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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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A few years ago I wrote an article: Eve, Martin Paul, ‘Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and the Problems of “Metamodernism”: Post-Millennial Post-Postmodernism?’, C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings, 1 (2012), 7–25. It was the first thing I wrote outside of my Ph.D. and I am not sure that the literary analysis is that good. I wouldn’t read the second half of it if I were you.

There are, though, some critiques of “metamodernism” in there – a neologism receiving an increasing degree of attention – that I thought it worth repeating and surfacing here. Note that I haven’t revisited the original Vermeulen and van der Akker article for this below elaboration.

While Vermeulen and van den Akker’s paradigm has already found its way as far afield as psychoanalytic discussion of transgender subjectivity (Hansbury 2011, p.219), there are many serious failings in their model that must be pre-emptively highlighted. Particularly problematic is the historical and philosophical lineage within which they situate their discourse. For instance, their direct citation of Kant is a poor, flawed choice: “Indeed, Kant himself adopts the as-if terminology when he writes ‘[e]ach . . . people, as if following some guiding thread, go toward a natural but to each of them unknown goal’. That is to say, humankind, a people, are not really going toward a natural but unknown goal, but they pretend they do so that they progress morally as well as politically”.

It is clear that Kant’s “as if” does no such thing but rather, in this translation, deploys a second conditional with the past continuous subjunctive to indicate that it is the “guiding thread” which is hypothetical, as mirrored in the original German (“als an einem Leitfaden”) and other translations (“as by a guiding thread” (Kant 2009, p.10)). The gloss they put on this sentence is in contradiction to its meaning; for the individual, actions appear free, chaotic and unpredictable, whereas when considered en-masse, human behaviour conforms to overarching predictable laws: “the annular tables […] prove that they occur according to laws” for “[a]ll natural capacities of a creature are destined to evolve completely to their natural end” (Kant 1963, pp.11-12). To say, as they do, that Kant writes that “each people […] go toward a natural but to each of them unknown goal” but then to claim that “That is to say, humankind, a people, are not really going toward a natural but unknown goal” doesn’t seem to work, to me.

Metamodernism, 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.

Vermeulen and van den Akker also inflate the novelty of their work: “[i]t is somewhat surprising that we appear to be among the first academics to discern in contemporary arts a sensibility akin to Romanticism”. This is totally incorrect. There’s been a substantial body of critical material that has linked postmodern sentiments with romanticism. Thomas Pynchon [the subject of the original article] identifies himself in his early phase “as one who has dabbled for short spans of time with a contemporary Romantic view, only to swing back […] to a ‘classical’ outlook” (Weisenburger 1990, p.696) and this has been seen in critical work on this author since even before Vineland (Black 1980, p.248; Chambers 1996, p.21). As metamodernism claims to juxtapose elements of the postmodern alongside the modern, swinging, like Pynchon, from one to the other in the epistemic and ontological regions respectively, a neo-romantic trend is documented and unsurprising.

Finally, I raised concern around the extra-textual work surrounding metamodernism, with the authors running a blog (Vermeulen & van den Akker 2011) and Twitter account (@metamodernism) focusing upon, and monitoring usage of, the terminology, which they seem to be attempting to shoehorn into academic discourse. Of course, this could simply be an innocuous knock-on effect of the pressure on academics to ensure impact from their work, with which I would now sympathize. At the time, I was worried that this could be indicative of some manner of Sokal-esque affair; a social experiment in its own right to ascertain how far a neologism of questionable background will travel within academic circles.