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The Metamodern Intervention

06/20/2014 09:23 am ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014

{NB: Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Eeuw: Cultuur in de Nederlanden in interdisciplinair perspectief; internal citations omitted.}

Aart Naaktgeboren [Catholic University of Utrecht], "The Metamodern Intervention" (2012).

One of the many utilities of postmodernity has been its tendency to remind us that subject position never does not matter. Yet one of the limitations this maxim has correspondingly if inadvertently imposed upon literary artists across all genres is a prohibition against any one such artist, within the confines of a single literary work, situating multiple and discrete subject positions in attitudes of dialogic exchange.

Should a novelist whose ethnic derivation is Croatian, and whose religious affiliations are Judeo-Christian, happen to pen a fictive account of the subjugation of Algerian Muslims during the French occupation of that nation prior to and during the 1950s, poststructuralist literary criticism permits us to interrogate that creative act and conclude that it is in some sense out-of-bounds. What access to the lived experience of a subjugated group could a literary artist not native to that group offer? It is a reasonable question, and one a postmodernist par excellence is likely to ask early on in any synthesis of such a work. But it is also a question whose underlying premise, that there is an essential core to group-individuated subjectivities whose exact contours only authors active in each group effectively access, is undergirded by an optimistic naivety with respect to "truth" we must necessarily term Modernist. We want, in this hypothetical literary-critical marriage of modernity and postmodernity, an actionable answer to our single query: Wherein lies the "Real" in any particularized encounter between persons, person-groups, or person-nations? That access of this sort to bona fide, capitalized Reality accrues substantial potential energy for its author, and presumably, therefore, constitutes substantial usable capital for members of any individuated group to which the author happens to belong, goes without saying. This, too, we must relate as a positive result of postmodernity: It allows the subaltern to speak in a way that Modernist presumptions of universality could not or simply did not.

As early as 1975, however, when University of Oregon professor Mas'ud Zavarzadeh published his "Apocalpytic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction" in The Journal of American Studies, we knew that such a reliable positioning of the Real was jeopardized by what Zavarzadeh called "the emerging realities of a technetronic [sic] culture." Zavarzadeh posited that these emerging realities constituted a "metamodern" condition in which authors' carefully appointed accounts of their own lived experience would necessarily "render all interpretations of 'reality' arbitrary and therefore simultaneously accurate and absurd." Unfiltered and without interlocutor, the premise advanced by Zavarzadeh was terrifying; if we cannot privilege or deprivilege individuated realities as exhibiting greater or less fidelity to the epistemology of real-time human action and interaction, how in any sense can fiction or any of the other literary arts continue to function? If, as Zavarzadeh envisioned decades before the ubiquity of the Internet and its democratized histories ensured it, literature written out of and into our present period moves so rapidly between the poles of fact and fiction -- or meaning and meaninglessness, reality and appearance, the known and the unknown -- that to privilege one pole over another is "ridiculously naive," why should any literary artist continue to author new permutations of language at all?

Yet the metamodernism of the 1970s was not, in fact, the same declaration of the end of all things that its predecessor, postmodernism, had often heralded itself to be. The implicit promise of Zavarzadeh's derivation was that the four-dimensionality of existing polar spectra -- that is, the figurative or literal height, width, depth, and temporal progression of tactile sociocultural phenomena like racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia -- could be expanded into a fifth dimension with two (or more) contiguous realities. In this view, identifying any encounter between persons or person-groups, such as in the French-Algerian conflict of the 1950s, as a locatable "reality" on a four-dimensional spectrum was held to be unnecessarily limiting. It partook of a belief in what Horner (2000) called "autonomous time-space" -- that point in time and space at which a given version of the Real has been so enculturated that it outlasts its origins and originators. Yet as Horner would also write, the present period is in fact one typified by the "metaModern" [sic], in which "transitional time-space" offers both educators and students of the literary arts alike an opportunity to put into conversation in a single time and space very different approaches to the Real. Coupling Zavarzadeh's "metamodern" with Horner's turn-of-the-century "metaModern" helped produce "metamodernism" as we now understand it, a cultural paradigm most vitally discussed by Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in their 2010 article, "Notes on Metamodernism."

The intervention of Vermuelen and van den Akker's metamodernism in the modernity, postmodernity, and post-postmodernity debates is easily reducible: oscillation between two discrete knowledge-perpetuation paradigms, Modernism and postmodernism, permits the transcendence of polar spectra native to either or both of these two paradigms. In less academic terms, when we encourage, within discrete literary works, a real-time dialogic exchange between realities, rather than merely, across multiple works by multiple authors, stop-action volleys between hardened subject positions, we allow a continuation of the collective work of modernity and postmodernity that would not otherwise be possible. In the language of quantum physics, we move from the fourth dimension of the Real to the fifth, an evolution we need not say we have chosen, but rather that the Internet -- "the emerging reality of a technetronic culture" Zavarzadeh alluded to in 1975 without distinctly foreseeing -- has forced upon us. The Internet permits such an infinitude of revisions to the Real, or non-hierarchical juxtapositions of divergent Realities, that, as Zavarzadeh anticipated, it has left derivation of a bona fide Real not just an unrealizable but indeed a farcically antiquated promise.

To reach escape velocity from the Internet Age's muddle of Realities, say the metamodernists, a propulsive, reconstructive force -- not merely a deconstructive one -- is needed. To speak of subject positions as essentialized finalities dooms discussion of subjectivity to ever smaller and smaller units of cultural relevance, by way of slicing the Real so finely it no longer corresponds with fidelity to any individuated human experience. Meanwhile, to speak of disparate subject positions as always-already, even within the individuated literary work, straining for ascendance via blindingly quick dialogic or contratextual exchanges permits discrete literary projects' consideration of human subjectivity to continue. To return to our hypothetical Croat-written narrative of Algerian Muslims, we could say that such a novel necessarily juxtaposes fragments of at least two plausible four-dimensional realities (that of a Christian Croat and an Algerian Muslim), and in staging such a five-dimensional dialogic exchange designates literary encounters with the Real for continuation in the realm (and in the languages) of metareality.

In the postmodern view, this valence of metamodernism diminishes the centrality--note here the re-mapping of postmodernity onto a Modernist lexicon of "center" and "periphery," necessitated by the prospective movement of literary artists and critics into the fifth dimension -- of any one subject position, most troubling, of course, in the instance of the subaltern. And from the position of the Dutch academy, populated as it is by postmodernists dedicated to deconstructive literary analysis, the metamodern view is undoubtedly a demotion of postmodern principles to ancillary status and utility. From the position of popular European culture, however -- a series of physical and virtual spaces in which the conversations that so enthuse our academics are only fitfully waged -- metamodernism offers an expansion of debates over subjectivity the likes of which contemporary literature has not previously seen.

These revelations and their reverberations are not limited to the Continent, of course. Consider, for instance, the position of the white male American poet Tony Hoagland, whose controversial 2008 poem "The Change," a narrative detailing the observation, by a white male, of a tennis match between a white and a black player, did not so much encourage other white males to participate in verse-bounded critical dialogues about race, but to discourage such participation by confirming that the postmodern literary-critical approaches endemic to both the academy and the contemporary literary arts in America position members of Hoagland's group not merely at the perimeter but entirely outside such a dialogue. Whatever one thinks of the particular intervention in critical race theory proposed by "The Change," let alone its value as a purely aesthetic object, its authorship by a white male necessitated from the academy in America and from Hoagland's domestic peers a response indicating that the work itself was, in the first instance, impermissible public speech. One imagines, as a response to that response, the retreat of other poets of Hoagland's gender and race from consideration of contentious questions such as the various permutations of racism in America.

Per Zavarzadeh, Horner, Vermeulen, and van den Akker, however, Hoagland's mistake was not to have written "The Change" at all, but to have written it out of an essentialized subjectivity that corresponded precisely to his own apparent group affiliation. In so doing, he not only risked propagating myths about the subjectivity of the white male that would (and did) encourage scorn from readers of that classification -- on the grounds that Hoagland's construction of the Real was in opposition to theirs -- but also offered critics and artists of a postmodern bent a readily deconstructed straw man to assail. If postmodernism essentializes the subject positions of members of discrete groups, it also, therefore, lends itself to the placement of any two such positions in a finally unhelpful dialectic with no evident promise of transcendence or even actionable intelligence. In other words, those affiliated with any essentialized subjectivity other than Hoagland's, even that of the differentiated white male, could interact with Hoagland's own essentialism merely by noting any difference between two discrete and therefore readily understood subject positions. The resultant binary system not only polarized readers of "The Change" but also the ensuing discussion of the poem itself: one was either "for" Hoagland's view of the Real or against it, and therefore "for" the poem or against it, and therefore "for" the authorship and publication and continued public availability of the poem or against it. Not only were no tertiary positions conceded, in fact no syntagmatic framework had been offered readers of "The Change" within which conversation could continue beyond online or real-time expressions of outrage and defensiveness.

In a hypothesized metamodern iteration of "The Change," we might expect an arrangement of the text to occupy several subjectivities at once -- for instance, either by Hoagland's misappropriation of authorship of the poem in the first instance, or by the author, under color of his own name, oscillating rapidly between poles and even polar spectra from line to line and conceit to conceit. Synthesis of such a work would necessarily be counterdialectical. While one may readily imagine the immediate response to a metamodern "Change" focusing, in alignment with deconstructive literary criticism, on binary resolution of the limiting questions of authorship and subject position -- in other words, who had "really" written the poem, and what that person "really" believed about the issues addressed therein -- we can imagine, too, a different path, one in which voluntarily metamodern readers meet a voluntarily metamodern text on its own terms. Such readings, and such resultant criticism both within and without the Dutch (or American) academy, would focus on how the juxtaposition of not just codes of speech but entire four-dimensional streams of reality creates a dialogic space wherein measurable progress can be made on issues of moment and impact. While individual authors may be more or less adept at plausibly ventriloquizing multiple realities at once, let alone putting these multiple streams of data into five-dimensional interaction, it is not hard to project metamodernism into a near future in which literary artists regularly stage this sort of dialogic framework with distinction.