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Metamodernism: The Future of Theory by Jason Storm

John Best tries to move beyond postmodernism.

Faced with the dire plight of modern culture, what are we postmodern humans to do? Well, before attempting to chart a course forward, it might be a good idea to back up and show how postmodernism put us in the fix we’re in.

Postmodernism is a response to modernism. Modernism was a development of the ideals of the Enlightenment, which suggested that advances in human affairs were achievable through the use of reason, which established a secure foundation for authentic human knowledge. Modernists believed the possession of that knowledge would enable genuine social progress, and ultimately, the perfectibility of humanity. The clearest manifestations of this ideal were seen in the scientific and mathematical discoveries sprung from that well of tidy orderliness that was the Newtonian physical world. Modernism perhaps reached its high point in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

But modernism failed. The massive irrationality of the twentieth century included the horrors of the World Wars, with the unimaginable cruelty of the Holocaust, alongside all the other racially or ideologically-based attempts at mass extermination, as well as the continued suppression of some cultures through colonialism. All these phenomena, and others, pointed to the imperfectability of humanity. Meanwhile, the discovery of the quantum world, with the consequent demotion of classical physics, seemed to undermine the modernistic hope that science would provide durable answers about reality.

In pushing back against these forces of irrationalism, from the early twentieth century onwards, philosophy attempted to define its traditional problems (reality, existence, etc.) in linguistic terms, with the hope that increasing the understanding of and precision of language would permit conceptual surety. But whatever traction this ‘linguistic turn’ achieved, the cost was high. Instead of finding a way out of the paradoxes and conundrums that arose from modernism, each new philosophical turn seemed diminishing, with the scope of human reasoning and knowledge becoming less and less sure.

When the very concept of reality is undermined, the search for knowledge becomes quixotic, and any putative truths emerging from such a search are immediately suspect. The result has been paralysis. And so, we arrive at the postmodern person’s plight: Whom and what to believe? And why?

It could all be grounds for despair; but in Jason Storm’s Metamodernism (2021) we see a potential way forward. He is not alone in seeking a way out of postmodern doubt. Other books, such as Metamodernism: Historicity, affect, and depth after postmodernism (eds Robin Van Den Akker, Alison Gibbons, and Timotheus Vermeulen), and Metamodernity: Meaning and hope in a complex world (Lene Rachel Andersen), explore somewhat similar terrain. The recent writings of these works and others might be taken as confirmation that the infinite doubts of postmodernism provide neither guidance nor refuge for people seeking meaning.

‘Metamodernism’ is an emerging movement in both the arts and the humanities. It is a continuation of some of the ideals of modernity, in particular with regard to notions of progress – if not perfectibility, at least the improvement of the human condition on a global scale, though, it is simultaneously, also a departure from what now looks like modernity’s somewhat naïve view of cultural indebtedness. There is a frankly visionary undercurrent at work in metamodernism. Its longing gaze at a better future explicitly rejects postmodernism’s ironic playful passivity. In a kind of intellectual ju-jitsu, as Storm notes, “Postmodern doubt can be made to doubt itself” (p.4).

Metamodernism’s Construction

The book begins by introducing our current problematic state, then proceeds through four major parts: Metarealism, Process Social Ontology, Hylosemiotics, and Knowledge and Value. Each part consists of one or three chapters.

Metarealism is concerned with establishing the conditions and limitations of reality. In academia, when previously agreed-upon categories begin to crack under the pressure of cross-disciplinary interrogation, professors begin grasping for concepts of the ‘real’ like passengers grabbing life-vests on a sinking ship. Postmodernism appears to have inherited a concept of ‘the real’ from modernism; that the real is that which is mind-independent. The typical postmodern response is to consider what was formerly ‘real’ as simply a ‘social construction’, that is, a product of the human mind, subject to the buffeting gales of culture and history. But Storm thinks this opposition between ‘the real’ and ‘products of the mind’ is misleading. By contrast, the metamodern response is to establish various ‘modes’ of the real, perhaps including contents of minds. Then the real becomes a possibility for those scholars who want to establish a contrast case. That is, the ‘real’ can be established as a contrasting case to that which is not real.

In the book’s second part Storm explains what he calls ‘Process Social Ontology’. Social ontology is concerned with the reality of social groups, especially in their apparent ability to act with agency in the creation of concepts which are sometimes external to them, such as the concept ‘money’, and sometimes internally self-referential, such as ‘gender’. One of social ontology’s goals is determining which, if any, of these concepts are really ‘natural kinds’ – types of things obviously definable in terms of static and unchangeable properties. However, such a search may lead to thinking of natural kinds as possessing an essence. Thinking in terms of essences enables one to generalize from one member of a natural kind to all of its members. This is in fact one of the tenets of substance ontology.

Storm accepts the reality of social groups and their group agency, but rejects essentialism. Instead he turns his attention to process ontology – the idea that all that exists is dynamic and continuously changing.

In creating the compound term, ‘process social ontology’, Storm is inevitably led to a detailed discussion of concepts and categories. He incorporates findings from cognitive science about the creation and use of ‘social kinds’ (categories of things that have no mind-independent essence, but which are instead defined through social agreement). Cognitive science indicates that social kinds don’t have rigid mental borders, as would be demanded by the essentialistic tenets of substance ontology but are more fuzzy. Process Social Ontology therefore is a proposal to deconstruct social kinds, and by doing so, “metamodernism demonstrates how various properties that make up the social world are constructed” (p.23).

Reconstructing Knowledge

What is the nature of the knowledge that a scientist might create?

Knowledge, or specifically our confidence in our ability to create and use it, was perhaps the chief casualty when the linguistic turn arose in Anglophone philosophy. In Part III, ‘Hylosemiotics’ (really one chapter, but the longest in the book), Storm makes contact with the implications of the linguistic turn. Surprisingly, he does not repudiate it. Instead, he acknowledges the skepticism the linguistic turn raised about the gap between the world either as it is or as it might be, and human representation of the world.

To show how this gap might be bridged, Storm begins by recounting a chance encounter he had with a snow monkey on a trail in the foothills above Kyoto. Although the monkey was initially surprised to see Storm on the seldom-used path, it did not produce its characteristic warning cry until it also saw a group of tourists who were hiking with their family dog. For Storm, this encounter shows the need to move the discussion beyond simply attempting to reckon with human language, to include the sign-making and sign-using capabilities of other species (and not only by other species, but also that of the external world itself as a massive swirl of constant signalling). The result of his analysis of sign-making and the consumption and use of signs leads to him seeing an interdependency between subject and object, and, ultimately between mind and body. This move also has the welcome effect of banishing the false conundrum of dualism.

This interdependence of mind, object, and world suggests another effect as well, for it implies that “knowledge emerges from the exploratory manipulation of the physical world” (p.198). In attempting to grapple with the nature of such knowledge, Storm sets up a tri-partite schema: Knowledge produced on the mathematical model is the result of deductive reasoning to a proved conclusion from axiomatic principles. Knowledge produced on the scientific model is the result of inductive reasoning from a set of examples to a general principle. Both approaches have limitations; so Storm argues for a third basis of knowledge, that of ‘abductive reasoning’, or reasoning to the best explanation (as based on a set of pre-defined criteria). Thus, our interactions in the world do not lead to certainty – there may always be a better explanation waiting to be generated – but if we are willing to relinquish certainty, we can hang on to a form of ‘humble knowledge’ (p.211) which Storm labels ‘zetetic’ knowledge, after the Greek term zētētikos – ‘one who seeks by inquiring’. Storm does not intend the knowledge thus gained to be value-neutral, a position he regards as a ‘failed project’ of postmodernism (p.239). Rather, he intends to establish an ambitious (and Kantian) program, in which knowledge would become the basis of conduct. In such a context the goal of the human sciences is to “become a way of life directed toward human flourishing” (p.255).

snow monkey
Can snow monkeys help us with philosophy?
Snow monkey meditation © Daisuke Tashiro 2014 Creative Commons 2

Constructive Conclusions

It seems unwise to mix descriptions of texts with evaluations of them. But, as Storm notes, academic disciplines routinely deploy evaluative language in terms of ‘epistemic values’ (p.248) – values that are most clearly seen in, among other locations, book reviews. Thus, clad in the protective gear of customary language, I’ll state that Storm writes with verve and passion. His technical arguments are laid out with fluidity and clarity. Wide-ranging erudition is on display. The copious chapter notes make interesting reading in themselves.

Metamodernism makes an important contribution for theorists of every stripe, and indeed for all who seek an antidote to postmodernism’s funhouse mirrors.

© John Best 2023

John Best is a cognitive scientist and Professor Emeritus of Eastern Illinois University.

Metamodernism: The Future of Theory, by Jason Storm, Uni of Chicago Press, 2021, 360 pages, $30 pb.

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