Why I’m Not Over Dead French Writers Just Yet
towards metamodernism and other lower case ideas
This is an essay response to Elle Griffin’s recent piece “I’m So Over Dead French Writers.” Elle and I have been exchanging ideas about 21st century literature via letters. We will be publishing that exchange in a few days’ time. For now, here’s an accompaniment essay about the transition from modernism to postmodernism to metamodernism. Best enjoyed with a cup of coffee or whiskey.
What we’re talking about when we talk about “isms”
Much like the writers of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, artists of the 21st century have the potential to illuminate a path forward, but this is by no means a guarantee. If history is progress, and the goal were to keep what works and quit what doesn’t, the history of fascist regimes wouldn’t be so closely linked to the history of democratic elections.
Despite the undeniable progress humans have made in the fields of education, medicine, science, and technology in the last century, the last few years have proven that when it comes to human society as a whole, we’re still struggling to shake off the toxic pollen of ignorance and bigotry.
(I’ve provided a depressing but accurate footnote way down at the bottom of this page about a few of the issues we’re facing.1 I agree with Elle—there’s no point in lamenting how fucked up everything is all the time—but I do think it’s essential to be aware of what we as a collective species are facing if we hope to write utopian novels that get beyond existential malaise.)
Optimism requires a recognition of its logical opposite, which means trudging into the abyss and walking through the doldrums of nihilism, not pretending like the darkness doesn’t exist. So with that being said, let’s delve into the historical soup of literary “isms.”
A return to civilization, via the Modernists
“[The USA] has the disadvantage of believing in progress, and progress has really nothing to do with civilization [...] France has scientific methods, machines and electricity, but does not really believe that these things have anything to do with the real business of living. Life is tradition and human nature.” Gertrude Stein, Paris, France (1939)
What was modernism, postmodernism, and why am I writing an essay arguing for the seemingly pretentious term metamodernism? Academic terms tend to be purposefully obtuse and annoying, but only so long as we’re unwilling to investigate them. Academic terms are intimidating, in part, because they tend to incorporate an entire history within them, making it near-impossible to understand any “ism” without understanding which ideas came before it.
Major shifts in “isms” and aesthetics tend to occur after humanity is forced to reckon with its own mortality, megalomania, and penchant for destruction. The Renaissance followed the Middle Ages and the Plague, and the Enlightenment responded to it by criticizing some of the worst aspects of that era, including (but not limited to) colonialism, slavery, and religious violence. Romanticism developed in response to the Enlightenment and its cold detached, faith in science, logic, modern capital and industrialization. And so the seeds of literary modernism began in the late 19th century, in response to all of the realities that came before it, but these seeds didn’t truly blossom until after WWI, when European soil was fertilized with the bodies of ten million soldiers and ten million civilians.
Modernists, like Gertrude Stein, sought a new way of looking at reality, one that didn’t shy away from the brutality of the modern era. While the expressionists sought to explain the world through myriad subjective experiences, the cubists believed the world could be understood by looking at ideas and objects from multiple perspectives; and while the surrealists questioned humanity’s preconceived notions about reality, believing that the subconscious might approximate a capital-T Truth, the futurists thought modern technology could imbue the future with meaning. We forget, however, that Fascism was also a modernist movement. It was a philosophy developed by Mussolini and the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile, and its obsession with national self-determination, the self-perpetuating Nation as Spirit, and the need for an out-group would lead to the most destructive war in human history.
Common to all of these modernist ways of thinking about the world, however, was the conviction that a capital letter idea or “ism” might save is. But if the brutality of World War One and the 1918 influenza pandemic forced artists to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound hoped, the crucibles of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Auschwitz destroyed the very possibility that we can make sense of human nature, let alone existence, through any “ism.”
What the hell is going on? Probably postmodernism
In a word, post-modernism was a “post-ism”, a worldview that rejected capital-letter truths by asking whether it was useful, let alone possible, to put words and meaning to the impenetrable nature of existence. If the modernists sought to replace the old narratives with new and improved lenses, the post-modernists suggested that the very notion of being able to see reality, let alone through a specific lens, was a hopeless, futile task.
In a postmodernist’s opinion, existence defies narrative, a belief that has been heavily criticized for actively choosing not to imbue life with any sense of meaning. Postmodernism states that nobody knows what’s going on, and that human nature is absurd, and that reality is entirely subjective, and that because of all of this, there’s really nothing to be done so fuck it, let’s all just be selfish and sarcastic and make jokes about the pithy nature of existence until we’re dead and gone. Postmodernism gave us Seinfeld and NWA and disco and Kurt Cobain, so we’ll forever be grateful. The values of irony, sarcasm, moral relativism, skepticism, and apathy also did a lot for the creation of a glittering consumer society wherein the consumer is always right and the individualist is capital-G God. Postmodernism’s secularism made it cool not to care and be a beach chair rebel because Big Brother is everywhere, but it wasn’t very useful as a movement to help individuals find meaning in life. Alas, if only the postmodernists could have better understood the lower-case version of existentialism.
Existence precedes everything
“We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.” James Baldwin
Contrary to popular belief, existentialism does not argue that life has no meaning; in fact, quite the opposite. My favorite book of all time was written by Viktor Frankl, an existentialist psychoanalyst who survived four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning ten days after liberation. Frankl’s book remains the most optimistic interpretation of the human condition I have ever read: “To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”
The existentialists are not nihilists, and this is a critical distinction. Nihilism is the belief that life has no meaning; existentialism is the belief that there is no objective meaning to life (no capital-T truth meta-narrative), but that life always has potential, subjective meaning in every moment. The human being’s duty is to seek out and create this meaning for themselves, without infringing upon another individual’s primordial right to do the same.
Albert Camus’ deceptively simple one-liner in The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay based on the ancient Greek trickster who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, says it all, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Yes, existence can be painful, and absurd, and unfair, and cruel, but it is also beautiful precisely because regardless of life’s conditions, we are free to choose how to respond. In the famous words of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, “existence precedes essence.” Whatever essence (label / identity) that patriarchy/society/our parents/our job forces upon us is secondary to the truth that first and foremost, we exist. Simone de Beauvoir said it well—"One is not born woman: one becomes it”—and James Baldwin said it even better—“I am only black so long as you are white”—and Nina Simone perhaps said it best of all: “Freedom is just a feeling […] I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.”
If these ideas aren’t optimistic, I don’t know what is, which is why I think the ideas of existentialism were commodified in the 1950s and turned into watered-down truths that were never meant to be objectified. Existentialism is as much a philosophy as a way of being, which brings me to my optimism about the current literary epoch and the term metamodernism, a nebulous, admittedly academic term that I believe is best equipped to navigate a new, potentially illuminated era that rehabilitates versus rejects the ideas of the past.
metamodernism, or, choose your own adventure
Like postmodernism, metamodernism challenges the idea of any grand narrative, but unlike the irony and sarcasm of postmodernism, metamodernism acknowledges the human need for spirituality, mythology, beauty, and small-t truths in our lives.
When I started learning about the term, I was surprised to come across the work of none other than a hilarious and talented saxophonist/philosopher from my funk band in college (we went to the University of Vermont, and we were called the Sepia Tones, and we played very basic white people funk music). Brendan Dempsey has been doing incredible research, work, and retreats to educate people about metamodernism, and a lot of what I know about the term is directly thanks to him. So, first and foremost, thanks for the education, Brendan. I highly recommend the video series on his website, which explains these ideas in a beautiful, instructive way.
One of the foundational texts of metamodernism is a 2020 essay called “Notes on Metamodernism” (Vermeulen and van den Akker). In it, the authors lay out a proposal for what the term might mean:
[metamodernism] oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. ...Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm.
The idea here is that life is still beautiful despite all of the contemporary world’s ugliness, and that optimism and idealism are still useful tools, despite the enormous challenges our planet is facing. Metamodernism gives us hope precisely because it acknowledges the pros and cons of the Enlightenment, Romantic, Modernist, and Postmodernist eras. Neither nihilistic nor idealistic, it oscillates between the extremes, championing a “pragmatic idealism” or “informed naïveté” that allow us to maintain faith in the potential of a better world. It is humanistic, which at its core has only ever meant the belief in the potential goodness of human beings. It places faith in humanity versus individualism, without ignoring the need for subjectivity. It rejects a social media that champions the cult of personality in favor of platforms that put the work before the personality. It believes in a more quiet, humble and communal form of ambition.
Metamodernism asks us to consider existentialism and wade through the swamps of nihilism so that as we exit the postmodern era, we can shake off the nihilistic dust for good. According to the Egyptian-American theorist Ihab Hassan, “For only through nihilsm is nihilism overcome.” In his 2003 essay ,“Beyond Postmodernism,” Hassan further suggests a way out of this apathetic postmodern trap:
“I can try to put certain ideas, certain words, into play, words that we have forgotten in academe, words that need, more than refurbishing, reinvention. I mean words like truth, trust, spirit, all uncapitalised, in addition to words like reciprocity and respect, sympathy and empathy.”
This sense of reinvention, or rehabilitation, is the central theory of metamodernism, which exists between the lines of all of the previous “isms.”
“Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
Let’s consider one of the best examples of metamodernist writing from the 21st century: Rick and Morty. In this TV show, Morty, a boy without friends going through the growing pains of puberty, goes on interdimensional/intergalactic adventures with his alcoholic grandfather, Rick, an alcoholic genius scientist who lives in his daughter’s garage. On their adventures, Rick and Morty constantly stare mortality and the existential void in the face, but Morty, in particular, always remains optimistic about the possibility of each subsequent adventure, even after he witnesses his own death and buries his own corpse multiple times. In one of the most memorable episodes (S1E6, “Rixty Minutes), Morty reassures his older sister, Summer, that life always holds potential meaning: "Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's gonna die. Come watch TV."
At first glance, Morty’s advice might seem nihilistic, but I disagree. What Morty is asking Summer is to share in a meaningful experience with him, even if it means just watching TV. The philosophers who drank or drugged themselves to death–most of the modernists and postmodernists, Anthony Bourdain included, as Elle points out in her essay–are cautionary tales, not idols. I wholeheartedly agree with her in that respect: the addiction-fueled Tortured Artist trope is tired, and it has killed far too many talented artists in the last few decades to list here. Many people who struggle with addiction and mental health often struggle with the postmodernist ideas of apathy and irony, because in a consumerist world that tells us the individual is God, this only works as long as we believe in the personal myth.
Conclusion: [insert your conclusion here]
Metamodernism rejects the existential void of postmodernism and the naïve idealism of modernism by oscillating between these two poles. It admits that while there may not be any universal meaning to life, human beings are mythmakers who have have the capability and duty to create meaning. In this sense, metamodernism is fundamentally optimistic. If postmodernism was the loss of the metanarrative and the reification of the Individual Self, metamodernism (lower-case m) is the rejection of upper-case terms in favor of the subjective, individual need for faith, spirituality, and personal mythology in service of a singular human community.
Metamodernism, by definition, promotes ideas of fluidity and inclusivity. It is the negotiation between the individual and the community, faith and apathy. When understood via the original meaning of the Greek prefix meta, meta-modernism simply means “with, across, or after” modernism. In this way, it seeks to rehabilitate and synthesize the values of its three older siblings: Romanticism, with its ideas of the gothic, the sublime, the questioning of progress, the restless spirit, mythology, god, the eternal (think Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Mary Shelley); Modernism and its willingness to “make it new” by looking at reality and the subconscious (think Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Woolf); and finally Postmodernism and its focus on subjectivity, post-colonialism, magical realism, critical race theory and a generally critical view of literally everything (think James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs, Salman Rushdie, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace).
Metamodernism seeks to unify these previously reactionary “isms” by forever oscillating between them. Elle said it perfectly in reference to the Enlightenment in her essay:
These artists were the light seekers. The ones who found something worth striving for. The ones who dared to dream up something better. And I think a similar shift is happening now—that something about the pandemic altered the way we think and allowed us to reinvent the world ever so slightly.
Now that we have a framework for the era in which we are working, the only option left is to do the work. We must honor the personal by making it universal.
Here on Substack, which espouses metamodernist values of the artist versus the gatekeeper, the work versus the personality, the individual as part of a larger community, Elle is planning to serialize a utopian novel in the autumn, and I am serializing a love story about how I met a woman in a dive bar a week before Covid, fell in love with her over text messages during a global pandemic, and was married within a year. There is beauty in this world, even in the darkest corners, and it is our job as artists to illuminate it.
A few examples of humanity’s absurdity in just the last few months: on June 24, 2022, five old men wearing black robes decided that American women no longer have an inalienable right to their own internal organs. In other American news, three days after an angry young male legally purchased a machine gun and murdered nineteen children in an elementary school, an angry, old white megalomaniacal real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-demagogue-president was the guest of honor at what many Americans continue to believe is the most freedom-loving of all institutions, the NRA. Not to be outdone by the USA, across all of planet earth during the maybe-but-not-exactly-post-Covid-era, manmade fires continued to burn from California to Siberia, destroying unconscionable numbers of the earth’s most precious resource in fighting CO2 emissions—trees—while the most progressive humans amongst us continued to proselytize about buying organic toothpaste, going to therapy, and buying sustainable shoes for our cross-country road trips and transatlantic flights. If we could ask any other animal species in the last thousand years about progress, I would bet they’d say that on the whole, it’s illusory, and at worst this selective idea of progress is the very reason why we’re in the midst of yet another mass extinction event. Woof.