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The Metamodernist Manifesto: After Postmodernism (Part III)

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{Below is Part III of the second in a series of articles exploring a sphere of thought within metamodernism known as "transcendent metamodernism." Other spheres of thought within metamodernism 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. For the paragraphs preceding those below, please see the first and second parts of this article and the first article in the series.}

In this era of juxtaposed critical and creative spheres, it will be common, and understandable, for critics without recourse to an artistic practice in addition to their critical one -- which distinction isn't meant as a criticism; some critics merely have no artistic aspirations -- to worry that metamodern philosophy is sometimes performed by individuals self-describing simultaneously as artists and critics. Those who are "only" artists may harbor similar concerns, albeit for different reasons.

As we consider manifestations of our new critical-creative milieu, attempts may sometimes be made to relegate metamodernism to (a) a series of actionable compositional techniques (this being the claim those who are "only" artists will most often tar metamodernism with, the better to tame metamodern literary practices into coherence), or (b) a series of non-actionable abstractions difficult to differentiate from those of other cultural paradigms such as modernism and postmodernism (which relegation appeals most to those who are "only" critics, as it staves off metamodern artists' encroachment into their scholarly territory).

Both acts of tribalism and territorialism are equally unfortunate, as in fact it's in the nature of metamodernism (and all other cultural paradigms) to simultaneously manifest in discrete compositional techniques and attendant literary-critical topoi that inform such techniques and the concepts behind them.

Moreover, metamodern literary practices will, on occasion, produce identifiably "critical-creative" texts -- that is, texts with full functionality as both critical and creative uses of language. These are by no means "hoax" texts with no functionality in either sphere; in fact, their functionality is doubled rather than nullified. For instance, the essay entitled "The Metamodern Intervention," whose two parts are found here and here, is not, by any definition, a hoax; it's a well-researched article intentionally misattributed to a fictional author. A primary aim here is to complicate (and thereby interrogate) the importance we attach to speakers rather than content, not -- as would be an entirely opposite ambition -- to re-conceive of content as irrelevant. To a reader schooled in postmodernism, such a text may seem a "hoax" because of that philosophy's binary obsession with the authenticity/artifice spectrum specifically and dialectics generally; this obsession is endemic to postmodern theory, but entirely foreign to metamodernism's critical-creative literary practices.

If postmodern thought holds that all truth is relative, metamodernism holds that absolute truth exists -- but evolves differently for each person. Where postmodern thought deconstructs, metamodern thought reconstructs that which it acknowledges has previously been deconstructed. If postmodernism holds that either the author is dead or it doesn't matter whether the author lives or dies, metamodernism holds the author to be alive -- and moreover, that it matters very much that she be alive -- but concedes that (a) we don't know who she is, or (b) how many authors there are (or can be) per text. Misattribution is not an announcement that history has ended, but rather that, in the Internet Age, history has been reborn as democratically authored. It's a scary thought, but by no means synonymous with a devaluation of authored texts' truth-quotients.

Just so, a metamodern poem that juxtaposes existing text with original text using the compositional technique known as "remixing" cannot be read using the reductive authenticity/artifice spectrum (sometimes disguised as the distance/immersion spectrum) postmodernists favor -- that is, an analysis that asks merely "What does this author really believe or value?" and "What was the intent behind the composition, and in what aesthetic remove (or lack of remove) was the compositional process enjoined?" In fact, such juxtapositions are actually performances of the metamodern data-processing operations that all critics, artists, and other civilians are necessarily compelled to participate in in the Internet Age.

The absorptivity or pleasing nature of the aesthetic or even moral elements of metamodern texts is -- as an initial matter -- beside the point, though as is always the case with aesthetics, no text is "non-aesthetic" as opposed to merely "differentially admired." While portions of remixed texts may be received as "authentically" authorial speech or "authentically" borrowed speech by readers, such receptions originate with individual readers and are not endemic to the work itself. Metamodern literature does not participate in dialectical operations, only dialogic and collaborative ones, even as it recognizes that its postmodernistically cyncial readership is likely to employ dialectical reading habits. This is all for the good; if the absence of polar spectra in a literary artwork were not met with the presence of polar spectra in readers' critical technologies, the force and amplitude of any resulting sublimities would be dampened.

So, having touched upon them anecdotally, what do metamodern literary practices, more broadly, look like in real-time?

Of course, no one essay -- no hundred essays -- could hope to circumscribe the manifestations of a cultural paradigm every bit as vast in its reach as modernism or postmodernism. But one feature often present in such work is, as already intimated, the following: the absence of a dialectic in the artwork itself that is ex ante ingrained in both its author and consumer.

For instance, living as we all have through the Age of Irony -- think the 1990s and early 2000s -- we tend to consume all artworks, however semiconsciously, in part through a resolution of the question of sincerity. We ask, "Is this work being ironic?" Or we might seek to historicize the work's author: "Is this author writing from a position of presumed knowledge -- a sort of contextualized privilege -- or out of a fey naivety?" The key here is that the metamodern artwork itself (as phenomenological object) often has no interest in these polar spectra.

To be clear, this lack of interest in received dialectics is not due to any targeted attempt to frustrate consumers' (i.e. readers', viewers', listeners') interpretations. Rather, it is that, as Mas'ud Zavarzadeh wrote in coining the term "metamodernism" in 1975, in speaking of metamodern literature we speak of works of art with "zero degree of interpretation." Such works, while necessarily (unlike late-postmodernist "Conceptualist" works) intended to be read, do not aim, in the first instance, to be interpreted, only experienced. They do not aim to self-analyze, but rather to enact. Better said, these works permit their audience to first enjoy the sublimity of a non-reflexive text and (therefore) a temporarily interpretation-disabled reading act, and then, later, to engage in the acts of interpretation and commitment such transient sensations of sublimity enable for them.

{Part IV 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.