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From Postmodernism to Metamodernism

Christina Aziz asks whether metanarratives still matter, and if so, how.

In reaction to the religion, tradition and romanticism of earlier eras, ‘modernism’ was the name given to the broad movement of ideas, art and architecture that sprang from the twentieth century’s celebration of the supremacy of science. ‘Postmodernism’, by contrast, labels an attitude that took root in Western culture from the 1960s onwards, that rejected modernism’s certainty and universalism. Postmodernism has been characterised by experimentation, irrationalism, playfulness and, some might say, runaway individualism, including a rejection of the very idea of an authoritative, objective point of view. Considered a precursor of postmodernism, Friedrich Nietzsche caught something of its spirit when he wrote that “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’, 1873). A similar skepticism about given truths was manifested in Sixties France, in Jacques Derrida’s critique of linguistics and Michel Foucault’s wholesale subversion of the social sciences. As Christopher Butler puts it, postmodernism is certain only of its uncertainty.

Yet having superseded modernism, postmodernism is now itself in decline. The most influential ideas of postmodernism from the 1970s and 1980s have lost popularity. Just as postmodernism was a rebellion against modernism, metamodernism started surfacing in the 2000s, striking a balance between the poles of modernism and postmodernism.

The Grand Budapest Hotel landscape
A metamodernist landscape, from The Grand Budapest Hotel

Metanarratives about Metanarratives

In their essay ‘Notes on Metamodernism’ (Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol.2, 2010), Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker reported widespread agreement that postmodernism had become passé, but little consensus about what was replacing it. They suggested that the new thinking should be called ‘metamodernism’. The term derives from the Greek word ‘ meta’, which can mean ‘between’ or ‘beyond’. Thus ‘metamodernism’ highlights an unsettled interplay and vacillation between modernism and postmodernism: it’s a movement both between and beyond those two modes.

The critic Jean-François Lyotard argued in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) that postmodernism is characterized by ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’. Metanarratives are accounts of the large-scale nature of human history, existence, or progress. This means postmodernism is marked by a spirit of distrust towards any universal belief that’s supposed to explain human life and history – be it a religious, political, ethical, or social belief system. The only acceptable facts for postmodernists are the fact of differences and the fact of small narratives which claim no validation or knowability. (The modernist system itself hinges on the belief in reason.)

While postmodernism denounced metanarratives, metamodernism acknowledges that metanarratives are still current, and that the concept of the grand narrative should not be rejected in its entirety. Proponents of metamodernism further claim that although postmodernists announced the death of grand narratives, this has in fact not prevented new grand narratives from emerging, such as the new narratives of pluralism, global democratization, and secularism. As Jason Ānanda, one of the major exponents of metamodernism, puts it, “much of the postmodern canon was even rooted in its own pessimistic grand narratives about the fallenness of Being, colonialism, the death of God, or disenchantment” (Metamodernism: The Future of Theory, 2021).

Oscillating between modernist logocentrism (fixation on reason) and postmodern nihilism (saying nothing really matters), metamodernism adheres to Kant’s ‘negative idealism’ – the idea that we can know little or nothing about reality as it is in itself beyond our experience of it. Vermeulen and van den Akker stress that metamodernism takes upon itself to pursue truth endlessly, while keeping to the conviction that it is by no means certain that truth can be attained. In contrast, postmodernism aligned itself with Foucault’s belief that historical ‘truths’ mainly reflected the power relations within society, which marked the demise of objective truth entirely, leaving only subjective opinions and feelings.

Postmodernism was marked by a spirit of irony and cynicism, a defiance of the modernist enthusiasm for truth. Metamodernism also exhibits signs of irony – but now for the sake of striking a balance between modernism and postmodernism. As a manifestation of this, a range of contemporary writers are relinquishing the postmodern techniques of deconstruction, fragmentation, and pastiche, opting instead for reconstruction (of truth) and the value of aesthetic expression (that is, of beauty, and of emotionally captivating art). Moving beyond postmodern detachment and alienation, metamodernism strives to engage the reader by appealing to ethics, aesthetics, authenticity, hope, and personal sensibility. The critic Jerry Saltz stresses that metamodern artists are those who “grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time.” And in her essay ‘Interconnections in Blakean and Metamodern Space’ (doubledialogues.com), Alexandra Dumitrescu calls metamodernism a ‘budding cultural paradigm’ characterized by holism, connectionism, and assimilation. Metamodern works also often display a sense of nostalgia for the bygone days that preceded postmodernism.

History after the End of History

As we’ve seen, postmodernism was marked by its uncompromising repudiation of historical authenticity, as it regarded history as just one more grand narrative and therefore not objectively true. By contrast, metamodernist writers (some strongly motivated by the 9-11 attacks), are keen on exploring past events, especially those with a bearing on current political and social processes, such as climate change, globalization, glocalization, modern technology, and anti-racism. Jorg Heiser says this about the metamodernist ‘undecidability’ towards the past:

“Even if we were still ironic postmodernists, or whether we have evolved into post-ironic metamodernists, it is evident that simplistic notions of linear progress have long been exposed as illusory and dangerous, and even as we may be tempted by nihilism, it is hard to deny that virtually any idea of reflection and thought – indeed, of philosophy in general – ultimately relies on the assumption that progress is possible.”
(in Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism, edited by Robin van den Akker et al., 2017, p.75).

Vermeulen and van den Akker stress this when they define metamodernism as ‘history after the proclaimed end of history’.

Metamodern Art

Metamodernism often relies on the tenets of Neo-Romanticism, a movement associated with the revival of Romanticism. Neo-Romantic artists aim at beautifying the world while recognizing its ugly reality. Showing their allegiance to Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, metamodernists tend to openly express their emotions, moving to and fro between enthusiasm for life and the self-destructive urge for death. They oscillate between employing art constructively for social change, and expressing art just for art’s sake. Metamodernism also revives the Romantics’ interest in subjects such as the sublime, the uncanny, innocence, and tragedy. This explains why – in contrast to the deconstructive and ironic paintings of postmodernism – many contemporary paintings revolve around themes of nature, showing breathtaking landscapes to inspire wonder at the sublimity of creation. Vermeulen and van den Akker suggest that metamodernism directs one’s attention to transcending the constraints of language so that viewers or readers experience the sublime, whereas postmodernism deconstructs artistic experience by focusing on the inadequacy of descriptions. They refer to the opening exhibition of Gallery Tanja Wagner in Berlin, which in its press statement introduced the exhibited works as a balance between experience and naivety; sympathy and indifference; and totality and fragmentation.

In the medium of film, the movies of director Wes Anderson are patently examples of the metamodern zeitgeist, marked by a yearning for past innocence while ironically capturing life’s dreadfulness. Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) set in the midst of the Second World War, tells the story of the eccentric friendship between an aristocratic hotel manager wrongly convicted of murder and his refugee, ethnic-minority bellboy, who strives to help his boss prove his innocence. Set during a time charged with violence, fascism, racism, and corruption, romantic sensibility nevertheless endures, substantially owing to the bond of friendship between master and servant. The movie seems to vacillate between the realms of fantasy and reality. Its colourful hyper-real imagery is indicative of Anderson’s attempts to draw spectators into his forays into innocence and childhood naivety. This said, his movies are never devoid of irony and deconstruction – yet such postmodern techniques are only lightly used, in order to reject modern logocentrism.

Other metamodernist artworks aim at reviving theism or spirituality or instilling concepts of consistency and wholeness. For instance, Raoul Eshelman shows the reliance of performatist art after postmodernism upon ‘theist creation’ (see Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism 2008). Performatist artists endeavour to echo God’s work in nature by playing a powerfully mysterious role in their own creations: a performatist work will somehow remain inexplicable to its receivers despite its transparency and coherence. In addition, performatism is known for its tendency to transcend the material world by portraying ‘seemingly dematerialized planes’.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Metamodern Literature

In his book Metamodernism and Contemporary British Poetry (2021), Antony Rowland reports that several poets of the twenty-first century adopt some of the formal innovations of early twentieth century literature while honouring, yet shunning, the tradition. Such poets embrace T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, yet take it upon themselves to transcend that tradition and add their own spin to it. Rowland names a few metamodern poets (including Geoffrey Hill, J.H.Prynne, Geraldine Monk, Sandeep Parmar, Ahren Warner, James Byrne, and Tony Harrison), and says that they are metamodernists in the sense that “they engage at length with the legacies of early twentieth-century literature and absorb revolutions in form into divergent instances of contemporary poetry” (p.6). The poems of Geoffrey Hill, for instance, are rife with imagery of nature as he invests his poetry with Romantic and Transcendentalist qualities; yet at the same time the skeptical spirit of postmodernism endures throughout. In ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, for instance, Hill says that “God is distant, difficult”; however, the poet still wonders if he can “harmonize strangely with the divine.” The poem is testimony to what Linda Hutcheon calls ‘the complicitous critique’ (The Politics of Postmodernism, 1995, p.2), since it both embraces and subverts dominant cultural and societal norms.

A prime example of what a metamodernist novel can yield is found in The Sense of an Ending (2011) by Julian Barnes. It draws on the legacy of postmodernist literature in its experimental sense, marked by its nonlinearity; but the novel is also characterized by a modernist sense of introspection into the past and the self as the protagonists assess their lives in a philosophical manner to reach conclusions about their current situations and the dynamics of time. The novel infers that once a person reaches self-sufficiency by freeing him or herself from material needs, he or she can attain true happiness (which brings to mind Diogenes’ philosophy).

The philosophical method of self-reflexivity is a major characteristic of modernist literature, and is also reminiscent of Enlightenment themes. Tony, one of the novel’s protagonists, contemplates the individual’s moral responsibility to render life meaningful, saying, “Life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it… the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with” (p.48). However, the novel also abounds in postmodern themes when it distrusts the accuracy of history. For example, Tony says that “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation” (p.17). He wonders at life’s mystifying complexities, believing that he will never decipher the enigma of time, and openly proclaims his ignorance and impotence (thus rejecting modernist logocentrism), wondering, “What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?” (p.142). Indeed, despite his continuous attempts to reorganize his life, Tony remains bound by forces that are much stronger than him. However, the wisdom he seeks does provide him with solace. He comes to the realisation that he needs to apologize to Vironica, his ex-wife, for the wrongs he has done to her; yet she dies before receiving his letter of apology. The forces of time ironically overwhelm his life with unrest just when he thinks he has reclaimed purpose. This is why Urmi Satyan regards the novel as an oscillation “between pleasure and pain, loss and gain, mistakes and reparations” (Liberal Studies, Jan-Jun 2017). The novel ends with Tony proclaiming that “there is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest” (p.150). These words delineate the spirit of metamodernism, for the belief in the human agency and responsibility does not eliminate life’s unpredictability.

The realist novel is also now being revitalized by metamodernists, as manifested in several contemporary novels, such as Jack Hight’s The Saladin Trilogy (2011-2013). Such works seek to involve the reader by tackling mundane concerns.

In Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism (p.41) Josh Toth writes that Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison is a precursor to metamodernist novels, as it foreshadowed the demise of postmodernism. Morrison’s narrative prompts readers to judge the morality of protagonist Sethe’s behavior in order to decide whether or not her act of murdering her daughter stems from motherly love to protect her daughter from becoming a slave. However, the reader finds that they can never reach a final decision. Thus, despite the novel’s interest in existential dilemmas, it carries postmodernist undertones of rejecting final answers. Beloved also represents the modernist view of the indissoluble impact of the past on the present, coupled with the postmodern desire to remedy the mistakes of the past. The ghost of her daughter, Beloved, forces Sethe to perform exorcism to overcome the past; yet the ghost continues to appear, hindering the possibility of progress. The novel ends with Beloved inexplicably gone, leaving Sethe traumatized, with rumours emerging about Beloved’s return. It seems that to cure her predicament Sethe must keep struggling to overcome a past that will never vanish. She must live with a sense of undecidability, conscious of her impure past, while railing against its forces.


With the slow demise of postmodernism, critics laconically announced the emergence of metamodernism as a reconciliation between modernism and postmodernism. But metamodernism does not reject meta-narratives, and deems them important in the search for truth, even if truth is difficult to attain. Characterized by a pre-postmodern nostalgia, metamodernism evokes feelings of hope, holism, and authenticity. Metamodern themes also bear resemblance to Neo-Romanticism, since nature is brought into the limelight and becomes a motherlode of human interest.

Metamodernism also sheds light on life’s quandaries. The novels of metamodernism feature protagonists oscillating between an ideal world of plenitude, knowledge, and happiness, and a real world of impotence, loss, and uncertainty. Metamodernism regards history as a prerequisite for understanding the present. So yes, metanarratives do still matter under metamodernism. Yet the present must transcend the confines of the past, which is rife with foolhardiness and pitfalls.

© Christina Aziz 2024

Christina Aziz is a translator and a Teaching Assistant in the Faculty of Languages, Ain Shams University, Egypt.

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