What is Metamodernism and Why Bother? Meditations on Metamodernism as a Period Term and as a Mode

What is Metamodernism and Why Bother? Meditations on Metamodernism as a Period Term and as a Mode

Alexandra E. Dumitrescu

Alexandra Dumitrescu’s essay describes the development of metamodernism in New Zealand and presents metamodernism as an interrogation of “modernist uprootedness or postmodern drifting.”

“Forget that masking is natural and even beautiful and set the way we want things to be against the fact of how they are.” (Vincent O’Sullivan)

In 2006 virtually nobody had heard of metamodernism, and if anybody did mention the term, there would be rolling of the eyes and knowing grins: “Oh, another -ism! Haven’t we had enough?” Now, ten years later, it is the “in” concept resorted to when phenomena or texts are perceived as non-postmodern; it is the signifier that signifies a new paradigm in literature, the arts, and culture. It is a paradigm whose dominant is the ethical, associated with a search for authenticity and for defining the roots of being in ways that allow the fragmented self to integrate in new configurations of meaning.

Most recent scholars who have written about metamodernism have discussed the post-2010 uses of the concept, but have ignored some of the previous meanings. Little attention has been paid to metamodernism in literature as expounded in research carried out before 2010, and none to New Zealand (NZ) literature. This essay aims to recuperate some of the original meanings of metamodernism, explore them in the context of the literature in Aotearoa New Zealand, while emphasizing the place of NZ letters within metamodernism as a period term and as a mode. A periodization of metamodernism will be attempted, with a focus on the pre-2010 uses, from the first mentions of the term in the context of the “eclipse of fiction” (Zavarzadeh 1975) to an age of self-realization and evolution (Nirmala Devi 1995), and its use as a period term and a cultural paradigm (Dumitrescu 2005-14).

Understood as a period term, aspects of metamodernism manifested around 1990s, with the reparative gesture of Jane Campion’s movie An Angel at my Table, while as a mode metamodernism stands for recognizing the importance of self-realization (“awakening” - in Fiona Kidman’s A Breed of Women), of the centrality of feminine agencies instantiated as powerful yet (com)passionate women (Witi Ihimaera: The Parihaka Woman, Whale Rider); and an ethics of authenticity and care (in Emma Neale’s novel Fosterling, and Sue Orr, The Party Line) - specifically care for the other (Kidman, The House Within) and for the environment (Brian Turner, Elemental). Metamodernism brings a revival of interest in the narrative in poetry (Helen Rickerby, Cinema), as well as revisiting the roots of traditions (Maurice Gee, Plumb), and implicitly, the roots of what define our being in the world (Michael Harlow, Dinah Hawken). A few aspects of metamodernism in relation to some of these authors are outlined below.

The metamodern as an emerging paradigm was first mentioned in 1995, by Nirmala Devi in Meta Modern Era, a cultural and spiritual manifesto that pinpointed the foibles of modernity and postmodernity and suggested common sense, balance, and inner transformation as remedies. The metamodern is an interrogation into the roots of modernity. The metamodern is similar to Svetlana Boym’s off-modern, which is “closer in fact to the critical and experimental spirit of modernity than it is to the existing forms of industrial and postindustrial modernization. In other words, it opens into the “modernity of “what if,” and not only modernization as it was.” However, the metamodern searches for a middle ground between the spirit of modernity and the reality of technology, a place where the self feels centred, at home, engaged. Like the off-modern, the metamodern seeks “the missed opportunities and roads not taken” (Boym) but proceeds pivotally, looking for the roads that could lead to the roots, rather than proceeding “laterally.”

In the mid-1990s, in “Postmodernism and Fin de Siècle,” Marjorie Perloff wrote an obituary to postmodernism, while wondering whether there was an identifiable direction in which literature was going: “Can the term postmodernism […] apply both to the 60s and the 90s? Can we simply invert that big 6? Or do the post-post days we are now witnessing prefigure a phase for which we don’t yet have a name and whose postpeople we can’t quite conceptualize?” (92). Perloff captures an impatience with postmodernism as a period term and a cultural paradigm, and announces the imminence of another phase. Similarly, in Meta Modern Era Devi proposes that ideas and practices will be different in the meta modern paradigm that she prefigures, the people of which would have both experienced the freedoms of postmodernism and chosen to follow self-imposed rules as part of their journey to individuation. Bianca Zander’s novel The Predictions confirms this intuition when the baby boomer parents find that free love leads to misery, so they decide on more practical and less heart wrenching continence by restricting experimentations with love to one partner. Rules (of conduct, in this case) are no longer imposed by tradition, social convention or practice, but arrived at through experience, and reshaped in a state of higher innocence. For Cilla McQueen, in “To Ben, At the Lake,” existence is a dialectic of permeability and resistance, of communication and setting boundaries, condensed in the symbol of the “meniscus”: “See, Ben, the water / has a strong soft skin, / and all the insects dance / and jump about on it.” Robinson interprets the symbol strictly in terms of poetry: “the proposition behind [McQueen’s] ‘meniscus’ poetry is that if this barrier (at times permeable and at others impenetrable) fails to hold, chaos results” (325). Similarly, the post-postmodern paradigm that we inhabit and which we now call metamodern draws on traditions that had been rejected and then revisited; it structures around boundaries the defiance or acceptance of which is a matter of personal choice. Individuals assume perspectives from which paradigms and traditions integrate, while the fragmented postmodern self becomes a whole in metamodernism as in the trencadis, a visual metaphor that Kidman uses in This Change in the Light. The element of cohesion, indeed the agent of synthesis, is often love or care for the others in texts written both before and after 1990s.

Kidman’s characters in A Breed of Women cross class boundaries and establish an ethics of affection and care that defy social conditionings. Alone in the strange city of Weyville, physically and emotionally abused, despondent Harriet finds an unexpected friend in Leonie, the orphan girl from the bookshop. Leonie feeds Harriet, gives her the comfort of an attentive ear, and finds her a job in the library, a position she herself would have liked to have, had she had School Certificate. Harriet expresses her gratitude in a way that is innocent, unsophisticated, and childlike:

‘Thank you, thank you,’ Harriet burbled to this amazingly generous girl who had not only found her a job but who was a character referee as well; this girl who had been prepared to do this thing even at the expense of her own heart’s desire. She was quite extraordinary, and Harriet’s heart sang.

‘I have a best friend,’ she said, laughing out loud.

‘Of course, of course,’ Leonie sang back, swinging around a lamp post. (115)

In the space of a few minutes Leonie collapses the differences and the distance between herself and Harriet, between an orphan with no pedigree and no prospects in a prejudiced society and an educated young lady of British stock from a landowning background, while establishing indelible connections and enacting an ethics of care for the other which I believe is the dominant of metamodernism.In Constructing Postmodernism (146-47) McHale identifies an epistemological line force within modernism, and defines postmodernism by an ontological dominant. My proposition is that the dominant of metamodernism is the ethical. In “Metamodernism: The Basics,” Seth Abramson captures the sense of connection that metamodernism is about:

“Metamodernism seeks to collapse distances, especially the distance between things that seem to be opposites, to recreate a sense of wholeness that allows us to - in the lay sense - transcend our environment and move forward with the aim of creating positive change in our communities and the world.”

Metamodernism is synthesis and integration, “going beyond” and transcending. In the postmodern age, Kidman writes metamodern prose that is arresting in its simplicity and depth, in its sincerity and authenticity. A Breed of Women is the story of a singular woman from her adolescence in the NZ village of Ohaka to fame, from Spartan conditions and troubled questions about sexuality, the soul and God, to prosperity, experience, and a personal value system. The protagonist Harriet Wallace emerges from the narrative as a round character as complex as Dostoevsky’s or Tolstoy’s. She is shaped by traditions that she questions to invent her own. However, her experiences seem now close to what everyone would have experienced, her self-exposure still daring and fresh now, thirty-six years after the book was first published in 1979, that her tribulations, universal despite them being entrenched in provincial NZ, are now as fascinating and engaging as ever.

A Breed of Women demonstrates that metamodernism as a mode defies the stricter understanding as a period term applicable to developments that start manifesting in the last decade of the twentieth century. As a mode, metamodern elements (such as the search for self-realization, for harmonizing the agencies of the self, for deep answers to age-old questions in spite of systems and dogmas, and attempts to go beyond - meta - the rationality of modernity and its constructs) may coexist with postmodernism as a period, while the explanatory value of metamodernism is still being articulated, by which I mean that it has not yet reached its full potential. It may be the case that metamodernism is re-invented in each text or work of art, while the sum-total of such pieces articulate the metamodern paradigm.

Harriet Wallace is a metamodern character who is not afraid to ponder the big questions - epistemological (what can I know?) and ontological (is there a God?) - and coin her own answers, however partial, however tentative or temporary (35). She rides the watershed between postmodern disappointment with absence and modernist longing for the ineffable that can never be achieved. However, her epiphany by the river shows that a sense of presence and a feeling of connection can be experienced, even if shadowed by the passing of time (24). Harriet is an Anglican having a Catholic experience, a “high caste” who learns from the low. The crossing of boundaries between religious denominations, social dogmas and strata, systems and hierarchies, marks Harriet. She does not, however, give in to modernist uprootedness or postmodern drifting. She picks the best in all worlds, weaving her own belief system, her own values, in a synthesis and a syncretism that are metamodern. With adolescent directness, she reaches to the roots of received value systems, selecting what is valuable to her. Nevertheless, her selection is not an exclusively rationalistic exercise, being instead a lived experience that involves her whole person. The feeling of presence, the sense of connection, of the possibility of a dialogue with the Other during the epiphany by the river (24), are so satisfying that she remembers it after years, even when she had ceased believing. Her relationship with the Other will be replaced by relationships with others, and with the self. New connections will be invented with people, as experiences that provide meaning and joy.

There are perspectives from which the openness of the 1970s and 1980s did not continue into the 1990s, though what Perloff calls “a decade of closure” might be in fact a decade of assumed boundaries, when the militant dreams of previous decades transfer into policies. The 1990s were hugely important in a European context, as the years that consolidated the effects of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and of the anti-communist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. The period of opening that started with Gorbachev’s visit to the DDR in 1989 and ended with the complex of events around 9/11 reveals two vital aspects of globalization: an openness towards mutual respect, freedom, and self-determination set against the opposite move towards terrorism, retaliation, and encroachment upon freedoms. The archipelagos of events surrounding 1989 and 9/11 revealed two possible pathways: towards openness on the one hand or towards a closing of horizons on the other. The exhilaration of freedom set against fear and hatred, meaningfulness versus meaninglessness. The sense of two possible futures persists even now. More than in 2001 when I drafted the first research proposals on metamodernism in culture and literature,I sent a number of such proposals to universities around Europe, the UK, and the USA. The earliest preserved copy that I’m aware of is that in the Andrei Codrescu archive at the University of Illinois. I feel that we are suspended as a species between the possibility of openness and evolution, and the opposite option of giving in to the cycle of terror and aggression. Between reparative gestures such as Gorbachev’s or those of governments towards first nations set against the closing of horizons illustrated by 9/11 or the banning of books, as was the case in 2015 with the NZ young adult book Into the River by Ted Dowes.

In NZ, the 1990s were a distinctive decade, when the foundations for what we call now metamodernism were laid. Progress was made in the direction of women’s rights and historic justice for Māori, while between 1989 and 1994 the autobiography of Janet Frame was published four times. The search for authenticity becomes crucial, occasionally more intense than engaging with linguistic games and experimentation, which nonetheless continue to be an important aspect of literature in NZ to this day. O’Sullivan’s short story collection Palms and Minarets, for instance, is a search for the real behind the masks. One of the characters in the short story “Terminus” entreats: “Forget that masking is natural and even beautiful and set the way we want things to be against the fact of how they are” (215). Discovering one’s voice and articulating how things really are becomes imperative, and not only for women and for Māori, though it is vital for less visible groups to take a stand and assume their voices. In Potiki, Patricia Grace presents Māori awakening as Herni’s transformation from a state of drifting to a reconnection with the land. In Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies, Ihimaera recovers an episode in the history of the Māori when they were respected as equals, while The Parihaka Woman tells the real story of the often ignored Māori Land Wars (1860-63) in ways that recuperate the historical truth and bring to life the felt emotional reality of everyday life at the time. The acquiring of voice by the previously voiceless may be associated with postmodernism, but it opens towards the “ethics of authenticity” (Taylor) that is dominant in metamodernism. In 1997 Kidman’s volume of interconnected short stories The House Within was published as a saga of self-exploration into both identity construction and revealing the authentic self, while the title draws attention to the interiority as the disregarded aspect of the development of the self. The self appears as a complex structure, with each story revealing new aspects of characters’ personalities, as in a process of admiring a crystal in small incremental steps, where a holistic perspective becomes available only after each facet has been admired, internalized, understood. Characters journey close to their core of authenticity, as young Stephen Dixon, who seems to question every convention of the middle class he is born into. He then misses his self-realization by settling in a ready-made version of Christianity, but is eventually saved from the artificiality of dogmas by his own common sense and devotion for his lost brother. His mother Bethany’s earnest search for what really matters is made urgent by the death of her son Richy. She experiments with women’s liberation and somewhat accidentally finds her vocation as a cookbook writer. Other characters, however, seem condemned to continuous vacillation between glimpses of their own selves and those of others, which they wave off quickly, never quite managing to settle in an understanding of themselves or the others beyond either superficial judgment or indulgence.

Similarly, in the first decade of the 20th century, a number of texts evince a fierce rejection of artificiality and niche thinking, a focus on the ethics of care, acknowledging and respecting the other without colonizing or appropriating them - all aspects that are central to metamodernism. Traditions and the past are revisited and re-valued in non-parodic ways (Kidman, Where Your Left Hand Rests), while historical novels (Owen Marshall’s The Larnachs, Jenny Pattrick’s The Denniston Rose) and literary fiction (Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Kidman’s The Book of Secrets) bear witness to a past that enriches the present through clarifications and recoveries. Kidman’s The Captive Wife, for instance, retells historical moments around the setting of the first whaling station in NZ from a number of characters’ perspectives. The various angles shed light on both a historical truth enriched with the emotional realities of the people, and on what it means to be human in an increasingly fluid and complex world.

Metamodern texts open towards the heroism of ordinary lives seen not from a patronizing, though sympathetic position, as with modernist writers such as Huxley, Joyce, or Woolf, but from within their ranks, as in Jillian Sullivan’s What About Bo, Thom Conroy’s The Salted Air, or Turner’s Into the Wilder World. The self no longer aims to colonize the other, or nature, but to integrate, to become part and parcel of a whole. There is a reverence for the land and a longing for connection with it, accompanied by a realization of its importance for the individual and groups. For Turner, nature is a metaphor as well as an indelible reality that needs to be heeded (“where a river sings, a river always sang” in Ancestors) and that interacts with the human self, in a process of parallel mirroring (“and the shadows / are mauve birthmarks / on the hills” - in the lyric “Place,” in All that Blue Can Be).

The metamodern writer leaves the artists’ mythical ivory tower of isolation and presumed incomprehensibility by their fellows (Harrison), and engages in fighting to make life more liveable for their communities, while respecting the environment.With characteristic pathos, Arundhati Roy entreats fellow writers and artists to take up arms against the evils that people have to face every day, and which constitute “the endless crisis of normality: “We have to lose our terror of the mundane. We have to use our skills and imagination and our art, to re-create the rhythms of the endless crisis of normality, and in doing so, expose the policies and processes that make ordinary things - food, water, shelter, and dignity - such a distant dream for ordinary people” (An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire 15). Turner not only cherishes the landscape, with its land and waters, but also engages actively in defending them, in protecting their integrity. To Turner, the land is livelihood; it offers its beauty, as well as joy and identity, as in the poem “Famer,” where the land is admired for its aesthetics and “unbearable” kindness, causing the poetic voice to be “happy in what [he] knows (Elemental 63). Nature catalyzes a sense of belonging and of personal freedom that city life seldom offers. The self pursues what gives it joy, which lies in its depth, in its authenticity, the alchemical well at the bottom of which one perceives faint glimmers of the collective unconscious, in which the numinous reflects, as in Seamus Heaney’s poem “Personal Helicon” (9). The search for the authentic self and healthy relationships with the other, paralleled by interrogating what constitutes meaningful existence, informs numerous of the metamodernist texts mentioned, as well as Anne Kennedy’s The Last Day of the National Costume, or those by Australian writers Tim Winton (Dirt Music, Turning), Alex Miller (Prochownik’s Dream), and Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book), among others. The metamodern grows at the intersection of the ethical with aesthetic knowledge.

Metamodernism represents a return to stories, to simple affections such as careThis position was famously expressed by Emily Dickinson in her poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” where the epistemological and the ethical complement one another (Towards a Metamodern Literature 179). For Dickinson, like for artists writing from a metamodern sensibility, there is truth(s) to be presented or searched for, but the expression of truth should be considerate of its addressee and its subject, as in Michael King’s idea of compassionate truth or Nel Noddings’ ethics of care. and empathy, and to the ever redefined roots of what constitutes human existence – from the “unashamedly domestic” (Kidman in Poetry Shelf), to relationships and meditations on creativity and meanings (Sullivan, Parallel, Fishing from the Boat Ramp), to ethical questions and the nature of communication (Sarah Broom). There is renewed interest in the narrative in poetry (Harlow, Sweeping the Courtyard, Siobhan Harvey’s Cloudboy), an exploration of sincerity (Vivienne Plumb, Scarab) and authenticity (Renee Liang, Under the Same Moon), while not succumbing to mediocrity (O’Sullivan, “Puritan Sunday” in Us, Then). Such renewal is paralleled by a survival of previous modes (eg. modernist absurd and postmodernist playfulness in Plumb’s play The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep), and an engagement in dialogues with other cultural paradigms (Dumitrescu, “Interconnections”). Artists and writers become agents of change (Mike Johnson, Hold my Teeth While I Teach You to Dance), while their localized and contextualized texts gesture towards universal meanings.

There is a return to meaning in poetry, as opposed to linguistic games for their own sake, and – on an ontological level – a reverence for the here and now (Dinah Hocken in Water, Leaves, Stones, O’Sullivan, Further Convictions Pending), and a search for home, as opposed to fixation in alienation as an inescapable condition (Dumitrescu, Metamodern 79). While not exclusive to NZ, these tropes are arguably more distinguishable in NZ literature than in other parts of the world. In what follows I discuss a few uses of the concept in international literature between 2001 and 2010, and previously.

Uses of the Concept: 2001-2010, and Previously

While the metamodern as a cultural paradigm was hinted at and announced in the 1990s (Perloff, Nirmala Devi), and aspects of metamodernism became more visible around that time, it was the following decade that witnessed the first theorizations of the concept. Previously, however, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh had used the terms or concepts metamodern and metamodernist in 1975 to talk of an aesthetics in which art and life combine, where the previously closed world of the novel (in which all is organized and structured, as opposed to the chaos of lived experience) opens towards the experimental nature of experience (75). In a footnote, Zavarzadeh declares that he uses “the term ‘metamodernist’ in conjunction with three others to describe various aesthetic and ideational approaches to the art of narrative in the [20th] century.” The other three terms are: “Modernist, Anti-modernist, and Paramodernist” (75).

Zavarzadeh talks of a new metamodernist aesthetics in relation to American literature of the 1970s, but the term metamodernist is used only twice: once in the body of the text, and once in a footnote. However, he does not talk of metamodernity as an emerging cultural paradigm, or of metamodernism either as a period term or a mode. Moreover, he uses the term metafiction sixteen times, which suggests his understanding of a metamodernist aesthetics as a space where the fictional text and meditation on the text overlap in a metatextual exercise. Zavarzadeh’s is an aesthetics of colliding worlds where the real, the oneiric and the fictional permeate, as in the ontological dominant particular of postmodernist aesthetics proposed by McHale (147).

This meaning of the metamodern is different to the one employed in Towards a Metamodern Literature,Hereafter shortened to Metamodern Literature or Metamodern. which synthesizes my work between 2001 and 2010, where metamodernism is “a paradigm of integration of faculties (e.g. reason and emotions), systems of thought, different ontological levels” (18), as well as a paradigm of self-transformation or becoming.

The metamodern is a paradigm in which ethical considerations are dominant and in which the disregarded “other” is increasingly acknowledged and valued: women, the subaltern/colonised, the innocent and the oppressed become central actants in the contemporary cultural discourse. Acknowledging the other is a necessary element of cultural and personal “becoming,” as Irigaray points out in Sharing the World. As a result of this transformation, values that have been occasionally sidelined in (post)modernity are increasingly revisited and redefined […]: innocence, the protection of the innocent and the disempowered, compassion, empathy, altruistic love, forgiveness of past injuries, respect for difference, creativity, and ingenuity. (Metamodern Literature 18)

In Metamodern Literature I discussed a few of the uses of metamodernism before 2010 and the ways in which some of them relate to, or anticipate, my understanding of metamodernism as a period term and as a paradigm within which the self’s search for authenticity becomes paramount (167-199). In 2002 Andre Furlani defined metamodernism as a literature of presence within postmodernism, which is a literature of absence. In 2005, Stephen Feldman explored the inadequacy of “liberalism” and “conservatism” in philosophy, proposing the term metamodernism as a third solution or middle ground, while Anthony Elliott, in 2003, slights metamodernism as one of many social theory labels. Timotheus Vermeulen’s and Robin van den Akker’s definition of metamodernism was analyzed at length as an admixture of postmodern and metamodern elements (Notes 192-199).

In articles published from 2006 to 2010 and in conference papers starting with 2004, I define metamodernism as a new cultural paradigm characterized by interconnections, integration, self-realization, and revisiting the roots of traditions. The articles where I used the concept of metamodernism to denote a cultural paradigm and a period term were published in Hypermedia Joyce in 2005 and Double Dialogues in 2007, and in two collective volumes: at Napoca Star in 2009 and Rodopi in 2010. Another two articles, “Robinsoniads as Stories of Technological Progress and Transformation” (2009) and “Romantic and Metamodern Glimpses at Self-transformation” (2010) were published in Echinox and Inter-textes. Building on the positions taken in articles, in Metamodern Literature I further define metamodernism as “an emerging paradigm characterised by an overriding search, by artists, average people, and societies, for authenticity or self-realisation and for a balanced fulfilling existence:”

It is a paradigm for revisiting tradition(s), and establishing an ongoing dialogue with previous paradigms of thought – as opposed to the modernist rejection of traditions and the postmodernist ironic detachment from previous texts. Metamodernist works and practices seek to reinstate people’s concerns for the ethical, as opposed to the dominance of the epistemological in the wake of the Enlightenment, and of the ontological in the postmodern era. Metamodernism is a paradigm in which connection with fellow humans, and indeed with all sentient beings and with nature, is valued – in contrast with an emphasis on individualism and isolated experience, as in some instances of (post)modernism. Metamodernism is realised in the telling of stories that act as cohesive agents, and are inclined to grant meaning to experience [eg Michel Tournier’s Le Médianoche Amoreux/ Midnight Lovers]. (169)

Metamodernism affords an integrative perspective from which paradigms appear as steps in an evolutionary process. Accordingly, Ihab Hassan proposes that postmodernism is a step on the “road to the spiritual unification of humankind” (cited in Postmodernist Fiction 4). Ideas and periods grow from one another and overlap at times: metamodernism emerges from the 1990s and becomes established in the early 21st century, but elements of metamodernism, postmodernism, and modernism coexist, while the core value of metamodernism is to welcome the syntheses that draw the best features from its predecessors. For instance, Kidman’s The Infinite Air is postmodern in revaluing the tradition of the exceptional hero, impersonated as an exceptional woman who puts the little colony of New Zealand on the map with her world records. As in classical heroic tales, Jean Batten’s records enrich and inspire the community, but do not lead to her integrating within it. This fact brings up the issues of modern solitude and solitary meditation in the tradition of Descartes, while opening towards metamodernism through an ethics of forgiveness and personal transformation.

There is no doubt that period terms are cultural constructs, but they are valuable catalysts for meditation inasmuch as they capture aspects of the times in relation to which they are coined. In The Dismembering of Orpheus, Hassan had offered a contrasting table of the characteristics that he attributes to modernism versus postmodernism (267-68). However, “the dichotomies [the] table represents remain insecure, equivocal. For differences shift, defer, even collapse; concepts in any one vertical column are not all equivalent; and inversions and exceptions, in both modernism and postmodernism, abound” (269). The first two columns below are reproduced from Perloff’s article “Postmodernism/ Fin de Siècle,” while the third column is my contribution. The last row (10) is my addition inspired by McHale in Constructing Postmodernism (147).

Modernism  Postmodernism  Metamodernism 
Urbanism The Global Village (McLuhan), Spaceship Earth (Fuller), the City as Cosmos -Science Fiction. Anarchy and fragmentation. Interconnections across groups, traditions, realms, societies, ontological levels. One’s actions can affect the fate of people hundreds of miles away. Injustice anywhere – a threat to justice everywhere.
Technologism Runaway technology. New media, art forms. Boundless dispersal by media. The computer as substitute consciousness or extension of consciousness Digital technology becomes part of everyday life to the extent that extricating oneself from it requires strict discipline (Boym) – a necessary exercise at times. Care for and connection with nature. Integrating technology in one’s life while looking for meaning-conveying roots of being.
Elitism Anti-elitism, antiauthoritarianism. Diffusion of the ego. Participation. Community. Anarchy Anyone can be an artist/ have access to epiphany/ achieve self-realization/ find their authentic self that they can express in an authentic voice.
Irony Radical play. Entropy of meaning. Comedy of the absurd. Black Humor. Camp. Earnestness, sincerity, search for authenticity and meaning, while not eschewing the ludic (Boym 14). Search for joy and what really matters.
Abstraction New Concreteness. Found Object. Conceptual Art. Previous art forms are embraced with gusto, while still experimenting. In fiction and poetry, all the senses are invoked, rather than just the gaze (Irigaray).
Primitivism Beat and Hip. Rock Culture. Dionysian Ego. Revisiting the roots of traditions and integrating the gains/wisdom of previous paradigms into everyday life. Common sense. Collective unconscious. Imagination.
Eroticism The New Sexuality. Homosexuality, Feminism, Lesbianism. Comic pornography. Repeal of Censorship Accepting the sexually different. Search for balance and self-prescribed inner boundaries
Antinomianism Antinomianism. Counterculture. Beyond alienation. Counter. Beyond Law. Non Serviam. Western “ways.” Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism the occult, apocalypticism. Seeking middle grounds between the temptations of antinomianism and of conformism. Syntheses. Logic of the included middle: both A and non-A can be simultaneously held at times.
Experimentalism Open form, discontinuity, improvisation, Formal innovation. New language. Antiformalism. Indeterminacy. Aleatory Structure. Minimalism. Intermedia. Both open and traditional forms are pursued. Return to the narrative in poetry, which coexists with lyricism, and often with language experimentation; identifying the continuity beyond discontinuities; integrating the tendency to seek the roots and understand them with the opposite tendency to break free from rules. Using more than one language in a single text. Mashup texts. Off-modernism and the unexplored paths of modernity (Boym). Seeking authenticity
Epistemological dominant Ontological dominant Ethical dominant

Metamodernism is diverse and varied; it emphasizes various attributes with respect to different texts, without being a shifting, slippery concept. For example, the longing for a place where the spirit feels at home, with the ensuing sense of belonging and renewed trust in meaningful communication (“the tribal/chorus that no one may sing alone,” as in Edmond’s “Late Song”) are constant, yet can assume countless forms. Metamodernism is in many ways an attempt to interrogate the modernist/postmodernist inheritance – and to go beyond it.

The evolution of my understanding of the concept of metamodernism in relation to cultural theory and literature is sketched below, as presented in three articles published in 2006 and 2007. In “Bootstrapping Finnegans Wake,” the concept of metamodernism is announced as apt “to describe a paradigm of thought subsequent to the postmodern one,” whereby the metamodern and the postmodern are seen not “as mutually exclusive, but as completing and defining each other,” while “their explanatory relevance emerge from their interrelation” (Dumitrescu). Starting from James Joyce’s text, the article discusses un-hierarchical outlooks, networks, and “unashamed tears” (that is, un-self-conscious expression of emotions), which were incorporated in later definitions of metamodernism.

In “Interconnections in Blakean and Metamodern Space” I posit metamodernism “as a period term and a cultural phenomenon, partly concurring with postmodernism, partly emerging from it, and as a reaction to it, especially to its fragmentarism, individualism, excessive analyticity and extreme specialization” (the latter – especially in science and academic subjects). I further propose that “allowing for diverging theories, metamodernism champions the idea that only in their interconnection and continuous revision lie the possibility of grasping the nature of contemporary cultural and literary phenomena” (“Interconnections”). Metamodernism is likened to a “set of maps under continuous revision,” or a “boat being built or repaired while it sails” (“Interconnections”). The somewhat provisional aspect of these metaphors, which were meant to emphasize both the fluidity and evolutionary aspects of metamodernism, was subsequently modified by Vermeulen and Akker’s definition of metamodernism as a continuous oscillation.

In “Foretelling Metamodernity” (2006) I define “metamodernism as an emerging cultural paradigm different to postmodernism in that “while postmodernism has been equated with the cult of artificiality (Calinescu 248) and the ‘loss of innocence’ (Eco 19-20), metamodernism represents the search for the innate or the natural, the innocent and simple.” This search for higher innocence that comes after experience, and for consciously assumed simplicity, becomes necessary and topical in an age of extreme sophistication and complexity. The ecological equivalent would be downsizing as a more sustainable way of life. “Whereas modernism and postmodernism believed in determining nature to deviate from its norms (Calinescu 173), metamodernism stands for an attempt to investigate (and appropriate) the laws of – inner and outward – nature, to understand them and to act in agreement with their” requisites or coordinates, in spite of imposed rules, hierarchies or restrictive social practices (“Foretelling”). Rather idealistically, I proposed that, rejecting the aberrant, metamodernism seeks the beauty of the unsophisticated, of “the small things,” and repels the kitsch satisfactions provided by means of mechanical reproduction (Calinescu 7, McHale 185).This can be seen nowadays in the resurgence of interest in traditional arts and crafts. Postmodern “mediated lives” (McHale 115) are inadequate when compared to a search for unmediated, authentic, experiences of the self and of nature. A metaphor for this understanding of metamodernism is the search for roots, which can be equated with identifying the meaning and origins of situations (as in The God of Small Things 33), as well as the elements of constancy within modern complexity. But in order to have access to the roots, and to perceive the simplicity beyond complexity, a series of transformations of the self are required. These amount to a revision of deeply ingrained perceptions and concepts, among which are the concepts of time and progress. Time was seen in modernity “as a line stretching from a beginning towards the future (and pictured as ‘the arrow of time’), following a progressive course of development, and bound to reach some final stage” (“Foretelling” 156). But “‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama), a postulate of postmodernism” is set against “the postulation of an open world” (Prigogine 207). The modern concept of progress had modelled the perception of time as linear and teleological, while during postmodernism “the end of history” and of human evolution became conceivable. Prigogine partially challenged this position with the idea of an “open world” of infinite potentialities and of possibilities more diverse than the ones envisaged by a linear, strictly rationalist, perspective. The metamodern is akin to Boym’s off-modern in that it “follows a non-linear conception of cultural evolution; it could follow spirals and zigzags, the movements of the chess knight and parallel lines that on occasion can intertwine asymptotically.”

Accordingly, in the novel Potiki by Grace, the suggestion is of non-linear time, a spiral that integrates past experiences and sublimates them. Similarly, for Edmond time is a personal gift passed on to her children, who in turn will pass it to theirs, in a non-linear movement, with twists and turns, as the flow of a river. In the poem “In Position,” lived time condenses and expands, as Bergsonian duration; it is a river that leads from experience to death, “the bend in/ the river beyond which, moving steadily, head up/ (you hope), you will simply vanish from sight.” A fascination with the precision of the present is expressed in O’Sullivan’s poem “Being here,” where the self experiences reality not only through the gaze (which can be judgmental, rationalist, even masculinist, for Irigaray), but – in a more holistic, integrative, way – through all the senses. An act as banal as eating an apricot becomes an experience of the real, the here and now, a moment of joy that incorporates the past and is aware of the possibilities of the future. It is a metamodern experience of the self that explores itself and connects with the other, instantiated as both another human and nature.

Metamodernity is a paradigm in which care for the self and for the other are simultaneously possible, where the self exists and defines itself in relation to the other, where everything – from humans to complex systems such as the ecological and the microscopic – is interrelated, for, indeed, nothing exists in a vacuum, or in complete isolation.In Linked, for instance, Barabási makes a case for such interconnections at all levels. Turner’s poem “Sky” in Just This expresses the idea that a connection between ontological levels is conceivable:

If the sky knew half

of what we’re doing

down here

it would be stricken,


and we would have

nothing but rain. (38)

The self does not exist in isolation; it is a part of a whole, of a vibrant network of interconnections, of a grounded, ethics-focused system. Despite the loneliness that derives from modern individualism and that can be enhanced by technology, the self is connected, an integral part of nature, of a complex organism – social and natural –, for whose existence and welfare it feels responsible. In the poem “Heaven” from Elemental the poetic voice experiences a glow derived both from a sense of communion with nature and from being accepted and loved. Emotions and the small things of nature inspire a feeling of the sublime. A recurrent trope in Turner’s poetry is the ability of nature to soothe and enchant, where the natural is seen at times as an objective correlative of the numinous.

Don’t pretend you don’t want

a clump of people

to give you a tick or two

and send you on your way


Maybe heaven is a place

in the hearts of those

who respected and honestly

liked you a lot,

an earthy place

with brightness behind you,

surreal skies above

lightning the best way home. (111)

The falling of the mask – “do not pretend” – and the ethical aspect of metamodernism are visible in the canvas of relationships – “in the hearts of those/ who respected and honestly/ liked you a lot.” The sense of connection with the other and the glow that one derives from it are metamodern, as is the motif of the return home, a metaphor for the rediscovery of interiority, of one’s spirit. A metamodern sensibility is also at play in the words of Sullivan, where the self navigates turbulent waters to find its way home, while the poet expresses the hope of safe journey “if only those we long for/ pass safely through” (31).

Small things have value in themselves, or are appreciated for the respite they offer, the moments of joy, and also for signaling personal or general human meanings. The beauty that the poetic voice perceives in everyday occurrences, in nature, people, events, even in the city landscape, occasionally gesture towards something deeper – a cultural reference, an instantiation of the numinous, a small scale epiphany. Edmond’s poems In Middle Air are such “series of delicate epiphanies” (Robinson) that provide access to truth, personal, subjective, but vibrant and vital nonetheless. In Seasons and Creatures, the poet reveals her truth in a confessional manner:

[…] thinking:

‘Up there in the quiet room

where the fireflies are to be seen

at work in their luminous trees


there is my truth, my candour, my courage,

there too I can shine with the natural

intermittent light of myself,’

- and then I shall go on holding forth. (cited in Green and Ricketts 343)

Unlike the modernists who inherently distrust “any claim to truth telling, to honesty as such in poetry” (Green and Ricketts 342), Edmond seems to believe in a private truth that shines “with the natural light” of the self. In Kidman’s poems in Going to the Chathams, people who matter are not those who are part of hierarchies (such as politicians), but those with whom a bond of affection exists. What matters is the self’s closeness to and interaction with other selves.

Care for the other and for the self coexist, without being antinomian opposites, in metamodernism. The self is the vantage point from where one takes in one’s natural, cultural, or historical surroundings; the deeper one understands the self, the more profound is the understanding of relationships with others and within the world. However, not all is joy in search for self-realization, for the moment of self’s connection with the world is preceded or paralleled by loneliness. The self is unavoidably lonesome in its self-scrutiny, haunted by the loneliness of words. In Harlow’s title poem in Heart Absolutely I Can the search for self is the search for the right words to narrate the journey (16):

Something there is about

the loneliness of certain

words looking for the right

place to settle down, she

said. A toss of clouds throwing

shadows against the hills


She was she said looking

for ways to make the world

friendly again. She kept

dreaming of the empty

house in which we were

still living. As if getting lost

was a way of finding

ourselves again. Her dream

of all those empty shoes

in a row, ready to walk

anywhere, away. It might

have been a glance at the

future; a door on the wide

water. I could see that she

wanted the music of the

heart to sing us alive;

to return us from that dark

hold behind words: to ‘speak

in front of ourselves, to find

out what it is we want’

The first time I wrote her name

and last night, the last:

Heart absolutely I can,

every word made of light. (16)

Words seem apt to rescue, and so does the telling of the story. Metaphors gesture towards the meaningfulness of an experience as common as leaving or falling out of love, nonetheless invested by the narrative with an aura of meaningfulness, the grace of a story. A “door on the wide water” is a figure of openness, but also one of fragility of anything that seems stable, heavy, ponderous. The big things come to mind – the ideals of modernity, of progress, of mastering nature and harnessing its powers –, as opposed to the small things (natural beauty, affection, kindness, a listening ear). The figure of the door and the poem itself are gestures towards the inescapable lightness of being, where the being, the essence of the self as the spirit, is that which can walk on water and be expressed in words that are made of light.


I am grateful to the Kate Edger Trust for offering me a postdoc award that afforded me the resources to finalise this article. To Mike Johnson, David Ciccoricco, and Marco Sonzogni I am grateful for their support and for the conversations that we had in relation to previous versions of this article. I owe a debt of gratitude to Maud Cahill from Jason Books, as well as to Shahzad Ghahreman and Dr David Parker from Auckland University of Technology for their bibliographical and editorial suggestions. Dan Dumitrescu, thank you for being the first sounding box for my ideas.

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