10/07/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The State of Risk in PoMo Verse (Part 2)


{NB: Part 1 of this essay can be found here.}

We can analogize the cyclical nature of the three eternal cultural paradigms (modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism) to a mountain climber climbing a mountain comprising a series of ledges. Because we're speaking metaphorically here, we can pretend, too, that each ledge is both reachable by extraordinary leaping and also constituent of an entirely new altitude -- one that momentarily disorients those who come to occupy it for the first time. We must also acknowledge that while the "progressive fallacy" is a reasonable fear when it comes to charting humankind's collective wisdom as beneficially cumulative, it's not unreasonable to suppose that the species does gradually gain in understanding and self-understanding -- a very different question from what we do with that understanding. In other words, the mountain in our metaphor is merely one of understanding, not applied intelligence.

In modernism, the climber leaps earnestly and optimistically (if with great difficulty) for the next ledge and pulls herself up to it; in postmodernism, the climber experiences the massive disorientation consequent upon a sudden shift in altitude; in metamodernism, the climber stabilizes her equilibrium by taking stock of her surroundings -- both what lies below her, directly beneath her feet, and yet well above her -- without, for the moment, synthesizing those surroundings.

Metamodernism is, in other words, an enactment of a space and time, or of many concurrent and juxtaposed spaces and times, and not a outlet for interpretation as such. This idea isn't a new one. Mas'ud Zavarzadeh first theorized "metamodernism" as a literature with "zero degree of interpretation" back in 1975, expounding upon the idea in a prominently published academic article ("The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives") that also uncannily presaged significant features of the Internet Age. Using another term developed by Zavarzadeh in the same article, "paramodernism," we can say, too, that the metamodern stage of cultural logic will in several years be followed by the paramodern stage, in which our imagined climber again leaps upward toward the mountain's peak. Paramodernism will be mindful (as how could it not be) of all previous leaps, disorientations, and stabilizations. In the age of paramodern verse we can now forecast, we will encounter unambiguously and generatively optimistic writings that nevertheless internalize the triumphs and degradations of all preceding iterations of humanity's perpetual cultural cycling. Paramodernism will be what we call "modernism" in the year 2025 -- a new term for an entirely new context, and therefore for the differential operation of existing (even, by that time, seemingly antiquated) theoretical and philosophical principles.

At present, though, the organic operations of cultural logic have been artificially frustrated, and our climber is somehow stuck on postmodernism -- literally dizzy with the contemplation and deconstruction of her own situation. She has not been permitted to stabilize herself through metamodern exertions, that is, through literary art that earnestly and hopefully processes intimate yet always-already degraded and confusing environmental data, as there is a fear (particularly among the poststructuralists who currently run not merely academia but also literary bohemia) that any act of stabilization must also be read as one of resignation and even capitulation to capitalism.

The metamodernist's response -- that journalistically, and in a concept-driven way, accounting for our circumstances is not an act of capitulation but of necessary preparation for subsequent commitments -- is a non-starter in these cliques. Though the political efficacy of commitments made through poststructuralism has been dubious since the Carter Administration, too many have staked too much time, energy, and cultural capital on its now-tired terms and metaphors (e.g., "rupture," "disruption," "decay," "slippage," "leakage," and "fragmentation") to now embrace a paradigm whose totemic metaphor is reconstruction and the earnest if self-avowedly doomed search for wholeness. So when metamodernists say that metamodernism can be the firm rhetorical foundation upon which our climber bases her next leap, it's hard to even hear that voice amongst the crowd of institutional persons (both within and without academia) shouting otherwise. And sometimes they don't just shout -- in some highly publicized instances they have slandered, ostacized, or even threatened under the guise of reasoned critique. There's that much at stake for these folks, both artistically and professionally, so in a sense even these extreme reactions are understandable and deeply human.

While it's not hard to sympathize with those who feel as though something they've staked themselves to is losing its longstanding cultural purchase, the downside, for poets at least, of paradigmatic paralysis -- that condition in which postmodernism is permitted to be hegemonic in the academy and in literary bohemia well past its natural shelf life -- is that academics, poet-critics, and poets alike are forced to seek signs of progress in ever smaller and smaller quantities. In fact, progress in the context of postmodernism is an oxymoron, as cumulative acts of deconstruction take us farther from, not closer to, actionable intelligence that makes living a richer and healthier experience. Most recently, as noted in Part 1 of this essay, Daniel Tiffany erected a tautology of sorts involving the literary components of fraudulence and social cost: instead of identifying the inverse relationship between the two (that is, the more fraudulent one's appropriation of contemporary capitalist culture in literary art, the less social cost there is in the appropriation, with the social cost remaining at or near zero so long as there is any fraudulence whatsoever), Tiffany proposed "cheap signaling" as poetry's new avant-garde (a poetics under which fraudulence and social cost are counter-factually treated as independent factors). The result seemed to be just one more effusion of late postmodernism, theorized -- if admirably and quite smartly -- by the same politically inert poststructuralist theories that have always animated that paradigm.

Metamodernism proposes, instead, a stock-taking that operates as antecedent to propulsive political commitments. The metamodernist does not merely "uncreatively" transcribe popular culture (as this would be ironic -- a distancing -- and therefore impermissibly non-zero as to fraudulence), but is willing to be caught in the public gaze wading earnestly and creatively into the midst of it, working with it as a valid and tactile artistic medium. (Consider, for instance, the recent decision by California-based literary magazine Rattle to actively seek out poetry that responds to current events in real time.) That is, the metamodernist treats popular culture as the malleable but also imposing jetstream she swims in, because it is. The result of this dangerous but also exhilarating treading of water in a vast middle space -- metaphorically, the Internet -- is a deprivileging or even a deauthorization of poststructuralist cynicism and deconstruction, which is why you won't hear a poststructuralist use the word "metamodernism" any more than you'll see a narcissist self-annihilate. You will, however, encounter poststructuralists attempting to apply their own first principles to work that is metamodern, and (predictably) finding metamodern literature wanting. Where's the distance from the subject that we expect? they will ask. Where's the dialectic? Where's the reflexivity? Where's the clear political agenda? Where's the safety of a stable and readable -- whether he's dead or alive almost makes no difference -- author?

Metamodernism cannot be apprehended by postmodernism because its agenda is antithetical to its paradigmatic predecessor, and because even when it uses compositional methods endemic to modernism or postmodernism is does so with an entirely different ambition. Postmodernism disorients, and has disoriented for decades with only minimal political gains to show for it (advanced realizations in postmodern literary theory, for instance, postdated the Civil Rights movement; today, the navel-gazing "pop-poststructuralism" we find on progressive blogs merely forestalls any commitment to mature, complex, in-the-trenches IRL activism). Metamodernism, by contrast, exists in the "as if" space first charted by Kant and lately discussed in detail by metamodernists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker; while we may be disoriented by occupying a different altitude than we did before the advent of the Internet, we must live "as if" additional leaps, disorientations, and stabilzations are possible -- because they are even when and where it seems they shouldn't be.

Calling metamodernism a temporarily stabilizing force is not the same thing as calling it simplistic. In fact, resolving the paradoxes of metamodernism -- for instance (but only as one small example), the idea that an earnest and mimetic accounting of the anxieties and self-determined identities of bourgeois living can, at this point in history, be radical -- requires something well beyond the simple dialectics of class struggle. It requires a trans-dimensional form of literary critique in which the unit of measure is not language but reality itself. That is, metamodernism puts entire realities into conversation, and implicitly interrogates creators rather than merely their creations or the spectacle of creation, requiring of us an entirely new set of terminologies, critical temperaments, and theorizations. And because it is new, and requires of readers and critics that which they do not already possess -- that which none of us presently possesses -- it is an absolute certainty it will be called inane or even dangerous by some very smart people. Postmodernism faced much the same seven decades ago, and was finally so successful in responding to those concerns that it still has purchase several decades after it should have begun to fade in our imaginations (indeed, to say that today's Ello users live under the same cultural paradigm as did their grandparents in the 1950s is farcical on its face, but de rigueur among the nation's intelligentsia). That we permit the illusion is a product of postmodernism's institutionalization, not its responsiveness to our times.

"Flarf" poetry was proto-metamodern to the extent that it exhibited certain traits of the metamodern paradigm (a tactile engagement with the hard-data detritus of popular culture, for instance) but it also maintained an ironic detachment that was distinctly postmodern. Flarf, which saw its heyday in the still relatively early days of the Internet, gave us all an opportunity to laugh about how doggone wild (and often silly) the Internet was; the current generation of teenagers can't appreciate this ironic remove because they've been raised on the Internet and therefore can't find and don't seek an academicized disengagement from it. Rather, they, like the metamoderns, wish to enact their current state through art in a way that seems at once devoutly middle-class (by way of re-instantiating the lived experience of any person with a dedicated and oft-used Internet connection) and also incredibly radical (inasmuch as it unites the praxes of life and art using highly conceptualized literary forms and methods, as the WWI-era historical avant-garde in Europe once aimed to do).

The requirement that literary movements push off from something -- a euphemism for a scholarly interest in poststructuralist dialectics -- is no longer operative, or at a minimum is now differentially operative, which is how and why metamodernism can be at once bourgeois and radical. We might say that metamodernism pushes off from postmodernism, but in fact it'd be more accurate to say that it evolved from it and therefore does not so much reject it as transcend it -- a very different metaphor for social change than the one a dialectics-oriented poststructuralist is likely to embrace. If forced to choose -- as the postmodern scholar will always consider herself compelled to do -- many committed poststructuralist critics will still opt for "either/or" rather than "both/and" and therefore call metamodern art bourgeois (as a self-protective measure) rather than both bourgeois and radical.

The politics of literary metamodernism presently resides in the same transitional and paradoxical state that the work itself does, and that its authors most certainly do. Rather than questioning the ethics of such a mimetic treatment of our present circumstances, of a paradigm that offers us the hope of gradual reconstruction amid the decades-long devastations of deconstruction, we do better to begin thinking about how we can find new languages for our new conversation of realities.