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The Metamodernist Manifesto: After Postmodernism (Part II)

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{Below is Part II of the second in a series of articles exploring the basic principles of a sphere of thought within metamodernism, "transcendent metamodernism." Other spheres of thought under the general heading of this cultural paradigm include The New Sincerity, metamodern dada, "oscillatory" metamodernism, and a neo-Marxist metamodernism invested in discussions of how late capitalism produced the end of postmodernism's hegemony. These other spheres are dealt with tangentially here. The first entry in the series can be found at this link, and Part I of the article below can be found at this link.}

All of the foregoing has significant implications for distinguishing literary manifestations of postmodernism from those inscribed by metamodernism, and in particular the chief critical and creative methodology attributable to postmodernism, deconstruction, and the chief critical and creative methodology with which much metamodernism is concerned, transcendence.

What metamodernists mean when they speak of "transcendence" is not what the New Ageists mean; metamodernists do not, for instance, speak of a state of transcendence that is either a) permanent, or b) achievable through acts of spiritual devotion. "Transcendence" means, to the metamodern philosopher, only and ever what it also means to quantum physicists and philosophers: a differential metaphysical and logical system from the one we receive by mere virtue of being born and having up to five senses at our command.

Ironically, "transcendence" of this sort is also what many self-identified postmodern literary artists mean when they speak of (as Charles Bernstein most famously has) "non-absorptive texts." The non-absorptive text is one that cannot be satisfactorily internalized morally, intellectually, or emotionally by a reader. In the last half-century, non-absorptivity has become almost synonymous with the "experimental" and "avant-garde" in literature.

The question, for both postmodernist and metamodernist philosophers and artists, is why and how a text is non-absorptive. In a broad but not unwarranted generalization, the postmodern text is non-absorptive as a matter of syntax; the metamodern text is non-absorptive as a matter of phenomenology. Both breeds of text are (if we care to use these terms) "experimental" and "avant-garde" in their own very different ways, conjoined only by the general principle of non-absorptivity.

The reason postmodern literary artists habitually speak of immanence rather than transcendence, and think of themselves as being operationally disinclined to author acts of transcendence, is because, since the advent of Language writing, poststructuralist literary theory has spoken of immanence and transcendence only in terms of linguistic operations. The postmodern poet (using here the shorthand described above) wants to keep the reader "on the page" by denying the semantic (that is to say transparent and transcendent) qualities of individual words, phrases, and sentences. Paratactic linguistic operations, "The New Sentence," sound poetry, "flarf" -- all of these are born of a theory of non-absorptivity that focuses exclusively on language's counter-communicative infirmities and therefore what amateur semioticians call "immanent" text.

For the artist engaged in literary practices informed by postmodernism, then, a text is identifiably non-absorptive to the extent it explores the ways in which language is non-communicative, which is to say differentially functional from our workaday experience of oral and written communication. (Of course, a postmodernist par excellence might argue that, in fact, postmodern literature merely mimetically describes how language actually does operate, but anyone who's ever asked for driving directions using a John Cage language experiment rather than agreed-upon rules of grammar and syntax knows exactly the distinction being made here. Both forms of speech may well get -- or keep -- you lost, but the former might also get you struck in the nose.)

But to the artist engaged in a literary practice informed by metamodernist philosophy, a text is non-absorptive for quite a different reason: because it treats phenomenological reality (the reality of sensual perception) as differentially functional. If Language poetry says, "you cannot communicate freely," metamodernist literature says, broadly, "you cannot perceive freely." The result of this distinction is that non-absorptivity to the literary postmodernist means "immanence," and non-absorptivity to the literary metamodernist means "transcendence" of our phenomenological presuppositions. The principle in each case is the same -- the differential functionality of a construct commonly taken for granted -- but the terms used are different and, in some instances, will even superficially seem contradictory. (Note that differentially functional realities have been discussed among postmodernists before, as is explored in more detail below. Note also that whereas literary artists, due to the hegemony of Language writing and its successors, have been slow to incorporate dimensional transcendence into their art, the visual and material arts have never exhibited such reluctance; this is why metamodernist philosophies began manifesting forcefully in the visual and material arts approximately twenty years before their only very recent manifestation in the literary ones.)

In each of the two cases described above -- an artwork mediating postmodernism and an artwork mediating metamodernism -- non-absorptivity presents as the possibility of a briefly sublime (philosophically, not semantically transcendent) experience for the reader. This sublimity is produced by the simple fact that a reader or viewer or listener cannot cross the moral, intellectual, and/or emotional gaps that exist between her own phenomenological experience and the system of logic produced by the artwork at hand. In simpler terms, the artwork seamlessly juxtaposes principles and presumptions which are not so juxtaposed -- and cannot, with any amount of effort, be so juxtaposed -- in the mind of a particular consumer of the artwork, with the result being a transient awareness of the sublime.

If metamodernism is much more given, in this view, to moments of an identifiably Kantian sublimity -- an overawing of the senses that produces actual fear and wonder -- it is because it expands the dimensionality of the current dominant logic rather than, through deconstructive critical and creative practices, collapsing that dimensionality. It's for this reason that anyone who believes Guy Debord's postmodern theory of "the spectacle" is synonymous with metamodern transcendence is fundamentally misapprehending both: the former is a collapse of multiple dimensions of "reality" and "fiction" into a singularity ("spectacle"), while the latter is the expansion of four-dimensionality (phenomenological experience) into the fifth- and sixth-dimensionality produced by intertextuality and, more grandly, interexistentiality -- an ongoing dialogue between discrete space-time continua.

{Part III of this entry in the series is forthcoming shortly. When published it will be available at this link.}

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize. Author of the Indiewire column "Metamericana," he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014, and whose subsequent editions will be published by Wesleyan University Press.