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The Metamodernist Manifesto: The Rebirth of the Author

08/01/2014 02:31 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2014

For all its talk of the "death of the author" (Barthes) and the "iterability of the written mark" (Derrida), postmodernism still conceives of authorship as a physicalized gesture suspended in a single, discrete space-time continuum. Self-described "authors," in this view, habitually generate texts with intended recipients, and then invariably die -- just as their recipients, likewise, invariably die -- leaving behind decontextualized textual content whose message-value is entirely relative and therefore approaching nil.

Message-values generally, in postmodernism, are treated as entirely relative, which is not surprising given that both their authors and their audiences presumptively (or at least in the realms of theory) no longer exist. The result is a universe of always-already abandoned texts whose encoded message-values constitute unstable truth-quotients that cannot be stabilized by any means.

Nobody is made happy by any of this; indeed, its existential utility has increasingly proven to be a net negative, even as its formal coherence (once a strong suit) has begun to erode in the Internet Age.

The reason for this is not hard to imagine: Despite postmodernism's deferral or denial of any and all universals, the above theorems do depend upon at least one universal system of governance, that being deconstruction. For the postmodernist, then, there is indeed a global metaphysical structure, and it is simultaneously degenerative and (again) always-already degenerated. This is why the postmodernists so despise capitalism: it is, to them, the myth of generation reified as a framework for financial and spiritual domination. But the result of postmodernists continuing to cling to any universality at all, as they (however unacknowledged) most certainly do, is to merely overlay a new system of governance over billions of human subjects who, in any case, have to wake up in the morning, feed their kids, and sometimes play soccer in open spaces.

If postmodernists hate capitalism for the reason stated above, this last observation is why everyone hates postmodernists. Human beings want actionable intelligence, not a relativistic chaos whose governing principle of deconstruction is actually every bit as confining as were all the modernist principles it superseded.

The metamodernist negotiates between the reality of collapsing truth and the necessity of individual action by approaching truth as a locomotive and local metaphysicality with more than four dimensions but only one consequential (physical) author.

In metamodernism, authorship is conceived of as a metaphysical gesture whose medium is the language of reality, not the realities of language. The metamodern author, confronted with innumerable equally plausible texts all speaking to the same issue, recognizes (1) that there is no longer a single, discrete space-time continuum, inasmuch as language-streams are multiple, unstable, and individually create and inhabit their own space-time continua, and (2) that this circumstance places upon her the burden of rendering message-values differentially actionable if not superlatively plausible. The metamodern author, in other words, generates hypertext primarily if not exclusively via a wholly internalized process of deduction, winnowing down opposing message-values until only one or an interrelated group of actionable values remains. Then, sometimes, the metamodern author writes as a public function aimed at a general, non-discrete audience; she seeks, in these instances, not merely to determine which realities are for herself personally actionable, but to engage in acts of metaphysical authorship that are predicated equally upon content creation and externalized intertextual manipulation. At such times the metamodernist authors a locomotive, shifting space-time construct within which all constituent language streams-cum-continua are non-absorptive, rendering the whole text impossible to read via any paradigm but, reflexively, the metamodern.

In metamodernism, then, is the rebirth of both the author and of action, of both discernment and commitment.

Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker have likened the metamodernist to a ship's captain who, having wandered aimlessly between several equally hospitable-seeming islands, must finally chose a port or else be lost at sea (a sea we may imagine, here, as that postmodernist theory-murk in which so many willingly and in actuality drown). Certainly, to make the choice to dock one's vessel at one port over another is an act of captaincy, albeit one we cannot term "modernist" because it is informed, instead, by a belief in the plural viability of different islands that would have been foreign to most twentieth-century Moderns.

We can extend Vermeulen and van den Akker's metaphor by noting that while each island on our hypothetical captain's chart is, if she so desires, merely a waystation on the way to some other port, it is also a discrete reality that temporarily forecloses others. In the simplest terms, whenever the captain is on one island, she cannot be on another. While this extension of Vermeulen and van den Akker's metaphor takes it to its logical conclusion, it also raises the specter of a fly in the ointment: Must metamodernism, as did both postmodernism and modernism, double down on a single, discrete space-time continuum in which locationally the captain is (commensurately) ever and only a discrete physical subject?

In fact, the metamodern subject is physically discrete but metaphysically multiple. While there is substantial utility in emphasizing the metamodernist's drive to discern and inhabit individuated spaces, any analogy imagining her as a consequential actor must imagine, too, that she can co-exist simultaneously on several discrete islands. Our hypothetical metamodern sea captain can and does explore all the islands on her chart at once; she may move her physical person onto only one island at a time, but equally, given the speed of social action on the Internet, she can remove herself--even her physical self--to any other island instantly at any time. (This is one additional reason to doubt the continued hegemony of poststructuralism; in fetishizing the death of the physical author, it does far too little with the awe-inspiring, creation-enabled omnipresence of the metaphysical one.)

All this makes the metamodern author sound rather more like Captain Kirk than Captain Ahab, but in at least two respects the distinctions above are critical to any further consideration of metamodern authorship: they emphasize the transdimensionality of authorship in metamodernism, as well as the native sublimity of any message-value inscribed under its sign. The first of these two components of metamodern authorship is self-evident -- if reality is bounded by manmade language, contradictory language-streams definitionally create distinct streams of reality the metamodern author can move seamlessly between -- but the second bears further scrutiny.

To say that any metamodern message-value is paradigmatically suffused with a "native sublimity", rather than merely a manmade one that is slapdash and always-already degrading and degraded, is to liken the metamodern author to a godhead and metamodern texts to scripture -- as only in the deep recesses of space or the pages of religious texts do we find what some would term "native sublimity." And so one might expect a metamodernist scholar seeking to accurately conceive of authorship in metamodernism to, having approached such sacrosanct rhetorical territory, back away slowly.

The metamodernist, however, does not. Which suggests that the more appropriate analogy for metamodern authorship, rather than the captaincy of a three-dimensional object in a four-dimensional time-space, is as the act of a discrete subjective force whose operations are transdimensional, whose awareness contains and governs a multitude of contradictions, whose purview is as limitless as the human imagination, and whose creations overwhelm the consciousness by being non-absorptive morally, intellectually, and affectively.

This does not mean, of course, that all authors in the metamodern paradigm are actuated god-figures--though certain of the superficial similarities are striking--but rather that the felicities and infelicities of the Internet Age call upon each individual to author minor and major acts of transcendence whose metaphysical ambit is far more than that of either the modernist or postmodernist subject, if still substantially short of a presumptive deity the size and scope of whose domain outstrips the human imagination.

The metamodern author, in other words, is the master of the fifth and sixth dimensions--those in which discrete realities diverge and then dialogue--but continues to remain blind to the dimensions above these, let alone that space (the physics-inoperative, post-dimensional space into which, presumably, our ever-expanding universe is expanding) in which any deity, should one exist, necessarily resides.

At present, the literary postmodernists, having declared authorship dead--and unwilling to consider the transdimensionality of metaphysical authorship as a progressive subjective thrust--now tell us, too, that even creativity itself is dead, and that all writing indelibly of this Age is "uncreative." Those warm to the idea of the next hundred years of authorship comprising mere transcriptions of extant texts will be heartened to hear this; others will have cause to wonder how putting the human subject in command of ever greater and greater stockpiles of information requires of her less creativity (in fact none at all) rather than more, or how writing our own transdimensional realities in the face of this limitless data is somehow not an act of "writing" at all.

Postmodernism offers us "uncreative writing"; metamodernism offers "creative metawriting" whose content is equal parts ineluctably idiosyncratic (individuated by author) and indubitably locomotive (informed by extant but always-already evolving local or regional truth-quotients). This does not mean that the metamodern author never sits down to generate "original" text--as in fact this will comprise a substantial percentage of the metamodernist's writing practice--but rather that any such text invariably participates (not merely retroactively, but as a product of its conception, composition, editing, publication, marketing, reception, and synthesis) in a series metaphysical authorial spaces whose contours are not fully controlled by any one subject.

This in no way delimits the generative capacity of metamodern texts--indeed metamodernism, unlike postmodernism, treats both language and reality as predominantly generative rather than degenerative constructs. Instead, metamodern authorship re-inscribes the author as subservient in creative and generative capacity only to the one (if any) Creator whose blank page is larger is scope and receptivity than even the human subject can conceive.

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.