200 Years of Biohacking, from Shelley to Delillo
20 Giugno 2018

Metamodernism is the Thing with Feathers

To determine whether a new literary movement has come into existence as a reaction to postmodernism seems rather arduous considering that a consensus on what characterizes postmodernist fiction, when such current has started and, most importantly, if it has come to an end, has yet to be achieved. This said, the need to categorize contemporary cultural production is apparent given the wide variety of terms so divergent, creative and meticulous used to describe modern day literature, but the inability to find a signifier unequivocal enough to contain today’s most representative writing as whole suggests that the ambiguous nature of postmodernism itself has caused a multitude of slightly differing styles to develop. While terms like “post post-modernism[i]” and “metamodernism[ii]” aim to give a broad view of contemporary literary trends and their position on a timeline, labels such as “post-irony[iii]”, “New Sincerity[iv]”, “digimodernism[v]” or “hysterical realism[vi]” try to point at the specific aspects – rhetorical devices, tone of voice or quirkiness – that make new literature innovative and separated from its predecessor. Although the concepts behind these labels appear to be often overlapping and the differences in meaning so subtle to become blurred, this essay will not criticize this specificity in terminology, but, instead, offer a new tag to connect what is past with what is post. After examining why “metamodernism”, from a strictly linguistic perspective, might be an apt word to define contemporary experimental literature, the novel Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter[vii] will be employed as a prime example of how, in such context, a sub-genre of “post-cynic” (rather than post-ironic) writing is establishing itself in contrast to postmodern narratives.

Many scholars who have dedicated their careers to the study of postmodernism have come, with the turn of the millennium, to the conclusion that it is now time to move on. Linda Hutcheon, in her The Politics of Postmodernism, famously wrote “Let’s just say it: it’s over[viii]” and Alan Kirby, four years later, criticized the fact that postmodernism was still “sold” as contemporary in educational institutions:

Most of the undergraduates who will take ‘Postmodern Fictions’ this year [2004] will have been born in 1985 or after, and all but one of the module’s primary texts were written before their lifetime. Far from being ‘contemporary’, these texts were published in another world, before the students were born: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nights at the Circus, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and Blade Runner), White Noise: this is Mum and Dad’s culture[ix].

In 2010 Vermeulen and van den Akker joined the debate on post post-modernism by arguing, in the article Notes on Metamodernism, that an “emerging structure of feeling” is replacing postmodernism by abandoning “the aesthetic precepts of deconstruction, parataxis, and pastiche in favor of aesth-ethical notions of reconstruction, myth, and metaxis[x]“.

Accepting Kirby’s depiction of postmodernism as outdated is rather difficult in view of how ingrained in our culture postmodern devices have become and how relevant its presence still is in the discussion of literary works, but it is evident that a desire to deviate from the philosophy of “victimary thinking”[xi], moral relativism[xii] and the aimless self-referentiality (or, as Richard Dawkins put it, “metatwaddle”[xiii]) is being expressed, whether this is subsequent or concurrent to postmodernism. David Foster Wallace expressed, already in 1993, this need to shift toward a more emotional, genuine style of writing in order to restore the human connection between author, text and reader. In E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, Wallace proposed New Sincerity as a replacement for postmodernism, a movement that would respond to self-conscious irony with tools dating back to romantic literature:

The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.

Metamodernism and New Sincerity seem to share their attraction toward “pragmatic romanticism[xiv]” and a sense of nostalgia for the nineteenth-century positivism, but where the former is slowly rooting itself in contemporary culture, the latter failed to grow into the literary movement it aspired to become. Post-ironic writing remained a marginal current mainly because irony never ceded to exist, as journalist Zoe Williams pointed out:

it is very modish to use this [“post-ironic”] – as if to suggest one of three things: i) that irony has ended; ii) that postmodernism and irony are interchangeable, and can be conflated into one handy word; or iii) that we are more ironic than we used to be, and therefore need to add a prefix suggesting even greater ironic distance than irony on its own can supply. None of these things is true.[xv]

Moreover, it could be argued that Wallace failed to put the New Sincerity ethos into practice; by writing Infinite Jest[xvi], a thousand-page fictional text meant to represent the values contained in E Unibus Pluram, Wallace produced a tome that instead of provoking a genuine emotional response in a wide, diverse audience, resonated as emblematic principally within the elitist, postmodern, liberal discourse. Ironically, Wallace’s self-consciousness made his attempt at sincerity reflective: to remain true to himself he became a hard to approach hyperintellectual literary icon, far detached from the figure of the “banal new rebel” he had imagined.

Vermeulen and van den Akker emphasize the fact that in their interpretation of metamodernism the prefix “meta” does not stand for self-reflectivity, but it is used in accordance to the Greek-English Lexicon:

The prefix ‘meta’ has acquired something of a bad rep over the last few years. It has come to be understood primarily in terms of self-reflection – i.e. a text about a text, a picture about a picture, etc. But ‘meta’ originally intends something rather more colloquial. According to the Greek-English Lexicon the preposition and prefix ‘meta’(μετά) has several meanings and connotations. Most commonly it translates as ‘after’. But it can also be used to denote qualitative ‘changes’ or to designate positions such as ‘with’ and ‘between’. […] Meta- does not refer to one particular system of thought or specific structure of feeling. It infers a plurality of them, and repositions itself with and between them. It is many, but also one. Encompassing, yet fragmented. Now, yet then. Here, but also there[xvii].

Such a concept is reinforced in Luke Turner’s Metamodernist Manifesto, where a pendulum is employed as a metaphor to describe the current:

metamodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons. We must go forth and oscillate!”.

As the term “metamodernism” is still evolving, both because of its recent introduction and of the fluid nature of its proposed meaning, it is important to expand on what could lie beyond this designation. “Metamodernism”, as opposed to “post post-modernism”, does not suggest a fixed position on a timeline; it moves forward by reevaluating its twentieth-century origin; it does not reject modernism and postmodernism in their entirety, but recycles their devices to offer new meaning. “Meta” while referring to a state of “in-betweenness”, can be interpreted also through its second connotation, as reflecting back upon postmodernism and its own role in literature as a whole. Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter’s first, highly experimental novel, exist in the awareness of its position in the realm of literature and makes fun on the absurdity of such categorizations, without ever doing so explicitly. In the words of the author himself “I wanted high theory and bum jokes, psychoanalysis and Lego. […] I’m interested in the relationship between different forms when you move between them. […] This book is a love letter to the hybrid form”[xviii]. At the core of Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a short book of just above a hundred pages which blends prose, poetry, questionnaires, lists and interviews and uses, we find the emotional reaction of a father and his two sons to the unexpected loss of the fourth member of their family. The reader is drawn into the story by the ability of a series of unreliable narrators to depict the surreal and primordial feeling of grief through a metaphorical crow. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an object built to transmit raw feelings: it purposely avoids grammatical and literary conventions, reducing various passages to basic sounds, shapes and symbols representative of pure human emotions.

The author’s literary aims are not invasive, but clearly present. Max Porter is a conscious innovator, with many subtle details that perspire postmodernism but branch out elsewhere, from the cover artwork designed by Eleanor Crow, to the obvious and less obvious intertextual references that place Ted Hughes and Oxford next to (and on the same level of) elements of mass culture such as McDonald’s and Guinness, to the overlapping narratives of crossed out words. It would be a mistake to call Grief is the Thing with Feathers a post-ironic text since it does not move away from postmodernism by abandoning such rhetorical tool. Irony, in fact, abounds in Porter’s text and it often points to literature itself, for example when the fourth wall is broken with a list of interpretation questions about the text itself – questions such as “If the boots are a metaphor for the ability to cope with grief, who do you think has died?” – left for the reader to answer. Rather than post-ironic, then, it would be more appropriate to refer to metamodern texts like this one as “post-cynic”, given that the complexity in structure, the use of rhetorical devices and figures of speech, the intertextual referencing and self-referentiality of postmodernism remain, but the fundamental message contained in the text, especially in regards to the themes of love, death and human relationships, is shifting back to a positivist approach, where spontaneous emotions are not deconstructed and represented in their most natural state.

In the progression from modernism to postmodernism to metamodernism doubts about the meaning of life and the scepticism toward anything absolute are beginning to encounter a form of liberating acceptance of the absence of reliable grand narratives. A sensibility toward smaller details, an attention for the everydayness is acquiring more and more space in today’s cultural production, perhaps also as a result of the practice of mindfulness, environmental awareness and distrust of official truths gone mainstream. The attack on late-capitalism posed by postmodernists has led to a worldview which does not allow for safe predictions of the future, a mindset that favours micro-activism rather than revolutionary efforts. Critical theorist Noam Chomsky has highlighted in the past how postmodern philosophy may have caused a dissociation from reality due to its relativistic stance and rejection of objectivityxix. In this context, moral relativism combined with the vulnerability of globalized systems have created an absence of existential safe-ground which is being filled today with a consciousness about the only thing that can be taken for granted: the present moment.

Such process, though, is not entirely new in the world of literature. When John Williams, in 1965, published Stoner[xx], his literary masterpiece, he provided a sad, sometimes nihilist, view of life (and death), in contrast with the one described by modernists before him. As Tim Kreider put it:

“You could almost describe it as an anti-“Gatsby.” I suspect one reason “Gatsby” is a classic is that, despite his delusions and his bad end, we all secretly think Gatsby’s pretty cool. Americans don’t really see him as an anti-hero or a tragic figure—not any more than they see the current breed of charismatic criminals on cable as villains. Gatsby’s a success story: he makes a ton of money, looks like a million bucks, owns a mansion, throws great parties, and even gets his dream girl, for a little while, at least. “Stoner”’s protagonist is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, drudges away in a dead-end career, dies, and is forgotten: a failure.”[xxi]

Williams offered a postmodern view on routine that was milder in tone than many of his contemporaries (such as William Burroughs or Kurt Vonnegut), but just as dark and deprived of hope in its content. In response to the cynicism of the early postmodernists, later works of fiction, such as Life, A User’s Manual by George Perec[xxii], begun to examine the subject in a more positive light.

Barblebooth, the millionaire protagonist of Life, A User’s Manual, chooses to live a life of which every aspect if perfectly prearranged, organized in a way to avoid any sort of higher meaning. He decides to spend ten years learning how to paint, to then travel around the globe in order to produce a series of exactly 500 watercolors. Each artefact is mailed back to France as soon as it is completed, where a craftsman is employed to transform them into puzzles. At his return Barblebooth will spend the last two decades of his life re-building the paintings, which will ultimately be sent to their place of origin and destroyed, leaving no mark of their production in the world. In the process, Barblebooth will spend his entire fortune.

Perec, in his portrayal of life inside a Parisian apartment building, defines his characters through their furniture, their posture, the contents of their minds and drawers. Life, A User’s Manual is the snapshot of a moment around which life is performed, a moment not carefully chosen – June 23, 1975, just before 8 PM – but as important as any other. Perec, an author described by Italo Calvino as “one of the most singular literary personalities of the world, a writer who resembled absolutely no one else”[xxiii], who structured his novel like a mathematical puzzle while talking about an actual puzzle, could be considered a precursor of metamodernism for his optimistic and often comic approach to postmodernist philosophy and the unconventionality of his style.

Some of the most successful works contemporary fiction, such as Grief is the Thing With Feathers, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dìaz or The Sellout, by Paul Beatty are bringing empathy back to the foreground, without giving up their experimental and innovative nature. The frequent inclusion of references to popular culture – from Hollywood movies to fairy tales, to superheroes and comics – put side by side to more subtle “high-brow” links , denotes a trend to a more egalitarian view of art, a willingness to demonstrate that all cultural outputs play, in their own way, a fundamental role in shaping the character of societies and individuals. Satire, irony, fragmented narration, colloquialisms, intertextuality, side notes, bilingualism, slang, meta-fiction are all prominent elements in metamodernist writing but remain secondary as the attention is focused on rediscovering literature as accessible, honest, entertaining and again moving.


Works Cited:
[i] Kirby, Alan. “The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond.” Philosophy Now: a Magazine of Ideas, philosophynow.org/issues/58/The_Death_of_Postmodernism_And_Beyond.
[ii]Turner, Luke. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Metamodernism*.” Berfrois, 9 Jan. 2015, www.berfrois.com/2015/01/everything-always-wanted-know-metamodernism/.
[iii] Hoffmann, Lukas. Postirony: the Nonfictional Literature of David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers. Transcript, 2016.
[iv] Wallace, David Foster, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993:Summer) p.151
[v] Kirby, Alan. Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. Continuum, 2009.
[vi] Wood, James. “Human, All Too Inhuman.” The New Republic, 24 July 2000, newrepublic.com/article/61361/human-inhuman.
[vii]Porter, Max. Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Faber & Faber, 2015.
[viii]Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. Routledge, 2007.
[ix] Kirby, Alan. “The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond.” Philosophy Now: a Magazine of Ideas, philosophynow.org/issues/58/The_Death_of_Postmodernism_And_Beyond.
[x] Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin Van Den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 2, no. 1, 2010, p. 5677., doi:10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677
[xi] Gans, Eric. “Victimary Thinking Forever? – Chronicles of Love and Resentment.”Anthropoetics, 3 June 2016, anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw230/.
[xii] Merritt, Jonathan. “The Death of Moral Relativism.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 25 Mar. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/the-death-of-moral-relativism/475221/
[xiii] Dawkins, Richard. “Postmodernism Disrobed”. Nature 394, pp 141-143, 9th July 1998, https://web.archive.org/web/20140121203722/http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/824-postmodernism-disrobed
[xiv]Turner, Luke. “The Metamodernist Manifesto” The Metamodernist Manifesto | Luke Turner, 2011, www.metamodernism.org/.
[xv]Williams, Zoe. “The Final Irony.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 June 2003, www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2003/jun/28/weekend7.weekend2.
[xvi]Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest: a Novel. Abacus, 1996.
[xvii] Editorial. “What Meta Means and Does Not Mean.” Notes on Metamodernism, 10 Oct. 2010, www.metamodernism.com/2010/10/14/what-meta-means-and-does-not-mean/.
[xviii] “Max Porter @ 5×15 – Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Apr. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6jOh6-TyUs.
[xix]“Noam Chomsky Explains What’s Wrong with Postmodern Philosophy & French Intellectuals, and How They End Up Supporting Oppressive Power Structures.” Open Culture, www.openculture.com/2018/02/noam-chomsky-explains-whats-wrong-with-postmodern-philosophy-french-intellectuals.html.
[xx] Williams, John. Stoner. Random House Inc, 2015.
[xxi] Kreider, Tim. “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-greatest-american-novel-youve-never-heard-of.
[xxii] Perec, Georges, and David Bellos. Life, a User’s Manual. David R. Godine, 2016.
[xxiii] Auster, Paul. “THE BARTLEBOOTH FOLLIES.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Nov. 1987, www.nytimes.com/1987/11/15/books/the-bartlebooth-follies.html.