return to ‘beliefiness.’ I could write that paper, but again, as a hard poke in the ribs. You can probably guess what it would contain, just by reading this essay.
If Metamodernism is anything, it is the incubated dream space of university arts and humanities schools. They are under increasing attack from right wing governments all over the world. These governments are more fully legitimated by increasingly right wing publics. I believe that Metamodernism is in part a reaction to this state of affairs. I feel it too. The attack is disgusting. I was at Millbank in 2010, twelve years ago, and the right have pushed right through with their changes as if unopposed. I might be out of the art schools now, but I live in a divided country in which I am currently – as far as my opposites the Tory Party are concerned – an internal enemy in a culture war. In this situation, and with a Postmodern desert outside, you try to dream your way out. I see it, I understand the urges only too well.
But Metamodernism, as a response to all this (which I think it unconsciously is) probably just gives the right another stick to hit them with. For the academic Tim Vermeulen and others, deracinated modernity plus affect equates to what he calls ‘The New “Depthiness”’ (2015). Vermeulen wrote that ‘while watching the television show Girls’ he ‘was struck by a line from a Radiohead song “Just because it’s fake, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.”’
Maybe, he mused, ‘we are seeing the first stage in another history of another kind of deepening, one whose empirical reality lies above the surface even if its performative register floats just below it: depthiness.’ (ibid, my italic).
I see him, sat on the settee, pulling at the stray thread of a half-remembered song, while watching the television, empty Ben & Jerry’s carton to one side, before the magical thunderbolt blasts forth to save us all. So yes, some of the origins of Metamodernism are quite ridiculous, making it very easy to attack. The details don’t add up, either.
There is a website called Notes on Metamodernism. On it is a Frieze video. In this video, Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker explain Metamodernism. They give a list of Postmodern culture, the things that came before Metamodernism.
David Foster Wallace is one. But that verbose, riffing wiseguy voice is still firmly Postmodern. I see how it has affect and ‘depthiness’ too, but so did other big-league Postmodern authors like Douglas Coupland. I don’t think Houllebecq is a fully ironic postodern writer either. Even in Whatever Houllebecq put us on notice that the neoliberal period – which Vermeulen and van den Akker state is key to Postmodernism – was coming to an end. Atomised ends with a Utopianism that I could claim to be Metamodern. I don’t think Sarah Lucas is always an ironic postmodern artist. The rage in her work at the 2004 In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida show, particularly the wank-hand lorry driver piece, with its tabloid wallpaper in the cab, I could also claim this – while only ever displaying depthy affect – as Metamodern.
How are the band Nirvana ironic? Wasn’t the raging underlying passion of Nirvana Metamodern? They meant every single decibel of their affront to alienation. I saw them live. You don’t ruin your throat like that and not really mean it. I can make a strong argument for ‘Come As You Are’ as Metamodern. I could do the same for Radiohead. But Vermeulen and van den Akker give them all as Postmodern examples.
In 2000 or 2001 I wrote a review of an album, ‘IV’, by the band The Fucking Champs. It was presented by their label Drag City as ironic pomo post-metal. But, I argued, you don’t learn how to play guitar like that just to send-up an aesthetic. You learn guitar like that in a bedroom which smells of socks and sperm. You consume every issue of Guitar Player that comes out, with dogged commitment.
There, I have talked myself into thinking The Fucking Champs were Metamodern, but I will never fully believe it either. Because I am trapped in Postmodernism, and because, as Vermeulen and van den Akker explain, the naivete and purity of modernism – particularly avant garde modernism – is now impossible, so to be Metamodern is a performance (hence ‘depthiness’) because the utopian is now sullied. But I believe that this also still describes Postmodernism.
In 2015 Vermeulen and van den Akker revisited their creation and its reception. To be fair to them they admit that Metamodernism ‘…was conceived late at night in a student dorm room in London, discussing, not entirely sober, the financial crisis, the rise of populism and New Romanticism…’
There is of course nothing in the circumstances of its creation which stops the idea being brilliant. Although elsewhere, they also deny they invented the idea: ‘Metamodernism, as we see, it is not a philosophy. In the same vein, it is not a movement’, or ‘a programme.’
But this is disingenuous. By speculating a whole interpretive paradigm and then pushing it out, you are creating a revanchist field, a frontier, across which others will pour. And the bandwagon-jumpers and panners for niche gold streamed right over the border. ‘Speculators’ is the right word to use. Many will wander out of the wilderness again, bedraggled, the real winners having made cultural capital from the rush itself, not the ‘gold’.
There are scores of speculating articles in the Metamodernism online archive. I wasn’t converted, as you can tell, although I love the idea of Robert Peston as a kind of nervous Metamodern avatar trapped inside your pomo TV.
Metamodernism is already a cult. It could become a movement, through snowballing circulation, but it will always be a deeply flawed movement, unless it coincides with a profound shift at the level of state and economics. This is also not impossible, it is just incredibly unlikely in England.
Actually, when I boil the nub of my objections right down to a hard single substance, it is the announcement of a new epoch. And despite all of the protestations – that they are just humble suggesters of concepts, and that they are only describing identifiable tracks in culture, and despite denying that they are describing a new epoch at all – Vermeulen and van den Akker state, only a few paragraphs further along, that:
‘…the 2000s are the defining period for the shift from postmodernism to metamodernism to occur (just as the sixties were the defining transitional period for the shift from modernism to postmodernism).’
So they do think that they have uncovered a historical shift. The self-deprecation of academics is also a kind of performative affect, as it was back in the Postmodern period. Vermeulen and van den Akker have wired-in denials to their arguments all along, that they are not suggesting any fundamental shifts, that they come out with their hands up, as ordinary men, at the same time as they announce a new epoch, like benevolent Gods. (And in the introduction to my copy of The End of History, Fukuyama seems to be shifting a lot of emphasis for the controversial book onto his wife).
All of the supposedly opposed phenomena under discussion beneath the heading of ‘Metamodern’ have occurred within each other, right across all of the periodising borders: Irony, sincerity, depth, depthlessness. Modernism within Postmodernism occurred. Postmodernism is still taking place in western culture, and in eastern culture. Postmodern content and systems of transmission (multiple, not ‘state’, choice-led) are completely dominant. They are not emergent or residual. In some ways, more’s the pity, but it is far too easy to say this, because over in Russia the lack of choice is a sort of living mummification. Perhaps we can agree on one change, and that is the migration of Postmodernism eastwards after 1989?
I agree with Vermeulen and van den Akker’s idea that we are all ‘negotiating islands’ of culture, but these are middle class islands. It is a middle class leisure and affluence which drifts around the archipelago. Look at all the fancy art examples Metamodernism is pinned to. This is the real discourse you need. The middle class island hopper for culture is Postmodern, too. Eat Japanese food in Hawaii, then fly to another island. The island is a crass example to use, as migrants eke it out on Greek islands, a state embattled by deep economic and ecological crises:
‘For us metamodernism is this moment of radical doubt, of constantly, at times desperately, repositioning between the islands, finally choosing one.’
This also seems a bit too close to the politics of exit associated with alt-right cultures such as ‘seasteading’, which is Crypto financed maleness.
Vermeulen and van den Akker describe Metamodernism as a ‘feeling, a mood, if you will, an attitude “dependent”, as philosopher Noel Carroll (1976) has brilliantly put it, on the “overall state of the organism, its level of energy, the level of resources at its disposal…”‘
Metamodernism often seems little different to accounts of enchanted landscapes from rural incomers or retirees. The authors refer to the brief pause of the ‘End of History’ as though it were a given. The authors talk about the Arab Spring and Syria as new Metamodern signs of the return of history, but history of that sort kept on rolling all the way through its own supposed end. Whatever Fukuyama said about things, however the entitled felt in the west (‘bored’) there was not a pause for the subaltern.
Was Iraq a pomo war just because Baudrillard riffed on it? And how was Syria, a conflict even more drowned in the west by the circulation of superficial messages, no longer viewed through Postmodern lenses in the west? Who reads the Baudrillard and Zizek ‘takes’ on all of this? A particular set of people, a sort-of class structure. But mainly university staff in arts and humanities schools.
Here is one of the key questions: where does this ‘mood’ largely exist? Where is it mainly described and named? Where does all of this ‘Metamodern’ discourse take place? In arts and humanities in universities, and in their parallel art worlds. It is actually a codeword for the desires of a morphing class.
Alex Callinicos was as sceptical as I am here about Postmodernism, and post-structuralism, back in 1990. However convincing his scepticism was – and his core thesis of capitalist infrastructure weathering any changes is solid – the whole superstructural carnival happened with or without his consent anyway. Metamodernism happens without my consent too, and rightly so, but like Callinicos I reserve the right to be rude about it.
Vermeulen and van den Akker complain that ‘a structure of feeling may be connected to new stages of capital’ and that they do not like that. Well, Metamodernism itself is generated for the capitalist business of the new university (maybe not yet fully capitalist in Amsterdam, but in England, almost completely). Academics, with notable exceptions, are good at examining the ideologies in all forms of cultural output except their own.
But maybe every cultural shift is made by people starting to scry new loops in an old fabric, who then pull at those loops, to place them elsewhere, and so make holes in the old fabric? Eventually the old fabic is destroyed, as another is remade.
In this spirit, what if someone declared Metamodernism as the new (political) dream space of humanities? Then dropped the silly M-word completely, and then expanded it into a future-facing programme? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Instead of pretending it is an interpretive paradigm, it could then be what it really is, in the clear light of day, a form of Cultural Evangelism. I think that Metamodernism suffers badly from trying to be even pseudo-sciencey, because it is housed in universities, while it gets on with being mainly ideological. The mist it pumps out tries to conceal the cracks.
I agree that times have changed, don’t get me wrong. The end of the new liberalism was obvious during the rise of populism. Trump in America and Brexit in Britain. The end of globalisation was all over the media during the Covid-19 pandemic years, but more grimly and finally announced after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We are in a new epoch. Politically, it is a jamming up, a freezing up, it is the 1989 thaw in reverse. The physical world though, becomes more unstable by the minute, and is literally thawing. This is the dialectic and it isn’t new, as some people seem to think.
Vermeulen and van den Akker give politicians on TV no longer shaking hands as a sign of them ‘entrenching themselves in some kind of corner.’ But the most potent image of this is surely Putin at his enormous desk. The fuck-you bargepole of an Imperialist Fantasy become mass mental illness. Is this ‘depthy’ in its end-of-the-end-of-history pathos? Or is it the ultimate in Postmodern alienation?
Vermeulen and van den Akker would probably say that it is both/either, a fundamentally Postmodern response.
I listen to music all the time. It is my one remaining permanently allowed crutch. I have been listening to Art Bears a lot, who were into Brecht and the Frankfurt School. I listened again and again to ‘All Hail!’ recently, particularly its last verse:
‘The world waits only for its time / when nature speaks / false reason ends / and what is volatile, descends’.
That’s where we are now. And I write it out in the middle of a deep heatwave, there are fires all over London: ‘when nature speaks, false reason ends.’
‘All Hail! The Time!’
That track was inspired by the Amiens Quaterfoil. ‘All Hail!’ was recorded in 1982.
What a volatile year, 1982. Forty years ago. I have just turned fifty.
THE OBJECT is coming for us all, isn’t it?
So yes, we are in another time. But Metamodernism thus far is not adequate to describe it.
But when the apocalyptic events Art Bears sing about arrive – or more accurately Dagmar Krause sings about – will ‘false reason end’? Or will false reason deepen? It seems to be deepening to me, as democracies crash all around the world. Much of Metamodernism appears, to me, as false reason too.
Having worked in Manchester universities, I saw clearly that the ambience was very Metamodern. Sociologically, I mean. There’s a particular atmosphere, I won’t call it an intellectual atmosphere, in all of the Manchester arts and humanities schools. I’ve worked in two out of three of them, as a lecturer.
There is a parallel obsessive interest in Modernism I see in Manchester which is intrinsically Postmodern. The Manchester Modernist Society fetishises Modernism in the same way that older societies fetishised the Victorian, saving its buildings and secretly desiring a largely generated set of values which they uncritically project on to the historical material from a safe place, well outside of its time.
The rejection of Postmodernism in these places could also be described as Postmodern, an elective decision that ignores the state of wider reality as it heads for its own constructed cultural bubble. This is how weird Postmodernism is. It is a strange cultural gravity well. You cannot simply wish yourself out of it. I wish we all could, I really do.
But I walked around a brand spanking new Frank Gehry building in Arles last week, which is Capital P Postmodern from its toes to its head, complete with playful Carsten Höller slides, and a set of purposeless automated entrances in the garden, the aesthetic straight from mall and office culture. It is Sensation 2022. So you see, I can’t climb out either.
And I wasn’t that keen on the Gehry building. It stank of money and amnesia. So let me be clear as I can be, that I’m not pro-Pomo. It didn’t hurt me either though, I had a good day.
Much of what I experience in and around Manchester I file in my head under the term ‘neo-Modernism’. It isn’t quite what most Metamodernist academics are saying, but it is absolutely historically parallel. And it shares key qualities. Metamodernism’s whole value is as a wish for a new and better world. I feel that too. It might not be a bad function – as long as its fantasies can become self-fulfilling – but people need to come clean about its true function and drop the name and the sciencey pretentions. I might even get on board.
But all of these cults – and Metamodernism is one of them – practice exceptionalism. What is interesting about the fetish of, for instance, Brutalism in architecture, is that the subject is retro, but very often excused from bearing that title by its champions. The same can be said about the rash of ‘hauntological’ work which fetishises supposedly ‘uncanny’ popular culture from the mid-20th c. The scholars’ ‘methods’ – for as much as they can be said to use them at all – are also postmodern. Feely-research, invoking invented nostalgias. The New Hauntology also comes after a full scissor-cut between their work and what Derrida was originally saying, and a full reading of Derrida is often excused or misted-over. And the fetishes they have are always ‘resistant’ to bad politics – though it is never satisfactorily explained how – and ultimately resistant to the threat of fascism. The same problem exists even in the new flaneur, getting deliberately deranged to resist capital. Yeah, that’ll work.
People seem to have bleshed, which was Theodore Sturgeon’s word for gestalt group consciousness in his novel More Than Human. They have bleshed around modernism, post-WW2 concrete structures, the ‘wyrd’ rural, the occult, the gothic, electronic music, a warped and expanded situationism – including psychogeography – ‘place’ (as though anything happens outside one, even the digital sits on desert servers), ‘the uncanny’, ‘the sublime’, ruins, darkness, post-punk and being a particular kind of ‘leftist’, which usually boils down to Bennism plus posturing communist tropes.
Far from arriving every day in a place where knowledge has no horizon, we risk arriving in a claustrophobically walled cult temple. I was reading Gombrowicz again, who had a dig at Sartre, in 1969, who ‘naturally insists that every writer be engaged, that he belong to the left, and that he be subject to rigorous rules.’ (my italics).
They often present fetishes, with a flirtatious suggestion of access to other worlds, contingent realities. Of course, more people read that stuff than they do a dry but philosophically stable-ish paper. But it only takes a viewing at a few feet more distance to see plainly that much of it is sleight of hand. Or rather, it is the contemporary equivalent of weird non-conformist religious beliefs in the 18th century, during times of upheaval. It is a contemporary evangelism in universities – and in linked external spaces – also during a time of chaos. But this is a working description of conspiracy theory, too.
I see its purpose, but these fetishes are therefore magical in exactly the same way as an anthropological totem. And as magical as the enchanted landscape for middle class rural dwellers. But according to these evangelists, your Peaky Blinders version of nostalgia, over on the popular right, well this is simply Bad Politics, and not magical or resistant at all. This is how knowledge itself has been skewed by the new university. The Enlightenment is bracketed, again, it is essentially Postmodern, they pick their cultural fetishes to create a particular atmosphere. The thing which better describes all of it, including the leftist version, is post-truth populism, which is postmodernity gone viral, by which I mean infecting everything and becoming far more pernicious.
I probably need to start working in cities that aren’t Manchester. Many people here think something ugly is beautiful because they imagine that makes them edgy and punk rock, at exactly the moment punk rock is being recycled on the Disney Channel.
To be clear, some people are researching the subjects with a more solid epistemological grip, and I am interested in a lot of these topics as well, they excite me too. So this could be a case of people who are fans of something. Enthusiasts. But often – and not in every case – there is something else going on. The way some people take that excitement and then try to hustle it into a whole new kind of game for themselves, or turn it into a form of personal branding, is a symptom of the university as a new capitalist market space in which people outdo each other with novelty.
The German privatdozents were faced with a similar environment. Schopenhauer deliberately clashed his lecture times with Hegel’s, but of course his classes were dead and Hegel’s were rammed. Given the choice between the philosophy of suicide and spirited, lofty abstractions, what would you spend your money on? In Manchester more widely, people game the topics into strange micro-careers.
We could of course also call it a discourse, this collection of partly arbitrary obsessions. But again it is something more. Because the evangelists want these topics to go beyond being an interest, to become a belief, or a politics, and in doing so prove that belief is still possible, in a Postmodern world where Belief itself has been – and continues to be – fundamentally weakened. Bringing this into being also of course means the installation of Priests.
In the spirit of the nonsense, let me briefly invoke a cartoon version of Deleuze-Guattari and call all this the student excitement machine. It is plugged into the student recruitment machine and also the publishing and REF machine. This is plugged into the university development machine. Which is plugged into the halls of residence machine, which is plugged into the city property market machine, which is plugged into the business and tourism machine.
Here, we arrive inside the Manchester Museum of The New Order of Hacienda, which is not just a museum of the past, but of the present and of wait! He is with us! Brother, he walks among us today, because he is in us!
All of this, ultimately, is plugged into the sell property and land to dodgy regimes such as the Saudis machine. It is all Pauline, in that it is produced entirely through belief, and believers.
It is at all times hooked up to the individual Ego machines and the stay-in-the-building with the privileges machines.
When Achilles gets a new decorated shield in The Iliad. This is what is happening.
Note that the dream space at the bottom of this assemblage does not at any point connect to a communist machine at the top. It does not connect to a portal to another world, or isolate a supernatural material. No wonder it is an almost fully unconscious dreaming space. It cannot wake to what it is connected to, or the dream would end. At the same time this bleshed thought-cloud has also thrown Freud and the unconscious out, lest it wake to that reality too. It must remain, somehow, impossibly, post-rationally rational, as it holds forth.
When I was writing things for Open Democracy a research contact likened Manchester, as run by its Labour Council, to the last city of the White Russians during the revolution. He meant that Manchester was the last hardcore New Labour zone as central Labour swung left. This was 2017 of course. As it turned out, the swing left was only a twitch. Of course, this is England.
As I write, the Saudi land sell-off scandal is hitting global news, which is absolutely wonderful to see. If you want an example of university research in Manchester which is solid, challenges assumptions, is political, and causes actual change, then look to what Jon Silver is doing at… the University of Sheffield. But Labour central can’t even touch the story to make political capital from it. Not because they are Starmerite tosspots – although that can’t help – but because the sleaze was that of a Labour council, in Manchester.
Maybe things are changing. Sir Richard Leese left as the Saudi story got hotter. Burnham has made the buses public. But the green policy is backwards and the fundamentalism of the capitalist game plays on untouched. And there is no more fabulated and fantasised about figure in the country than Burnham. Again, another piece of writing, but the cliché of “Manchester” in scare quotes is key to this.
If, like me, you find that none of this weak magic works on you, you will feel that culture is an empty husk here, which seemingly refuses to scatter, no matter how hard the wind blows. Like Postmodernism itself, the cultural physics here is different.
But I also think this makes it a very Metamodern City, because all these fetishes are as arbitrary to the outsider as they are transparent and natural to the insider. Neo-modernism is a culture, but it is closer to a belief system than other cultures in Manchester, for instance the visual art or music scenes there, although these overlap, for instance ‘post-punk’ is a strong fetish which is hung with Metamodern garlands in the city. At the same time, people go into Primark and buy piles of band t-shirts because they are cool, rather than because they believe in a subculture, or even like the bands. Calling that ‘depthiness’ is not just weak, it is a category mistake. The great rump of this rotting world is bleakly pomo. I don’t like it either, but it is reality.
The attempt to bracket mainstream and innovative away from each other, or to map Postmodernism on to the mainstream, and Metamodernism onto the innovative, is also doomed to failure and Rowland’s book admits as much. Rowland is working through something interesting though, it is emerging… but…
Metamodernism allows its evangelists to bracket off the whiffy culture – from The One Show to posh weekend poetry volumes – and to laud their treasured stuff. At the same time, it allows them to see new evangelical signs in tiny details of The Fantastic Mr Fox, or the TV series Girls. I know because I do all of that too.
The only way this is different from postgraduate consumer patterns and practices is that they have positions in universities. They will do this for you, as experts of a new paradigm they are creating on your behalf. It is Pauline evangelism. It sees signs everywhere. But only selected signs.
Electing to ignore the dominant state of dark postmodernity in the world and to then focus on your happy place of so-called Metamodern fetishes is actually a very Postmodern thing to do: Metamodernism, then, unfortunately, is often still Postmodern. The decisions being made by The Metamodernists are subjective ones. The word ‘feeling’ gets used. The height of the evangelism seemed to run exactly parallel with the Cult of JC, as people appeared to experience Corbyn face pareidolia when presented with an unusually shaped vegetable.
The Cultural Corbynistes were trying to pre-fit a hegemony for some dream future Bennite state. Or rather, the intelligent ones were attempting this fully consciously, and with a full understanding of how the contingent reality may be very different. Others will just breathe in the curious atmosphere every day and then perspire it back out into the air as an odour which others inhale. I think this process and Metamodernism share some things.
When I wrote my initial notes on Metamodernism the term was beginning to stack up in the pay-to-play journals. Ideas spread, locally and globally, airborne. But as Nietzsche points out, this does not mean that the spreading ideas have a relationship with this thing called Truth.
It is all, I think, extended millenarianism. Again, I could actually conclude right here, but there is still much more to say. Because as always there is a real hard core around which the madness swirls: THE OBJECT is coming to us all.
Behold! The Ground!
So you see, my response is partly that of apocalyptic millenarianism. Always try to speak in the language of the culture at hand!
I align with the dislike of much mainstream culture. The state of Britain, the Disunited Queendom, is as produced by infantile mainstream culture as it is by selfish Toryism. My political enthusiasms are left-leaning and Marxist of a sort (definitely un-orthodox). So I love the use of Adorno in Rowland’s book, he is a figure in my pantheon too. But I refuse to tally how I would like to view myself with the condition of actually being it, as the evangelists do, because I am always by default a citizen in a consumer society. I cannot ‘do Marxism’ here, writing isn’t ever enough to really make me one, nor is trade union activity. I want a world in which the rhetoric and my activities in everyday life can match and this is not possible inside Dark Pomo. In any case, Cynicism is as important to me as the philosophers I have read.
In the university, certain subjects are routinely refused the status of legitimate knowledge – despite the repetitive pub bore statements about ‘all forms of knowledge being legitimate.’ Anger is one (Michael Keith has written eloquently on this) and humour is another. Full Cynicism is completely taboo because it is the sharpest knife in the kitchen. They are likely to try to close you down for all of these things, calling it un-professional. To profess used to mean you called out the bullshit whatever anyone else thought, now it means you swallow the bullshit whole to get out of the arguments altogether, and up the ladder.
I’ve seen a lot of comments about the return to conferences recently. I saw some indignation at having to return to a room with people who challenge your ideas. Conferences became so listless and polite across the early 2000s. I want a return to an open and public culture of agonism, because weak paradigms like Metamodernism exist because of the lack of challenge, and because many academics are now traders in novelty signifiers.
So my desires for a new world are always filtered, by Cynicism, by my realism towards my place in the world and culture. By my naturally negating psyche.
But the desired ends do not wipe out the means – I want a better world, I want something that is not this – it is just that the new means of Metamodernism are short of the task of delivering a better End than the one we all currently face. I realise that is to ask far too much of it, but I also think that it isn’t, thus far, a functioning interpretive paradigm. I too want to see a literary movement able to eclipse what Rowland calls mainstream poetry, but I sense within it a reactionary dash for the values of the past – even if that is a radical past – and in that I glimpse England’s state of permaconservatism. In its hidden, exceptionalist nostalgias, again, Metamodernism is actually quite Postmodern.
The body temperature of the contemporary humanities university in Britain is postmodern degrees celsius, ‘pomodemia’, including the part which proselytizes Metamodernism.
A movement of ‘Metamodernism’ in poetry, actually, simply doesn’t exist. The avant gardes have been going quietly at it all the way through the Postmodern period, tucked away, without the name. Metamodernism is also hugely revisionist. But often its ‘revisions’ are just delivering the same description under a new title. The weirdness may become more bitingly urgent and political in places, for instance in Alan Halsey & Kelvin Corcoran’s blisteringly brilliant Winterreisen (2019) but we can reach back to Tom Raworth and Linton Kwesi Johnson (the latter with a ‘mainstream’ Penguin) for equally strange resistances and burning politics in poetry.
If you have worked in a relatively efficient part of the civil service you will probably claim that Modernism never went away either.
Maybe if Britain achieves a socialist state of (by necessity) authoritarian but caring green socialism, we will be Metamodern. But by then, if it ever happens, the aesthetic will be extremely different. You can sense that net zero is not going to just happen magically by democratic means, can’t you? So on one hand some global democracies are already collapsing – signalling the end of all sorts of cultures – and on the other their continuation spells a different kind of end. If someone manages to pull off a new positive hegemony in England, it will only then take one person to draw a cock and balls on a government poster for its disintegration to begin.
You can see how even just trying to describe it is cracked with contradiction. This is language and philosophy. This is life. Metamodernism is a dreaming space, and it may be useful as that, but to make the state real we first need to wake up to the fact that now and into the immediate future is dangerous Postmodern Populism. It remains enthroned.
The positive thing which I remain left with each time I run through the material, is the urge to throw off Postmodernity. I don’t think it is entirely a natural historical waning, the end of Postmodernism, as the Metamodernists sometimes seem to suggest, I think it is an active desire, and one I share.
The urge to throw off pomo has antecedents, for instance Andrea Schleiker and Alex Farquharson claiming, in the name of British Art Show 6, that we are in ‘post-postmodern days.’ The art was tediously Postmodern, although Mark Titchner was in the show, who is great. My friend Robert Galeta once went to a talk by Richard Rogers who asked of Postmodernism, ‘how can you be after now?’ and so Galeta asks of the post-postmodernist claims, how can you be after-after-now?
Yet Nadine Fessler uses the term ‘post-postmodern’ as though it is sensible. Judged only on its name, ‘Metamodernism’ seems to be floating outside of modernity, but actually that was one explanation of pomo, as a strange parallel phenomenon to modernism.
More recently (2022) the Guardian ran an article on the architectural ‘shape of post-post-postmodernism’, with pictures, of solidly postmodern buildings. The arguments and evidence are as weak as the urge to escape our cultural conditions is strong. Metamodernism is only the failed post-postmodern escape plan, under a different codename.
In my 2019 paper I suggested that the left-academic rejection of Postmodernism was a kind of belief system. What is ‘innovative’ (and therefore Metamodern) in Rowland’s book is a far too cosy network of practitioners. This book is evangelical mist forming condensation inside the bubble of a professorial reservation. I might include, for instance, Amy McCauley or Sean Bonney. They are also ‘difficult’ and fundamentally of the early 21st century and its crises. There is something about Bonney’s work which cuts deep into Postmodernity, but sharp as it is, it can never reach through and change the state of western culture.
Knowledge itself is being bent out of shape by the new university-as-business. The work is secreted in a particular form there, in the new student farms, it is unconsciously edited. Once amnesia sets in, so does indulgence. The only potential critical voices are from students. These students rely on academic mercy for grades, and grades are a far bigger concern now than they were twenty years ago.
None of this has been good for academics, or for knowledge. The university-as-business is Postmodern, so it is perhaps not surprising that Metamodernism, being produced under those conditions, is in the shape it is in (ie an attempt to simultaneously work inside and resist the awful conditions under which it produces, and a dream of exit). Again, academics have also been through two years of online-only conferencing, and the thicker bubble may be produced by this, too.
We need to make new work through our bleak reality, through the End of Hope, not through our wishes. Because things have shifted for culture, just not like that.
I wonder if we might begin to sketch some things out now: Vladislav Surkov.
Surkov, for those who are unaware, helped to create the current atmosphere of untruth and unreality in Russia by backing – as a formal member of the state apparatus – multiple contradictory causes and groups in the east. The bottom line, the goal, the point, was not the backing of these groups, but a polity in which truth had been fundamentally weakened. In short, Weaponised Postmodernism. Surkov spent some time in the avant garde. So how might we deal with avant garde formalism which bends truth in the name of representations after Vladislav Surkov became one of the architects of Putinism? Very broadly, how does all of this impact literature? And art?
These are the questions I am interested in. Not whether someone in a living room can wring something close to a real emotion out of watching a TV programme. Or whether I care about weak poetry on the BBC. The kind of evangelism present across the left and in much of Metamodernism is a problem, because it completely mists up any possible clear view of what is coming. The End of Hope is a good thing. It is what we all need.
I have also been talking to Roger Burrows about another End of Hope, about Nick Land and the Dark Enlightenment, or NRx. One of the main figures of the NRx, Curtis Yarvin, collects ‘strains of individualist libertarianism’ from historical literature which:
‘…in the end, concludes that Prussian cameralism, in which a state is a business that owns a country, offers the most viable model for a future 21st-century politics. Originally called “neocameralism”, his position soon became known as “neoreactionary” philosophy (NRx) and then, once passed through Land’s nihilist Deleuzian filter, as The Dark Enlightenment.’
Burrows explains that ‘Yarvin’s vision’ is rooted ‘in his mathematical precociousness’ and his ‘immersion in Silicon Valley techno-libertarian culture.’ NRx is Postmodern fragmentation pushed to the nth. Deleuze as nihilism can be nothing other than Postmodern, as Deleuze was a life-affirming philosopher, and NRx is markedly fascist.
These things are not marginal, Dominic Cummings planted NRx seeds when in government and Rishi Sunak dreams of ‘Charter Cities’, neo-Singapores or Dark Enlightenment Exit.
Recently, Sam Bankman-Fried was reportedly giving away millions of dollars from a crypto trading practice he openly described as largely a ponzi scheme. You can then go anywhere in the city to hear the crypto bros spouting anti-Soros rightwing dark-Postmodernist theories. My local leisure centre is rife with it. Recently one was explaining to another how 5G shuts down brain processing speed, but how cannabis water of some sort can mitigate the effects. Now try claiming that everyday environments of untruth can only be found in China, Russia or North Korea. At the very least add Manchester, now quite literally madchester. Incredulity towards the meta-narrative, here, is like deep man.
Is this the city after the Postmodern one in which everything matters, and in which things are true? I suspect social class is a big part of what is happening. Both in the Metamodernists (middle, or getting there) and the everyday Postmodern cultural continuity (lower). Perhaps, to paraphrase Julie Burchill – was it Burchill? – it is no longer socialism for the middle class, capitalism for the working, but Metamodernism for the arty middle classes and Postmodernism for the lower. I am joking with this last point. We are all in the shit, it is just that some people create better bubbles for themselves. In some ways I wish I could do this too, but I am pathologically unable.
But that is my purpose. I send dispatches from outside the bubble. Someone said to me recently, about a piece of my writing, ‘in the nineties we used to say “don’t go there” and you always go there.’ He was right and this is one of my core purposes.
I go further and say it should probably be yours. One of our first imperatives should be to locate and clarify that persistent, nagging thing, which seems unsayable, and then say it. And in an essay form like this one – the sort that Brian Dillon urges – we should say it even if it turns out to be wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I just wish I were.
In Rowland’s book on Metamodernism and Poetry there are calls for a return to ‘exasperating art’, but after Vladislav Surkov is this sensible? There are also calls for the ‘clown’s rule’ in poetry, but really?! At this point in history? As I write, Boris Johnson – a man who always affirmed what he denied and denied what he affirmed – has just left the building, and not, at the same time, which is very Postmodern indeed. It doesn’t matter that this point is made via the work of Geraldine Monk, who I absolutely love. The advocacy is at least questionable at this point in history.
And I say this as someone who has produced exasperating texts and then delivered them like a fool. I am also just waking up, I’m not trying to claim that I’m very far ahead. When I wrote my pamphlet E is for Enlightenment I was siding with the poets. Now I am not sure. Or rather, I am sure that deliberate delerium now favours The Right.
Surkov invented the contemporary environment of untruth in Russia, which is still the default landscape of meaning there. Surkov is an eastern parallel to Land and Yarvin, I think. Russian citizens babble about the west and NATO fascism – as do British leftists who have been tankied – and the populists in the west babble about Soros and hidden cabals. They mirror one another, and in the west this phenomena isn’t just limited to the dusty, lost-looking people who suddenly started turning up at English war memorials. Just as I was talking to Burrows, completely by accident, I started talking to someone who worked in an art school, who professed to being a ‘psychedelic anarchist’. Suddenly, he told me he thought that Nick Land was great.
I wrote an essay for a little publication just over ten years ago, called Worker’s Playtime. It was written in a moment of crisis for Bradford School of Art. In it I said ‘The Tories know that the arts have been coloured pink for generations, but there is nothing natural or inevitable about this, it can and possibly will disappear.’ It felt as though this art school ‘psychedelic anarchist’ strolled up to tell me that what I predicted then has now finally happened. It felt like he was placed there by this massive cosmic joke I inhabit (this feeling hits me regularly). At the same time, many of the left-evangelists still in the building are so intellectually hobbled by their own posh academic cred they are functionally redundant. What I didn’t explain back then – because I didn’t expect it – was the extent to which ‘pink’ would be the thing which turned. By which I mean counterculture utopianism shifting sharply rightwards.
This supposed ‘psychedelic anarchist’ then claimed to be extremely excited by ‘seasteading’, a concept Burrows et al view, I think completely correctly, as the neoliberal politics of exit with a high potential for American-style revanchist fascism. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies book is important (2017) but I need to expand on that elsewhere. For now let us just be clear that all of these people have been put into a spell by The Agents of Chaos. Surely this we can agree on, no?
But maybe not, because at the same time, some academics are still myopically presenting an entirely generative left-utopianism and making it the whole world for themselves. This is nothing but the necessary bubble-thinking for their psychic survival. That they do some archival research, before selecting the parts which conform to their view of the world, does not validate the work, it does the opposite, because in the archive, right under their nose – and more importantly out in everyday life – lies its complete negation. I think the same about Metamodernism so far. I also made the point that the left can be post-truth too, in an article for Open Democracy in 2017.
Students are encouraged to unpick discourses – find the toxic ideology in ‘the culture’ – but the ideological assemblages advocating this right in front of them remain out of sight. Hidden in plain sight.
Strictly speaking Metamodernism has nothing to do with Corbynism, but at the same time I see its bubbling-up was closely parallel, a kind of precursor, in the everyday lives of a continually-morphing middle class: Metamodernism and its related structures of feeling are the symptoms of those people trying to re-make culture with their name on it. Again, there is nothing new about that.
Perhaps the left evangelicals should have the university and arts spaces? And then let the dialectic play. After all, the rest of England seems occupied unopposed, by a sickening mainstream Toryism. But after January 2022 what was an itching scepticism has turned into a distrust. The horizon should not be so slyly framed or pre-described when there are those on the left who are so hobbled they can no longer speak against Russia because (essentially) it used to be communist. Not everyone fits this description, of course, but the leftist cultural-critical programme has collapsed for me because of it.
Like I said, I think all of this is extended millenarianism, and that THE OBJECT is coming, like a waterfall, descending from a cloud.
But then does false reason end? Or does false reason intensify?
Srećko Horvat, in his book After the Apocalypse (2021) seems to think that it might intensify.
What is being missed by Metamodernism, and why We are Still Pomo, is the fact that any notion of universals in literature are weakened by the global conditions I began to describe above. Literature itself has shrunk into a kind of model village in our contemporary historical circumstances. ‘Literature’ is not necessarily fragmented, but infinitely weakened by the strategized counter-information at scale of the Surkov school. It is shrunk by Nick Land. It becomes a trinket case in a dusty part of a city. It doesn’t matter if rich middle classes still consume it. It doesn’t matter if academics invent new paradigms for it, unable to see that they are over the cliff edge, but still running. The objects in the case are then further wizened by the stratospherically increased precariousness of human life on the planet: climate; nuclear war; bioweapons.
I read Charlie Gere’s book World’s End recently. He reminded me again of the distinction Jeff Nuttall made between VE Day and VJ Day. VE day belongs, still, to the old time order that goes back to the ancients, and universal literature belongs to it: literature that broadcasts through walls and time, even before wi-fi, because it is remade constantly in new editions. Although it is re-contextualised, it always has power in every new context. But I think we would be very glib to simply assume this tradition’s power to safeguard values and the continuation of humanity is still with us, as a universal backstop.
Before The Bomb, Nuttall was saying, there may be trouble, and death at scale, but humans would go on. But Nuttall thought that this state of being ended. After The Bomb, and now I would add climate, and AI and bioweapons, our place is precarious forever. We cannot go back through a door into the old world, that door closed in 1945. Even if ‘we’ were on Mars – Mars is merely the imaginary exit trajectory of the Billionaire class – we would still be precarious. Because living on Mars presents an environment as extreme as that which earth now does. It is not the same environment. But both are environments of sheer risk, without constant strategizing and technologizing to mitigate that risk.
Mars always was that, earth has only become so recently, in a way that is universally perilous, hazardous to everyone, and signalling the end of us all: but nobody is spared by it being a recent problem. Compared to all of this, the proselityzers of ‘the new depthiness’, if there are any left by now, are beyond glib. Now, with all this… by which I mean literally the last days, the canon is shrunk, not broken-up. The real end of history is coming, not just the capitalist amnesia bubble Fukuyama described. And so I despise Surkov and Land, but they are symptoms of a wider set of historical turns.
Because if you have time as a continuum, which up to a very specific point is possible, you have literature as a potentially infinite good, or an infinite power. But I think this was broken in 1945. And it becomes even more shrunk at times of apocalyptic intensity, such as now. It shrivels further. Surkovism and Landism are signs of the warped reality that grips in these new circumstances. It is as potent and negatively transformative as a new form of cultural physics. It is not Metamodern, a Grand Narrative, or a return to Truth.
I actually suggested to Patrick Keiller that his work was Modernist within Postmodernism at the start of an interview for Street Signs in 2003. He thought his work was Postmodern. Even if I concede for a moment that there are some works and projects we might call ‘metamodern’, Keiller’s films, or Forensic Architecture, the fact of their tiny existence is bobbing precariously on a sea of madness, in a world reaching many tipping points.
The larger part of the world’s meaning has gone over the edge into a state of dark Postmodernism. In Russia nobody has a clue what is real any more. If you watch particular TV channels in America, you are in another land. All of this was part of contemporary postmodern culture when Baudrillard was describing it. In Britain, there is an elephant shaped room the Tribune editors do their work in. Not a single story on Ukraine for months, after emerging at the start of the war with a Tankie line, before retreating. They had been played by Russia. Again I wrote an article on this in Open Democracy back in 2017 and now I feel completely vindicated by what subsequently happened.
The humanities university and the politics it largely aligns itself with, perhaps symbolically represented by the Tribune, has also shrunk and is now in the trinket case along with its own literature. Is this what theory – that nebulous zone – has to offer us in our time?
We cannot reverse our historical situation and we cannot halt it either. Benjamin was interested in a moment from Joshua in which a judge cries out for time to be stilled. But he does this so that a battle can be won. Benjamin I think takes this and asks for time to freeze so the slaughter can be stopped. This becomes the dialectical image and the far too commonly cited Angel of History.
We have been very lucky with our breaks in fighting that can save the day thus far and the logic of mathematical risk determines that at some point this luck will break. I am thinking about this after returning to Pierre Missac’s (1995) book on Benjamin and the section in which he writes about Saturnalia.
Of course I’m also thinking about Russia in Ukraine and the heightened nuclear tension. The subversive character of avant garde saturnalia ends, in our time, in Vladislav Surkov’s manipulation and subsequent anullment of meaning in the service of Putin, or in the Qanon Shaman at the Capitol. Or Nick Land desiring nothing but fragmentation, and fragmentation machines, and here comes Web 3.0, and I can hear the conspiracy bros in the sauna talking about their beloved crypto (perhaps maybe less now it is crashing). Surkov went from avant garde art to (now former) Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation.
All strategies have to be facing this now. How might we deal with avant garde formalism after Vladislav Surkov became one of the architects of Putinism? Is it appropriate to use deliberately disorienting and disinformative strategies in art after Surkov? Perhaps it is completely inappropriate. Perhaps a literature of empirical accuracy is now the only thing that can be radical (hence Forensic Architecture). At which point I begin to reconsider modernism and Metamodernism, but then all the usual objections about ‘realism’ flood back in to drown this statement. I have started working on the old questions of realism in literature again, and of course Stalinism and socialist realism figure in the history of the debates, particularly in Lukacs. But that is another piece of writing.
Back in 2018, when I saw that they were ditching Poststructuralism in favour of a fake ‘neosolid’ I sided strongly with the poets. But when Rowland asks if poetry’s function should now be ‘to exasperate rather than to assuage?’ (p.134) I can only view it through this new landscape of default untruth. Rowland means well, and I have been aligned to strategic derangement in art for a long time. But the tricksters, the Lokis, are in the Tory Party. They are not merrily dancing us into a new state of being from outside, with limited-run pamphlets and £100 monographs.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. I am sceptical of the potency of art or literature to puncture anyway. All art could melt into the world of securitised asset markets and essentially fascist power, it is possible. AI could do this, eventually, if we get there. After VJ day time itself as linear and potentially limitless – if one thinks in terms of generations – has been cracked, if not totally shattered. This is the bomb crater Adorno works in after WW2. So I am very keen on Rowland’s work with Adorno. But literature has been shrunk in the face of that. Compressed. Like stuff at the edge of a black hole before it shoots in. Actually we’re not there yet, but we are nearly there, we are not far off, historically.
And we are all shaken and shrunk by this.
What I am trying to get at here is what is totally new in our situation: I don’t agree with Derrida when he flattens the death of a treasured individual and the death of millions under a nuclear detonation. We had reached the point at which we had culturally digested the individual death, and literature played a big part in that digestion. That old logic was wonderful, it was the same logic that Nuttall says we lost, and I pine for it: It went something like this; some of us may die horribly, but we go on, and we remember through writing, and that writing is beautiful. It was like that for thousands of years. But all of that is now over.
And my heart is broken.
I side with Hobbes’ diagnosis, but not his cure: Man (sic) in a state of nature is not good; but totalitarian responses to that state of nature breed further evils. This tension informs most of my thinking.
I have been reading George W.S. Trow’s Context of No Context, which I picked up in a book swap. It’s a bit ‘Matthew Arnold USA’, but some of the sections are like knives, slicing all the pretentiousness and nonsense away. A reviewer of the book, on the back, John Irving, describes how it skewers our culture’s ‘terminal silliness.’ It is a great two-word insult, ‘terminal silliness’, and true. A clownlike Boris Johnson might become an avatar for this morbid cultural goofiness, which is everywhere now.
But we need to be really clear about the state of the country after English populism. Clear about Johnson as a gaslighter for personal gain, or an actual saboteur. This is very serious. The island has been sleeping and let its security drop almost completely. MI6 woke up, and I woke up to how deluded certain key figures in the left were, particularly Seumas Milne, after the Salisbury Poisonings. None of that is funny. Johnson and the neoliberal Russia-UK greed ambassadors are all deeply implicated in this. At the same time, a new kind of Hobbesianism I am not signed up for is right at the surface of UK governance. Its brutality towards migrants and the poor is as barely concealed as its cavalier attitude to its own morality. The slick media lie surface that covers it all is Postmodern. History isn’t a toy, but if you start to claim this as a ‘Grand Narrative’ I will laugh at you. These are the scattered shards of a smashed present.
Look through the splinter in your eye.
There is, then, essentially a new kind of Postmodern Sophistry in the world. Dark Pomo. For an avatar of this spirit, we might look to a figure such as Dominic Cummings who was, and is, the new Gorgias. His form of Sophistry is the new condition for UK political life. A Machiavellian Ends before Means man, a Bad Enlightenment Guru using Cal Tech instrumentalism frosted with liberal icing. I approve of none of it, but it is pomo. None of it is going away.
You could call ‘The New Cold War’ a Grand Narrative – inauguration 2022 – but how does that go down with depthiness and inscrutable play in art? And as I have outlined, its Weaponised Undeep Untruth excludes it from ‘the Metamodern’.
In any case, Grand Narratives never really left. In the Postmodern period the West has Consumerism, Neoliberalism and Casino Capitalism. I never bought this part of Postmodern theory actually. Who says that the rise of Oligarchic Russia was not a Gand Narrative? I can see how it was Postmodern too, involving the collapse of a central state, but…
Who says the rise of China as a manufacturing power was not a Grand Narrative? But can you call Post-truth Populism a Grand Narrative when it is so Postmodern in character? You see none of it really hangs together. We could all do with starting again from scratch.
We will have to do that anyway. Culture is going to change, inevitably, because the world is about to enter a period of relentless crisis shocks:
Nature descends! False reason ends!
Or does it? Maybe one of the biggest fights we now have is against false reason, because it is going to intensify.
Robert Reich said something in a substack post recently, that Civilization is the opposite of the ‘state of nature’:
‘A civil society doesn’t allow the strong to brutalize the weak. Our job — the responsibility of all who seek a decent society — is to move as far from a state of nature as possible.’
But this logic is also utterly cracked now. The dirty secret of Marx is a bare advocacy for Man to conquer Nature totally. That war isn’t over, we may just be shifting from the offensive to the defensive. We might also legitimately call all of that a new Grand Narrative, but it already has a name and it is the Anthropocene. The logic that suggests man-made enclosures can be built better and forever, is gone. The logic that says culture can be passed on via books and so the individual death is mitigated. That’s in the past.
In fact there’s a whole romantic tendency towards the (actual) death of the writer, Lorca, for instance. But Lorca was late, he was murdered less than a decade shy of the Bomb. The shift that comes with the possible end of human culture has not been taken in yet. It is bigger than the death of God which anticipated and maybe even prepared for that shift. Because god for me is not God, god is just one aspect of meaning-within-culture – god is words – and now we face the end of the whole culture. Meaning itself will die with that culture. This is when God really dies. For practical purposes only, Nietzsche really wrote of the Death of Belief.
Maybe when Lorca died a deeper romanticism was still possible. A tiny moment after, in the bigger context of time, it was not. Our epoch is still in romanticism – in the sense of the development of the individual – but the form it takes is Postmodern, at which point whether you drop the term ‘romantic’ or not is a moot point.
These are the lineages that I think are important. Is it right to ask us to hold on to old assumptions about potentially infinite generational time and a deathless revolutionary spirit in the face of all of this? I don’t think it is wrong, but I think it is pompous.
Even if it still exists, you won’t find it in all those fetishes you have irrationally accumulated.
I think there is a massive lag between the world-historical and the cultural-theoretical. In all of this, Metamodernism presents snail trails.
Actually I am convinced that there is already an answer to the conundrum about the poets, about fusing deliberate untruth – or rather extreme representational strategies – with a fuller sort of enlightenment, and that it exists in Adorno, and Horkheimer.
Adorno was convinced that philosophy could no longer halt the irrational. I agree, but the attempt can’t be just be thrown away and so I also think there is another solution hiding in plain sight, to be achieved by swapping evangelistic, positivistic, affirmating Metamodernism, with cynical negation, and encouraging people who write like this, with all of the antinomies present and explored. The atmosphere of contemporary culture though, and not just university culture, has made this verboten. It is a dream space inside a deepening crisis. And I am refusing to observe the rigorous rules.
I noticed a philanthropical project, a big one, the other day. They are giving away millions of dollars. They ask for the usual things, writers and academics to fund, but they also list other priorities, for instance Bioweapon shelters.
I look it up again. Then I switch between news websites. A row of houses is blazing in Wennington. Twitter. Another video, cars drive down the familiar dual carriageway, but with A STREAM OF FIRE!
THE OBJECT IS COMING!
Unlike the Iraq War, and even 9-11, which were declared as ‘Postmodern information events’, the new crisis breakouts are coming to a town near you, very soon. False reason really does end, right at the point of no going back.
When the third city is erased by a nuclear weapon – we are merely waiting for this – will false reason end before then, or will it intensify? And if a Metamodernist answers both/either, do they deserve their name, and what is their use?
Forget the lazy buzzwords for new paradigms. This is where we are at: there is no creative impulse that Power cannot finally manipulate, duplicate or destroy. That Nature cannot end and erase. Discuss. Write.
– Steve Hanson
Some books etc
Art Bears (1982) ‘All Hail!’ originally on a Ralph Records flexidisc, but collected in The Art Box (ReR Records).
Burrows (2018) On Neoreaction https://thesociologicalreview.org/collections/undisciplining/on-neoreaction/ [accessed July 19 2022]
Burrows, Smith (2021) ‘Software, Sovereignty and the Post-Neoliberal Politics of Exit’ in Theory, Culture & Society (38, 6). London: Sage.
Gere, Charlie (2022) World’s End. London: Goldsmiths Press/MIT.
Gombrowicz (1969) A Guide To Philosophy In Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes. Yale University Press.
Hanson (2004) Interview with Patrick Keiller in Street Signs via: https://greyskyredcity.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/street-signs.pdf [accessed July 21 2022]
Hanson (2010) ‘Language, Dissent and the Classed Art School’, in Worker’s Playtime. Bradford, Hibrida.
Hanson (2018) ‘The New Left Can Be Post Truth Too’ in Open Democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/new-left-can-be-post-truth-too/ [accessed July 19 2022]
Hanson (2019) ‘The real but greatly exaggerated death of Postmodernism’ in Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Volume 17, Number 2 http://www.jceps.com/archives/6458 [accessed July 19 2022]
Hanson (2022) Last Days of Pompeii, Vol.1. Sheffield: Erratum Press.
Missac (1995) Walter Benjamin’s Passages. New York: MIT. Missac’s book on Benjamin is the best book on Benjamin by far.
Moore, Rowan (2022) ‘Red House, Dorset: the shape of post-post-postmodernism?’, in the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/jan/16/red-house-dorset-the-shape-of-post-post-postmodernism [accessed July 19 2022]
Nagle, Angela (2017) Kill All Normies. London: Zero (Jesus).
Nuttall (1969) Bomb Culture. London: Paladin. Also see Nuttall’s Wake on CD.
Rowland (2022) Metamodernism and Contemporary Poetry. Cambridge University Press.
Vermeulen, T. (2015) ‘The New “Depthiness”’ E-flux Journal #61.
Trow, George W.S. (1997) Within the Context of No Context. Atlantic Monthly Press.
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This will be out in expanded form as a book soon, with Dr Brian Baker, University of Lancaster.