Missing Metamodernism

A Revisionist Account of the New Paradigm

Brent Cooper
Jun 1 · 16 min read
I found it!

*this article is Part 1/X, followed by Borgmannian Metamodernism (2/X), Gonzálezean Metamodernism (3/X), and Black Metamodernism (4/X). They include new discoveries in metamodern discourse and substantially retcon the history of the term, introduced here in Missing Metamodernism. This puts metamodernism into yet another frame of abstraction in consideration of it as an evolving paradigm. For a more cursory overview of metamodernism and links to my other writings on it, see “Beyond Metamodernism”.


Introduction

In this series I introduce new sources and concepts of metamodernism: Albert Borgmann (1992) and Justo L. González (1996) primarily. The third source, Moyo Okediji (1999), was at least already on wikipedia, so it is not unknown per se, but a proper theory is lacking so I explore the general concept of black metamodernism (Part 4). This article serves as a meta-discussion of the meaning and relevance of these findings between Part 2 and 3, where I explore the respective authors contributions. As you will see in Part 4, black metamodernism can in part build off of Gonzalez.

In short, for Borgmann, metamodernism is a new philosophy of technology, a constructive counterpoint to dominant hypermodern trends; for González, it is about liberation theology and alter-globalization, which were blindspots in postmodernism. That these sources have been largely omitted and missed — and abandoned (by the authors themselves) — in metamodern discourse is striking to me, as both are worthy of their own exegesis and renewal.

Since the ‘90s, Horner (2000), Furlani (2002, 2005), Feldman (2003, 2005), Dumetriscu (2007-), Vermeulen and van den Akker (2010, 2017), Hanzi Freinacht (2017), and myself and others, have trucked along without any awareness of these sources. Technically, González has been cited once by Seth Abramson, in his chapter “From Modernism to Metamodernism” in the book After the Program Era: The Past, Present, and Future of Creative Writing in the University, by Loren Glass (2017), but only very briefly, and not in Abramson’s other online publications, so it is far less accessible. Several other sources have cited González’ metamodernism, but not in relation to metamodernism in general, so the connections have not been explored. All of this confirms that none of us really know what we are talking about — as we have not been properly informed. We have been reaching in the dark, but now we have night-vision goggles.

This is why I truly feel I’ve ‘discovered’ something that alters our timeline and substantially retcons the story of metamodernism. It is possible that others have come across it, but seems very unlikely then that they would not mention it anywhere. Here, the Dutch authors seem to hedge against any anomalies challenging their usage;

“[Metamodernism] has been used in disciplines as varied as experimental poetry and technology studies, physics, economics, mathematics and Eastern spirituality. The term has, in other words, a long and scattered history, the full lineage of which still has to be traced.”Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth After Postmodernism, 2017

Most of their references (like Raymond Williams or Fredric Jameson) of course did not use the term ‘metamodernism’ but are cited as inspiration and anticipation of the turn. And though they do cite a handful of influences and explicit contributors (Furlani, Dumitrescu), there is no mention of Borgmann (or González), and they admit their book is “not the place for such a full-blown archeology.” But then where is? It is here, in part. They do also cite Seth Abramson making the case that Zavarzadeh coined metamodernism in 1975 in the field of literature, but mostly dismiss it as a relatively distant and obscure footnote for our current usage; one that they claim is a version of postmodernism anyway.

It seems absurd that after what has been put forward in the past decade and recent years, virtually all academics and public intellectuals still traffic the term ‘postmodernism’ confidently, whether for or against, as if there is no other insurgent (prefix)-modernist discourses (ie. neo-, re-, trans-, post-post-, hyper-, meta-, digi-, alter-, etc). These words exist and are differentiated for valid reasons, however cumbersome, confusing, and overlapping they may be. The core problem is that there is so much scholarship that uses the term ‘postmodern’ one way or another, the research process is utterly bottomless, and there is no way out but with a new term, a north star. This series aims to reinforce that metamodernism is that paradigm.

Parallel Multiverses

Metamodernism has always been plagued by a lack of primary sources. No big name scholar in philosophy, history, or social theory has authored a book or article on it, or really even lent their name or attention to it. Bruno Latour, Slavoj Zizek, or Cornel West come to mind as potential candidates to be innovators, but it has not happened. Likewise, Chomsky isn’t curious, perhaps because he’s always been metamodern without the high falutin theory. Not even the speculative realists (Morton, Harmon, Meillassoux), who are generally considered one of the vanguards of metamodern philosophy, have played with the term. And certainly not any of the Intellectual Dark Web, who have been totally dense and aloof to the metamodern critique against them, which at minimum exposes the anachronistic incoherence of their reactionary anti-postmodernism.

As we see with Borgmann and González, the term ‘metamodernism’ was actually substantively introduced in the 90s, and with some epistemic gravitas, yet these sources have been all but lost in the digital recesses of the Google books library. They passed by like UFO sightings, like blips on the radar that we pretend never happened. But in retrospect, they can be read as very real and ahead of their time. Only in the last few years has metamodernism more broadly slowly found its way into some alternative journals, but ironically there is still resistance and apathy towards it. Too many strategic influencers and ordinary people alike are still stuck in the old paradigm or can’t yet see the new one clearly. As such, a new discourse has struggled to take root. Though the ideals reach back to the 1970s (deep ecology, meta-crisis) and beyond, and postmodernism began a precipitous decline in the ’90s, as critical awareness produced diminishing returns and slid into nihilism, it is only in 2010 that metamodernism as a term gained any cultural momentum, due to Vermeulen and van den Akker. We are now steadily approaching 2020 and there is scarcely still any mainstream awareness of the collective coherence converging under metamodernism, but all that is soon to change.

Whereas in a series of articles in 2014 and 2015 Seth Abramson put forth a spirited intervention on behalf of Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism (circa 1975), I pose a similar injunction to the discourse here and now in 2019. Seth claims that Zavarzadeh inspired some currency in the term with other authors that continued use in the 80s and 90s, but he provides no additional citations in those articles, and I have not found any evidence of it. Nevertheless, Abramson’s reading appears strong and this new information strengthens his assertions. What I have found is the independent developments of Borgmann and González, which are more cases of the multiple discovery of metamodernism. We must map and understand these explicit contributions and let this be a teachable moment for what has been missed. The new sources enable greater parallax around the concept of metamodernism.

But first another quick detour: Dumitrescu claimed that the first contemporary usage of ‘metamodern’ was in Meta Modern Era (1995) by Nirmala Devi, but the word is nowhere to be found in the book — nor is ‘postmodern’ or ‘paradigm’. To be sure, the word written as ‘meta-modern’ does appear once, in the following context;

“Now, because of the natural limitations on the power and scope of rationality, a person who can say with authority what is absolutely right or absolutely wrong has to be an enlightened person, because he transcends rationality and is in the realm of reality beyond thoughts. It is beyond the normal limitations of the human mind to say something about truth so emphatically. And if such a person not only announces but manifests that truth as reality, and expresses it in his life and work, then one should after all pay serious attention to such a personality. Such a person is a saint, or a seer, a greatly evolved soul, whose unique individuality is free of all taints of egoism or conditionings. He is, we might say, meta-modern and does not care for the limitations of rational understanding, for the norms imposed by the cult of money or the power of the orientations of fads and fashions in modern times. To a merely rational person, who thinks that all ideas are merely opinions, such a person may appear to be an egoist, but the test is that through his lifetime he will not do anything that jars or that is considered sinful or anything that goes against human benevolence. Nor will he create destructive ideas in the minds of the people. On the contrary, whatever he does is constructive and compassionate and creates peace over his entire area of activity. Because it serves the interests of a fuller and more perfect life and promotes human ascent, his work is of an eternal and absolute nature, one may condemn him as an idealist who is not practical.” — Nirmala Devi, Meta Modern Era, 1995

This usage is perfectly complementary — it is metamodern as we understand it today, seeking to balance paradoxical tensions— but it does not go further in theorizing. Its usage is merely coincidental; more of an accidental wink than a purposeful academic theory of a paradigmatic turn. It is a mildly new-agey book critical of mainstream Western society, nothing more or less. I do not discourage Dumitrescu’s metamodern reading of the text, but it needs to be done so in context and in perspective. At 9:16 onward in this video, after having read the book’s preface from what looks like a throne, Devi begins to announce the title to her audience, only to forget and laugh to herself, the audience chuckling with her. Her aid, fumbling with the front page in the thick binder manuscript, then relays the title to her, which she mumbles, before clearly declaring “it is called Meta Modern Era.”

Though the book may be insightful and ambitious, Devi’s announcement does not sound like a conviction about metamodernism as a paradigm. I’m not denying Devi’s felt sense that times are changing (and should change further), but that is not unique to her book. Hundreds if not thousands of similar books were published in the ’90s, which speaks further to my point; we have been missing metamodernism for decades, if not half a century. In fairness, some chapters hint at the book’s relevance and scope to our topic, from Modernism and Rationality, Choices, Democracy, Racialism, The Culture In The West, to World Peace and Evolution, but it’s no more or less metamodern than many other books with similar themes. Beyond this, I have not given it a close reading, but again, it simply begs the question, what is metamodernism really? What is its true etymology and function today? Why do we keep reinventing the wheel?

Presupposing/ Prefiguring Metamodernism

By contrast to the above, the two authors that I explore, Borgmann and González, introduce ‘metamodernism’ explicitly, independently, in specific subfields of social science, each as one chapter within an edited academic volume, and with direct recourse to modernism and postmodernism. They are rigorous. Furthermore, they are grounded in technology and theology, respectively, rather than art and culture. As such, I contend that these two chapters from the ’90s are key missing links needed to finally properly formalize and historicize metamodernism. However, I should add that the absence of these sources did not stop us from theorizing further, and that their discovery mostly affirms our endeavours, so it is a good thing all around.

Both new sources appear to fill some gaps and weaknesses in the contemporary approaches to metamodernism; they actually presuppose and prefigure how we understand metamodernism today, but without any citational connection. Furthermore, in general they both reinforce my own approach and critique of metamodern discourse; that something has been missing. Both contain the seedlings of a new discourse; both seem to be paradigms (exemplars) of the paradigmatic move itself. Here’s the real head-scratching part: it appears the authors never cited their coinage or ever mentioned metamodernism again in later books. Metamodernism was discontinued prematurely, as both sources were lost to the sands of time, until now. These (much) earlier independent interventions in academic literature represent the metamodern path not taken, that should have been.

How did this happen? Can we even know yet? Their obscurity speaks to the extant crises in academia. In addition to all the epistemic, financial, and exclusivity problems in education and the so-called “knowledge economy,” we can add redundancy and path dependence to the list. The redundancy of similar research co-originating (when in principle literature reviews should make them find each other) somewhat like Darwin and Wallace co-discovering evolution, and the tunnel vision and path dependence, hegemony even, that sometimes privileges lower integrity discourses and power structures over better insurgent ones. Now we have to go back and re-learn what we didn’t know was already known — by Borgmann and González — and integrate them with our contemporary understanding.

For what its worth, another way in which Borgmann and González may be kindred spirits and address some gaps in metamodernism is that they are both Christian, and think theologically, not dogmatically. This can help to address concerns raised by Marcos Torres in Metamodernism and It’s Impending Challenge to Christianity, as well as Denys Bakirov and Brenden Graham Dempsey in their work.

Revising the Past, Revisioning the Future

Until this discovery, contemporary metamodernism has been characterized by two major schools of thought — Dutch and Nordic — both arising only in the last decade, and from different source material than Borgmann and González. The primary initatior is the “Dutch School” set off by Vermeulen, van den Akker, and Gibbons, along with a community of international scholars who elaborate on this tradition. This approach also includes adjacent artists like Luke Turner, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Shia Labeouf. Vermeulen and van den Akker credit Furlani (2002, 2007) and Dumitrescu (2007) as contemporary interlocutors of the term, neither of whom were aware of Borgmann and González. Most curiously, footnote #5 in Furlani’s 2002 paper reads “The term was proposed to me by Brian Jones.” What a way to mystify the maddening lineage of metamodernism even further.

As I discuss in my review, the “Dutch School” book (2017) offers a rigorous periodization and a great deal of insight on art and culture shifts, but is steadfastly hesitant (if not resistant) about any prospects for political revolution or transformation of the social sciences. In my own artistic work I have taken inspiration and cues from this emerging “structure of feeling,” but this metamodernism admittedly provides little insight into social theory, collective action, or even philosophy; some potential markers of the needed paradigm shift.

The second, the “Nordic School” of metamodernism — based on The Listening Society (2017) by philosopher Hanzi Freinacht (Metamoderna) and social entrepreneur Tomas Bjorkman, of which I am an active participant, and to which I bring my own pre-formed ideas of metamodernism as well — is very much a respectful counterpoint to the Dutch School. Tomas and Hanzi have produced a great deal of research, organized many projects, and are affiliated with new progressive movements and parties in Europe, all towards such radical emancipatory ends. This movement has also inspired a diverse community of thinkers and activists to participate and contribute to the discourse. In general though, with myself and many others publishing on metamodernism, there has been a sensibility informed but unbounded by the two major schools.

The somewhat controversial brand of lawyer-journo-manyhats Seth Abramson is arguably somewhere in between and across the Dutch and Nordic approaches, and partial to Zavarzadeh. Abramson himself has shifted from describing metamodernism to practicing it through his ‘curatorial journalism’ of Trump’s inevitable downfall; what remains to be seen is what is correct about his take, and what has become a caricature of itself. I never wasted a neuron on #Russiagate news, as it was always a derivative narrative (far down the line) from the actual deep homegrown crisis in American democracy. Despite Abramson’s large twitter fanbase, it/he has not mobilized interest or awareness in metamodern theory, let alone activism, and he is universally disliked by the Labeouf/Turner faction and serious leftists alike.

With these two new sources on metamodernism, in addition to Zavarzadeh and Abramson, all of whom are American, there is perhaps finally ample ground to begin to develop a third school, an “American School” of metamodernism. The need, at least, has always been there. I must reiterate that the geographic labeling of ‘schools’ is merely incidental, and is not restricted or identified with nationalist, territorial, or identitarian concerns. The point is simply to disambiguate metamodernism, to differentiate it to then (re-)integrate it holistically. However, it does also importantly serve to address and redress the global problem of US neoimperialism and ‘abstract empire.’ Unlike Dutch and Nordic metamodernism, an “American School” beholds the promise and duty to call in/out and divinely command it’s neoimperial namesake towards cosmopolitan socialism, demilitarization, and crisis response.

Political metamodernism is about expediant progressive realism amidst the growing meta-crisis; it calls for a global transformation of civilization to lock-in the optimal long-term path as soon as possible. As I’ve argued here, Bernie Sanders was and is quite unambiguously the metamodern candidate the world needs, but this is still a far cry from having a proper (explicit) metamodern academic discourse, national conversation, and policy platform in the United States. This is about ending American exceptionalism and unilateralism in order to enable healthy and resilient global governance.

To a large degree, Borgmann and González both help instantiate this normative version of metamodernism; one that calls out the excesses of modern technology and capital, and one that speaks to the disenfranchised, in ways that postmodernism alone failed to. They both challenge the failing orthodoxies of modernism and postmodernism, sensing a more meta- alternative paradigm is emergent. Such moves necessarily dovetail with my approach to American geopolitics and evolutionary globalization through the lens of systemic-conspiracy and related papers; and my efforts to realize a more sociological form of metamodernism since it emerged a decade ago.

Literature and technology prof Martin Paul Eve reflects on how he critiqued V&V’s metamodernism as “a neologism of questionable background” and speculated that they’re “attempting to shoehorn [it] into academic discourse.” But he is sympathetic now, given the resistance and pressures academics face. The critique Eve still holds to seems to split hairs over exactly how Kant’s teleology is appropriated in V&V’s approach, and concludes “[m]etamodernism, if aligned with Kant’s grand narrative, here, would not seek “forever for a truth that it never expects to find,” (Vermeulen & van den Akker 2010) but would rather abandon the search, only to find the truth in which it disbelieved regardless.” In light of Borgmann and González, Eve’s concerns seem to be both validated and debunked. There is a new origin story.

Key Takeaways and Notes on Revisionism

The lack of threading between sources — the lack of discourse coherence and consilience — are not problems restricted to the emerging field of metamodernism. All academic fields have this problem of obsolescent frames, disconnected rhizomes, and aberrant or dead end lines of inquiry, not to mention redundant or rehashed debates. Metamodernism seeks to address such fragmentation.

As such, it is necessary to understand and respect these authors contributions, but also perhaps inappropriate to overly canonize or fetishize them. They do not outright contradict the later discoveries and developments of metamodernism, but rather challenge and complement them. It seems to affirm the later developments retrospectively; like with metanoia, “afterward, what comes before is different” (Avanessian and Hennig, 2017). We must (continually) change our minds about metamodernism, for the better.

There is a certain pettiness that is laid bare, about some disgruntled debates over postmodernism and metamodernism. They are diminished by the new discoveries. Postmodernism debates especially, because it is already thoroughly anachronistic, but metamodernism as well, as it has missed these important cues. Not only did the key developers of metamodernism today miss these sources, so did the scores of writers who have followed their lead one way or another — and so did I. These cases show that vital research can be “lost” and forgotten even in the information age where god’s brain is at your fingertips. So much academic knowledge is produced that in our research we are constantly looking for countless needles in endless haystacks. It raises an agnotological (meta-epistemological) question; why and how we don’t know what we don’t know, and what we need to know.

There are at least a couple more sources here I don’t even explore in this series, but they are worth a mention. Meta-Modern Culture: The New Age and the Critique of Modernity, by Thomas Arthur Haig (1991). And Archeology of Art Theory, by Henk Slager (1995).

My purpose here has been nothing less than to rewrite the history of metamodernism to conform with the new details. Historical revisionism can have negative connotations, such as with conspiracy theories and denialism, but revisionism broadly is actually a standard process of recording and updating history, which needs to be revised to be more true. But some conspiracies turn out to be true. For 75 years the official story of the Reichstag fire was that it was started by communists. The truth, which has revised the historical account, is that war is often based on lies. Conspiracy theory always considered it a Nazi ‘false flag’ operation, similar to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was later revealed to be contrived in the fog of (Cold) war, by the US. Revisionism can cut both ways, as its a struggle over history.

Revisionism in the critical sense of approaching truth should be embraced. Malcolm Gladwell has with his podcast Revisionist History, and despite being a fairly centrist liberal, there is a pretty great episode on the paradox of satire. The New Historians in Israel challenge the orthodox and politicized narratives of self-defense and Zionism, to teach the country and world about the actual hegemonic history of the state; a necessary precondition to achieve a lasting peace. With metamodernism comes the return of historicity (see Dutch School), and we still need a new historiography. This series is a step towards that open end.

Conclusion

All this time we’ve been missing metamodernism, and not another one started by post-secular millennials mind you, but independently by two Christian boomers in the ‘90s. Borgmann, who paints a romantic alternative future to the hypermodern late stage capitalism, and values metamodern communitarianism over rugged individualism. And González, who argues that Hispanic Americans are metamodern aliens in postmodern Jerusalem, figuratively speaking, by using liberation theology and post-colonialism to counter the postmodern trend of secularism coupled with neocolonialism. Finally, black metamodernism dovetails with González’ project and aggregates a broad swath of culture and theoretical developments. These theories are thick roots of the metamodern tree. And through these new vectors, may we behold a richer conceptual consilience for greater collective coherence and action.

Continue on:
→ Read Part 2: Borgmannian Metamodernism
→ Read Part 3: Gonzálezean Metamodernism
→ Read Part 4: Black Metamodernism


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The Abs-Tract Organization

A Metamodern Think Tank for Global Civil Society and Absolute Social Philosophy, based on new insights in "abstraction."

Brent Cooper

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Political sociologist by training, mystic by nature, rebel by choice. Executive Director of The Abs-Tract Organization. #pointbeing #abstract

The Abs-Tract Organization

A Metamodern Think Tank for Global Civil Society and Absolute Social Philosophy, based on new insights in "abstraction."