Postmodernism is dead! This cry is echoing louder than ever in certain academic circles in the US and in Europe.
Some are of the view that the wave of populist politics that rose around the world in the 2010s, was postmodernism’s last hurrah. Postmodernism had posed itself as a critique of modernism. Lurching forward to completely damn modernism, postmodernism ended up eating itself. Scholars are now talking about an ‘intellectual movement’ that is replacing postmodernism. They call it, ‘metamodernism’.
Intellectual movements are not just academic trends. The philosophies and theories they generate shape the world. For example, ideas that formulated modernism dominated various economic, political, scientific and cultural fields between the 18th and mid-20th centuries. Modernism was an anti-thesis of traditionalism, which it denounced as being dogmatic, conservative, anti-change, superstitious and dominated by religious, monarchical and landed elites.
Modernist theories and actions inspired to be progressive, democratic, revolutionary, scientific, rational, secular and individualistic. Modernism exhibited a contagious confidence and optimism. It attempted to create rational societies shaped by science, bold economic manoeuvres, human rights, and new forms of art and literature. Through grand theories and meta-narratives, it devised universal ways to achieve this, no matter in which part of the world one was based.
Scholars say a difficult period in human thought is now over and done with, so what’s next? Introducing: metamodernism
Modernism did achieve a lot in this respect. But it floundered when its critics questioned its optimism in the event of the two World Wars, the rise of totalitarian dictatorships, and continuing racial prejudices and economic inequalities in modernised societies. The critique began in the 1960s and gained momentum from the late 1970s onwards. In 1979, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard announced that the world had entered a ‘postmodern age.’
Postmodernist scholars launched an all-out assault on modernism. Scepticism was their main weapon, as they ‘deconstructed’ modernist ideas in all fields. The early modernist aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ was critiqued from a negativist point-of-view, in which this power was understood as something that was sinister (because it was used to exploit large sections of society and undermine the rights of marginalised communities).
In time, emotions, language, meta-narratives, mental illnesses, science, gender, all began to be seen as ‘social constructs’ designed by an ‘elite’ to retain power. Postmodernism then engulfed the academia active in universities. Students were encouraged to deconstruct everything. It was like deconstructing an orange. First the peels, then the pulp, then the seeds, until there was nothing left.
Postmodernism became nihilistic. It insisted that there were no universal truths, but only perceived, localised truths, no matter how absurd they sounded to science and reason. Questioning claims that could not withstand the logic of science became an ‘offensive’ act.
Politically, postmodernist ideas were adopted by right-wing and left-wing fringe groups that culminated in their becoming large populist movements. And since truth was relative in the so-called postmodern age, we found ourselves in a ‘post-truth’ era. Most populists looked and sounded eccentric, even comical. This sat well with those who weren’t quite cut out to understand the complexities of politics and imagined it like a one-dimensional film or a TV serial with twists and turns, but in which the good-hearted and bumbling protagonist wins.
Netflix still offers such shows, pretending they were cynical and ironic (two of the things postmodernists celebrated). But the fact is, such productions are just plain silly and about good vs. evil, no matter how ‘deep’ The Guardian goes in praising them for their ‘complexity.’ That’s populism — a stylised retelling of cliches, either praised as high (pop) art, or ‘an ironic take’ on such and such issues.
Postmodernism became a self-parody, especially when adopted by the far-right, whose followers even find the most worn-out cliches profound, as long as they justify their urge to create ‘disruption’. Marketeers love this word. They ‘disrupt’ consumer behaviour when, in fact, they are just offering vacuous content and then patting each other on the back for being ‘brilliant’.
But postmodernism had its strengths too. It began by asking the right questions. It excelled as a sharp critique of modernity. But a critique is all that it ever was. It had no solutions. It was always ready to pounce on a ‘slight’, rip it apart, but only to leave behind a void before moving to the next target. The cacophonous ‘cultural wars’ between the loud ‘left’ and the populist ‘right’ are an example.
Nevertheless, modernism in its pursuit of material and social progress, had left behind a lot of people with little or no access to the tools required to benefit from this progress. Postmodernism saw itself as the voice of such people. But since postmodernism was inherently deconstructive, the voice fragmented into factions that turned against each other, looking for enemies within.
In the early 2010s, little pockets of scholars began to operate outside universities that had been swarmed by postmodernist dogmas, or, rather, anti-dogma dogmas. Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen began to investigate responses to economic, environmental and political crises that were universal in nature and could not be resolved through localised resources. For example, the whole world is being impacted by climate change, and recently, by global inflation.
Akker and Vermeulen noticed an emerging need to formulate a grand vision to resolve these crises. This is how modernism had operated. But its grand theories and visions were castigated by postmodernists as being naive and unconcerned about local cultures. Akker and Vermeulen were not advocating a wholesale return to modernism. Neither was their critique of postmodernism sweepingly disparaging. They saw something new emerging from the tensions between modernism and postmodernism. A synthesis. They called it ‘metamodernism’.
A good amount of scholarly work has appeared as academics continue to evolve metamodernism. At the core of it is a conscious decision not to be anti-modernism nor anti-postmodernism. To the metamodernists, a synthesis emerges from two competing ideas and, if the synthesis too becomes a competing party, then the result is an intellectual dead-end.
Metamodernism is still a work-in-progress. But its general principles are now in place. It is conceptualising new responses to problems that require universal solutions, but which are tempered by concerns raised against universalism by postmodernists.
Metamodernism calls for an ‘informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, and an ironic sincerity’ (L.Turner, The Metamodern Manifesto, 2011). To metamodernism, opposites can co-exist in the same moment, without diminishing one another.
Metamodernism is an optimistic idea that believes there is enough in modernism and postmodernism to work together towards resolving emerging global crises that require a coherent collective consciousness instead of varied consciousnesses fighting each other to a standstill.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 26th, 2022