A resource site for performatism and post-postmodernism 

Performatism Blog



(posts appear in reverse order)

  • Post 1: The Misery of Posthistoricism
  • Post 2: The Prison-house of Postmodernism (On Fredric Jameson's "Aesthetics of Singularity")
  • Post 3: The Performatist Challenge (More Fun than Dumping  a Bucket of Ice Water over Your Head)
  • Post 4: Theory Smackdown:  Performatism Tussles with Five Approaches to Literary Post-postmodernism
  • Post 5: David Foster Wallace and Performatism: On        Subjectivity, Separation, and the Public
  •  Post 6: A Note to the Editors of Supplanting the Postmodern
  •  Post 7: On Authenticity and Post-Postmodernism (Wolfgang Funk's The Literature of Reconstruction)
  • Post 8: Performatism, Political Economy, and the Media
  • Post 9: Performatism and the Theory of Presence: Robert Hermann's Präsenztheorie
  • Post 10: Performatism, Metamodernism, and Spiritual Trends in Popular Culture: Articles by Linda Ceriello and Greg Dember
  • Post 11: Performatism in an Art Installation: The Framing of Perspective and Space in Brian O’Doherty’s Rope Drawing #124 by Zakirah Rabaney (guest contributor)
  • Post 12: Notes on "Notes on Metamodernism": Part 1
  • Post 13: Notes on "Notes on Metamodernism": Part 2
  • Post Nr. 14: Review of David Rudrum et al. (eds). New Directions in Philosophy and Literature. Edinburgh 2019.


Review of David Rudrum et al. (eds). New Directions in Philosophy and Literature. Edinburgh 2019.

Blog Post Nr. 14 

9 November 2022

Since this collection is large (480+ pages) and very wide-ranging, I’m confining myself mainly to remarks on Part I, “Beyond the Postmodern: Literature, Philosophy and the Question of the Contemporary.” In particular, I'll focus on David Rudrum's "polymodernism," Van den Akker's, Vermeulen's and Gibbons' metamodernism, and Josh Toth's "historioplastic fiction."

The editors describe this collection of essays as "the first attempt to map out the many exciting ways in which new developments in twenty-first-century philosophy are entering into dialogue with the study of literature" (ix). But just how much are they committed to "mapping new developments"? Alarm bells start ringing right away when you leaf through the introductory chapter by Claire Colebrook on "Philosophy's Literary Impossibility."  Colebrook's wide-ranging discussion encompasses the classics (Kant, Hegel),  the usual poststructuralist suspects (Derrida, de Man, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and Rorty), modernist continental philosophers (Adorno, Habermas), contemporary ethical philosophers (Nussbaum, MacIntyre), and currently popular thinkers like Bruno Latour and Alain Badiou. However, of the 30-some cited works, only two were actually published in the twenty-first century--so much for "new developments." 

     Things don't get much better in David Rudrum's article on “The Polymodern Condition: A Report on Cluelessness” (22-40). Rudrum, of course, is the editor (along with Nicholas Stavros) of Supplanting the Postmodern (2015), the first anthology of writings on post-postmodernism. The problem with Rudrum is that he doesn’t think that there is any such thing as post-postmodernism or, for that matter, postmodernism. Instead, he thinks that we find ourselves in an endlessly regressing, historically never-ending condition that he calls polymodernity and that “has so many different inflections that it is impossible to characterize” (28). Polymodernity, for its part, is an “ongoing experience” (29), a fluid extension of good old 20th-century modernism that also encompasses postmodernism and, of course, post-postmodernism. The proof of this consists of two arguments: that almost all the attempts to name post-postmodernism use “modernism” as a suffix and that the developments many people call postmodernism and post-postmodernism contain elements of modernism. Here Rudrum is doing nothing more than repackaging familiar postmodern or posthistorical arguments. His main thesis is that (poly)modernity is so incredibly heterogeneous and marked by an endless regress of difference that it can never be categorized historically or, in fact, ever end: “[…] it is no longer possible to say what would count as having finished [modernity]” (28). In this scenario, modernism, postmodernism and post-postmodernism all flow together in a stream of endlessly confusing mutual reference, thus relieving the observer of any obligation to deal with pesky new theories that try to make historical or categorical distinctions between modern, postmodern and post-postmodern texts.

     In this regard it is telling that Rudrum leaves performatism out of his short survey of the “newly prefixed -modernisms” (27) (automodernism, digimodernism, altermodernism, hypermodernism, remodernism, metamodernism). Here it is clear that Rudrum is implicitly continuing the argument that he and Stavros made in Supplanting Postmodernism, namely that performatism is nothing more than a “method of interpretation” (112) that is rendered void because the works it treats “could be read through a postmodern lens just as easily” (112)—meaning that performatism is nothing more than an idiosyncratic and arbitrary way of reading untethered from any empirical reference.    

       Regarding the six theories mentioned above, his main point is not that they are wrong, but that they have no common denominator (29)—something that is not entirely off the mark. Rudrum goes on to argue that the above-named theories are “clueless” because they can’t capture that endless regress of heterogeneity that he had ascribed to all of 20th and 21st century culture from the very beginning. The logic of this circular reasoning, it might be noted, is quintessentially postmodern: it makes endlessly unfolding difference the motor of cultural (post)history and it suggests that in that (post)history discourse has become progressively more disconnected from empirical reality or truth principles. Polymodernity looks suspiciously like the apotheosis—the crowning glory—of postmodernism: a state of “cluelessness” in which nobody understands anything anymore because everything is not only highly heterogeneous but also for the most part incapable of reliably describing empirical reality. These “would-be descriptions of the present” are based on an “inability to make sense of the many bafflingly different ways in which the contemporary is experienced” (29). 

     In all fairness to Rudrum, he seems to realize that his own argument is contradictory and/or circular. As he admits, polymodern critics are “in the position of the Cretan liar: if what I say is true, my thesis must be false” (37). This is, incidentally, the same problem faced by the radical postmodernist Baudrillard (whom Rudrum quotes earlier on): for if everything is a simulacrum, i.e., a false sign, then isn’t a postmodern theory of the simulacrum, which is made up of signs, also false? Rudrum wriggles out of this trap by saying that “truth and its groundings have always been hard to separate from the notion of modernity” (37). I interpret this to mean that he thinks that the central task of describing cultural history is an epistemological one, i.e, based on a critique of how we go about knowing things. This, of course, is a classic postmodernist and/or poststructuralist position, advanced most notably by Lyotard in his seminal work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge from the year 1979. Rudrum's own approach to this task is more quantitative than qualitative: he seems to think that in polymodernity everything keeps piling up to the point where the only thing we can do is admit our own cluelessness.  
     To sum up, Rudrum’s “polymodernity” is just another posthistorical attempt to project the concept of endlessly unfolding, uncontrollable difference—the dominant trope of postmodernist thought and practice—onto both past and contemporary cultural history and thereby extend the historical scope of postmodernism. Because of its circular and derivative nature, Rudrum’s polymodernity is, of course, useless for analyzing the turn away from postmodernism. However, it nicely demonstrates how present-day mainstream academic discourse tries to explain away post-postmodern cultural and literary innovation by recycling old poststructuralist theorems under new names.

*        *       *

      The next article, “Metamodernism: Period, Structure of Feeling, and Cultural Logic – A Case Study of Contemporary Autofiction” is by the main exponents of metamodernism, Robin van den Akker, Timotheus Vermeulen and Alison Gibbons. Since I’ve treated metamodernism at some length in Blog Posts Nr. 12 and 13 I won’t go into a lot of detail here. The article repeats the basic premises of metamodernism, which the authors accurately describe as a “collaborative, interdisciplinary, and open(-ended)” project (42). The article itself displays the strengths and weaknesses of this way of working. The theory is easy to understand and use because it is based on the notion of “oscillation,” or switching back and forth between two poles of something—a productive movement that is both structurally restrictive and dynamic (as opposed to the endless regress of confusing cross-references that are assumed to structure and at the same time decenter a postmodern universe—see the remarks on Rudrum above). Metamodernism works very well in practice because notions like oscillation or metaxy (a kind of vertically positioned oscillation between the real and the transcendent) enable the authors to analyze new trends and devices in an affirmative way that postructuralist-influenced critics cannot. 

      As a theory, however, metamodernism is not very stringent. The authors insist on conflating a closed, two-poled dynamic operation (oscillation) with the open, forwardly directed mechanism of the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic, which of course consists of three parts: thesis, antithesis and synthesis (here and elsewhere they make the claim that the dyadic terms oscillation and metaxy are “dialectical” [44]). The results of this conceptually dubious two-poled dialectic in any case condense in what the authors call a “structure of feeling,” which they here also seem comfortable reducing to the popular notion of zeitgeist (41). This structure of feeling can perhaps also be interpreted as the synthetic third term missing from their model, although the metamodernists never say this directly. 

      It should also be noted that in the metamodernists’ critical practice the fundamental conceptual contradiction involved in calling a two-poled oscillating operation “dialectical” or in reducing Raymond William's subtly conceived "structure of feeling" to the pop meaning of "zeitgeist" has few real consequences. In their own, very instructive analyses, the authors avoid pursuing the kind of specifically Marxist reconstruction of structures of feeling carried out by Fredric Jameson or Raymond Williams (for more on this see Blog Post Nr. 13) and instead focus on their own, very productive terms such as oscillation, metaxis and depthiness. 

       Using Fredric Jameson's well-known criteria for defining postmodernism (waning of affect, depthlessness and the loss of historicity), the authors establish a clearly delineated  conceptual point of departure for their discussion of metamodernism. The article continues with a cogent analysis of the popular genre of autofiction, i.e., fiction that mixes documentable traces of the real-life author (the name, autobiographical data, memoirs etc.) with fiction proper (48-49).  In this kind of fiction, “authors appear as narrators and characters within the storyworld, but the effect of their appearance runs counter to the ironic play of postmodernist fictions wherein author characters serve a flattening function, foregrounding the constructed textual surface of the fiction” (51). Autofiction, in other words, forces readers to accept the existence of “a contemporary world that the real author and readers share”(51), which in turn makes readers “think critically and defiantly about the ways in which world events are connected” (51). This results in the return of affect, depth (“depthiness” in metamodernist parlance) and historicity, i.e., it reverses--one could also say dialectically negates--the central strategies of postmodernism described by Jameson. 

      The metamodernists also distance themselves here from the version of metamodernism propagated by David James and Urmila Seshagiri ("Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution PMLA 129:1, 87-100). According to this model,  metamodernism does nothing more than mark the return of modernism in a somewhat different guise (van den Akker et al, 48)--a typical postmodern and posthistorical position that defines cultural development solely in terms of the  reworked return of some previous epoch. The metamodernists, for their part, emphasize that not just modernism, but all previous epochs--romanticism, realism, modernism and postmodernism--are  "put to new use" in their version of metamodernism (48). This would seem to correspond to the good old structuralist model of historical development in which new epochal developments functionally reverse--i.e., negate--the devices and strategies of old ones to produce new, synthetic effects. This dialectical progression is however muddled by the use of the term "oscillation," which, as I have noted above as well as in Blog Post 12, cannot logically result in a synthetic third. In their critical practice, the metamodernists do indeed "kick-start History" (43) again by treating it in functional and dialectical terms, but their two-poled romantic model keeps them from coming out and saying this directly. Instead, to describe their own approach to history they use the term "a sense of a bend" (43-44). This is however logically incompatible with a dialectical movement, which works through leaps or jumps but can hardly be said to "bend." 

      Does the use of mixed metaphors like this make a difference in the metamodernists' critical practice? For the most part, it doesn't, which is why I don't have any trouble agreeing with most metamodernist analyses. If anything, the metamodern concept of history demonstrates how the metamodernist structure of desire works from the inside--namely by oscillating in a conceptually impossible way between immanence and transcendence, between history and posthistory. If we apply more stringent scholarly standards, however, these internally contradictory formulations don't pass muster. 

      As I've noted elsewhere, this sort of conceptual inconsistency occurs because the metamodernists want to have their posthistorical cake and eat it too. By avoiding any mention of a synthetic third they want to reconcile their own, eminently historical approach with the overwhelming academic consensus that history has ended, that everything is somehow just a continuation of everything else. This consensus takes on two basic forms. The first, exemplified by Rudrum, is that it is impossible to conceptually describe history because that history (at least since modernism) is marked by uncontrollably proliferating heterogeneity and difference. The second, which is exemplified by Josh Toth, whose article I'll treat below, is that it is possible to conceptualize history, but only using poststructuralist concepts that do little more than reaffirm the dominance of postmodernism. 

*           *            *

The next contribution is “The Ends of Metafiction, or, The Romantic Time of Egan’s Goon Squad” by Josh Toth. Toth is the author of The Passing of Postmodernism (Albany 2010), as well as the editor of an anthology of articles on postmodernism called The Mourning After (Amsterdam 2007).  Both books are mainly backwardly directed reflections on postmodernism and poststructuralism. However, Toth does acknowledge the existence of post-postmodernism, which he initially calls “neo-realism” or “renewalism.” In general, though, Toth’s position remains posthistorical; putative historical innovation is marked by prefixes like “neo” and “re” that reveal it as the slightly skewed repetition of earlier cultural developments.  Since 2010, Toth has emended his original concept of post-postmodernism, which he now calls “historioplastic fiction,” but which he regards as a continuation of his earlier concepts. 
      In contrast to Rudrum’s facile posthistoricism and the metamodernists’ casual approach to formulating theory, Toth goes about defining his “historioplastic fiction” with carefully developed, albeit very dense philosophical arguments. In particular, he espouses a “return to Hegel” that draws on the work of poststructuralist thinkers such as Derrida, Žižek and Kristeva, among others. And, unlike most commentators on post-postmodernism, he goes into a detailed conceptual critique of both performatism and metamodernism.
      For Toth, post-postmodernism is basically a negative development, an extension of postmodernism marked by “irresponsibility, hyperindividualism, and market-empowering uncertainty” (58). Good old poststructuralism and postmodernism, by contrast, still maintain a positive ethical and critical impetus that is being deliberately ignored by performatism and metamodernism. The purpose of classic postmodern literature, Toth says, was “invariably political” and was intended to destabilize “those narrative constructs that functioned to restrict possibility and ‘play’ in the name of hegemonic and oppressive systems of control” (58). Also, he approvingly quotes Derrida’s claim that “Deconstruction is justice” (58, the italics are his own) and he reminds us that deconstruction is devoted to “endlessly undoing […] every effort towards coherence and closure” (58). 

      If we condense and simplify his Hegelian argument (which also draws on Derrida, Levinas, Žižek and  Derrida's pupil Catherine Malabou), it might be summarized as follows:  there is a never-ending dialectic between the “infinite plasticity of the Real,” i.e., Hegel’s Geist or Spirit (61) and its finite narrative or linguistic representations. According to this deconstructive reading of Hegel, there is no closure or goal in this process (61); the Real or the Spirit only “‘finds itself […] in utter dismemberment’” (Hegel’s own phrase, quoted on p. 61), which is to say as a fragmentary plurality of truths scattered about our own discourse. This “infinitely plastic” Truth or Spirit can best be apprehended by someone who ironically realizes that we will continually fail in our endeavor to reach it:

What allows us in Hegel to apprehend this infinite Real is, paradoxically, the willingness to endure the failure to do so. It is the experience of such a failure that, finally, signals the ethical sustainment of what cannot – not with justice, at least – be contained in the finite, in the coherence of a momentary and contingent form of representation (61-62).

The philosophical approach best equipped to do this is, of course, deconstruction, which redefines the Hegelian synthesis or sublation of opposite principles as a never-ending, productive failure that continually allows us to generate ethical interventions based on its ability to “destabilize hegemonic and oppressive systems of control” (it goes almost without saying that Hegel himself would hardly have agreed with this interpretation of his metaphysically overloaded, heavily goal-oriented historical system). 

     Using deconstruction as a starting point, Toth develops a subtle and very convoluted argument about recent cultural history that I can only reproduce here in very condensed form. His starting point is Hegel's concept of cultural history, which is made up of three stages: the symbolic, the classical and the romantic. 

       Toth equates the symbolic order, which “functions primarily to express the utter incompatibility of an idea and its expression, or objectification, in form” (63) with modernism, which arguably makes us intensely aware of this incompatibility (paintings of people with blue faces, Dadaist nonsense poetry, estrangement devices etc.). Postmodernism, according to Toth, is an extension of modernism without its obsession with “thingness”:

While modernism presents us with an absence that may yet be discovered in a finally adequate form, postmodernism replicates this symbolic mode: Instead of a profound and irretrievable absence, a void around which the text organises itself […], the absent Thing in postmodernism becomes utterly banal, nothing but a signifier that has come to occupy the place of the Thing (64).

Here, too, it is not hard to agree with this line of reasoning: postmodernism becomes a field of endlessly proliferating signifiers referring only back to one another rather than to things outside of them.
       You might now think that, in keeping with Hegel’s dialectical logic, the classical mode, which restores the unity between sign and thing, would appear in order to negate and sublate these forms. According to Hegel (as quoted by Toth), the classical

“puts a stop to the purely symbolising and sublime preliminary experiments of art, because spiritual individuality now has its shape, its adequate shape, in itself, just as the self-determining Concept generates out of itself the particular existence adequate to it” (Hegel 1975: 317), 64.

If transposed to our contemporary context, Hegel’s notion of the classical would seem to conform roughly to what performatist narrative does. That is, it creates unified, closed spaces through double framing that force upon us an immanent experience of transcendence (the double frame provides the “adequate shape” of a “self-determining Concept”). Although I myself don’t argue using Hegel, this would seem to be the next step in continuing Hegel’s historical dialectic of culture.
       The problem is that Toth thinks that this classical mode is inherently fraudulent. It engenders

a type of ‘pre-symbolic immediacy’ (Kristeva 1985: 69). But this immediacy is false; it simply negates the feckless incoherence of the symbolic by ossifying the idea, blinding us to any sense that the Real is infinitely plastic and always in excess of the form in which it is expressed or experienced (64).

       The true hero of Toth’s (and Hegel’s) cultural history is the third and final stage of this dialectic, the romantic. Toth, of course, has already redefined “the romantic” to mean a deconstructive approach to reality that is best suited to negotiating the dialectical tension between the “infinitely plastic Real” (one could also substitute “context” for “Real”) and its finite, concrete representations within literary works of art.  Since he has already rather undialectically marked the classical (i.e., performatism) as a fraudulent antithesis that we can easily disregard, Toth winds up defining post-postmodernism as little more than a further extension of postmodernism:

To escape (or recover) from our current descent into a post-truth world, we cannot simply return to hegemonic and all-encompassing truth claims. Something of postmodernism (or of the symbolic) must be retained” (69).

       This is the job of Toth’s “historioplastic fiction.” Works of this kind “insist upon aesthetic responsibility; they reveal the manner in which the opaque or infinite Thingness of experience is only expressible in or as the mediating point that differentiates its finite form from its always infinite truth” (70). If we decode this statement, Toth is saying essentially this: our main problem is still one of understanding how text and context condition one another in terms of traces (or whatever other Derridean term we choose to use to denote these irruptive “mediating points” between text and context). Our ethical orientation is then directly legitimized by the awareness that we are involved in a circular, never-ending process that continually destabilizes any finite fixation of truth without however relinquishing the search for that truth. 

      The difference here to postmodernism, as far as I can tell, is that this critical search for moments of truth in discourse is defining using a kind of synthetic, unified metaphor ("plasticity") rather than the fragmented, punctual ones favored by the early Derrida (trace, marque, différance, iteration, pharmakon, gram etc.).  As with classic deconstruction, the disordering movement inherent in this "plastic" process guarantees its ethical viability. It’s also evident that this is also the point where history turns into posthistory. This critical, infinitely plastic operation can only be countered by “games of pretend” or “hegemonic and all-encompassing truth claims” that represent nothing more than easily bypassed epistemological illusions.
      This, obviously, is where Toth and I disagree. I think that post-postmodernism (performatism) is all about constructing unity and immanently experiencing transcendence in narrative works of art in a way that shuts off and contradicts postmodern irony. This is not a "bend" or an exercise in fluid “plasticity,” but the cultural antithesis of postmodernism—its dialectical negation. My version of post-postmodernism is very "classical" in both Hegel's sense and in terms of cultural history (it resembles in many regards the aesthetics of 19th and 20th neoclassicism--I've treated this relationship at length in a German-language article, "Ordnungsästhetik nach der Postmoderne: zur Wiederkehr klassischer Ordnungsformend im Performatismus" in Tobias Leuker and Christian Pietsch [eds.], Klassik als Norm - Norm als Klassik, Münster 2016, 268-292). 

     Toth, for his part, thinks post-postmodernism is all about deconstructing these “pretend” attempts to achieve order and unity; he wants to return to a renewed kind of postmodernism that is no less steeped in epistemological irony than was its predecessor. There are no doubt works of fiction somewhere that do what Toth says (I can’t go into his analysis of The Goon Squad because I haven’t read it), but the examples familiar to me that he uses in one of his other articles on "historioplastic fiction" (Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Christopher Nolan’s Inception) are not particularly convincing: both are highly artificial constructs that can very well be interpreted as generating an effect of transcendent unity within a holistically conceived narrative frame.  The contrafactual ending of Basterds (the destruction of the entire Nazi leadership) allows us to participate totally and vicariously in an artificial mimetic act of revenge, and the return of entropy in Inception (the spinning top at the end starts to lose momentum) suggests that the hero has successfully reentered the real world in order to bond with his children. 

      Toth goes on to criticize performatism and metamodernism because both attempt to define the new era through “a game of pretend” (59) or “willful moments of pretend” (60) that ignore the standard operating procedure of poststructuralism, which requires an endless epistemological critique of language use and the continual destabilization of any kind of order. Here is the crux of his argument:

[…] as Eshelman puts it, ‘Performatist works of art attempt to make readers believe rather than convince them with cognitive judgements. This, in turn, may enable them to assume moral or ideological positions that they otherwise might not have’ (Eshelman 2008: 37). But surely we must ask what this ‘progress’ or what these ‘judgements’ might (or should) look like? If this is all just a matter of belief, if this is all just a matter of pretend – of contingent truth claims that are always about to oscillate (back) into irony [the putative metamodernist position, RE] – then what could possibly distinguish good progress and good judgements from bad (60)?

Toth is apparently not familiar with my article on performatist ethics (“Performatism, Dexter, and the Ethics of Perpetration,Anthropoetics 1 [2011]). However, it is doubtful whether its main arguments—that the performatist frame enables a return to individual agency, replaces discourse with mimesis and empowers separated subjects marked by transcendence—would make him change his mind. The reason is because Toth, as noted above, remains completely indebted to the basic principles of poststructuralist and, particularly, deconstructive theory. This is why his “return to Hegel” is not really a return to anything—it’s simply a very plastic continuation of deconstruction and its postmodern ethical posture. 
       Toth closes with a critique of performatism (which posits a closed narrative frame being imposed upon the recipient of the work) and metamodernism (which posits a dynamic oscillation between two opposite poles within narrative works):

In no way is this [Toth's historioplastic approach, RE] a matter of pretending, sustaining unjustifiable beliefs [i.e., performatism, RE], or engaging in impulsive oscillations [i.e., metamodernism, RE]. It is not about ignoring or suppressing dialectical tension or swinging about between two poles. The impossible is made possible because its necessary negation (in the finite limitation of sensory experience or expression) is itself negated (61).

This is, once more, a roundabout way of saying that Toth's interpretation of the Hegelian synthesis, or the negation of the negation in any given opposition, results in a deconstructive approach to reality, i.e., in an endlessly open critique of language use accompanied by an endlessly failing search for an absolute truth of some kind (the deconstructive critic, through his or her awareness of this irony, is best equipped to “endure” this preordained failure to achieve closure and to repeat it over and over again in spite of this knowledge).  

       This sort of deconstructive reasoning is, of course, eminently posthistorical. It means that we will forever remain stuck in an attitude which, in historical terms, only arose during that time span that we now call postmodernism (modernists were always still very much involved in experiencing both local and historical truth in affirmative, authentic ways, which is why the theory of deconstruction was first formulated in the late 1960s and not, say, in 1928). For their part, both metamodernism and performatism suggest that post-postmodern fiction imposes some form of closure on narrative works—a position that is absolute anathema to Toth’s poststructuralist, neo-postmodern approach, which is not content with “mourning” the passing of postmodernism but is actively seeking to raise it from the dead.
      Toth can nonetheless live with metamodernism a lot better than with performatism because the former’s notion of post-postmodernism is, like his theory, neo-romantic (62). The difference here is that Toth’s neo-romantic “historioplastic fiction” redefines the Hegelian dialectic in such a way that we all turn into deconstructivists again--forever. The metamodernists, by contrast, claim they are redefining the dialectic in the way that the Marxist critics Jameson and Williams apply it. As we have seen, however, this is contradicted by their actual practice, which revolves around their own productive, but decidedly non-dialectical concepts such as oscillation and depthiness--they are in this regard perhaps a bit more "classical" than they would like to admit.
       Toth also offers another criticism of performatism that I would briefly like to address here:

[…] ‘performatist’ works shut down or close off the infinite regresses of postmodernism […], effecting something akin to a simple suspension of disbelief. We know it is not real, but we believe it anyway (at least within the restricted conceptual ‘frame’ of the given work). That is, we are given to pretend, in the moment, that a sense of closure or unity or harmony (or whatever) is true (59).

Here Toth apparently adopts the metamodernist description of performatism, which erroneously equates the work of the frame with “willful self-deceit” on the part of the reader (see p. 6 of their manifesto "Notes on Metamodernism"). This phrase, which is a quote from my performatism book about Life of Pi, describes Pi’s own attitude, not that of the reader (see Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism, Aurora CO, p. 54).  In other words, the reader or viewer doesn’t look at the work, note that the frame arbitrarily shuts off the infinite regress of postmodernism, and decide to accept this arbitrary act while all the time knowing better. Rather, the frame forces the reader to assume a position of belief vis-à-vis the narrative, giving him or her a transcendent perspective and the opportunity to imitate the affirmative ethical act that the narrative frame forces him or her to formally accept (there are various degrees of how much of this force is exerted). This is also hardly "akin to a simple suspension of disbelief." For example, in American Beauty, we suspend disbelief when we accept the fact that Lester Burnham (who is dead) is talking to us from beyond the grave. However, the entire narrative construct of the film, which is based on a certain circular, transcendent logic ("like me, you'll find that life is beautiful after you die") imposes belief on us rather than asking us to just suspend disbelief to keep the plot going. This isn't just a detail that makes the narrative a bit more interesting; it is a totalizing narrative act that forces the viewer to decide for or against a premise that governs the entire outcome of the film. 

      My specifically neo-Kantian and (neo-)classical approach, according to which the force of form rather than knowledge about knowing determines aesthetic experience, is directly opposed to postmodernism and is not readily accessible to anyone working in the neo-romantic postmodern mode favored by Toth and, to a certain extent, by the metamodernists. Since the vast majority of academics rely in one way or another on this neo-romantic tradition, they are unable to describe or understand an aesthetic and critical paradigm that is diametrically opposed to it in many ways. 

      The three approaches here exemplify different ways of dealing with this situation. Rudrum completely gives up any attempt to make historical distinctions and drowns in a flood of uncontrollably proliferating difference. Toth normatively tries to demonstrate the ethical insufficiency of classical or performatist post-postmodernist fiction by continuing Derrida's deconstructive project through the medium of a very supple “plastic” dialectic that allows him to treat antithetical cultural reactions to postmodernism as fraud or self-delusion that can be neatly undone by yet another round of deconstruction. The metamodernists, for their part, establish a formal operation derived from romanticism ("oscillation") that inhibits the unchecked postmodern proliferation of difference while, impossibly, continuing postmodernism at the same time.  The theory of performatism, of course, represents the most explicit break with postmodernism and poststructuralism: the performatist use of closure mediated by the force of form is decidedly anti-romantic and works more in accordance with Kantian and neoclassical principles than with romantic, Hegelian ones. 

Notes on “Notes on Metamodernism”: Part 2

Blog Post Nr. 13  

26 October 2021

In my previous blog posting I pointed out that metamodernism’s notion of “oscillation between modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony” works so well because it extends a romantic tradition seeking to totalize and infinitely perpetuate a romantic mode. Since there is nothing in cultural history outside of or opposed to this oscillation, it can continue on indefinitely, without any dialectical friction to disturb it. At the same time, however, the authors of the original metamodern theory, Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, complicate this mechanism by coupling it with Fredric Jameson’s concept of a cultural dominant (see Metamodernism. Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, London 2017, p. 4) as well as with the notion of a “structure of feeling” set forth by the Marxist critic Raymond Williams in the early 1950s. As with the catchphrase “oscillation,” the idea of a “structure of feeling” seems to hit the nail right on the head, and it was quickly picked up by almost everyone using the metamodernist model.  And, as with “oscillation,” almost no one in the metamodern orbit (apart from the original authors) has bothered to examine more closely what “structure of feeling” means as a concept.

      As Vermeulen and van den Akker note in their book introduction, Williams “never systematically developed” the concept (Metamodernism, p. 7), and they themselves devote only a few paragraphs to explaining it (pp. 7-8). The example from his writings that they use however also helps demonstrate why Williams had problems making more out of his original idea:

While we may, in the study of a past period, separate out particular aspects of life, and treat them as if they were self-contained, it is obvious that this is only how they may be studied, not how they were experienced. We examine each element as a precipitate, but in the living experience of the time every element was in solution, an inseparable part of a complex whole. And it seems to be true, from the nature of art, that it is from such a totality that the artist draws; it is in art, primarily, that the effect of the totality, the dominant structure of feeling, is expressed and embodied. To relate a work of art to any part of that observed totality may, in varying degrees, be useful; but it is a common experience, in analysis, to realize that when one has measured the work against the separable parts, there yet remains some element for which there is no external counterpart. This element, I believe, is what I have named the structure of feeling of a period. (quoted in Metamodernism, p. 7)

Williams is suggesting, in other words, that culture within a certain period must be understood as a totality or “a complex whole,” and that this totality is founded in commonly shared “living experience.”  The notion of a totalized cultural period corresponds to the conventional historical notion of epoch, and the emphasis on lived experience (rather than on ideas or on form) is Marxist. 

      There are several problems with this definition, the least of which is that it has to use a metaphor borrowed from inorganic chemistry to describe “living experience.”  For example, how do we connect the “precipitate” (which can be experienced empirically after the fact) to a living whole where it is “in solution,” almost invisible and empirically barely accessible?  Another problem is the way Williams (and the metamodernists) uses the term “structure.” This is simply because a feeling in itself is not a structure. As Williams was well aware, structures are a “set […] with specific internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension” (Marxism and Literature, Oxford 1977, p. 132), and they are also “hierarchical” (p. 132). If you are going to talk seriously about a “structure of feeling,” you have to say something about the functional relationships between the dissolved, more or less invisible parts of the whole (the “feelings”) as well as their hierarchical arrangement and functional interrelations.  Williams himself anticipates these problems, as the following quote indicates:

Methodologically, then, a “structure of feeling” is a cultural hypothesis, actually derived from attempts to understand such [social, R.E.] elements and their connections in a generation or period, and needing always to be returned, interactively, to such evidence. […] The hypothesis has a special relevance to art and literature, where the true social content is in a significant number of cases of this present and affective kind, which cannot without loss be reduced to belief systems, institutions, or explicit general relationships […]. (Marxism and Literature, pp. 132-133)

To use the language of metamodernism, the observer has to oscillate between an analysis of barely apprehensible, but socially widespread feelings and the concrete traces of those feelings (the “precipitate”) that can be found in works of art and literature in that time. These works, in turn, provide privileged access to these feelings, which otherwise elude direct description.

      As my already simplified depiction of Williams’s thesis shows, it is not easy to get a handle on what a “structure of feeling” could be. This is mainly because of the underlying logical incongruity between lived, socially shared feelings (which are necessarily diffuse) and structure, which suggests fixation, coherence and hierarchy. When Vermeulen and van den Akker write that the cinematic tradition of Quirky, political slogans such as “Yes, we can,” and the writings of David Foster Wallace are all “characterized by a sense of earnestness and hope” (Metamodernism, p. 8), this is undoubtedly true, but it’s also evident that these things are structurally very different.  Also, it is clear that in real life not everyone shares feelings of “earnestness and hope” or reacts the same way to quirky films or earnest books. These and other difficulties led another contributor to the metamodernism book, James MacDowell, to simply delete Vermeulen and van den Akker’s totalizing and historicizing perspective from his metamodernist project:

Just as the postmodern might itself be best conceptualized not as an ‘age’ but rather as simply one structure of feeling belonging to certain outposts of an age […], so does it seem plausible to view the metamodern as one structure of feeling circulating within the contemporary moment.  (Metamodernism, p. 9)

The net effect of this move is to cast metamodernism back into the briar patch of posthistory, where multiple “structures of feeling” intertwine into infinity without ever being able to form a new age, episteme or epoch.

      The other major concept to which metamodernism recurs is Fredric Jameson’s notion of a cultural dominant.  Jameson, who wrote an incisive book on formalism and structuralism called The Prison-House of Language (Princeton, 1975), borrowed the concept directly from those two theoretical sources. It should be noted in passing that this concept is dialectical and structural. Dominant and dominated aspects of culture exist in a hierarchical state of mutual antagonism and tension, and they don’t oscillate freely or switch positions. Moreover, the cultural dominant in structuralism is determined primarily by how it manifests itself in language and in literary or artistic norms and techniques. Jameson sought to escape what he called the “prison-house of language” by coupling the structuralist notion of the dominant with a Marxist approach assuming that a certain developmental stage of capitalism is responsible for determining the superstructure of culture.  Jameson, following the Marxist economist Ernst Mandel, called this stage “late capitalism” and tied it to the forms of mediatization and globalization that are characteristic of post-industrial capitalism (starting roughly in the late 1950s or early 1960s). Finally, Jameson suggested persuasively that postmodernism was the cultural superstructure of late capitalism, and—very much against the grain of poststructuralist or posthistorical theory—he insisted on the necessity of a historicizing approach. This meant simply that he thought it was possible to view modernism and postmodernism as discrete developmental stages of culture, which in turn were in synch with certain economic stages of capitalism.

      The problem with Jameson’s approach is that he, like the postmodernists he was studying, was unable to acknowledge the massive sea change in culture that we now call post-postmodernism, metamodernism or performatism (I have treated this more extensively in Blog Post 2, “The Prison-House of Postmodernism”). To their credit, the metamodernists bypass this attitude and continue to apply Jameson’s historicizing approach, arguing that capitalism has “taken a fourth technological leap” (Metamodernism, p. 15) due to digitalization and is entering into a “capitalism 4.0” (p. 17). If this assessment is correct, one might still ask how this shift in the economic mode of production relates to culture. This is a difficult, but by no means impossible task. Jameson, Williams and others have conducted subtle and exacting Marxist analyses of cultural artefacts that avoid simple causal explanations or ideological diatribes. Williams’s attempts to find “structures of feeling” is one example of how this might work; another is Jameson’s notion of the “political unconscious” (see his book The Political Unconscious, London 1981).  One might expect that this type of analysis would crop up frequently in the metamodernist orbit. However, pretty much the opposite is the case. For where the perpetually buoyant romantic mode of “oscillation between irony and enthusiasm” meets up with a dire diagnosis of a “clusterfuck of world-historical proportions” (Metamodernism, p. 17) and a call for analyzing “interlocking dialectical movements” in society (p. 12), “oscillation between x and y” wins hands down. I haven’t been able to read all contributions to the webzine Notes on Metamodernism in detail (it ran between 2009 and 2016), but as far as I can tell the focus is almost entirely on unpolitical interpretations of art, music, literature etc. Vermeulen and van den Akker’s own socially critical writings in the webzine address political and economic issues, but not works of art or literature.

      Metamodernism remains valuable as a theory because of its historicizing and totalizing impetus, which—pace James MacDowell—seeks to push beyond postmodernism. And, because of its inclusion of transcendent and romantic themes, its exploration of new sensibilities (the Quirky, depthiness), and its openness to new directions in art, literature and film, it is able to take works seriously that postmodernists would write off as metaphysical humbug. The theory’s weakness lies in its neoromantic circularity and insularity, its insistence that Schlegel’s oscillation or Wechsel (in which two opposing concepts tumble back and forth freely while reproducing themselves endlessly) is a dialectic. Because of this, the neoromantic side of the theory, in contradistinction to the Marxist one, has no conceptual tools to analyze force, coercion, or power relations in texts, let alone in the social relations in which they are embedded. This is why metamodernism as practiced by Vermeulen and van den Akker breaks down into two separate directions: a rather general Marxist critique of contemporary society, politics and economics, on the one hand, and specific analyses identifying metamodernist qualities in some cultural artefact, on the other. And where the two sides meet, the Marxist part tends to be swallowed up by the neoromantic one. When Vermeulen and van den Akker write that in postmodernism “the dialectic came to a standstill” and that “the current historical moment evokes the sense that the dialectic is once more in motion or, indeed, as is its unstable nature, in constant oscillation” (Metamodernism, p. 6), this means that Schlegel beats Hegel (and  Marxboth would be oscillating in their graves if they learned that the dialectic does not have a synthetic third part to it). Of course, you could argue that metamodernism itself is the synthetic third (the new thing resulting from the oscillation). But then why not simply come out and say so? My impression is that the metamodernists want to have their posthistorical cake and eat it too: metamodernism advances historically by reproducing the romantic mode endlessly, thus seeming to move forward by switching between “irony and enthusiasm” while in substance never actually changing. Vermeulen and van den Akker do want to restart the dialectic (which “came to a standstill” in postmodernism), but don’t want to commit to the notion of a synthesis, which in keeping with poststructuralist (postmodern, posthistorical) thought would make the dialectic metaphysical. The result is “oscillation,” which one could perhaps also think of as “dialectic lite”—a dialectic that spins around and around without actually leading to a synthesis that would break up the original opposition between thesis and antithesis.  

      I might point out that in actual practice these theoretical inconsistencies don’t make much difference. Because there is something new and different out there, metamodernist analyses are able to grasp and describe it, and they do this very well. Also, most adherents of metamodernism don’t follow the Marxist line set forth by Vermeulen and van den Akker. However, anyone wanting to use metamodernism as a theory on the doctoral level, expand its Marxist critique or otherwise extend or deepen the theory is going to run into trouble because of the structural issues noted above. With these “Notes on ‘Notes’” I hope to start some critical reflection on just how to address these problems.   

Blog Post Nr. 12

24 Sept 2021

Notes on “Notes on Metamodernism”: Part 1

Indeed, this artificially ordered confusion, this charming symmetry of contradictions, this wonderful eternal oscillation [Wechsel] between enthusiasm and irony, which lives even in the smallest parts of the whole, seem to me to be an indirect mythology.

Friedrich Schlegel, Seine prosaischen Jugendschriften [His prose juvenilia] 1882.

The most popular and widely known theory of post-postmodernism today is undoubtedly metamodernism, as originally set forth in a manifesto entitled “Notes on Metamodernism” by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in 2010.  The manifesto spawned a website, a book, and countless articles applying it, and the term “metamodernism” has become the closest thing we have to an overarching term to replace the clunky “post-postmodernism.”

      As a theory, metamodernism is decidedly modest and doesn’t make any great claims to rigor. As the two authors originally noted,

our description and interpretation of the metamodern sensibility is […] essayistic rather than scientific, rhizomatic rather than linear, and open-ended instead of closed. It should be read as an invitation for debate rather than an extending of a dogma.   (“Notes on Metamodernism,” 2, henceforth NoM)

In spite of this and similar disclaimers, metamodernism has become so widely used that I think it makes sense to open up the debate called for in the original manifesto and ask more stringent questions regarding the way the metamodernists found their theory.

      In spite of (or perhaps because of) its popularity, metamodernism hasn’t been exposed to much critical discussion. One reason is that mainstream academia, which is still dominated by poststructuralist (i.e., postmodern) methodology, isn’t much interested in exploring theories of post-postmodernism. The main reason, though, is that in heuristic terms, metamodernism works wonderfully. Anyone analyzing one of the countless works of art, literature or film that diverge markedly from postmodern irony will quickly find that they “oscillate between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony” (NoM, 5-6) and display some form of metaxy (a tension between the finite and infinite), just as the metamodernist manifesto predicts (NoM, 6). While these criteria seem intuitively appropriate as a way of understanding the new situation, it is still reasonable to ask what the larger metamodernist concept of history is based on. In particular, it is interesting to look more closely at the term “oscillation” [Wechsel in the German original] which in Schlegel’s usage is not a philosophical or scientific concept—it simply means a change or a switching back and forth.    

      If you take a closer look at the conceptual sources of this and similar statements, you’ll find that Vermeulen and van den Akker based them on a book called Romantic Desire in (Post)modern Art and Philosophy (1999) by the Dutch scholar Jos de Mul, who was also their colleague at the time (NoM, 13). De Mul, in turn, leans heavily on a quote by the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel that “defines the Romantic as a life-feeling that oscillates between enthusiasm and irony” (de Mul, 64). De Mul also uses “modernism” in a different way than it is understood in the Anglo-Saxon world. In his usage, modernism corresponds to the German Neuzeit or Moderne (a period “that begins in the 17th century and for which the work of Descartes and Bacon provides the starting point” [de Mul, 16]). In English we would probably say “modernity,” a term that he also uses. A further look at de Mul’s approach reveals that he sees postmodernism as a kind of reflective contortion (Verwindung) aimed at recovering from modernism in the broad sense (de Mul, 249) and not as a successor to the narrower, epochal notion of modernism (which he calls the “historical avant-garde”). The main thrust of de Mul’s book is to show that the “oscillation between enthusiasm and irony” as well as the oscillation between immanence and transcendence are operative in both modernism (in both its broad and narrow senses) and in what de Mul calls “(post)modernism”—a development that is different from, but not diametrically opposed to, modernism [de Mul, 14ff.].

      The weird—and conceptually dubious—thing about de Mul’s book is that it does not recognize any cultural force, trend or concept outside of “romantic desire.” In order to do so de Mul has to ignore whole swaths of cultural history, including 18th-century Classicism, 19th-century Realism, the various anti-Romantic movements in France, and those aspects of modernism (in both the broad and narrow senses) that stress neoclassical rigor, mastery of form, or realism at the expense of the unbounded oscillation between “romantic enthusiasm” and irony. De Mul, in other words, is like a soccer team that takes to the pitch without an opponent and gets to shoot goals right and left to its heart’s content. “Romanticism” wins all the time.        

      Metamodernism works the same way.

      It is evident that Vermeulen and van den Akker have taken de Mul’s and Schlegel’s catchphrase and projected it onto two entire stages of cultural development. Modernism (presumably in the narrow sense) is “enthusiastic,” […] “encompassing everything from utopism to the unconditional belief in Reason,” whereas postmodernism is “ironic,” […] “encompassing nihilism, sarcasm, and the distrust and deconstruction of grand narratives, the singular and the truth” (NoM, 4). Metamodernism is said to oscillate between the two, producing something new while reproducing what appears to be an originary, eternally valid model of cultural development. Given these conditions, the “emergent neoromantic sensibility” of metamodernism (NoM, 8) is indeed not surprising, since it emerges from two equally neoromantic epochs—modernism and postmodernism.   

      At this point it also becomes clear that the metamodernists are just as indifferent to the particulars of cultural history as de Mul is. If all culture starting from the 17th century has been based on a recurring romantic “oscillation between enthusiasm and irony,” then the metamodern “oscillation between modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony” is just a continuation of something that has been going on in different iterations for the last 400 years. This is also why metamodernism is so easy to use: if you ignore the fact that “the romantic oscillation between enthusiasm and irony” has a 400-year long dialectical history of cultural opposition to it, you won’t have any trouble constructing a history in which one form of romantic oscillation simply supplants another—you can shoot goals to your heart’s content. This is also the crucial difference between performatism and metamodernism (which otherwise agree on the import role of transcendence in the new epoch or episteme). Performatism suggests that the very unromantic imposition of formal order on viewers or readers through devices like double framing is central to the new cultural dominant, whereas metamodernism can’t even conceptualize a history that isn’t romantic to begin with. The performatist notion of history is dialectical, the metamodernist version isn’t. The metamodernists' later claim that their “structure of feeling” is dialectical and that it “identifies with and negates […] conflicting positions while never being congruent with these positions” (van den Akker, Vermeulen and Gibbons, Metamodernism, History, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, 2017, 10) is of course only true within the romantically oscillating concept of cultural history described above. In the final analysis, the metamodern notion of history is based on the total denial of the dialectical opposition between classical rigor and freewheeling romantic enthusiasm that has traditionally been thought to drive Western cultural history forward. 

    In all fairness to the metamodernists, it should be added that their empirical approach does not exclude realism, as they themselves note in their article “Metamodernism: Period, Structure of Feeling, and Cultural Logic – A Case Study of Contemporary Autofiction,” in David Rudrum et al. (eds.) New Directions in Philosophy and Literature. Edinburgh 2019, 48. Here as elsewhere, the metamodernists tend to make sweeping theoretical claims that then become watered down, relativized or simply ignored in their actual critical practice. This can also be seen in the way that they try to incorporate Marxist cultural criticism into their romantic model.

      As we have seen, the metamodern theory of history seems to suggest that stages in historical development consist of a complex set of attitudes and feelings (“enthusiasm,” “nihilism,” “sarcasm,” “irony” etc.) that work according to the romantic notion of oscillation or Wechsel advanced by Schlegel. In this model there is no dialectical tension between “irony” and “enthusiasm” that would produce a synthetic third (the two terms apparently just keep swinging back and forth endlessly in different configurations to produce something different, but never so different as to break up the original model), and there is no dialectical competition between romanticism and its cultural nemeses anti-romanticism, realism or classicism. The metamodernists are however not content to let this neoromantic model stand alone, and attempt to ground it in the material world of social reality oriented towards Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling.”

      Like all materialist approaches to culture, this approach has trouble demonstrating any form of direct causation between social or economic processes and literary development. While it is intuitively easy to accept the notion that the massive economic, social and ecological changes noted by the metamodernists in the introduction to their book find some sort of expression in literature and the arts, it is much more difficult to find a painting or novel that directly treats, say, “the fourth wave of terrorism hit[ting] Western shores” or “the decline of US hegemony” (van den Akker et al., 2017, 12). Assuming that these and similar massive global developments trickle down into works of culture, these would tend to do so indirectly, as a kind of precipitate in a “structure of feeling.” And since this diffuse “structure of feeling” which mediates between social reality and artistic representation has to be made explicit in some way, the ball quickly gets kicked back to the romantic model of oscillation, which as we have seen is a kind of “indirect mythology”—a closed theory of cultural development that endlessly recycles two basic principles.

      The problems with metamodernism’s concepts of history noted above are academic in a very literal sense. The criticism voiced here won’t faze the majority of metamodernism’s followers, who will no doubt continue to apply the theory in a stimulating, if not very stringent way—in effect, shooting balls at a goal without a goalie. However, anyone who is interested in going beyond the catchphrase about “oscillation” and trying to deepen or extend metamodernism productively will run into major problems because of the theory’s intrinsic circularity and “depthiness”—its grounding in a 19th century romantic aphorism that has no particular philosophical justification. There are, however, several ways to break open this circularity, some of which are already in use.

      The first is a return to the kind of dialectical or agonistic periodization used in neoformalist or structuralist historiography. This has already been done by the metamodernist Linda Ceriello, who speaks of clearly marked, successive epochs (modernism, postmodernism, metamodernism) and drops the whole notion of historical “oscillation” (see Linda Ceriello, “The Big Bad and the Big ‘Aha.’ Metamodern Monsters as Transformational Figures of Instability.” In Michael E. Heyes (ed.), Holy Monsters, Sacred Grotesques, 2018, 207-233). Formalist and structuralist historiographers (Jurij Tynjanov and Felix Vodička respectively) long ago developed functional models of historical development that make it possible to analyze history dialectically without being obligated to a zombie-like Hegelian Zeitgeist guiding culture to some higher philosophical goal. The theory of performatism, of course, follows this functional approach to cultural history—performatism is neither the total negation nor fluid extension of postmodernism, but a functional reworking and redirecting of its main devices to create feelings of unity, transcendence, reconciliation etc. that were heretofore unknown.     

      The second way to deepen metamodernism would be to pay more attention to problems of method and form—a decidedly “unromantic” focus that would allow it to work together with concepts like double framing or theories like object-oriented ontology. The disinterest in problems of form has, for example, resulted in a complete misinterpretation of the performatist concept of double framing. The idea expressed in the metamodernist manifesto [p. 6] that double framing is based on “willful self-deceit” is wrong as a matter of principle because the actual focus should be on the work’s form and not on the sensibility of the viewer/reader. In performatism, the unified force exerted by the form of a work causes a viewer or reader to involuntarily shut out his or her own rationality, and not someone thinking to themselves, “heck, I liked that work so much that I’ll fool myself and interpret it differently from the way I originally wanted to.”

      Finally, it might be a good idea for metamodernists to take a closer look at anti-romantic thinkers like Bakhtin and René Girard, whose critiques of romantic insularity (Bakhtin) and romantic desire (Girard) could help provide some critical pushback to their probably unconscious totalization of the romantic idiom. 

Notes on "Notes on Metamodernism" (PDF)
Notes on Notes on Metamodernism_2.pdf (177.11KB)
Notes on "Notes on Metamodernism" (PDF)
Notes on Notes on Metamodernism_2.pdf (177.11KB)

Post 11

15 March 2021

Zakirah Rabaney (Guest contributor)

Performatism in an Art Installation: The Framing of Perspective and Space in Brian O’Doherty’s Rope Drawing #124 

1. Introduction: The Case of Brian O'Doherty

Before Brian O’Doherty (b. 1928) became an influential art critic for The New York Times in the 1960s he worked as a television presenter interviewing modernist art pioneers like Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, and Walter Gropius (Phong 2007). O’Doherty’s unique career as a conceptual artist and art critic literally spans epochs, making him an interesting case in point to chart modernist, postmodern and particularly post-postmodern historical developments in art. The fact that he not only creates art, but also critiques it, provides ample textual evidence of the changes he observed and even followed.

Similarly, his art also encapsulates these epochal progressions, specifically his ‘Rope Drawings’ which began as conceptual art installations in 1973. These spatial drawings made of cords or ropes, occasionally in correspondence with surfaces of painted wall, are bespoke to their sites of installation. In former times the Rope Drawings were either charged with a blatant postmodern irony or contemptuous abstraction, more recently however, they bear all the beauty of a performatist work of art. But to what degree can this medium – born during postmodernism’s conceptual art phase – develop the aesthetic devices inherent to performatism, especially since the unifying agent in performatist art acts through the work’s sign and not through its concept?

Performatism is an “epochal concept of post-postmodernism” (Eshelman 2020) developed by Raoul Eshelman (b. 1956). This theory, based on Eric Gans’s generative anthropology, seeks to explain the cultural trend towards an aesthetic experience of transcendence. Though performatism in art embraces “a new seriousness or lack of manifest irony, a renascence of painting (as opposed to performance art and installations) as well as the imposition of a unified authorial intent on the represented world” (Eshelman 2008: 195), O’Doherty’s Rope Drawings are an exception to the performatist opposition to installation art, because of its use of spatial and perspectival framing, inherent to painting and architectural composition.

Therefore, in order to discuss O’Doherty’s dynamic Rope Drawing installations, combining painting and architectonic strategies, this essay’s historical point of view firstly necessitates a brief history of framing in painting and the role of perspective. Supported by O’Doherty’s influential series of essays Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976), a succinct development of the frame in relation to the gallery space will be explored. Thereafter, Raoul Eshelman’s theory of performatism, as outlined in his book Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (2008), will be presented in further detail and subsequently put in relation to two of O’Doherty’s Rope Drawing installations, namely the postmodern Rimbaud’s Cradle, Rope Drawing #67 (1983) and performatist The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven–Christina’s World, Rope Drawing #124 (2015). The latter exemplifying this essay’s proposition of an installation’s performatist use of formal spatial and pictorial devices to achieve transcendent belief. With regards to this recent Rope Drawing installation, involving a mural with a corresponding rope system, O’Doherty commented in an interview with Artforum magazine in 2015 that, “the wall is a complete, enveloping experience. […] There is a long history to my rope drawings, but this new one is unique and that makes me feel good” (Tipton 2015).

2. Putting the History of the Frame into Perspective

In an essay published in 1976 O’Doherty humorously posed the question: “couldn’t modernism be taught to children as a series of Aesop’s fables? It would be more memorable than art appreciation. Think of such fables as ‘Who Killed Illusion?’ or […] ‘Where Did the Frame Go?’” (O’Doherty 1986 [1976]: 35). Such musings, alongside other discernments about the historical development of art from modernism to postmodernism in relation to the role of the art gallery, were originally issued as part of a series of essays in Artforum magazine entitled Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. In this canonical text, O’Doherty narrates the ways in which the setting of the gallery and museum space imposed its institutional framing on the reception and construction of art, sometimes affecting even the formal devices of the artwork itself as it became more and more ‘conscious’ of the contextual framework of its display.

According to (his)story, this began primarily during modernism, in combination with the rise of art institutions and when perspective and the illusion of depth were supplanted by the artist’s intellectual awareness of the canvas’s two-dimensionality and medial autonomy. By postmodernism this awareness and criticism extended outside of the pictorial borders and into the contextual space. Following O’Doherty’s abovementioned ‘fables of modernism’, he reflects on this history:

“How would we tell the story of the little Picture Plane that grew up and got so mean? How it evicted everybody, including Father Perspective and Mother Space, who had raised such nice children, and left behind only this horrid result of an incestuous affair called Abstraction, who looked down on everybody, including – eventually – its buddies, Metaphor and Ambiguity; […] The forces that crushed four hundred years of illusionism and idealism together and evicted them from the picture translated deep space into surface tension” (O’Doherty 1986 [1976]: 35).    

Like the forfeiture of Filippo Brunelleschi’s influential discovery of central perspective in the Renaissance (Gombrich 1995: 229), the extreme ‘loss’ of centuries worth of formal developments in perspectival painting during modernism and postmodernism was, however, staved off until the 19 th century. During the early modern period, painting was still “seen as a self-contained entity, totally isolated from its slum-close neighbor by a heavy frame […] and a complete perspective system within” (O’Doherty 1986 [1976]: 16). Additionally, O’Doherty also recounts how in comparison to twentieth-century painting, “the nineteenth century eye recognized hierarchies of genre and the authority of the frame. […] Its limiting security completely [defined] the experience within” (O’Doherty 1986 [1976]: 16–18). At this point in time, the outer frame and perspectival framework of a painting were still conditioned the viewer’s experience of art, which is why the early modern Parisian salons, in contrast to the modern/ postmodern White Cube presentation mode, could hang paintings in such close proximity to one another.

But eventually the dominance of painting’s inner perspectival framing and its outer borders would succumb to “the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface”, which came to define twentieth-century paintings, as Clement Greenberg argued in his seminal essay Modernist Painting (Greenberg 2016 [1960]: 118). The climax of this was of course abstract expressionist art, where painting not only lost its perspective, representational undertaking and centrality, but also “the postmodern refusal of closure” and “the expansion of the painting beyond the frame of the canvas” (Ebert 1978: 147). Returning to the moral of O’Doherty’s fabled history about the picture plane in relation to perspective and spatial depth, this resulted in the assimilation of pictorial boundaries with the gallery wall because “to paint something is to recess it in illusion, and dissolving the frame transferred that function to the gallery space” (O’Doherty 1986 [1976]: 72–74). This rendered the postmodern exhibition room as “no longer neutral” and when art is susceptible to the context of the gallery, it is defenceless against postmodernism’s period-defining irony and cynicism because “context provides a large part of late modern and postmodern’s content” (O’Doherty 1986 [1976]: 76–79).

The aforementioned history of these framing tendencies in relation to their institutional presentation is admittedly brief, but even Greenberg acknowledges that “it would take me more time than is at my disposal to show how the norm of the picture's enclosing shape, or frame, was loosened, then tightened, then loosened once again, and isolated, and then tightened once more, by successive generations of Modernist painters” (Greenberg 2016 [1960]: 120). But the historical pendulum swing between aesthetic extremes would inevitably cause the oscillation from postmodernism’s “refusal of closure” back to the acceptance of enclosure (Eshelman 2008: x). The point, therefore, of putting the history of the frame ‘into perspective’ coincides with the emergence of this new performatist framing situation in post-postmodernism. 

2.1. From Postmodernism to Performatism

 “The semiotics of the frame (its function as limit and margin), and its fundamental role in perspectival construction (perspective as a frame and as a window onto the world)” (Duro 1996: 7) is not only a pivotal marker of historical development in painting conventions, but also an indicator of a new “aesthetically mediated belief” through the formal device of framing (Eshelman 2008: 188). In the wake of the anti-metaphysical vacuum left behind by the scepticism of twentieth-century art periods, Eshelman developed a cultural theory about a historical shift from postmodernism to what he has coined as performatism (Eshelman 2020).

Beginning in the late 1990s he observed the formal development of a unifying double frame in many works of art, literature, architecture and film. In art, this device brings the transcendent value of a painting’s framing and perspectival framework ‘back into the picture’ and imbues the aesthetic experience with new life and belief in metaphysical notions like “presence, center, love, beauty, truth, God etc.” (Eshelman 2008: 194). In the Slavicist’s pivotal book Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (2008) Eshelman explains: “A good formal definition of the ‘performance’ in performatism is that it demonstrates with aesthetic means the possibility of transcending the conditions of a given frame” (Eshelman 2008: 12). In this sense, performatism is not only a reaction to postmodernism but also a cultural paradigm of transcendence through aesthetics. But how do these performatist frames function?

Within the formal enclosure of a work’s outer frame, a performatist artwork endeavours to artificially construct a model of transcendent experience by manoeuvring a viewer to accept an obvious ‘fictional’ idea within the work. This, in turn, creates the inner enframement, or counterpart, to the work’s outer enclosure, together building a performatist double frame. The strategic coercion by the outer frame towards the monism of the inner frame, in which a viewer or “opaque subject” can experience transcendent belief in metaphysical concepts like love and beauty (Eshelman 2008: 1–36) is the objective of performatism. The effects of this framework, however, are probably best described in Eshelman’s own words: “the coercive frame cuts off, at least temporarily, from the context around it and forces us back into the work. Once we are inside, we are made to identify with some person, act or situation in a way that is plausible only within the confines of the work as a whole” (Eshelman 2008: 3). This monist operation and its negotiation of the viewer’s aesthetic and wholistic unification with the work, stands in stark contrast to postmodernism’s marginalisation of the viewer.

But it was only a matter of time before the phenomenon of exclusion that defined modernism and postmodernism, would eventually give way to a new and necessary experience of inclusion at the turn of the 21 st century, though the formal strategies inherent to performatism. Since this is best observed in a work’s capacity for enframement, it should also be considered how this enframement differs in postmodernism. Thus, by now comparing two installations by Brian O’Doherty from two different periods, this essay can consider how postmodern ‘framing’ differs from that of performatism’s.

2.2. Plotting the Postmodern by Drawing in Space

 A good postmodern example of one of Brian O’Doherty’s Rope Drawings is called Rimbaud’s Cradle, Rope Drawing #67 (Fig. 1) from the year 1983. Its creator, however, is in fact O’Doherty’s artist alter ego, Patrick Ireland (1972–2008).[1] The Rope Drawings were invented by O’Doherty/Ireland in 1973 and “anchor space with a line that offers both ‘favored’ vantage points and constantly shifting relationships” (Lippard 1986: 9), to which the artist said: “I feel I invented my own means, which is rather nice” (Tipton 2015). The Rope Drawings derived their inspiration from the “optical effects” of O’Doherty/Ireland’s Angled Vowel Drawings, in which certain colours caused an effect of recession, while others would appear to step forward (Lippard 1986: 52).

Figure 1. Brian O’Doherty/ Patrick Ireland: Rimbaud’s Cradle, Rope Drawing #67 [installation view], New York, 1983, Site-specific installation, coloured cords, Dimensions Variable, Charles Cowles Gallery

Source: <  (accessed February 28, 2021). 


 Figure 2. Brian O’Doherty/ Patrick Ireland: Rimbaud’s Cradle, Rope Drawing #67, New York, 1983, drawing using coloured inks, 26 x 40 inches, Charles Cowles Gallery

Source: Lippard, Lucy. 1986. Patrick Ireland: drawings 1965–1985. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 54. 

The reason for the colouring of the ropes in Rimbaud’s Cradle, however, already announces itself in the title of the installation because O’Doherty/Ireland references Arthur Rimbaud’s French poem Voyelles (1883), or Vowels. Corresponding to this sonnet’s characterisation and colourisation of vowels, O’Doherty/Ireland deconstructs the gallery space through colour-coded cords stretched tautly between the walls, ceiling and floor. This network of lines was initially depicted in a drawing using coloured inks (Fig. 2), illustrates O’Doherty/Ireland’s use of the room and alphabetic structure as the installation’s framework. The drawing demonstrates how alphabetical order is dismantled so the letters can be plotted like coordinate points along the architectural framing of the room. Ironically, the rope is in fact charted in an alphabetical order, but their sequential logic is visually subverted into an illogical web of ropes that does not allow an articulate reading from any vantage point within the room.

Therefore, what began as drawings about the “deep antagonism between word and image” (Lippard 1986: 20) developed into an angular nebula of lines floating in the gallery space, so that “spatial relations have completely replaced language” (Lippard 1986: 19). But the semantics of these three-dimensional interactions come at the expense of the work’s perceptual premise which should base itself on a cohesive visual conclusion, instead it shakily sets itself up on the grounds of its universal and conceptual viewpoint because “there is no one right view” (Lippard 1986: 52), just as O’Doherty/Ireland explains in 1985:  

“Space is a kind of jungle, a complete chaos with no rhyme or reason at all. The ropes draw temporary propositions that give brief visions of order. But that order is always lapsing into chaos again, with each new step. For the pieces change radically with even small moves. Thus, they are to a degree unknowable – there is no single gestalt, just a succession of order and disorder. Eventually both of these conceptions proceed from the mind – the piece enables you to make your own disorder or order.” (Lippard 1986: 52).

This statement typifies the nature of postmodern art’s enclosure – or rather the lack thereof. In Rimbaud’s Cradle, Rope Drawing #67 the vectors of rope ricocheting around the gallery room do indeed offer the work its formal enclosure. But that is where the outer frame ends and this “brings the pleasure of understanding, or the illusion of comprehension” (Lippard 1986: 19). Either way, the work omits access to a single solution because “you as the viewer can […] subvert the artist’s intentions by moving around, and you can be seduced into the spot where it all comes together – the point of psychological satisfaction, of outwitting displacement” (Lippard 1986: 19). The problem with this kind of psychological outmanoeuvring in conceptual art is that it usually results in doubt instead of belief.

           Nevertheless, one of the few assurances postmodern art does offer, guarantees that “the formal closure of the art work is continually being undermined by narrative or visual devices that create an immanent, inescapable state of undecidability regarding the truth status of some part of that work” (Eshelman 2008: 1). Hence, this Rope Drawing uses its conceptual and aesthetic deconstruction of space as a site of problematisation in relation to language and perception. Additionally, the formal closure of the installation has the exact opposite effect of performatism’s coercive outer frame that is “set up in such a way that the reader or viewer at first has no choice but to opt for a single, compulsory solution to the problems raised within the work at hand” (Eshelman 2008:2).

This empirical grasping of ideas (Lippard 1986: 52) in O’Doherty’s postmodern Rope Drawings will change as the epochal shift to performatism takes place: “If Ireland seems in search of a ‘unified field theory’ – an Absolute that would embrace ONE HERE NOW – it is not because he is either a romantic in love with chaos or a classicist discovering an orderly universe, but a sceptic” (Lippard 1986: 10). Or perhaps the postmodern scepticism present in O’Doherty’s Rope Drawings was just the last stage in his work’s aesthetic transition towards performatist belief.

3. A Performatist Framing of The doors to good and evil

There is a considerable 32-year time period between Rimbaud’s Cradle, Rope Drawing #67 (1983) and The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven–Christina’s World, Rope Drawing #124 (2015), the latter of which will occupy the next part of this essay. As Eshelman himself notes: “All performatist works feed in some way on postmodernism; some break with it markedly, while others retain typical devices but use them with an entirely different aim” (Eshelman 2008: xiii), and although O’Doherty was still creating art and writing during this three-decade gap, the considerable time difference between the aforementioned Rope Drawings highlight clear aesthetic developments in O’Doherty’s Rope Drawings.

The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven–Christina’s World, Rope Drawing #124 is the narrative title of the contemporary art installation by Brian O’Doherty (Fig. 3). It was created in 2015 for the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s “Fragments” art exhibition. In comparison to O’Doherty’s postmodern Rimbaud’s Cradle Rope Drawing, this post-postmodernist work constructs a space within the gallery’s, instead of conceptually deconstructing it by using its framework against it.

Figure 3. Brian O’Doherty: The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven – Christina’s world, Rope Drawing # 124 [installation view], Dublin, 2015, Site-specific installation, nylon cord and water-based house paint, Irish Museum of Modern Art Dublin, T.2015.1

Source: (accessed February 19, 2021). 

Figure 4. Brian O’Doherty: The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven – Christina’s world, Rope Drawing # 124 [frontal installation view], Dublin, 2015, Site-specific installation, nylon cord and water-based house paint, Irish Museum of Modern Art Dublin, T.2015.1

Source: (accessed February 19, 2021). 

The central, or one-point perspective, of O’Doherty’s brightly coloured mural paraphrases an empty room, in view its of two doorways and windows, into basic geometric shapes. While corresponding ropes graphically project the mural's abstract representation of three-dimensionality into the gallery space in front of it, this site-specific installation actively inhabits the gallery’s spatial dimensions to construct its framing situation. By means of simple water-based housepaint arranged in (relatively) parallel geometric planes across three gallery walls and white nylon cord stretched between the ceiling, floor and walls of the gallery, O’Doherty’s installation builds a dynamic enclosure through its performatist outer frame.

Furthermore, the gallery’s spatial reality becomes informed by the boundaries of the white-coloured cords imposed by the mural’s geometric and symmetrical composition. The ropes literally extend the mural’s depiction of a represented room into an actual room and it reaches into the gallery space as if intending to pull its three-dimensionality onto the two-dimensionality of the wall. Though the mural’s perspective does illustrate some depth, the flat, almost rudimentary use of colour and shapes emphasises the simplified rendering of spatial complexity. Nevertheless, just when the elementary shapes and colours seem to warn against taking any attempt at three-dimensionality seriously, the framing of the cords in correspondence with the mural’s geometric planes, literally triangulate (Fig. 3) to point out the exact spot in the gallery where the vanishing point of the mural and the alignment of the ropes achieve their performative unity (Fig. 4). The vanishing point is by definition where all lines converge and from this front and centred standpoint, despite the flat and purposefully shallow representation of a room receding towards two doorways, the viewer recognises the depth the mural endeavours to mimic. Therefore, the viewer is choreographed by O’Doherty’s set-up of the mural’s perspective and ropes to literally stand before the doors to good and evil, where they are presented with the installation’s inner frame.

This framing situation created by authorial guidance corroborates its performative character. The installation as the outer frame coerces the viewer to seek the frontal vantage point of the inner frame, so as to find the monist solution of the work’s performatist premise. On the one hand, the viewer’s movement offers a multitude of viewings in relation to the mural and its corresponding network of ropes (Fig. 2), like in the previously discussed work, Rimbaud’s Cradle, where a multiplicity of viewpoints was also possible. On the other hand, the central perspective of the wall painting clearly permits the viewer only one position from which they could experience the alignment of the ropes with the mural’s composition, locking the double frame into place. If the viewer wants to take the mural’s attempt at three-dimensionality seriously, they are forced by O’Doherty’s authorial use of the installation’s outer frame to stand front and centre of the installation where the borders of rope and paint meet as one cohesive artwork. The installation’s “dogmatic implausibility […] forces us back into the work” (Eshelmann 2008: 3) and into this Rope Drawing’s inner frame. Even O’Doherty asks, “do we not, […] as we stand in the gallery space, end up inside the picture, looking out at an opaque picture plane that protects us from a void? (O’Doherty 1986 [1976]: 39). Thus, the combination of the work’s spatial coercion and central perspective forces the viewer into the work, isolating them from the context of the gallery.

In this regard, the enclosing framework created by the formal device of perspective plays an important role: “The notion of closure is, incidentally, a crucial aspect of the originary scene according to Gans. In his scenario, the protagonists who have just created the first sign must stand back from it to admire its wholeness and closedness” (Eshelman 2008: 126). From a centred viewpoint of the work, the perspective of the work’s inner frame unites the lines extending from the gallery floor as its foreground towards the bifurcating doors to good and evil, neighboured on either side by the sky-blue windows to heaven. Although the windows feign the parallelism of an accurate one-point perspective, as mentioned before, O’Doherty does not seem to strive for realistic accuracy anyway. Instead, these doors and windows are set against a vivid red background and the central perspective is enforced by a receding green plane, forming the basis of the mural’s composition. Continuing the gallery’s floorspace onto the wall and into the vanishing point of the mural, this trapezium results in the junction of the “doors to good and evil”, forming the inner frame’s V-shaped divergence into two grey-coloured parallelograms. However, the choice set up by the vanishing point as to which of the two doors represents good and evil, is ambiguous and left up to the viewer, as the dualism of these entryways both deviate from the same, shared threshold.

The mural’s vanishing point builds the originary scene of the installation’s inner frame. Eshelman attributes this idea to Eric Gans’s generative anthropology which hypothesises the “scene of the genesis of language” in order to avoid mimetic conflict through “peace-bringing divinity” (Gans 2017). The choice, therefore, between the doors to good and evil “reduces human behaviour to what seems to be a very basic or elementary circle of unity with nature and/or with other people” (Eshelman 2008: 4). And what decision-making process could be more implicitly present or cyclical than the judgements humans make every day about the actions, values and morals of others and themselves as good or evil, good or bad, right or wrong? Of course, within the work’s performative inner frame, this choice is not presented in a moral or epistemological way, but rather aesthetically, as “a basic unifying, thing-oriented projection” (Eshelman 2008: 7). This is represented by the divergence of the doors, semantically denoting the metaphysical making of a choice through selecting which entrance to walk through, reiterating the formal significance of the depth created by the mural’s central perspective. In relation to Gans’s theory of the ostensive sign as a means of violence deferral through language (Eshelman 2008: 4), could the choice between the doors to good and evil share the same objective of violence deferral according to Gans’s theory? Obviously, a choice is not a literal thing or sign, however the representation of the doors in its “semiotic mechanism” functions in a “theist” way (Eshelman 2008: 36). Indeed, the judgement of good and evil is associated with the metaphysical notions of the sacral sphere. Yet, within the aesthetics of the inner frame, the ostensive signifier of the doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven restores a metaphysical belief in redemption, the choice to decide the paths one could take.

In summary, this double frame results in an experience of transcendence because the locking of the inner and outer frame is literally dependent on the choreography of the viewer, and their ability to navigate (or transcend) the network of ropes projected from the mural into the room. Also, the two-dimensionality of the wall painting coerces the viewer to believe in its three-dimensionality through the correspondence of the ropes jutting out from the mural's geometric planes of colour.

4. Conclusion: Performatism in an Art Installation

Having discussed two different Rope Drawings by Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland from the historical perspective of two different periods (and two different identities), the postmodern Rimbaud’s Cradle, Rope Drawing #67 lacks the enclosing dimension of an inner framing’s unifying sign impeding an experience of transcendence. In contrast, a performatist development 32 years later in O’Doherty’s installation, The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven – Christina’s world, Rope Drawing # 124, is clearly visible. Where the unifying agent in O’Doherty’s postmodern work was the concept, in this performatist rope installation, the unifying agent is the sign, represented by the converging, central perspective of the doors being reinforced by its roped reflection. This creates “an intuitively experienced unity of artist, work, and observer that transpires on the level of the sign and not on the level of concept” (Eshelman 2008: 217) rendering O’Doherty’s Rope Drawing a good example of performatism in an art installation.    

Furthermore, The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven – Christina’s world, Rope Drawing # 124 creates a dynamic constellation of architectural and painterly framings to negotiate the viewer’s experience by means of a “spatial scene highlighting a spatial relationship that seems to overcome its own involvement in the material world” (Eshelman 2008: 121). Consequently, the Rope Drawing’s postmodern deconstruction of the gallery space, developed into a performatist construction of the gallery space, enabling a focused and unified engagement “between the human (the observer) and a theist creator (the architect)” (Eshelman 2008: 121). Similarly, O’Doherty’s representational mural, as the pictorial counterpart to his structural Rope Drawing, demonstrates a move back to the seriousness of symmetry and the unifying constructed space created by the framework of its central perspective.  

In conclusion, the more recent Rope Drawing installation employs formal devices inherent to both painting (through the mural) and architectural construction (through the ropes) for its framing. This results in O’Doherty’s performative use of the one-point perspective to create an Ostensivity, or centring, through the trinity of the gallery’s horizontal plane with the vertical apex of the vanishing point, being structurally reinforced by the spatial triangulation of ropes. This renders the work both pictorially and spatially performative, since the paired triangulation of the ropes and vanishing point work together to centralise and point (Eshelman 2008: 127– 128), proving that although ostensivity is a “minor, hard to-to-implement device” (Eshelman 2008: 128), the painterly and spatial nature of this Rope Drawing installation by O’Doherty demonstrates a monist solution between two different categories in visual art. Perhaps this could allow for future analysis about how performatist devices can be unified through mixed art forms or mediums, like in O’Doherty’s Rope Drawing installation.    

 Although the development of performatism partially bases itself on the antagonism between postmodern aesthetics and the contemporary zeitgeist, a possible reason for the performatist shift in O’Doherty’s work can already be traced back to a statement he made in 1980: “I’m not making art for the ages, I’m making art in one place for a limited time for whatever community I can find there” (Lippard 1986: 19). Tellingly, it is most probably this penchant for the creation of art, congruent to the zeitgeist of a particular time and space, that has kept the 93-year-old art critic and artist relevant and receptive to historic and cultural developments in art, for over half a century. 


[1] Patrick Ireland was created as a second persona by Brian O’Doherty as a symbol of his patriotic stance against the military presence of the British in Northern Ireland, but also to “deny the role of autobiography in his work” (Lippard 1986: 8). However, after a performance art ‘burial’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 20 th of May 2008, O’Doherty now creates art under his birth name (Rugg 2008).

6. Bibliography 

Bui, Phong. 2007 “Brian O’ Doherty with Phong Bui”. The Brooklyn Rail June <> (accessed February 23, 2021).

Duro, Paul. 1996. The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays on the Boundaries of the Artwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ebert, Theresa. 1978. “The Aesthetics of Indeterminacy: The Postmodern Drip Paintings of Jackson Pollock”. The Centennial Review 22.2: 139–163.

Eshelman, R. 2008. Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism. Aurora.

Eshelman, Raoul. 2020. “What is Performatism”. Performatism October 28 <> (accessed February 25, 2021).

Gans, Eric. 2017. “A Brief Introduction to Generative Anthropology”. Anthropoetics: The Journal of Generative Anthropology February 16 (accessed February 23, 2021).

Gombrich, E. H. 1995. The Story of Art. 16 th ed. London: Phaidon.

Greenberg, Clement. 2016 [1960]. “Modernist Painting”. Painting: critical and primary sources. Volume 2: Modern painting. Eds. Harland, Beth and Manghani, Sunil London: Bloomsbury. 117–124.

Lähnemann, Ingmar. 2011. Inside and outside the White Cube. Between Categories – Brian O’Doherty / Patrick Ireland und sein Werk. Hamburg: Disserta.

Lippard, Lucy. 1986. Patrick Ireland: drawings 1965–1985. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

O’Doherty, Brian. 1986 [1976]. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Santa Monica: Lapis Press.

Rugg, Whitney. 2008. At Rest, in Peace: Farewell to Patrick Ireland”. The Brooklyn Rail June <> (accessed February 25, 2021).

Tipton, Gemma. 2015. “Brian O’Doherty”. Artforum May 18 (accessed February 28, 2021). 

Post 10

5 September 2019

Performatism, Metamodernism, and Spiritual Trends in Popular Culture. Article Review of:

  • Linda Ceriello. “Toward a Metamodern Reading of Spiritual but not Religious mysticisms.” In William B. Parsons (ed.), Being Spiritual but not Religious. Past, Present Future(s). New York 2018, pp. 200-218.
  • Linda Ceriello and Greg Dember. “The Right to a Narrative: Metamodernism, Paranormal Horror and Agency in Cabin in the Woods.” In Darryl Caterine and John W. Morehead (eds.), The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape. New York 2019, pp. 42-54.
  • Linda Ceriello, “The Big Bad and the Big ‘Aha.’ Metamodern Monsters as Transformational Figures of Instability." In Michael E. Heyes (ed.), Holy Monsters, Sacred Grotesques. Lanham 2018, pp. 207-233.

One of the things I've noticed while studying performatist works over the last 20 years has been the consistent appearance of spiritually charged themes, plot resolutions, and characters in both high-brow and mainstream culture. I was thus particularly intrigued by the recent appearance of three articles on the spirituality in popular culture by Linda Ceriello and Greg Dember, who directly make use of metamodernism and performatism in their work. In professional terms Ceriello is a specialist in comparative religion and Dember a musician and independent scholar; they also write a blog entitled that tries to both theoretize metamodernism and apply it to popular culture. Generally speaking, they tend to regard metamodernism and performatism as compatible, and they've added some interesting criteria of their own to those proposed by the metamodernists and myself.

     The three articles listed above treat different themes but follow a similar pattern. All are refreshingly historical, in the sense that they strive to make clear epistemic distinctions between different figurations of spirituality and monstrosity. For example, in her study of monsters (the "Big Bad" in the third article mentioned), Ceriello breaks them down into four categories:

  • a traditional "Big Bad" where monsters are an unironic force of nature, an "unacceptable ontology that must simply be overcome" (p. 212);
  • a modern monster narrative would view the monster or "Big Bad" as a social threat and a problem to be solved with rational or utopian means, whereas
  • in postmodern monster narratives the reader/viewer discovers that "in the course of attempting to 'slay' a monster [...] there is no such thing as resolution" (p. 213); these are displaced by 
  • metamodern monster narratives, which deal with "fear and threat" differently than their predecessors. Rather than "relying solely on expert knowledge or on a singular savior figure [...], efficacious engagement of the metamodern monster will be enacted narratively via small actions by individuals in local groupings or communities, working in their own modest ways, and for purposes that are more personal than global. Overall, the sensibility is one of honoring subjectively determined truths" (p. 214). 

While I can't go into great detail about Ceriello's discussion of SBNR or her analyses of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Ceriello and Dember's analysis of the horror movie Cabin in the Woods,  it will suffice to say that I found their articles to be subtly argued, empirically well founded, and thoroughly convincing in their treatment of spirituality and monstrosity in popular culture. 

      Ceriello's first article, which treats the SBNR trend in American popular culture, provides an in-depth look at  "non-New-Agey" thinking, which she frames in terms of a "metamodernist episteme." Ceriello's own working theory is that

millennials have felt something amiss with the always-ironic postmodern disaffection [...] and have begun constructing a new sensibility around an attitude something like OK, there may be no 'there' there, but yet...I'm here! That has got to count for something! (p. 205)

Although Ceriello modestly claims that her theory is "hardly provable," she goes on to give a convincing metamodernist reading of an anonymous mystical text from the early 2000's, and she points out the importance of this kind of individual, here-and-now spirituality in numerous products of mass culture (most notably in the "top-five watched TV shows" of millennials in the year 2014) as well as in the writings of the British spiritual teacher Jeff Foster (pp. 211 ff.). Also, I might add, her thesis that "there is a general gravitation toward--even a kind of sacralizing of--individual felt experience" (p. 206) has a direct theoretical and philosophical correlate in the realm of presence theory (treated at length below in Blog Post Nr. 9). Ceriello closes by describing the metamodern individual experience, in contradistinction to New Age dualism or to postmodern skepticism, as "oscillative, absorbtive, and pluralistic" (p. 214), and she suggests that the new trend is viewing the "contradictions of previous epistemes to be creative fodder, rather than seeking to supplant them" (p. 214). I think she is entirely correct in this assessment, but adopting this position yourself makes it difficult to write literary history (I'll return to this question further below). 

     In her other two articles (one authored together with Greg Dember) Ceriello shows that this "sacralizing of individual felt experience" to be operative in both the horror movie Cabin in the Woods and in the fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Also, she makes a convincing case for applying the figure of metamodern oscillation to the ethical and ontological boundaries in those works, which are both marked by monstrosity. Hence metamodern monstrosity (as exemplified in the fantastic world of Buffy) is not a figure of dualism (as in modernism) or an undecidable conundrum (as in postmodernism) but is something that is experienced personally (and overcome) by positive figures in the series; conversely monstrous figures not only "pos[e] ethical conundrums, but help to solve them" (p. 226).  Here, too, I find confirmation for this in my own work on the "ethics of perpetration," in which monstrous figures like Dexter have a positive, soteriological side to them.  

         If I have any criticism of Ceriello and Dember's work it relates to their use of metamodernist terminology, which I find to be imprecise and often still obligated to posthistorical thinking. As the above-mentioned articles and the many other individual analyses on the Notes on Metamodernism website demonstrate, metamodernism works very well heuristically. This means quite simply that once you have armed yourself with the basic notion that culture today oscillates between elements of postmodernism and what the founders of metamodernism call "modernism," you'll quickly find a third, distinctly different sensibility (a metamodern "structure of feeling"). Even though I don't use metamodernist terminology, I have no trouble understanding what they're doing, and in the vast majority of cases I agree with their analytical results, as is the case with Ceriello and Dember's work.

       Unfortunately, in terms of  its theoretical justification metamodernism  stands on very wobbly legs.  I would summarize the main two problems as follows. 

      First, I think there can be little doubt that "modernism" as an all-encompassing system of values is dead. Perhaps there are a few odd souls somewhere who still  believe in the philosophy of Heidegger or Husserl, and perhaps there are a few art critics or readers who don't think anything tops Kandinsky or Hemingway, but  no one still has an across-the-board system of values corresponding to the modernism of the 1910s or '20s. Like the Renaissance or romanticism, modernism belongs to our storehouse of received cultural knowledge and is no longer a coherent, viable system of aesthetic or social norms and values. The same thing can not be said for postmodernism, which as a system of unwritten norms and values stressing endless critical thought, irony, relativization of truth, simulation, and the like, still infuses the belief systems of many critics, scholars, reader/viewers, and creative artists (if you don't believe me come and visit one of our doctoral seminars here at the LMU). Hence the idea that metamodernism literally "oscillates between modernism and postmodernism" doesn't make much sense. What the metamodernists seem to be saying is that metamodernism oscillates between postmodernism and a new value system (metamodernism) that is similar to modernism in a general, rather than a literal, way, and that the result of that tension produces something new. Ceriello adopts this strategy herself and avoids speaking of an oscillation between postmodernism and modernism per se. And indeed, in her work modernism is marked as a separate phase of development historically prior to postmodernism and conceptually distinct from metamodernism. 

       Secondly, the notion of "oscillation" is in itself not very stringent, and in fact doesn't make much sense. If something is oscillating between two poles, it will do that in perpetuity--once here, once there, once fore, once back. In logical terms, there is nothing to produce a "third" which would be different from the two poles between which the oscillation is taking place. The metamodernists' use of the Platonic term "metaxis" to justify this doesn't make things better. If  metaxis, according to the metamodernist manifesto, means "a tension between life and death, mortality and immortality, [...] time and timelessness, sense and senselessness [...]" etc., we still don't know what the exact results of that tension are, or where they might lead. Fortunately, philosophy offers a quick remedy to this problem: it's called the dialectic. The dialectic, as one hardly needs to mention, consists of three parts: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. If postmodernism is the thesis, and the move to negate postmodernism the antithesis, then this dynamic, if it succeeds, can result in a distinct third with new, synthetic qualities. 

      This can readily be seen in Ceriello and Dember's work: the "Big Aha" (a "profound spiritual realization," "The Big Bad," p. 207) or the specific way in which "subjective truth" is achieved through local actions of individuals are expressions of this third, synthetic movement. If Buffy or the characters in Cabin in the Woods simply "oscillated" between postmodernism and its negation without any synthetic resolution, nothing at all would happen, except perhaps that they and we would all be seasick--and remain mired in postmodernism. If performatism often rather one-sidedly focuses on  devices like double-framing, "playing God," or authorial overdetermination, it's because I'm interested in establishing the specific characteristics of this synthetic "third." This is also why the metamodernists, in their original manifesto, happily integrated the double frame into their own theoretical scheme: it provides a formal way of describing the synthetic third that is lacking in their own un-synthetic theory.
     So why do the metamodernists avoid appealing to the dialectic, even at the cost of logical incoherence? The reason is probably fairly simple: they want to have their posthistorical cake and eat it too. Put another way, they want to define a new historical stage of cultural development without employing the dialectic, which in poststructuralist theory is thought to be metaphysical humbug because it implies a totality (that cultural development is a coherent whole) and a teleology (that that whole is going in a particular direction). The thought systems of Foucault and Derrida, for example, are programatically devoted to eliminating both the figure of dialectical synthesis and notions of  historical teleology as much as possible, and a whole raft of post-postmodern theorists (Nealon, Samuels, Moraru, Hoberek) follows their example. 
     Given this background, "oscillation" serves as a kind of a paradoxical non-synthetic third, something situated between the endless interplay of thesis and antithesis on the one hand and the dreaded "metaphysical" synthesis on the other. Unfortunately, you can't, as the German proverb has it, "dance at two wedding parties at once." 
Either metamodernism is something truly new and synthetic (and leading in a particular direction) or it is a never-ending, undecidable swing of the pendulum between postmodernism and the new norms and values opposed to it. As I've noted above, this is not so much a practical or heuristic problem as a theoretical one. Most analysts using metamodernism actually do find new, synthetic qualities in the works they're analyzing, but simply choose not to call them so.  In the fast-and-free world of the internet this isn't a big problem, but it is in academia, where theoretical propositions have to at least stand up to basic logical tests, it is.

   Ceriello and Dember themselves solve the problem by positing a metamodern "episteme" marking a distinctly new stage of development. Strictly speaking, though, if we take Foucault (the term's inventor) at his word, one episteme or "way of knowing" follows another randomly and there is no dialectical or functional connection between the two--something that is evidently not the case here. Ceriello and Dember solve this problem by eliminating randomness  from the term and treating metamodernism as a functional reaction to  postmodernism. This, it seems to me,  is a legitimate move, as long as you're aware that the meaning of the original term has been modified. However, it also moves the definition of "episteme" very close to that of the good old "epoch," which assumes that one cultural stage of development comes about by negating and transforming a previous one. 

       Although metamodernism tries to avoid the binary "new vs. old" by positing a kind of dynamic, indeterminate space between the two, I don't find this strategy very useful or appropriate as a way of describing historical development. For example, you kind of wonder how culture develops after metamodernism--will it ever transition to a truly new state or will it just keep whizzing around forever in circles? My own personal preference (in the interests of conceptual clarity) is to drop both the Foucaldian term episteme and the directionless notion of oscillation and return to using the terms epochfunction, and dialectical synthesis that were once common in formalist and structuralist historiography. By recurring to these terms we can describe cultural history not as a continual "oscillation" between two prior states or as a series of random epistemic leaps, but as a rejection, reworking, and transformation of worn-out cultural norms and devices. The result is the creation of something new that functions in a markedly different way from the previous development but that is not entirely random and disconnected from it. Ceriello and Dember's work is an important step on the way to achieving this kind of historical understanding of how culture is developing after postmodernism, and it undertakes a necessary and urgently needed correction of metamodernism's shaky methodology.  

Post 9 

24 August 2019

Performatism and Theory of Presence: Robert Hermann’s Präsenztheorie. Möglichkeiten eines neuen Paradigmas anhand dreier Texte der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur (Goetz, Krausser, Herrndorf). Baden-Baden 2019.

Normally I avoid treating German-language works on this website, simply because most of my readers aren’t fluent in that language. In this case, though, I’m making an exception for a book that addresses the issue of presence—a philosophical and aesthetic topic that is central to performatism and post-postmodernism, but that up to now has not been treated as an object of cultural history or literary analysis. 

The book I have in mind is by a young scholar of German literature named Robert Hermann and bears in translation the rather clunky heading Presence Theory. Possibilities of a New Paradigm and its Application to Three Texts of Contemporary German Literature (Goetz, Krausser, Herrndorf)—German dissertation titles are required to be very specific about the topics they treat. Since I’m not familiar with the literary authors Hermann discusses, I’m going to focus more on how he categorizes different theories of presence rather than on how he applies them individually.   

   I should first start by pointing out that presence is also an integral part of performatism. Concepts like the ostensive sign (borrowed from Eric Gans) and double framing both depend on creating a feeling that something is directly affecting our intuition rather than addressing our cognitive capabilities through discourse. The ostensive sign, for example, relates by definition to a present object, person, or state, and the double frame creates a formal sense of presence by cutting an object, person, or state off from outside contexts and artificially forcing us to accept it  in its immediacy and oneness. However, I never really developed this particular aspect of the theory, and indeed, as Hermann correctly points out (p. 13), I ignored the whole field of presence philosophy that arose in the years between 1999 and 2004. Hermann himself is nominally oriented towards metamodernism, with its fuzzy notions of oscillation between "modern naiveté" and "postmodern skepticism" and of a nascent "neoromanticism" (cf. pp. 12-13). However, his own analyses represent original applications of the concepts of presence that he discusses in the course of the book, and metamodernism essentially disappears from the rest of the book as a point of reference. 

       Hermann’s book is  an attempt to systematically describe five major theories of presence, which were formulated mainly (but not exclusively) by German philosophers and scholars. These scholars (along with their English-language works, if available) are as follows: George Steiner, Real Presences. Is There Anything in What We Say? (1989); Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (1993); Karl-Heinz Bohrer, Das absolute Präsens. Die Semantik ästhetischer Zeit (1994); Martin Seel, Aesthetics of Appearing (2004); Dieter Mersch, Was sich zeigt. Materialität – Präsens – Ereignis (2002), and Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey (2003). None of these writers addresses the question of how presence theory relates to post-postmodernism, so that one of the major services of Hermann’s book is to link their ideas up with this historical issue.      

      One of the refreshing things about Hermann’s book is the way it combines well-founded philosophical knowledge with clear exposition. Hermann begins by taking an in-depth look at how two very influential and difficult philosophers of the modernist era—Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger—treat presence. Apart from the fact that Hermann’s summary of their competing philosophies is very lucid, his opening chapter gives his argument a very solid historical basis (after reading it and comparing it with the work of the five more contemporary scholars he treats, you won’t be able to flippantly claim that they’re “just repeating modernismˮ or "doing metaphysics"). Hermann, following the German philosopher Thomas Rentsch, treats Wittgenstein and Heidegger in terms of a "negative metaphysics" that seeks to "overcome the Cartesian subject-object paradigm in favor of an unutterable holism" (p. 75). Understanding how this quasi-mystical project works (or, more properly, doesn't work) is in any case an important prerequisite for approaching contemporary presence theory.

      In general, Hermann proceeds by presenting the five theories of presence into diagram form, which allows him to categorize and clearly sort out the similarities and differences between the thinkers he's treating. There's a section (2.11.) where he directly compares the different approaches, then another where he discusses the problematical aspects of each of the theories (2.12.), and finally a third (2.13.) that treats differences and similarities between presence theory and other disciplines such as reception theory, phenomenology, anthropology, etc.    

      While I can't go into too much detail here on the individual thinkers Hermann treats, he does an excellent job of untangling terminological differences where similar concepts have different names, and also of demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of each of the approaches. For example, George Steiner is alone in ascribing presence a divine quality, Dieter Mersch is the only one treating presence in terms of media theory, Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht badly misinterprets Heidegger (pp. 189 ff.), and Martin Seel's philosophy of appearing can be applied well in practical analyses of literature and film (disclosure: I co-taught a class on presence with Hermann, and Seel's concepts worked very nicely!). 

      This clarity of exposition and careful attention to conceptual details continues in the rest of the book. Although I can’t go into any detail regarding the discussions of individual scholars,  I can pass on to readers a schematic idea of Hermann’s conclusions.  These can be summed up in a diagram he provides on pp. 221-222, which divides the philosophical and aesthetic problems he's been talking about into two fields, which he calls "Dimension A" and "Dimension B".

Fig. 1. The Two Dimensions of Presence Theory

As the academic reader will readily discern, Hermann resorts to the use of those awful things call binaries to establish a distinct difference between two approaches to reality. The first, which he calls "Dimension A," accurately describes the approach used in poststructuralism and postmodernism. "Dimension B," on the other hand, contains elements that one often finds in presence theory. "Dimension A," needless to say, regards "Dimension B" as a mixture of claptrap, delusional thinking, metaphysical humbug, striving for totalitarian hegemony, and the like. In fact, the whole focus of "Dimension A" thinkers is to systematically deconstruct, contextualize, or relativize everything in "Dimension B"--a project that includes destroying or denying the binary oppositions that would necessarily call into question their own critical project.  

     Hermann's point here, however, is not that presence theory (as "Dimension B") is the simple opposite or negation of poststructuralism / postmodernism. Instead, he concludes that

'presence theory' designates a theory for analyzing artistic phenomena that takes into account both the sensual-semiotic dimension and the dimension of presentness and reader response in the study of works of art. In doing so, it assumes a phenomenological unity of the difference of both dimensions.

'Präsenztheorie' bezeichnet eine Theorie zur Analyse artistischer Phänomene, die sowohl die sinnhaft-semiotische als auch die präsentisch-rezeptionsästhetische Dimension von Kunstwerken berücksichtigt und dabei von einer phänomenologischen Einheit der Differenz beider Dimensionen ausgeht (p. 222). 

Hermann goes on to define the tricky and barely translatable concept präsentisch ("marked by the quality of presence") as follows: 

'Presence' refers to the aesthetic perception of a performance that eludes representation and produces a temporary dissolution of subject-object thinking as well as an intensive experiencing of space and time.

'Präsenz' bezeichnet die ästhetische Wahrnehmung einer Performanz, die sich der Repräsentation entzieht und die eine temporäre Auflösung des Subjekt-Objekt-Denkens sowie ein intensives Erleben von Raum und Zeit bewirkt (p. 222). 

Needless to say, these are all individual conclusions that a performatist would have no trouble supporting, since Hermann is in effect suggesting that our contemporary literary culture synthesizes Dimensions A and B to produce a third, unified state of aesthetic experience combining modernist immediacy of experience ("presence") with a metareferential, holistic awareness of its historical status in regard to the preceding epoch ("phenomenological unity"). In my mind, at least, this isn't a neoromantic, metamodernist "oscillation" between modernism and postmodernism, but a synthetic, Hegelian jump forward into the whole of a new historical dimension. 

       All in all, Hermann's book is an important contribution towards establishing a philosophically founded, analytically rigorous approach to post-postmodernism, and it is to be hoped that parts of the book, if not the whole thing, will eventually be available in English.

Blog Post Nr. 8

April 2019

Performatism, Political Economy, and the Media

Readers of this website may wonder a bit that I treat things like literature, art, film, and architecture but don’t address weighty socio-political issues of the day or try to work them directly into my notion of performatism.  The reason isn’t because I don’t have strongly felt political views or am trying to take a dispassionate position “above it all.”  Rather, I’m just generally very skeptical about how much social, political, economic, and mediatic developments can be used to explain epochal shifts in culture.


    My basic position goes something like this. Works of literature, art, film etc. obviously refer back to and are influenced by surrounding social developments. At the same time, though, these works are part of coherent, more or less autonomous systems of aesthetic reference which exert a greater immediate influence on their practitioners than the amorphous events or trends swirling around them. If you’re, say, an up and coming young American author with a political conscience, you might want to write critically about the American engagement in Iraq, the financial crash of 2008 or the police shooting people of color. If you do so, though, you won’t be yanking those topics out of thin air and converting them into literature: you’ll have your eye on what Thomas Pynchon or Maya Angelou or Don DeLillo or whoever came before you wrote about. In particular, you’ll have your eye on how they did it—the “how” being part of the key to getting yourself recognized either as a continuation of some existing literary trend or as part of a new, innovative direction.

        Positioning yourself like this in a literary or cultural field isn’t done completely freely.  In spite of the seemingly endless choices available, there are, because of the weight of historical tradition, only limited logical possibilities for organizing works of literature in terms of plot, narration, and style. For example, in writing your critical novel (assuming you’re not being ironic), you won’t want your language to sound like that of Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, and you won’t want to include 19th century devices like overheard conversations in the garden to keep the plot moving. You might, however, think a lot about whether you want to create heroes or heroines whose actions are ironically undermined by the narration. Alternatively, you might want to create protagonists whose actions lead to positive results in a way that defies rational explanation. If you take the first logical route, you’d be following in a distinctly postmodern tradition; if you took the second, you’d be taking a path that I and numerous others have described as performatist or post-postmodern.

     These basic literary devices—and not simply the topic you’re writing about or the socio-economic conditions they refer to—will determine the overall mood of your work. In other words, the decisive difference in defining the historical “spirit of the times” or epochal mindset is (among other things) whether you cast your work in an ironic mode or one hinting in a non-ironic experience of transcendence, hope, unity etc.  In this regard literature and the other arts differ from socio-economic or political processes in the real world by virtue of the simple fact that they can make up their own outcomes. If you want to give your work a non-ironic spin in the way I just described, then you can do it. And, in doing so, you’ll be consciously or unconsciously following the example of numerous other writers who’ve made a similar decision not to be ironic anymore either. 

     This is why the field of literature is much more coherent than, say, politics, where a clearly stated policy can go drastically awry when it bumps into real life.  And this is also why speculation about how socio-economic conditions affect literature is very often circular. Since it’s much easier to make overarching judgments about the state of literature than it is about the state of politics or society or the economy, the starting point for this kind of causal analysis is often literature or culture itself.  In other words, the more or less coherent concept of a literary epoch or period is used to provide a framework for defining the much more diffuse socio-economic forces that are supposed to be causing it in the first place.

     There are several basic ways that literary or cultural theories go about linking socio-economic and political developments causally to literary ones. The most prevalent method, which I’ve talked about at length in Blog Post Nr 1, “The Misery of Posthistoricism,” regards literature as one of many overlapping kinds of discourse—“discourse” referring to the way power relations are expressed in language and various institutional practices.  Because they see literary discourse as constantly interacting with other discourses in unforeseeable, variegated ways, critics of this type don’t think it’s possible to reach any overarching conclusions about the state or development of literature.  Seen this way, literary history devolves into the description of an endless series of small shifts in the greater flow of discourse. Scholars using this approach are generally not interested in defining post-postmodernism because they can’t—their methodology simply doesn’t allow them to do it. 

      This type of discourse-based criticism is very good at connecting literature with individual socio-economic issues and it avoids the sort of circular reasoning described above. However, if you want to know anything about the state of literature as a whole, there’s no way of finding out—all you’ll get is a bunch of seemingly singular individual interactions between literary works and social discourse. This is why critics like Andrew Hoberek look at contemporary American literature and see nothing but “a phase of as-yet uncategorized diversity” (see my remarks in the Annotated Bibliography). In short, critics like this can’t see the forest for the trees, and they see “uncategorized diversity” because they don’t allow for any specifically literary categories to begin with.

     The second type of method is Marxist or Neo-Marxist and assumes that literature and other cultural realms are part of a superstructure determined by an economic base, which is to say capitalism. Most Neo-Marxist critics use as their jumping-off point the work of Fredric Jameson, who is widely regarded as the most important theoretician of postmodern culture. Jameson’s major achievement was to have combined a very clear-headed, sophisticated analysis of postmodern culture with the concept of “late capitalism” borrowed from the work of the Belgian Marxist economist Ernest Mandel. I can’t go into all the details of “late capitalism” here, but the scenario laid out by Jameson always sounded fairly plausible even if you weren’t a fire-breathing Marxist: he saw postmodernism as arising in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an expression of the increasing commodification, globalization, and mediatization of capitalism.

      As with a great deal of Marxist criticism, Jameson and Mandel’s theory was very good at describing the inequities of the capitalist system but less good at predicting its capacity for self-correction or presenting any real-world alternatives to it (Mandel was a Trotskyist who also rejected the bureaucratic communism of what was then the Soviet bloc, and Jameson takes a similar position). For this reason Marxist criticism of this type tends to hang in mid-air. While you might nod your head approvingly at its scathing ethical critique of capitalism, you also might wonder why capitalism is still going strong and why presumed alternatives to it (Venezuela anyone?) disappear or wind up as political and economic disasters. 

    Since few if any of the Neo-Marxist academic critics we’re talking about have any formal training in economics, they tend to focus on the ethical shortcomings of capitalism and usually wind up writing essayistic critiques of capitalist  culture rather than stringent analyses of its economic mechanisms. This sort of approach is exemplified in Jacques Derrida's 1993 book The Specters of Marx, in which he stresses the continued ethical relevance of a plurality of different marxisms, as opposed to one dogmatic Marxism with a capital “M.” In any case the economic theory used by Neo-Marxist or Marxist-influenced critics on postmodernism isn’t based on original research, but on a mixture of general knowledge and economic analysis borrowed from economists who are usually on the far left of the political spectrum.  

     If you do follow Jameson’s Marxist line of reasoning, its main advantage­—that it explains postmodern culture as the direct expression of a long-term, specifically defined phase in the historical development of capitalism—turns out to pose a serious logical problem. For if cultural change is the result of fundamental changes in the nature of capitalism, you’ll have to show that late capitalism has been superseded in some way by some equally basal change—something like “late late capitalism,” although you probably wouldn’t want to call it that.  As I’ve noted in Blog Post Nr. 2 (“The Prison-House of Postmodernism”), Jameson took a second look at the state of capitalism in 2015 and was unable to see in it anything qualitatively different from what he described it in the early 1980s. Accordingly, he simply renamed postmodernism “postmodernity” and completely ignored the question of whether a post-postmodernism was even possible.

     This same problem dogs critics like Jeffrey Nealon and the metamodernists who orient themselves towards Jameson. Nealon, whose book on post-postmodernism came out in 2012, rather oddly subtitles his work “the logic of just-in time capitalism,” which plays on Jameson’s famous article on postmodernism and—get this—a form of production developed in the Japanese car industry in the 1960s and ‘70s that became popular in the West in the 1980s and ’90s. In spite of constant references to “post-postmodernism,” Nealon can’t bring himself to say that it is anything more than an “intensification” of postmodernism (which itself is an “intensification” of modernism), which means all these “isms” are swimming along in the same historical current and don’t mark discrete or dialectical stages of historical development. Nealon is in fact so sure that things intensify in order to remain the same that he doesn’t even bother to reconnect his updated critique of capitalism with any sort of close readings, which leaves whatever valid conclusions he may have made dangling in mid-air.  

     The metamodernists, by contrast, argue that there has indeed been a fundamental change in the way capitalism works (see my notes on Metamodernism. Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism in the Annotated Bibliography). The buzzword here is “neoliberalism” (which incidentally was already in full swing back in the 1980s under Thatcher and Reagan). What makes metamodernist-style capitalism different is the advent of certain conditions which “emerged, converged and coagulated” (p. 11) in the time between 1999 and 2011. The conditions cited by the metamodernist editors are too numerous to list here, but they include the millennial generation coming of age, the easy availability of digital technologies, the geopolitical rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the dream of oil independence through fracking, the second Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the debt crisis and so on and so forth—practically everything with any socio-political or economic impact that happened in those years makes the list. The metamodernist authors go on to say that these developments shouldn’t be seen as a “series of unrelated events” but rather as “interlocking dialectical movements across spatial scales, temporal cycles and techno-economic, cultural and institutional levels” (p. 12). As is the case in expansive cultural critiques of this kind, there isn’t much of any accompanying analysis to back up this claim—you pretty much have to take the authors’ word that these very disparate things are all intertwined.

     Assuming that you do, you’re faced with the next logical hurdle, which is that these developments taken as a whole have led to the intensification of the neoliberal trend in capitalism that has been ascendant since the 1980s—something that would not seem to be anything qualitatively new in economic terms.  The tortured syntax of the metamodernists’ argument makes clear that they are aware of this logical problem themselves: “the apparent resurgence of neoliberalism in the aftermath of the crisis does not entail that we are not witnessing a fourth update of capitalism—a ‘capitalism 4.0’ […] as it were. We certainly are” (p. 17). Once more, we have to take their word for it that the dominant mode of capitalism has changed fundamentally (even though it doesn’t really look like it). Finally, the metamodernists’ closing argument owes more to Chicken Little (“the sky is falling, the sky is falling”) than to rigorous socio-economic analysis: “writing from today’s perspective, we appear to have been too rapidly moving along the neoliberal path leading  […] to a clusterfuck of world-historical proportions […] in which wealth is concentrated at the top 1 per cent of the pyramid, while rising sea levels and super storms crumble its base, where the rest of us reside in highly precarious conditions” (p. 17).

     Even if you’re willing to swallow this cataclysmic argumentation hook, line and sinker, you might still wonder what it has to do with the specific mechanism that the metamodernists find everywhere in present-day culture, which they describe elsewhere (in their original manifesto) as an oscillation “between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”  For if this is indeed a reaction to a “clusterfuck of world-historical proportions” it seems a fairly tame one, and on top of that holds forth positive-soundings qualities like enthusiasm, hope, empathy, unity etc. It also begs the question: is the socio-economic mess we’re in determining culture or is culture determining the way we deal with the socio-economic mess?

     The metamodernists solve this problem by referring back to a “structure of feeling” which bridges the (apparently wide) gap between disastrous socio-economic development and the relatively up-beat arts. The metamodernists, who refer here to a concept set forth (but never developed) by the Marxist critic Raymond Williams, seem to be looking for a term that is less metaphysically loaded than Hegel’s clunky zeitgeist, which supposedly runs through and guides the entirety of human history in predictable dialectical leaps.  If you want to avoid zeitgeist, however, there’s always the good old term “epoch,” which I prefer (see Blog Post Nr. 1 “The Misery of Posthistoricism”).  

   Although I do sympathize with the metamodernists’ attempts to reconstruct a “structure of feeling,” I’m a lot more cautious than they are about trying to explain how socio-economic factors affect literature and the other arts (or the other way around). In particular, I prefer to limit speculation about what “caused” performatist devices to an examination of how they rework or negate postmodern and modern devices—it’s the only place you’ll find a one-to-one correlation between the things you’re studying (try, for example, to connect the “dream of oil independence through fracking” with the “oscillation between naiveté and knowingness”). In any case, I’ve found that the use of these devices leads to a transcendence-seeking sensibility that is markedly different from that of postmodern irony or modernist utopianism (here, too, the metamodernists arrive at similar conclusions—see the discussion in Blog Post Nr. 4, "Theory Smackdown").

     Unlike the metamodernists, I’m cautious about making expansive claims about what the transcendent sensibility of performatism means in larger socio-economic or political terms. There are, no doubt, rhetorical expressions of transcendent optimism in politics, as for example in Obama’s “Yes, we can,” Merkel’s “Wir schaffen es” [we’ll manage it, i.e. the refugee crisis of 2015], and Jeremy Corbyn’s authentically preserved old socialism (for a good metamodernist analysis of how British Labour politicians present themselves as authentic see Sam Browse’s article on Jeremy Corbyn’s public presentation in the metamodernism book, pp. 167-182). Also, there is the new populism (Trump, Brexit, PIS in Poland, Orban in Hungary etc.) which includes elements of unity, hope, and optimism etc.—tied unfortunately to authoritarian, bigoted leaders and nationalist ideology. It’s indeed interesting to examine how these political developments work from a cultural perspective, with the emphasis being on the “how.” While this kind of critique can help us understand certain aspects of political culture, it’s not a substitute for in-depth analyses dealing with the “what”—with extremely complex political, social, and economic mechanisms that can be described partially in terms of a culturally defined “structure of feeling” or an “epoch” but that can’t be reduced to it entirely. 

       A good example of this is Corbyn's brand of "old socialism." His steadfast adherence to a 1970s-style political agenda no doubt created an authentic aura in the 2017 snap election (as outlined by Sam Browse in the above-mentioned article) and helped cut the Conservative Party lead. However, during the ongoing Brexit crisis, when Labour split into Remainers and Leavers, the very same stance made him look like a dithering political fence-straddler and led to a devastating loss as well as to his being replaced as the head of Labour by an entirely different breed of politician.  It's clear here that  the explanatory power of metamodernist authenticity is either very limited or it is dependent on factors that are external to it. The unpalatable alternative is that metamodernism explains everything in British political cultureand in doing so becomes a useless tautology.    

Mediatic Explanations of Post-postmodernism

One thing I’ve noticed about media studies in general is that they tend to overinflate the importance of their object of study. Let’s take as an example this very text. Granted: if the new media weren’t here, I wouldn’t have written this and you couldn’t read it. The rise of the web has given me a forum to present my scholarly notions in a more popular form and has made it easy for anyone anywhere to get access to them. Does that change the substance of what I write about? The answer is: not much. I simplify a lot of arguments and I play down the semiotic jargon, but I haven’t changed any of my basic points. Does it tremendously magnify the influence of what I’m writing? That’s hard to say. This site gets several hundred hits a month from all over the world, and the web obviously makes my theory more accessible. However, my writing here is addressed primarily to non-academics and students and not professional scholars, who (for very good reasons) still value peer-reviewed papers over self-published stuff on the internet. 

      So just how “revolutionary” is the web? In this case not all that much—it’s made the communication between academia and the general public a lot easier, but it hasn’t erased the difference between them, which is defined by things like peer-reviewed publications, number of citations, scholarly consensus etc. and not by a certain type of media exposure. Also, you may have noticed that there’s no discussion forum or message board on this site—if you want to communicate with me you have to do it like scholars privately do, which is to say in a polite personal e-mail and not in a free-wheeling web “discussion” populated by anonymous trolls and cranks.   

     I’m well aware that up to now I’ve ignored the question of what role media play in performatism. Part of the reason for this is that there is already a very good book on the subject—Alan Kirby's Digimodernism  (2009). Alan’s remarks on performatism were originally quite dismissive (check out pp. 39-41), but I’m happy to say that we’ve corresponded and met since then and have arrived at numerous points of agreement in spite of our different approaches.

      From my point of view, I find his description of digimodernism as a “new form of textuality characterized by […] onwardness, haphazardness, evanescence, and anonymous, social and multiple authorship” (p. 1) very compelling—up to a certain point. Whereas the qualities he describes undoubtedly appear in digitized texts in all forms of social media and in some niches of high and popular culture (novels written in twitter form, interactive fiction, or video games), they most assuredly don’t apply to the overwhelming majority of professionally produced texts or media products, which still adhere to stuffy old things like copyright laws and require considerable technical and artistic expertise to make in the first place.

      This is why if you read a novel, watch a film, or tune into quality TV, you’ll find that the effect of digital technology on them is ancillary. Reading an e-book might be a bit more convenient than using a printed one, you might watch the film or TV series by streaming them instead of viewing them directly in a movie theatre or on TV, and the movies or series themselves will no doubt contain some neat digitized special effects. But if they really and truly are “haphazard” and “evanescent” you’re not going to watch or read them very long. In fact, you’ll find that quite the opposite is true: without exception they’ll have been designed by highly skilled, explicitly credited authors with the goal of grabbing and keeping your attention using non-digital means like plot development, characterization, and narrative cleverness. 

     Alan gets around this by admitting that “it’s possible to argue that digimodernist literature does not exist” (p. 218) and suggests that “digimodernist literature is yet to come” (p. 218). He does go on to point out the impact of digitization of marketing and promotion (“Amazon, Google Books, Kindle, Oprah, tours, book clubs, critic blogs” p. 221), but these, too, don’t really change much about how the books themselves are written—writers have always been marketed and/or write with certain types of readers in mind. Digital communication means that more people will find it easier to access literature, but it’s not really a qualitative change. From my point of view, this is a major problem of his basic argument. Whereas social communication has indeed been revolutionized by digital technology, it hasn’t changed very much about how literary works, films, or art works are constructed and received by the general public.     

     A second point of agreement applies to Alan’s description of certain aspects of digimodernist culture. For example, he singles out autism as a social phenomenon that is symptomatic of digimodernism’s opposition to postmodern culture (I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion based on my analysis of contemporary books and movies on the subject—see my internet article “Transcendence and the Aesthetics of Disability: The Case of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”). Alan suggests that the “2,500 per cent diagnostic rise” in autism (p. 231) has come about because autism stands for everything that postmodernism isn’t. As he notes, it “valorizes truth, objectivity, and reason” (p. 232) and elsewhere he speaks of its “embrace of exhaustive knowledge, its love and recall of facts […] its insistence on rationality” (p. 233). In his view, this is not so much due to digitization as to a reaction to that “which our society despises, marginalizes, and makes impossible, and is produced as the exact contrary of hegemonic social forces in a variety of contexts” (p. 231). I couldn’t agree with this sort of analysis more—Alan is arguing that the turn towards autism is based on the rejection of certain (postmodern) social values and norms and not on technological innovation.  

 A Brief Summary

The theory of performatism as I’ve developed it is focused on the devices used by works of literature, art, cinema, and architecture to counter those of postmodernism. This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the social, political, and economic conditions in which those works come into play. However, I’m careful about ascribing socio-economic “causes” to the things I describe. While it’s fun to speculate on why this or that post-postmodern attitude came about, it’s much harder to pinpoint the reason for it. Any rigorous attempt to do so depends on in-depth socio-economic research that has to be done by others. Of these “others,” Neo-Marxists happen to be prominent in academia (though not of course outside of it). While I do respect the Neo-Marxist critique of capitalism for its ethical insights, I’m not going to become a Neo-Marxist myself until I see some form of non-dictatorial, non-bureaucratic socialism in the real world (perhaps I need to move to Kerala). I also prefer a cautious approach to media studies. While it would be interesting to apply performatism critically to social media, I have the feeling that Alan Kirby has already gotten there ahead of me. And, until digitization causes massive, heretofore unknown changes in the way narrative fictions are created and received, I’m going to stick to analyzing characterization, plot, narrative, and style while keeping in mind the relatively minor effects on reading or viewing exerted by digital technology.   


Post 7: On Authenticity and Post-Postmodernism (Wolfgang Funk’s The Literature of Reconstruction)

6 January 2016

One of the many posthistorical strategies used to make post-postmodernism manageable for poststructuralist theory is to key in on the supposed “return” of modernist elements in contemporary literature. For if post-postmodernism (or what I call performatism) is really only modernism warmed over, poststructuralism will have no trouble treating it as a filiation, citation, or iteration of some already well-known pattern and subject it to its tried-and-true epistemological critiques.  This attitude, incidentally, isn’t confined to diehard postmodernists—there are also genuine theories of post-postmodernism that hedge on this issue. Metamodernism, for example, is said to be something new but at the same time “oscillates” between modernism and postmodernism (both of which are old). And, Irmtraud Huber’s term for the new paradigm is “literature of reconstruction,” which means something is being constructed that was already there before. 

     One modernist concept that pops up frequently is “authenticity,” which is supposedly making a comeback in American literature. This notion is advanced most explicitly in The Pathos of Authenticity: American Passions of the Real (Heidelberg 2010), whose editors and authors treat the trend towards authenticity as a “revision of postmodernism” (p. 19).  Authenticity, which was a key element in both modernist philosophy and literature, suggests that reality can be experienced directly in some special way by an autonomous self. The two examples that inevitably come to mind are Heidegger with his notion of an Eigentlichkeit (literally “actualness”) that is achieved by keying in on the time of one’s own death and Hemingway with his unwritten macho code of honor that shows itself most fully in perilous borderline situations. Both assume that authentic experience is possible without explicit reflection and without being dependent on outside, conventional norms of behavior, and both favor a certain kind of self-contained, staunchly independent subject.  Heidegger’s dark phenomenological vision was however soured forever by his intellectual and personal proximity to Nazism, and Hemingway’s macho persona and rhythmic short-sentence style are appreciated today mainly in parodistic form. In postmodernism this kind of authentic persona became the target of relentless irony and skepticism and was replaced by a notion of self as endlessly contingent (dependent on the false signs and discourses around it). In the best of cases such a subject can be either acutely or playfully aware of its own weakness, dependency on false signs, and diffuseness—its inauthenticity—but not really be able to do too much about it except generate more critical irony or play.

      Given this background it is noteworthy that a German scholar, Wolfgang Funk, has resolved to make authenticity the cornerstone of a new approach to post-postmodernism in his book The Literature of Reconstruction. Authentic Fiction in the New Millennium (London 2015).  This involves a major overhaul of the concept of authenticity, which Funk says is now an “effect” that is “enacted in and through metareferential literature” (p. 2) in a process that he calls “reconstruction.” This serves as an interesting counterpoint to performatism, which also assumes that a binding combination of devices in the narrative and in the story (“double framing”) produces a variety of positive, intensely felt effects (love, beauty, transcendence etc.)—the difference being that I do not consider them authentic (at least in not the way that the word was understood in modernism). Obviously, Funk is going to have to engage in a lot of fancy footwork to show that authenticity is operative in literature that works in metareferential ways—which is to say is mediated by highly manipulative and artificial narrative constructs that were utterly unthinkable in modernist philosophy or in the modernist literature of authenticity.

     Funk begins by giving a brief, and not very generous, account of concepts of post-postmodernism, which are not exactly hard to keep track of (for more on this, see Blog Post Nr. 4). As readers of this website are aware, there are at the present time exactly four substantial books devoted to (American) literature by Huber, Timmer, Holland, and Moraru; my Performatism, which covers narrative genres, theory, and the visual arts; van den Akker and Vermeulen’s collection of works on metamodernism (see the Annotated Bibliography); Bourriaud’s sketchy manifesto on altermodernist art; Kirby’s book on digitization and culture; a speculative sociological study (Lipovetsky), and two socio-cultural treatises (Nealon and Samuels) that ramble on about all manner of topics without treating actual works of literature or art. Funk comments favorably on several of these concepts (most notably digimodernism and metamodernism) while giving a wide berth to performatism, which is not even mentioned by name. The reason seems to be that performatism is a bit too close for comfort: although rejecting authenticity as a criteria, performatism directly preempts Funk’s concepts of metareferentiality, authorial authority, performativity, and transcendence. Since Funk—perhaps understandably—isn’t very interested in engaging directly with a theory that resembles his own in numerous basic points, I thought I’d fill in the gap by vetting his notion of authenticity from my own peculiar point of view.   

    Funk, who is naturally aware of modernist authenticity’s dodgy reputation, begins by giving the concept a thorough going-over in a chapter entitled “Eight Theses on Authenticity.”  Since authenticity is notoriously hard to define and has a long, convoluted philosophical and literary history, this is no easy task. Funk’s approach (which is probably the only correct way to go about it) is not to take the many competing claims made about authenticity at face value. Instead, he undertakes a stringent epistemological review of their premises and arrives at a distinctly critical, belated perspective regarding the murky, semi-mystical claims that often accompany the term. I can’t list all his conclusions here or treat individual ones in any great detail, but some of the most important are as follows:

  •  Authenticity implies transcendence:  “In so far as it exceeds conventional frames of reference, authenticity comes with an inbuilt promise of transcendence” (p. 15).
  • Authenticity is an effect created by formal means: “the only way to approach it is to address the formal procedures and methods by which the effects of authenticity are created” (p.17).
  • Authenticity implies performativity:  “authenticity could be considered a performative concept, a simulation in so far as it postulates essence while eluding definition” (p. 17).
  •  “Authenticity presupposes and generates a notion of self” (p. 29).
  • Authenticity is a “black box” which dissolves binary opposites in a higher order of things (“sublates discursive dichotomies” p. 55).
  •  Metareference (signals coming from the work that direct our attention back to how the work is constructed) is formally important in creating the effect of authenticity  (p. 64).

   Attentive readers will note that most of these criteria could be transferred almost verbatim to performatism.  Here I’m not suggesting that Funk is unoriginal or a plagiarist. Rather, he arrives at very similar conclusions to mine in a different, conceptually exacting way—in a certain sense “proving” the same theorem regarding the nature of post-postmodernism using a different core concept and methodology. If we accept Funk’s massive redefinition of “authenticity” it would certainly be possible—and perhaps also quite productive—to think of literature after postmodernism in these terms.

     Funk’s argument also involves an exhaustive new definition of “metareference,” which corresponds roughly to what I would call the outer frame. “Metareference” as Funk uses it means that narratives focus attention back on themselves in such a way that we experience what he calls “metareferential moments,” which are “imagined locations” within the work in which “the effect of metareference makes itself felt” (p. 87) (I would call these “inner frames”or “scenes”). In the case of the post-postmodern “literature of reconstruction” these “metareferential moments” convey a feeling of authenticity, which is necessarily dependent on inauthentic (metareferential) means to be experienced at all in the first place.  The result is that authenticity and metareference work hand in hand: the reader exposed to them oscillates between “authority and participation,” “absence and presence,” “representation and a ‘secret beyond representation” (p. 106). I might add that I’m in complete agreement with this description (after all, I’ve said something similar using a different set of terms). Funk, however, goes one step further and supplies a typology of metareferential elements that consists of four points (display, location/direction, focus and effect) which break down into two further sublevels containing neologisms like “endo-,“ “exo-,” “allo-reflective” and  “alethiology” (p. 88). Readers willing to slash their way through this three-tiered jungle of jargon will probably find something of value, but it’s not easy going. Funk’s tangled typology in any event confirms my intuitive feeling that it was better to describe double framing as a general strategy and flesh out the details ad hoc in individual interpretations—the whole thing gets incredibly complicated very quickly because any device in any text can be made into an object of metareferential reference. You wind up not only trying to describe all possible literary devices but also trying to describe how all possible texts refer back to these devices on a higher metareferential level.     

      The crux of the matter is this: it’s no longer possible to experience “authenticity” in the way it was done in the 1920s or ’30s because postmodernist critical irony is in the way. (Try taking Hemingway’s macho heroes or Heidegger’s gloomy Eigentlichkeit seriously—you simply can’t anymore.) The only way to revive authenticity is, paradoxically, by creating an artificial—and I would add inauthentic—metareference or outer narrative frame that makes us experience “authentic” things like love, beauty, unity, trust etc. in a more or less involuntary way. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with using this kind of paradox to define a major concept like authenticity. However, the use of a term that is peculiar to modernism to mark the cultural development after postmodernism makes that development seem much more backwards directed than it really is, and it encourages the posthistorical conceit that everything is just a continuation or intensification or “reconstruction” of something else that came before it. Also, “authenticity” (now understood as engaged in a paradoxical pas de deux with inauthentic metareferentiality) becomes inflated to the point where it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. This is why I prefer a mildly provocative neologism (“double framing”) to the older concepts of authenticity, sincerity, and metareferentiality with all their excess conceptual  baggage.    

     My own position is that performatism still interacts with postmodernism (whose norms are very much alive, though in decline) but that modernism as an aesthetic or philosophical source of value is dead as a doornail. Nobody—except maybe a few academic specialists—takes modernist truth claims, norms, or values seriously. To make modernist concepts “work,” they have to be subjected to the sort of intense critical scrutiny provided by poststructuralism or postmodernism. Funk’s project does exactly that: he can “revive” modernist authenticity only by transforming it from an essentialist concept into a metareferential, constructed one that would be unrecognizable (and unacceptable) to a 1920s- or ’30s-type modernist. While I’m in basic agreement with Funk on how he defines post-postmodernism—he comes to individual conclusions similar to mine, Huber’s, Timmer’s, and the metamodernists’—I don’t see any pressing need to fall back on a concept that has to be redefined from top to bottom to be of any use and that denies historical change in favor of “reconstruction” (it’s not clear to me what exactly is being reconstructed—it’s certainly not authenticity as modernism understood it). However, there’s no doubt that the basic problem marked by authenticity—how a more or less autonomous self can experience reality as directly and intensely as possible under certain given conditions—is also central to post-postmodernism.

     How do we get out of the “return-to-modernism-trap” suggested by authenticity? One way is to conceive of authenticity within the framework of post-postmodernism is to turn to the old historicism, which is to say the study of history that makes categorical distinctions between epochs. In the old historicism, you were encouraged to make typological comparisons between non-adjacent epochs sharing similar essential qualities. Primary epochs like realism, modernism, and post-postmodernism make us experience reality as directly as possible and play down the mediating role of signs; secondary epochs like romanticism, symbolism, and postmodernism assume that reality can be experienced only through signs. The old historicism also suggests that this relation is dynamic and hierarchical. One such attitude doesn’t completely eliminate the other, but dominates it, pushes it into the background. These categorical distinctions would allow us to compare post-postmodernism to modernism and oppose it to postmodernism without suggesting a literal, ghost-like “return” of modernism and its practices or without turning “history” into the endless iteration of one constantly valid principle (such as authenticity).  These kinds of historical opposition are however only possible if one allows categorical oppositions in the first place—something that is taboo in poststructuralism and that is rendered very fuzzy by phrases like “literature of reconstruction.”  In the long run, the question won’t be what post-postmodernism in literature is (there is already a solid consensus about it among the half-dozen or so scholars who have bothered to treat it in any detail) but whether we are going to open up to new methodology, names, and concepts or remain fixated on “reconstructing” old ones and “oscillating”between them.  


Post 6

25 November 2015

A Note to the Editors of Supplanting the Postmodern

Recently there appeared the first-ever anthology of theories of post-postmodernism, entitled Supplanting the Postmodern and edited by David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). The editors, who kindly included the first chapter of my Performatism book in the collection, accurately summarized its main points in a brief introduction and also made some critical remarks that I’d like to respond to here.

    The first critical objections relate to the theoretical sources I use, namely Erving Goffman’s frame theory and Eric Gans’s Generative Anthropology, which they say are “problematic.” Let’s start out with Goffman. The editors write:

 "Methodologically, there is no reason why Goffman’s work—basically, a schematic approach to communication and behavior influential in the social sciences—could not be applied just as easily to postmodernist texts or artworks as to performatist ones."

 Methodologically speaking, of course, you can apply anything to anything else, so it’s not quite clear what is “problematic” about this. For example, I can (and do) also apply deconstruction to works of art and literature  that many people consider post-postmodern. This in itself doesn’t make deconstruction “problematic.” What makes deconstruction problematic is that it simply doesn’t work anymore (or rather works too well)—you can deconstruct the main premise of a novel like Life of Pi in about two seconds without gaining any insight into what makes the novel tick.

    Regarding Goffman specifically, his frame theory isn’t absolutely essential to my argument. The point was to show that there is a theoretical tradition outside of poststructuralism that treats belief and framing as positive social factors instead of as starting points for an endless epistemological critique. This positive assessment of belief goes back to the sociology of Emile Durkheim and is also important for Gans and Girard. The reference to Goffman helps show that performatism is not some oddball idea floating around without a coherent intellectual tradition. However, it’s difficult to operationalize Goffman’s concepts—convert them into tools that can be used directly in literary analysis—and I didn’t try too hard to do so.

     Things are different with Gans. Generative Anthropology is crucial to performatism and the editors correctly wonder why a “transhistorical theory of language rooted […] in the evolutionary prehistory of human beings should have taken on a sudden relevance at the close of the twentieth century.” A closer reading of the summary of my first chapter (which they include in their anthology) reveals the answer, which I’ll repeat here:

"The originary ostensive scene, in which the human, language, and aesthetics are all made present, is hypothetical. My own, specifically historical interpretation of the ostensive is that it embodies the semiotic mechanism generating the new aesthetic better than any other competing monist concept. The ostensive, in other words, marks the becoming-conscious of the new epoch (p. 36)."

Put in a less technical way, this means that I’m interpreting Gans’s theory as an expression of a larger turn away from postmodernism and poststructuralism and I’m not very much interested in proving or disproving his paleo-anthropological assertions (I say this directly on p. 6, namely that “[neither] paleo-anthropological nor ethnological evidence [regarding Gans’s hypothesis] is crucial to my argument”). Gans’s main innovation, as far as I am concerned, is to ground Derrida’s notion of différance in Girard’s notion of mimesis, which marks a specific (and I think very important) historical development in literary theory. If it seems odd that I am unconcerned about the absolute truth value of a theory that I otherwise find useful, one should not forget that I am concerned here with historical truths, which are by definition relative and subject to change. The truth of Gans’s theory (if it is indeed true) is that its concept of sign neatly embodies  the switch from the postmodern to the post-postmodern.

     The last objection made by the editors is typical of the resistance that I encounter from colleagues who have become so comfortable with poststructuralist methodology that they can’t really conceive of any alternative to it (except as some kind of oddball attempt to diverge from established theory).The editors write that

"it might be worth entertaining the possibility that performatism names neither a historical epoch nor a new style of art or literature, but rather a method of interpretation. Just as it makes sense to differentiate between postmodernist novels and postmodernist readings of novels, so too what Eshelman seems to offer is a series of performatist readings of works that could, in principle, be read through a postmodernist lens just as easily."

This objection arises because the editors appear to view postmodernism as an endlessly self-renewing form of culture and my challenge to it as mere “method of interpretation” that arbitrarily posits something new. The suggestion is that I'm setting forth a new way of reading just to be different, and that this perspective can easily be neutralized by reading the works my theory treats using good old postmodernist methods (and arriving at good old postmodernist conclusions). In this regard I'm also not sure how the editors are able to differentiate between "postmodernist novels" (which seem to exist entirely on their own outside of interpretation) and "postmodernist readings," which  presumably do not. Claiming that a novel is "postmodernist" or "performatist" necessarily involves an act of interpretation, and the question is whether that act produces useful results.  

     Seen this way, performatism is no more or no less a “method of interpretation” than is any other approach to literature. Performatism is however more than just a "method." It is also a theory of literary and cultural history that provides concrete criteria allowing us to distinguish between postmodernism and post-postmodernism—something that postmodernist or poststructuralist theories can’t do because they literally can't conceive of anything new that would not always already have been postmodern. Fortunately for the study of literary history, there are already four or five conceptual alternatives to postmodernism that share a set of similar core assumptions and can’t simply be written off as randomly generated “methods of interpretation" (for more on this see Post 4). The editors' critique says less about performatism than about the posthistorical mindset of contemporary criticism, which is aware of massive shifts in the literary landscape but is unwilling to part with poststructuralist (postmodernist) methodology to describe them.


Post 5

10 October 2015

David Foster Wallace and Performatism: On Subjectivity, Separation, and the Public

[Emendated version of a much shorter presentation held at the Association for the Study of Arts of the Present Conference 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina, Sept. 26th]

In my talk, I would like to discuss how the relations between public and private are negotiated in performatism. As an example I’m going to use the work of David Foster Wallace. There are three reasons for this. First, almost everyone here is familiar with his work; secondly, Wallace himself was programmatically involved in trying to overcome postmodernism; and, thirdly, a number of commentators see him as actually having done so.[1] 

     My point in using Wallace here is not so much to uncover original aspects of his work, but to show that his writing fits into a more general historical pattern of post-postmodernism.  I believe that Wallace can best be understood when placed in an epochal context that focuses on the immanent logic of literary innovation and not on socio-economic, cultural, or political developments tangential to literature.  In short, I am arguing that in order to get any coherent understanding of post-postmodernism, we first have to focus on literary history itself. 

   I'd like to start by briefly outlining how performatism treats the public/private dichotomy and how this differs from postmodernism.

      I think we can agree that postmodern subjects are determined almost entirely by public discourse that is exterior to them.  Moreover, postmodernism reacts with ironic skepticism to the modernist notion of a private sphere that allows us to experience reality in some special, authentic way.  Hence one of the main problems facing any author who wants to get away from postmodernism is how he or she can cut off the endless irony of postmodernism without reverting to the modernist model of authenticity outlined above—something that would simply confirm the postmodern conviction that history is nothing more than a slightly skewed iteration of some previous cultural development.

    Within the discussion on post-postmodernism there are popular and critical voices suggesting that the answer to this problem is provided by something called the “new sincerity.” Unfortunately, neither the old sincerity nor the new one is very helpful in describing how post-postmodernism works. While I can’t go into too much detail here, it will perhaps suffice to comment briefly on Allard den Dulk’s recent attempt to reintroduce Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of sincerity/ authenticity[2] into the discussion on post-postmodernism in David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Dave Eggers. Den Dulk says that he “regards sincerity as the attitude or virtue of wanting to form a stable self in the world” (2015, 170) and that “sincerity is the desire to show yourself in the public domain ‘as yourself’” (2015, 170). According to den Dulk, whether this sincerity succeeds or not depends on whether the subject interacts successfully with that public domain. There are two obvious problems here that I can only touch on in passing. First, den Dulk’s definition of sincerity is still tied very closely to reflexivity, which always already contains the structure of deceit within itself. Showing yourself ‘as yourself’ has to appear in quotes because it’s a secondary representation of something that is hidden inside you and that only you know. But how do we know that what you are showing us is “sincere”?  As long as a subject can reflect consciously on its own inner, privately accessible state, it can always dissemble. Secondly, the subject’s ability to achieve sincerity depends on a context that is itself not intrinsically sincere; the potential for corruption is virtually unlimited.  All in all, this kind of “new sincerity” is no less open to the irony of a radical deconstruction than the old sincerity was. Also, in popular usage it tends to quickly become attached to the trivial notion of whether authors are themselves upright or honest.

     For these reasons, I don’t use the concept of sincerity at all in my performatist approach.  The crucial concept in performatism is instead that of separation or, more precisely, double separation, which I’ll explain shortly.

     The notion of separation is itself not new. It can be traced back to Descartes, and Levinas introduces it explicitly as a philosophical term in his Totality and Infinity. Levinas’s separated self may be described as positive in the sense that it is a “way of being, a resistance to totality” (Totality and Infinity, Pittsburgh 1969, 54) and as negative in the sense that Levinas ascribes it atheistic, hedonistic, and self-centered qualities. In Levinas, this self-centeredness is eventually disrupted through confrontation with an other who cannot be assimilated to the separated subject’s narcissistic sense of self. As a consequence, the separated, but now unsettled subject redirects its desire towards outside discourse to recover this transcendent otherness, albeit in a fragmentary and incomplete way.  In postmodern or poststructuralist interpretations of Levinas’s influential thought very few commentators pay much attention to either transcendence or separation, which tend to dissolve anyway as soon as the subject is exposed to others through the endless immanence of discourse.

     In performatism separation returns as a literary or narrative device, but in a different way than Levinas conceived it.[3]The performatist subject is doubly separated, in the sense that it is not only closed off from the public domain as such but also from the discourse that allows the Levinasian subject to break out of its egoistic interiority. The main distinguishing feature of the performatist separated subject is in fact that it is opaque or inaccessible to us through discourse. As in Levinas, it is a way of being that is formally separated from totality. However, unlike Levinas's notion of self, it does not have any negative transcendental attributes like hedonism or atheism.  On the contrary, the attributes ascribed to it tend as a rule to be positive or worthy of imitation (they serve as a focal point for identification with a character), and they tend to be blocked off from discursive communication or interpretation. In short, we are presented with subjects that appear to others as they are, as bio-social unities outside of discourse that present themselves to the outside world directly.  By definition, we cannot judge such subjects as sincere or insincere simply because the narrative texts in which they are embedded radically block our access to the workings of their interior life.  In any event, the tables are now turned: instead of outside discourse drawing the separated subject outside of itself into the public domain, it is now the separated self that challenges the public context to focus on its own interiority.[4] 

     This kind of doubly separated subjectivity is not an end in itself. This is because radically separated subjects are usually subject to a severe quid pro quo resulting from their special, separate status.  While they do indeed enjoy a privileged kind of privacy and interiority they are usually unable to function effectively in the public domain precisely because of that separation.  Hence the seemingly impossible task of bridging the gap between public and private without corrupting the positive interior qualities that these characters usually possess. The bridging of this gap, which requires an event or an act of transcendence, takes place nonetheless in performatist narratives and is crucial to separating post-postmodernism from the postmodern.  Here are the main narrative strategies involved:

  •  The double separated subject acts as an example for others to imitate. In this case there is no need for an intermediary, since communication takes place directly through mimesis, which is to say through imitation. Mimesis itself takes place in the intuition (in the Kantian sense, as a sensory apprehension of reality) and does not require discourse or reflexive subjectivity. It also dissolves the difference between public and private by allowing for someone else’s interiority to be put to social use.
  • The doubly separated subject performs something out of the ordinary that changes either itself, those around it, or the situation that it is in.  The root concept of performatism is based on this notion. In narrative terms, we would call this an event.  The event creates a basic shift in a situation that allows or even requires a new alignment to its truth. Alain Badiou’s philosophy provides a good starting point for discussing this sort of narrative shift. In thematic terms, the event is frequently tied to questions of transcendence, of radically overcoming some sort of basic situational quandary or impasse.
  • Doubly separated subjects enter into a dyadic relationship with less radically separated subjects, i.e. subjects that are capable of some sort of reflection and/or participation in the public domain.The result is a relationship that transcends the gap between private and public, between interiority and exteriority.[5]  
  • Finally, the interior space supplied by the doubly separated subject is infused with specifically authorial ideas or positions; the privileged interiority of the character is invariably backed up on a higher, authorial level.  This asserts itself in narrative structure in what I call double framing: the highest narrative level tends to confirm the values and positions expressed in the inner space of the separated subject.

     In the following remarks I’d like to briefly apply these criteria to David Foster Wallace’s fiction and essays.  I wish to emphasize that I did not abstract these criteria solely from Wallace’s text, but rather developed them independently over about a fifteen-year period using a wide variety of East European, West European and Anglo-American narrative sources. Seen this way, Wallace exemplifies a larger epochal development that is not limited to himself or to a specifically American experience.

     The most radically separated type of being in Wallace is obviously the lobster, which he treats in his well-known essay “Consider the Lobster” (in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, London: Abacus, 2005; henceforth CtL).  On the one hand, Wallace shows how the lobster, as a separated but sentient being, experiences pain, even if it can’t express it in speech. On the other, Wallace describes in great detail how lobsters are devoured en masse in public at the aggressively schlocky Maine Lobster Festival.  The (obvious) ethical point Wallace is making is that we have to make an individual choice, and that in doing so we may well decide in favor of sentient beings that are radically separated from us by nature.  Our duty is to reflect ethically on what gives us pleasure, which is something that neither the lobsters can do nor the lobster-eating public wants to do. The ethical subject, by definition, acts as a mediator between the separated, edible being and the hedonistic, unreflecting public. The “anchor” of this ethics is however a radically separated, ontologically defined given, namely the lobster.

     The closest human being to the lobster in Wallace’s prose is undoubtedly Mario Incandenza, who Wallace repeatedly describes as resembling a spider (another biologically separated being encased in a shell-like pod). Unlike lobsters, Mario cannot feel pain, but he is radically separated from the world around him in other ways (the narrator writes “he doesn’t seem to resemble much of anyone [the Incandenza brothers] know” Infinite Jest, 101).  Mario is also not subject to the criteria of being sincere or insincere in the usual sense of the word.[6] He is, like the lobster, simply the way he is: he forms a bio-social unity that is presented to both the characters around him and to us as an unchanging given. He can obviously think (he is not retarded) and has a highly spiritual interior life (he prays at length every night), but our access to this interior life is blocked almost completely by the narration (we know what he thinks, but we don’t know why).  As Timothy Jacobs and other critics have pointed out, Mario combines the charismatic persona of Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov with ideal attributes that Wallace highlights in his essays and fiction: Mario believes very strongly in God, he is a very good listener, and he is interested in “real stuff,” even if it may be sentimental.  Wallace invests a good deal of energy in describing the happy rigidity of Mario’s separation: for example, he smiles and laughs involuntarily, and he can’t feel pain.  Mario doesn’t perform anything suggestive of transcendence (he walks around a lot and, like Sisyphus, he likes to walk uphill), but he does have something charismatic about him that rubs off on almost everyone he meets. Finally, Mario is able in spite of his separation to form dyadic bonds with his brothers as well as with people like Barry Loach or Gerhard Schtitt, whose tennis-playing philosophy is essentially one of separating oneself from the outer part of the game and concentrating on the inner self.[7] 

   This brings me to the next type of separated being, and that is the professional tennis player. “Divinely gifted” (CtL,155) tennis players like Michael Joyce, Roger Federer, or Tracy Austin are for Wallace bearers of a kind of performative transcendence (he states this directly in the title of his piece on Federer).These athletes function by shutting out “the Iago-like voice of the self” (CtL,154) and by concentrating on the game in what seems to be a superhuman way.  At the same time, as the pieces on Austin and Joyce make clear, these athletes are severely restricted in intellectual and social terms—to the point where we can’t tell at all what is going on inside of them (they are in other words entirely opaque). Wallace says that the real mystery for him is whether such a person is “an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither” (CtL 155). These gifted athletes are necessarily blind and dumb about their own genius, but not because of any quid pro quo between intelligence and athletic skill, but because, as he says, “blindness and dumbness are [not] the price of the gift, but […] are its essence” (CtL, 155). This is an almost perfect instantiation of what I have called double separation:  the separation allows these athletes to perform transcendent acts but cuts them off from engaging in meaningful discourse about those acts.

     The public, by contrast, doesn’t have these divinely given athletic skills, but is unlike the athlete able to “see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift” (CtL 155) that they don’t have. In this way a kind of complementary unity is formed between individual athletes and the public. This unity is centered around the “divine gift,” which transcends discursive oppositions: it is opaque in terms of its source and inner workings but visible to everyone in public performances. 

     This fusion of the public and the private is also possible in an amatory, individual way. In Infinite Jest, when Orin is courting the “transhumanly beautiful” cheerleader Joelle van Dyne (Infinite Jest, 290) this takes place on a purely mimetic, performative level:

"…the only real cardiac-grade romantic relationship of Orin’s life took bilateral root at a distance, during games,without one exchanged personal phoneme, a love communicated—across grassy expanses, against stadiums’ monovocal roar—entirely through stylized repetitive motions—his functional, hers celebratory—their respective little dances of devotion to the spectacle they were both trying […] to make as entertaining as possible"  (Infinite Jest, 294).

Like the tennis players, Orin is a kind of separated athlete (he’s plays on a team but as a punter has one sole function). Here another description of the venue in which he performs:

"[…] a lot of it seemed emotional and/or even, if there was such a thing anymore, spiritual: a denial of silence: here were upwards of 30,000 voices, souls, voicing approval as One Soul. […] Audience exhortations and approvals so total they ceased to be numerically distinct and melded into a sort of single coital moan, one big vowel, the sound of the womb, the roar gathering, tidal, amniotic, the voice of what might as well be God" (Infinite Jest, 295).

The point is not that Wallace himself or his characters are infused by any sort of “sincere” spirituality, but that a transcendent performance enables these characters to achieve unity and spirituality in spite of their participating in public discourse.[8] This fusion of public and private, of exterior and interior, applies no less to the author-reader relationship. Separated positive heroes like Mario, who enjoy almost complete authorial sanction, force readers to either accept or reject them and their values. Readers accepting these figures (and one has little choice but to do so in narrative terms) form a public unity that is simultaneously a unity with the author’s intent.

     This transcendent fusion of the public and the private is expressed most radically in Alcoholics Anonymous as depicted in Infinite Jest. AA is both public and private, open and closed—anyone can come to the meetings and no one can be excluded from the organization no matter how bad their behavior. At the same time, everyone is marked as an individual member—everyone says their first name—and is also expected to engage in dyadic bonding with a sponsor and do good works within the organization.  AA also works through an extreme reduction of self and uses a clichéd, banal language that is performative in nature; it is language that if followed, works (“one day at a time,” “fake it until you make it” etc.). As with Mario, this kenosis or reduction of self is accompanied by belief in a Higher Power (who can be defined according to individual wishes rather than in accordance with a dogmatic source). At the same time, all AA members are unified by their addiction; reflection on that addiction is depicted as being detrimental to recovery because of its one-sided focus on the self.  Since Wallace considers addiction to be a universal American problem, AA can also be seen as kind of a universal antidote to America’s obsession with pleasure.  Here, typically Dostoevskian suffering (as exemplified by Don Gately) makes AA into a positive ethical force; it acts as a catalyst for creating individual ethical sensibility and a feeling of community that has distinctly sacral features. As a Slavist, I wonder if Wallace, who was familiar with Russian intellectual history through Joseph Frank’s monumental biography of Dostoevsky, was deliberately  aiming for what in Russian is called sobornost’, an intuitively achieved kind of spiritual communality that was important to Dostoevsky and to Russian thinking in general.  

     Wallace leaves no doubt in his work that the private, interior space can also be abused. Evil arises when the “Higher Power” of AA is denied in private, as when the cat and dog killer Randy Lenz cuts out the pages of William James’s Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion to hide his stash of cocaine.  Also, the veils worn by the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed quite evidently create a false kind of aesthetic privacy based on Kierkegaard’s concept of hiddenness (this has been pointed out by Marshall Boswell, 140). Finally, any mass public enjoyment not tempered by an apprehension of suffering is necessarily suspect, as the ocean cruise on the Zenith, the Illinois State Fair, or the Maine Lobster Festival depicted in his essays demonstrate (the same also applies, obviously, to the movie Infinite Jest, which entertains its viewers to death).  However, this false sincerity does not vitiate the goodness of Mario, who remains untouched by it because he is an ontological figure and not a psychological one: he operates through the intuition provided by the author and not through self-reflection in which we vicariously participate.

     In purely narrative terms, Infinite Jest employs both the endless irony of high American postmodernism and the distinctly non-ironic mode of performatism that creates sacralized, ontologically separate forms of interiority that have the power to form higher unities. While it’s possible to debate just how open or closed the novel is and to what extent it still participates in postmodern irony,[9] it seems to me that there can be little doubt about the authorial intent of the novel. By embedding interior, ontologically privileged spaces into his novel and essays and by infusing these spaces with his own privately held, but publicly visible ethical values, Wallace is engaging in what Lee Konstantinou calls postirony and what I would call double framing. It’s possible to read against the grain of this sort of postirony, but it can only be done by ignoring the formal givens of his work, which the author continually tries to impose on us in the narrative.    

     To sum up, I would say that Wallace’s work is made up of an eclectic jumble of ideas that can’t be reduced to one philosophical approach, be it that of Wittgenstein, Sartre, Dostoevsky, or pragmatism. What is most striking about Wallace is that, in both Infinite Jest and in his essays, he uses a variety of strategies that sacralize an opaque, interior realm and at the same time create a publicly accessible, communal unity among subjects who intuitively identify with or imitate that realm.  I’ve highlighted these strategies to show two things: first, that they are incompatible with both postmodern practices of ironically undermining interiority and with modernist concepts of sincerity and authenticity, and, secondly, that they are not some sort of singular, randomly occurring development, but follow a performatist pattern that has been played out many times over in narrative works appearing over the last fifteen years or so. I don’t have the time or space to go into these works here, but I would refer interested readers to the bibliography and other blog entries on this website. 


[1] Most notably Marshall Boswell in his Understanding David Foster Wallace, Columbia SC 2003, Adam Kelly in "David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction," in David Hering (ed.), Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, Los Angeles 2010, 131-146, and Lee Konstantinou "No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironical Belief," in Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou (eds.), The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, Iowa City 2012, 83-122.

[2] See his Existentialist Engagement in Wallace, Eggers, and Foer: a Philosophical Analysis of Contemporary American Literature, NY 2015. Sartre actually calls this concept “authenticity”; den Dulk, following recent scholarship, redefines it as “sincerity” (170-174). The (confusing) switch of terms suggests that the concepts they stand for are situated very closely together to begin with.

[3] Separated heroes can also be found in a whole array of texts from the 1950s and early ‘60s. Camus’s Mersault in The Stranger, J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Heinrich Böll’s Lenz in the story “Christmas Every Day,” Chief Bromden in Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass’s Tin Drum are all separated characters, and they are all authentic or sincere in the sense that they are removed from society in some way and retain a certain degree of autonomy, authenticity, and selfness because of it. Unfortunately, all these characters are close to insanity; their separation makes them into misfits unable to connect to the public domain around them.

[4] Something similar has also been noted by Elizabeth Freudenthal in her "Anti-Interiority: Compulsiveness, Objectification, and Identity in Infinite Jest," New Literary History 1 (2010), though I find the concept of separation both more elegant and better grounded in philosophical tradition.

[5] I borrow this distinction from Zarifa Mamedova's Narren als Vorbilder: Die Überwindung der Postmoderne in der russischen Literatur der 1990er und 200er-Jahre, Munich 2015, in which she proposes a typological distinction between "separated" and "split" subjects, the latter acting as a bridge between separated subjects and conventional discursive rationality.  

[6] Because the author/narrator blocks access to Mario’s interiority, commentators like den Dulk are forced to project their philosophical ideas back onto his opaque, separated existence, which operates through intuition and not through reflection. Den Dulk says as much himself (182): “Mario displays this [sincere] behavior intuitively.” 

 [7] Separation incidentally doesn't mean that separated characters don't interact with other characters; it simply means that the interaction tends to be a one-way street, with the separated character remaining largely unaffected by that interaction (e.g., Mario's inability to feel pain).

[8] See Maria Bustillos, “Philosophy, Self-Help, and the Death of David Foster Wallace,” in Roger Bolger and Scott Korb (eds.), Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy, NY 2014, 121-139. According to Bustillos, who had access to Wallace’s personal library, Wallace was a careful reader of Christian literature of all kinds. She thinks he was religious; his biographer T.J. Max does not. From the performatist point of view it is irrelevant whether Wallace was personally "sincere" in his religious conviction; what is crucial is his instantiation of religious conviction in Mario, AA, and other points in the novel.

[9] Marshall Boswell, for example, argues that Infinite Jest achieves a kind of closure (Understanding DFW, p. 176). Lee Konstantinou has shown how double framing works in the story “Good Old Neon,” (see "No Bull," 96-98) and suggests the term “postirony” to apply to Wallace.  Iannis Goerlandt in his "'Put Down the Book and Slowly Walk Away': Irony and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest,” Critique 3 (2006), 309-328 suggests that the book provides a metalevel above the narration causing readers to "acknowledge that the novel's ambiguity [...] cannot be resolved on the level of narration" (325). 


Post 4

27 April 2015

Theory Smackdown: Performatism Tussles with Five Approaches to Literary Post-postmodernism  

As I’ve noted in my Annotated Bibliography of works on post-postmodernism, there are an awful lot of books with “after postmodernism” or “beyond postmodernism” in their titles, but very few that swallow the notion that there really is an “after.” Regarding literature, which is traditionally the place where academics begin writing cultural history, you can literally count the approaches to post-postmodernism on the fingers of one hand (if you don’t include performatism or if you have six fingers). As of this writing, we have my Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (2000/2008), Nicoline Timmer’s Do You Feel It, Too? (2010), Robin van den Akker and Tim Vermeulen’s manifesto/website Notes on Metamodernism (2010) as well as their book Metamodernism (2017), Christian Moraru's Cosmodernism (2011), Mary K. Holland’s Succeeding Postmodernism (2013), and Irmtraud Huber’s Literature after Postmodernism (2014). (Alan Kirby’s Digimodernism [2009] is more about the effect of media on culture than about literature in the usual sense of the word and, in order to simplify things, won’t be treated here.)

     In this post I’d like to compare these approaches directly. Obviously, I can’t discuss all the points that the other authors make or go into too much detail, but I think I can give the reader a rough idea of where the main areas of agreement and disagreement lie. As a kind of litmus test I'll use the notion of historicity to show how the different approaches position themselves in regard to the "after" in after postmodernism. Although I obviously favor you-know-what, I’ll try to present the other positions as fairly as possible (although I can’t resist a jibe or two here and there).

   Performatism is explicitly historical, in the sense that it treats the transition from postmodernism to post-postmodernism as an epochal change, as from Baroque to Classicism or from Romanticism to Realism.  Although starting with clear-cut oppositions, the epochal approach recognizes that there is also a great deal of transitional overlap. Sometimes elements of both systems coexist uneasily in new works, and the new system usually begins by reworking elements of the old one. 

     For example, as in postmodernism, the performatist double frame assumes that experience is constructed and not authentic or direct. Unlike postmodernism, however, performatism uses that constructedness to achieve unified forms of experience that are absolutely alien to postmodernism (the most important involve experiences of love, belief, beauty, and transcendence). In other words, performatist works start off with a certain norm of postmodernism (that all experience is constructed) and use it for an entirely different end and in a way that is taboo in postmodernism. You could say, I suppose, that performatism is still “dependent” on postmodernism or "filiated" with it, but this is formal hairsplitting: the values it conveys and the effects it produces are the opposite of the ones in postmodernism. 

     Also, performatism is not a return to or a repetition of modernism, which is fixated on unmediated experience, innovation, and authenticity. The driving cause behind the rise of performatism is boredom with postmodernism and not any particular political, economic, social, or media-driven source. Performatism starts, roughly speaking, in the mid 1990s.

   Christian Moraru speaks of a “weak epochality” regarding his cosmodernism (p. 314). Cosmodernism still “rel[ies] copiously on postmodern techniques” and doesn’t have its own stylistic paradigm (p. 316). In his view, cosmodernism starts in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.  Hence its cause is geopolitical rather than aesthetic. For this reason the beginning of cosmodernism overlaps with the end of postmodernism in the 1990s. In fact, Moraru tends to oppose cosmodernism more to modernism than to postmodernism (see p. 32), and some of his exemplary writers, like Dom Delillo and Raymond Federman, are usually regarded as classic representatives of postmodernism. 

     The key term in cosmodernism is “relationality,” which is also central to postmodern ethics. Relationality is the “lynchpin” of cosmodernism (p. 3) and means “the worlds ‘parts’ such as people, nation-states, ‘spheres’ (and hemispheres), ‘regions,’ ‘civilizations,’ and racial-ethnic communities coming together and being by being with each other" (p. 3). The main difference to postmodern relationality, which emphasizes the unbridgeable gap between the subject and others, is that Moraru places equal emphasis on “being-with” or “across” and “gap” (p. 23). Moraru, in other words, is hedging on difference and alterity. They are still there, but cosmodern American prose would "relate to those others and their otherness as such, to the different-as-different, along the cosmodern lines of concern and responsibility and so ‘give back,’ respond to the ‘gift’ ethically." (p. 24) Moraru would also not “do away with otherness altogether” (p. 53), as, for example, Alain Badiou does. Instead, he occupies a position close to the conciliatory late poststructuralism of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy (pp. 53-54). This may sound like philosophical nit-picking, but it is an important difference. There are positions on otherness that are no longer poststructuralist/postmodernist, and Badiou’s is definitely one of them—those interested should take a look at his short and very blunt critique of poststructuralist, Levinas-based ethics in EthicsAn Essay on the Understanding of Evi(Chapter 2, pp. 18-29). 

   Performatism itself is also no longer oriented towards difference or alterity as the starting point of ethics. Difference can be bridged (at least temporarily and performatively) through mimesis and intuition, i.e. by spontaneously imitating something positive in someone else who may be very different from you in all possible regards. The focus is on these positive points of human interaction and not on how language always manages to sandbag them before and after the fact. The performatist take on globalization is also much narrower than Moraru's and is motivated by an aesthetic, rather than a geopolitical turn. (For more on this see my article "Archetypologies of the Human" that Moraru and Amy Elias kindly included in their 2015 essay collection The Planetary Turn; for the full source see the Bibliography of Performatism.) 

     All in all, Moraru’s assessment of cosmodernism as a “weak epochality” that is "not unlike" postmodernism (p. 316) also applies to this own theoretical position, which I would describe as a kind of a "soft" attitude towards cultural difference that is not unlike late poststructuralism.  Difference for him is still a problem, but it can be dealt with ethically and responsibly in the "cultural imaginary" of cosmodernist prose. Also, cosmodernism "is not postmodernism's only successor" (p. 316) and postmodernism is not "'over'" (p. 316).  The impression Moraru leaves is one of a hedgy posthistoricism; cosmodernism is different than postmodernism but still overlaps with it and hasn't quite managed to displace it. 

     In her Succeeding Postmodernism (2013) Mary K. Holland seems conflicted about whether or not to declare for post-postmodernism as a historical period. First, she states that 21-st century literature is no longer postmodern:

“American fiction in the twenty-first century looks, reads, and feels profoundly different from twentieth-century postmodern literature […]. It displays a new faith in language and a certainty about the novel’s ability to engage in humanist pursuits that have not been seen since postmodernism shattered both in the middle of the last century” (pp. 1-2).

 This sounds pretty up-front. However, if you read a little further you run into a whole bunch of caveats suggesting that the new trend is actually still postmodernism and that postmodernism is actually a big success because it has managed to take the its own deeply anti-humanistic understanding and use of language (which effectively subvert mediation, reconciliation, and empathy between human beings) and couple that with a humanist or Enlightenment attitude that suddenly makes all that stuff possible that postmodernism was always against:  

"[...] novels of the first decade of the twenty-first-century move from struggle to success, retaining the conviction that we are born into a linguistically determined world, while constructing new avenues towards meaning and meaningful human connection through signification and mediation themselves" (p. 2).

Towards the end of the book, Holland positively twists herself into a pretzel to avoid saying that she's actually been talking about something genuinely new: "The primary goal of this book has not been to declare the end of postmodernism, or necessarily to refute that claim, or even to postulate the nature of the movement that will dethrone postmodernism, as inevitably something must, or to name that movement" (p. 199). Instead, she wants to 

"[...] engage with these territories of inquiry without offering an eclipsable decisiveness that would only wrest attention from readers who know better than to put their faith in it: now is not the time to do hastily and with too little information what will surely be done with more evidence and staying power many years hence" (p. 199).

 In short, she is kicking the can on down the road. 

    The main problem with Holland, as far as I can tell, is that she has super-glued herself to the poststructural concept of language that has been academic dogma for the last forty years and can't conceive of any type of signification that is not based on a split, problematical sign (i.e., a sign that can never, ever achieve unity of meaning, affect, or perception and in fact actively undercuts all three).   

     Holland's way out of postmodernism is, depending on how you look at it, either deeply paradoxical or just plain doesn't make any sense. Postmodernism à la Hollandaise reintroduces humanism through the use of split, critical, anti-humanistic language; like Baron von Münchhausen, it grabs itself by its own shock of hair and pulls itself out of the swamp of irony and cynicism that its anti-humanistic language created in the first place. In all fairness to Holland, though, she shares this conflictedness with a lot of writers out there, the most notable being David Foster Wallace, who was undoubtedly trying to get away from postmodernism but whose language and narrative style were still steeped in it. This, however, is a topic for another blog entry. 

     Since the new (and at the same time old) trend assumes a “linguistically determined world”  based on poststructural language, Holland also doesn't have much use for performatism:

"Eshelman's commitment to a repaired sign-thing gap makes his vision of post-postmodernism least useful in my opinion, since it is central to my reading of twenty-first-century literature's recuperation of affect and meaning that such literature can only successfully overcome the problems of language by using a language that is inherently problematic, rather than casting back to an early idealization of organic meaning" (FN 34, p. 20).

Performatism, of course, doesn’t have much use for Holland, because it assumes that language use is shifting towards monist forms of signification like ostensivity and mimesis that allow for unified or unmediated communication and shut out the endless regress of hypercritical, language-based navel-gazing that constitutes poststructuralism and postmodernism. And, unlike Holland, performatism does not suggest that we are returning to humanism. The notion of the double frame assumes that texts (and other people) impose themselves on us by force. This refers to a fairly brutal, originary, anthropological state or scene (a tip of the hat here to Eric Gans's Generative Anthropology) and is not a misty-eyed "idealization of organic meaning."  

     Somewhat weirdly, Holland winds up her monograph by naming the triumphant, basically-still-postmodern-period-that- she-doesn't-want-to-name “metamodernism.” Unfortunately she does so without acknowledging the existence of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s similar concept of metamodernism that had been floating around the internet for three years (something unprofessional enough that Vermeulen complained about it in his review article in the American Book Review, pp. 8-9; see the Annotated Bibliography of Post-postmodernism). 

   Holland's position is probably best described as heavily conflicted posthistoricism: she sees a lot of things that don't jibe with poststructuralism and postmodernism, but she still can't tear herself away from the poststructuralist theory of language. The result is a believe-it-or-not type narrative in which postmodernist language triumphantly saves itself by reintroducing the humanist set of values that it originally set out to subvert or destroy. 

    In her Do You Feel It Too? (2010) Nicoline Timmer doesn't reflect very much (if at all) on competing notions of post-postmodernism or on the more general problem of historicity. Perhaps because of this, her argumentation (unlike Holland's) is very straightforward and to the point. She uses the phrase “post-postmodernist syndrome” to characterize David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, and leaves it pretty much at that. For Timmer, postmodernism has been relegated to a "background" or "cultural setting" in the works of these and other writers of this generation (p. 13). The distinguishing feature of post-postmodernism is the "rehumanization" of the subject (p. 23), which she describes using a "narrative psychological approach" (p. 51 ff.). 

     To understand Timmer's arguments better, it's best to skip her lengthy justification of this approach in Chapter 2 and move on over to her Appendix (pp. 359-361), in which she provides a grab-bag list of 19 features of the post-postmodern novel that she has culled from her study. These features, which at first appear somewhat off the cuff, pack a hard historicizing punch: they all offer the clear distinctions between postmodern and post-postmodern that you need to re-start history.  Here is a paraphrase of some of the most important points:

  • post-postmodern novels have a different narrative structure than postmodern ones; this structure is needed to remedy the "existential crisis" of the self (p. 359); these novels also construct "shared frameworks of reality" (p. 361) rather than devolve into endless metacritiques of existing discourse;
  • post-postmodern novels desire some form of community and have a "structural need for a we" (p. 359); this also takes place on the level of reader reception, i.e. these novels appeal to the reader to empathize, experience a feeling of community etc.;
  • post-postmodern novels stress sameness instead of difference (p. 359);
  • human figures in these novels "long for some form of containment" (p. 359);
  • post-postmodern novels are characterized by a "willingness to belief," a "suspension of disbelief," and "taking a leap of faith" (p. 359);
  • language use in post-postmodern novels is "a function of relationships between persons" (p. 360) and not deterministic, as in postmodernism; here Timmer cites DFW who is citing Wittgenstein;
  • the "default state in the post-postmodern novel is the solipsistic experience world"; the main problem is to communicate inner feelings when one feels "empty inside" (p. 360);
  • "postmodern techniques are still used in the post-postmodern novel, but they have a different function" (p. 360);
  • post-postmodern novels still have irony, but it's not the "default mode" anymore (p. 360).

I won't go through these criteria point for point, but taken together they are more than enough to make a hard historical cut. From my own peculiar point of view, most of these statements are also compatible with performatism, though I would phrase them somewhat differently and organize them more stringently. The one major difference is the approach to language (I prefer Gans's ostensive semiotics to Wittgenstein's play with language). All in all, however, Timmer's criteria offer a reliable guide to identifying post-postmodern narrative, and, taken together, they are definitely enough to get literary history rolling again. 

     As of this writing, Literature after Postmodernism (2014) by Irmtraud Huber is the newest addition to the "after" genre. Apart from treating four major novelists (Mark Danielewski, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, and David Mitchell), Huber provides a very even-handed survey of theories of post-postmodernism in Chapter 1 (pp. 21-50), so that if you don't trust my version of things here you can always double-check with her.

     Huber has only one serious misunderstanding of my own position. This is where she suggests that my gender politicsare "dubious" because I identify postmodernism with "deistic feminine formlessness" and want to reinstate a kind of theism based on the authority of the father (p. 258 FN 7). In fact, my performatist theism is an equal-opportunity enterprise allowing for both male and female deification (a good example being the movie Dogma featuring Alanis Morissette as God, which I cite on p. 232 of my book). Also, one of my former pupils, Yuan Xue, has written an entire (German-language) book using performatism to show how post-postmodern narratives construct semi-divine transgender hero-heroines (see the Performatism Bibliography), so performatism can't be all that male chauvinistic to begin with. 

     Huber is very cautious regarding the question of historicity.  She notes that "a move beyond postmodernist paradigms can be discerned" but that the change "does not seem to fit comfortably into the logic of succession" described by Pierre Bourdieu (p. 223), i.e. that the new epoch actively and dramatically negates the old one or breaks with it.  Here she quite correctly speaks of a "pervasive lack of antagonistic attitudes" (p. 224), and suggests that "[post-postmodern] reconstruction is post-Oedipal" (p. 224) and that it entails "absence, yearning and construction, instead of struggle and succession" (p. 228). 

     This is all true, but it doesn't mean that there's no epochal change where there is no dramatic rupture. Postmodernism doesn't have to be negated because it has gone flat; it's like drinking stale beer (you liked it when it was all bubbly, but you just don't want it anymore when all the spark has gone out of it). Negating postmodernism would be like beating a dead horse (or a dead shark, if you happen to think of Damien Hirst). Huber's own solution to this is to describe the development of post-postmodernism as a kind of coming-of-age story or Bildungsroman; interested readers can find her full account of this on pp. 241-254. 

     Be that as it may, Huber doesn't seem to have any practical problem with the existence of post-postmodern literature. She proposes a four-point program of her own that contains the following features, which I'll summarize briefly:

1) A "return to the real, though not [...] to realism" (p. 216). By this Huber means that post-postmodern literature is based on "construction" and a turn towards the fictive (p. 218); post-postmodern narratives "focus on the constructive role of fictions and ask for their contribution to and responsibility towards the world we live in" (p. 218).

2) "Stylistic continuity with postmodernism." Postmodern aesthetic strategies are used, but in a different way than in postmodernism (p. 219). This refunctionalization of postmodern metafictional style is pragmatic and not ontological and epistemological (i.e. not concerned with showing that all discourse is a lie or doomed to failure from the start):  

"Metafiction no longer seeks to expose and deconstruct fiction's underlying premises. Instead it reconstructs fiction as precarious communication and focuses on the ways in which we draw on fictions to make sense of ourselves, our past, our present and our future" (p. 221). 

3) "A focus on communication as an intersubjective connection" (p. 216) and a "pragmatic focus on communicative bonding" (p. 221). Huber also says that post-postmodernism rejects the "arbitrary rupture at the core of the sign" (p. 221) that is crucial to postmodernism. Huber's own theoretical orientation is toward Wolfgang Iser's anthropo-logical notion of the fictive; because Iser himself was well outside the pale of poststructuralism she has no problems with alternatives to poststructural language. In any case, Huber's literary examples  

"[...] exploit the paradigmatic fictionality of the fantastic mode to explore the fictive as a communication which is successful not necessarily in the sense that it conveys a single intended meaning, but in the sense that it triggers meaning construction, that it gives rise to processes of interpretation in a creative intersubjective connection between sender and recipient" (p. 221). 

Note here that post-postmodern fiction doesn't so much create positive meaning as "processes of interpretation" based on what are essentially fictive or constructed premises. 

4) Post-postmodern texts are marked by "doubtful optimism" (p. 222); the "optimism underlying such constructions is tentative" or "remains precarious" (p. 222). Huber also suggests that such texts "posit the need for representation in order to develop meaningful relations" (p. 223), which is to say that they break with the postmodern ethics based on Levinas which assumes that human subjects are intrinsically alien and unrepresentable to one another. 

All these positions are basically compatible with performatism. Conversely, Huber also seems quite comfortable with the performatist double frame (see her remarks on pp. 38-39). With her "coming-of-age" story of post-postmodernism Huber proposes a gradualist version of literary history, which remains a history nonetheless. 

     The last approach, metamodernism, was suggested by two Dutch cultural theorists, Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, in 2010. Metamodernism originally started as a programmatic statement (Notes on Metamodernism) in a blog that caught on so much that it became a regular internet journal (also called Notes on Metamodernism); in 2017 a book appeared entitled Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism (for more on this see my comments in the Annotated Bibliography).  

     Part of metamodernism's popularity is that it is based on a fairly simple formula that goes like this: 

"[...] metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity"  (pp. 5-6 of the manifesto, which says that its page numbers are "not for citation purposes." Since I'm not sure what page numbers are there for if not for citing, I'm using them anyway).

And: "The metamodern is constituted by the tension, no, the double-bind, of a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all" (p. 6). This oscillation is "not a balance" (p. 6); rather

"it is a pendulum swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles. 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" (p. 6)

Essentially, you can plug whatever contrary feelings or effects are generated by a text or work of art into this formula and analyze them according to these pendulum swings or the "double bind." For example, if you take the film Birdman that I discuss in Post 3, you could say that Riggan Thomson's wildly dysfunctional stage production of a Raymond Carver story leads into postmodern apathy, whereas the transcendent ending where he turns into Birdman swings back towards metamodern enthusiasm. Because there are "innumerable poles" this kind of analysis can be made more complex, and its back-and-forth movement allows for a lot of free play between what might be called late or "soft" postmodernism and post-postmodernism. (Metamodernism is incidentally programmatically historical: "History, it seems, is moving rapidly beyond its all too hastily proclaimed end" {p. 2}).

     Metamodernism also has an epistemological dimension. This means, essentially, that it can be thought of  "as-if thinking" (p. 5) or as a construct: "Metamodernism moves for the sake of moving, attempts in spite of its inevitable failure; it seeks forever a truth that it never expects to find" (p. 5). This epistemology sounds suspiciously like postmodernism, which from the get-go is set towards dysfunctionality and failure and searches vainly for a constantly receding truth. 

     On the other hand, metamodernism is also said to have a historical horizon that reaches beyond postmodernism. Vermeulen and van den Akker use the term metaxis to describe this (p. 12), which they define as "impossibly, at once a place that is not a place, a territory without boundaries, a position without parameters" and as being "here, there, and nowhere" (p. 12). If this sounds confusing, it is, but I interpret it to mean that metamodernism also opens a horizon of transcendence ("a future presence that is futureless" p. 12) that exceeds the merely epistemological focus of postmodernism on truth-seeking.

     Vermeulen and van den Akker also ascribe metamodernism a neoromantic character (pp. 8-12) because of its oscillation between "enthusiasm and failure" (a quote from the German romantic Friedrich Schlegel, p. 8) and its interest in turning the "finite into the infinite" (p. 8). I won't go into this line of argumentation any more in further detail, but a great deal depends here on how ordered you think the new epoch or "structure of feeling" is. Performatism opts for order and hierarchy (and hence gives the new epoch a neoclassical spin), whereas metamodernism "oscillates" freely like a Romanticism (for more on the neoclassical interpretation of post-postmodernism see my German-language article "Ordnungsästhetik nach der Postmoderne" listed in the Performatism Bibliography).


 Summary: The Consensus on Post-postmodernism

The above discussion has led me to two conclusions:

1. Cogent theories of post-postmodernism are based directly on a clean break with poststructuralist theory. Of the six approaches discussed, Mary K. Holland's metamodernism is the most tightly bonded to poststructuralist language theory and hence also the one least willing to acknowledge the end of postmodernism. Because of this, she winds up in the paradoxical (or, more properly, implausible) position of arguing that postmodernism magically renews itself by doing the opposite of what it was always all about. Christian Moraru's cosmodernism, which is oriented towards a conciliatory interpretation of Levinas and the "softened-up" late poststructuralism of Derrida and Nancy, is also correspondingly fuzzy when it comes to making sharp distinctions between postmodernism and its aftermath. Also, his focus on globalization and a geopolitical "cause" of cosmodernism blurs specific differences in literary strategy that the other, specifically literary theories key in on. 

     Of the other approaches, all have basically stopped using poststructuralist theory (although they're still acutely aware of it). Performatism uses Gans's concepts of the ostensive and recurs to philosophers like Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Marion; Irmtraud Huber uses Wolfgang Iser's anthropological concept of the fictive; Nicoline Timmer draws on narrative psychology, and Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker use their own metalanguage that is demonstrably not poststructuralist (they are careful to distinguish their notion of "oscillation" from the way the word is sometimes used in poststructuralism). None of these theories agonize any more at length about whether postmodernism is "really" over with,  and all of them actively restart the historical narrative regarding literature (although some more cautiously than others).   

2. There is a basic consensus on post-postmodernism.  The four approaches that break cleanly with poststructuralism--my performatism, Timmer's "post-postmodern syndrome," Huber's post-postmodernism and Vermeulen and van den Akker's metamodernism--all share certain common features that taken together will almost certainly form the basis for future discussions of post-postmodernism. These features are as follows:

  • Post-postmodern literature is constructed, but in a way that is functionally different from postmodern literature. I refer to the device of the double frame, which I believe is specific to post-postmodernism, Timmer speaks of "shared frameworks of reality," Huber literally says "construction" and a "turn towards the fictive," and Vermeulen and van den Akker have their Kantian mode of the "as-if," which means "construct" in philosophical parlance. Post-postmodern constructs are functionally different because they are aimed at achieving the goals listed in the following points:
  • Post-postmodern literature no longer focuses on an endless critique of language, discourse and ideology, but instead seeks to create positive dyadic relations between human subjects. I speak of the positive imitation of others (mimesis), Timmer of a "structural need for a we," and Huber of "communicative bonding." Vermeulen and van den Akker don't have a specific notion of intersubjectivity, but their neoromantic mode presumably allows for it. Moraru hesitates between a "being-with" and a "gap" between humans, but I think that his concept of cos-modernism is slightly weighted towards the possibility of positive intercultural constructs. 
  • Post-postmodern literature has a basically optimistic "set" or dynamic to it, even if the end results are not always blissfully happy. This means that it focuses on sameness rather than difference (Timmer), on successful rather than unsuccessful communication (Eshelman), or has a "precarious" or "doubtful" optimism to it (Huber); I also speak of "metaphysical optimism," which is similar. Vermeulen and van den Akker see post-postmodernism as part of an oscillation between (negative) postmodern aspects and (positive) metamodern ones, whereby the metamodern ones tend to hold sway. This basic optimism chokes off, mutes, or suppresses postmodern irony, which is relegated to a secondary, kibitzing role. 
  • Post-postmodern literature opens up a horizon of potential transcendence. I speak of a distinct tendency towards theism (belief in a Higher Force of some kind) and, in narrative terms, of overcoming the double frame (creating distinct events). Timmer stresses that post-postmodernism is characterized by a "willingness to belief" and "leaps of faith," and van den Akker and Vermeulen speak of metamodern metataxis as an impossible "place without a place" (such a place is not conceivable without an experience of transcendence). Huber focuses more on the fictive and the fantastic, but I think she means essentially the same thing in a more secular guise: both fantastic fiction and theism encourage us to believe in things that are implausible. Theist stories always have a strong fantastic strain to them, and we may continue, even as believers, to entertain strong doubts about them.    

Let me state my final point as bluntly as possible. Post-postmodernism can be described in specifically historical terms that no longer depends on poststructuralist jargon. Post-postmodernism is neither a total break with postmodernism nor its miraculous extension, but rather refunctionalizes the postmodern strategy of constructing reality by aiming it at (at least) three specific goals which are unthinkable in postmodernism: 1) creating positive dyadic relations between humans, 2) suppressing endless postmodern irony through a skeptical, but basically optimistic mindset, and 3) opening up a window of transcendence that holds forth some form of hope (or, if we want to be theologically more cautious, of creating fictive, imaginary horizons that renew us ethically and psychologically).  We now have four--count 'em--four separate approaches that have reached the same or similar conclusions, and I have no doubt that the future discourse on post-postmodernism will follow the paths they have set down.  


Post 3

13 April 2015

The Performatist Challenge (More Fun than Dumping a Bucket of Ice Water over Your Head)

One of the fun things about performatism is that you can use it to actually predict what will be in new works of literature, film, or art. In my last two posts, I took a look at posthistorical criticism. This sort of criticism suggests we focus on abstractly connected “singularities” (Jameson) or “uneven, tentative local shifts” (Hoberek) in literary and cultural development. Critics of this kind usually use the modern and postmodern past as the main source of orientation, and they like to explain works of literature, film, and art by referring to the vast field of historical, economic, social and political influences outside of them. Confronted by significant aberrations from postmodern norms, posthistorical critics will either: a) reject these as trite or reactionary; b) try to reconcile them at all costs with existing poststructuralist concepts; c) explain them by referring to sociological, economic, or political causes outside of the arts or d) simply ignore them.  Because posthistorical criticism is in a constant state of denial, it isn’t able to develop a positive outlook on cultural change.

     Performatism, by contrast, offers a clear-cut categorical opposition between old and new and a positive perspective on how contemporary arts and letters are developing. And, it doesn’t try to offer armchair explanations of art, film, or literature by tapping into social science disciplines that the critic knows something (but not a whole lot) about.  

     Obviously, just offering up a clear-cut opposition isn’t proof that the distinction between postmodernism and performatism really exists. That’s where the Performatist Challenge comes in. It asks you to take the criteria I’ve developed for performatism and apply them to any artistically ambitious movie, book, or drama that you’ve recently seen or read.  These criteria (preceded by their postmodern counterparts) are as follows: 

Performatism vs. Postmodernism


  1. Pluralism. Postmodernism offer signs, situations, and   characters that break up unity. Signs proliferate and deceive, situations dissolve and fluctuate, and we often find it difficult or impossible to  identify with characters because they, too, dissolve or lose their sense of self. The savvy  reader/viewer reacts to this by developing an ironic awareness of how unstable signs, meanings, and subjectivity really are.
  2. Opening the narrative. Postmodern narratives use a   great variety of strategies (which I can’t even begin to list here) to undermine   any feeling of closure in a work. Closure is absolutely taboo because it   leads to “totalization” and, by implication, to totalitarianism, oppression,   phallogocentrism, victimization etc. Postmodern narratives strongly reinforce   the feelings of irony and irreducible plurality developed in the story line.
  3. Anti-authoriality. Postmodernism (famously) tries to kill off the author by creating ironic   conundrums that make it more or less impossible to establish a fast-and-firm authorial position.
  4. Deism. Postmodern works tend to be structured like   gnostic or cabbalistic texts. God is thought of as an infinitely receding   First Cause that emits signs which can be endlessly interpreted but ultimately   never be traced back to their origin. The First Cause is usually conceived of   as being indifferent or downright evil, and the world appears as a gigantic   trap from which there is no escape.
  5. Discourse. Postmodernist texts emphasize discourse,   which is to say language with a social purpose. Since these social purposes  are by definition located outside of the text (in a context), discourse works to break open  or undermine any form of unity or closure as well as any direct, sensual experience of reality or a direct imitation of someone else.
  6. Victimary Ethics. Postmodern ethics are a reaction to   modern disasters like World War II, the Holocaust, the Gulag, Hiroshima, and  colonialism. This type of ethics favors passive,voiceless, peripheral victims   over active, dominant, centralized perpetrators. Resistance to these  otherwise all-powerful perpetrators is made possible through irony,   skepticism, performative play-acting, intellectual critique, and similar strategies.
  7.  Irony and Skepticism. Postmodernism works by creating   ironic skepticism towards pretty much everything. If you finish a postmodern   work you will have the feeling of being disillusioned about things that you may previously have deeply believed in.


  1. Monism. Performatist works offer signs, situations,   and characters that project unity. Signs tend to be simple and instantly   understandable, situations are static or closed, and characters tend to have   a single strong character trait that makes it easy for us to identify with   them. Often, a single reconciliatory theme may dominate. The reader/viewer is   encouraged to identify intuitively with these unified fields.
  2. Authoriality. In performatist works we get a strong   feeling that an author is imposing his- or herself upon the reader/viewer to   reinforce the monist devices and narrative double framing noted above.
  3. Theism. In theological terms, performatist works tend   to have a theist cast. This means that they tend to broach the question of   whether some single Higher Force is behind things. The world is structured in   such a way that this Higher Force provides some kind of hope. As a rule,  though, performatist works are secular in character and not a return to old-time religion. 
  4. Mimesis and Intuition. Performatist works disdain dis-course,   which breaks up closure and dissolves narrative and thematic unity.    Communication takes place instead through mimesis (imitation of others or   providing a model for others to imitate) and through intuition, which works   spontaneously and has a strong visual and sensual element. 
  5. Ethics of Perpetration. Because performatist works empower characters and enable them to act, this means they tend to step on other   people’s toes or worse. This leads to ethical problems resulting from   other-wise positive acts of perpetration. Performatist ethics are also a   counter-reaction to the postmodern emphasis on passive resistance and the   endless, intellectualized critique of power relations. 
  6. Belief. Performatism works by causing us to believe using   formal, aesthetic means (per formam, through form). Hence the term   performatism. If you finish a performatist work you will have the feeling   that you have been forced to believe in something that you are deeply  skeptical about. 

Carrying out the performatist challenge means you have to accept these basic binary oppositions. If you have a higher degree in literature or cultural studies you may have a lot of trouble doing this, since everything you have learned in the course of your studies has told you that the items listed in the performatist column are either a) bad; b) illusory; c) trivial or d) immediately reducible to the positions represented by postmodernism.  If you can manage to overcome this postmodern or poststructuralist mindset, you’ll have a chance to grasp what is going on in contemporary culture in a positive way. And the odds of you finding the traits on the left column as opposed to the ones on the right are pretty good. Most novels and the overwhelming majority of films made in the last ten years will fall firmly on the left-hand side.

     I can give an idea of how the performatist challenge works by applying it myself in a quick-and-dirty way to the last film I saw in a movie theater.  The film in question is Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman. Since I’ve only seen the movie once (and in German at that) this is not exactly a definitive scholarly analysis. However, it should help to make the basic point about what we can expect today in ambitious mainstream cultural productions. Also, it’s a good opportunity to provide a more nuanced take on the relatively rigid oppositions outlined above.

     In terms of genre, Birdman operates on several levels. First, it is a satirical film about a theater production which is in turn a dramatization of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk about when We Talk about Love.” This takes place against the background of human conflicts among the actors and their friends and relatives. These “real” conflicts tend to get mixed up with the staged, artificial conflicts, although it is ultimately always possible to keep them apart. Secondly, the movie belongs to the sub-genre of what are sometimes called mind-f@k films. Mind-f@k films (Fight ClubDonny DarkoClose Your Eyes,Vanilla SkyShutter Island etc.) cause us to identify strongly with a character who either seems normal and turns out insane or who seems insane and turns out normal. What is what in these films is always revealed at the very last moment and causes us to completely revise our interpretation of the film up to then.

     The basic plot of the movie concerns an aging actor, Riggan Thomson, who is best known for his role as a schlocky superhero named Birdman.  To revive his career and achieve artistic prestige, Riggan wants to put on a serious Broadway production dramatizing the “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, the American short-story writer who is sometimes identified with a turn away from high American postmodernism of the Kurt-Vonnegut/ Donald-Barthelme variety.  Everything keeps going wrong with the production, and Riggan, who thinks he has supernatural powers, is barely able to ward off catastrophe during the rehearsals. On top of this there are personal conflicts with a girlfriend faking pregnancy, a daughter just out of rehab, an aggressive fellow actor, and a skeptical ex-wife.

     The denouement of the film is surprising (and gimmicky). Riggan, who may or may not have attempted to commit suicide during the premiere and is in the hospital, climbs out the window of the high-rise hospital and presumably falls to his death. His daughter, who discovers the open window, first looks down in dismay but then looks upward and smiles. Riggan has become Birdman.

     First of all, there is plenty in the movie that seems postmodern.  Within the film, reality and staged reality mix freely, as do filmic reality and real-world reality (Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, an aging actor famous for his 1990s portrayal of Batman, and Edward Norton, as Mike Shiner, has played The Hulk). Also, the film satirizes theatre, social media, film, and critics.  The movie parodies digital action-film sequences, portrays actors as obsessive egomaniacs,  and ironically undermines the cheesy realism  of Carver’s dramatized story through real breaks in the frame of the play (Riggan gets locked out of the rehearsal, the Edward Norton character gets an erection while on stage, Riggan shoots his nose off in the suicide scene etc.). All this is compatible with postmodern irony and metalepsis (mixing different levels of narration to break up the feeling of narrative unity).  If we throw in all of Riggan’s dysfunctional personal relationships with girlfriends, ex-wives, daughters, and colleagues, we have a typical postmodern mess, a world in which nothing can ever go right even if we do our best.

    So isn’t the movie really postmodern? There is one major reason that it is not, and that is because of the device that I call double framing. Let’s look more closely at how it works.

Riggan, first of all, has a split personality: he appears to converse with Birdman and thinks he has Birdman’s supernatural powers. At this point, as a schizophrenic unable to tell inside from out, he is a typical postmodern character. The film, by the way, undercuts Riggan’s claim to having magical powers by showing his “supernatural” feats only when he is alone—as soon as another character enters the scene, the magical feats like levitation and psychokinesis disappear abruptly.

     Iñárritu also sets up a formal cinematographic unity around Riggan by using digitized tricks to make the film look as if it were shot in one take (something done before by Alfred Hitchcock in Rope with clever manual editing and by Aleksandr Sokurov in The Russian Ark using lots of post-production touch-ups). The effect is closer to Sokurov than to Hitchcock: we have the feeling of following Riggan around constantly from day till night, mainly in the narrow corridors of the theater where the play is being produced. 

     As numerous reviewers have pointed out, this leads to feeling that the film was shot in one take and that we are watching an incredible, indeed almost superhuman job of acting. In any case, we are made to identify with Riggan in a formally very intense, cinematographically unified way.  We could call this way of presenting Riggan the inner frame of the film. This formally unified frame (as noted above) is thematically ambivalent. Riggan is probably crazy, and though he’s well-meaning, he’s not very good at relationships. Our identification with him is, correspondingly, split: we may feel for him a little because he’s nuts, or because we secretly identify with his superman fantasies, or because his private life is so screwed up, but until the last minute of the movie he’s not anything really all that special. 

     The last scene in the movie, however, changes everything. In this scene, the narration flip-flops, and the person entering the hospital room (Riggan’s daughter) confirms with her smile that he has flown away. This “trick” or “gimmick” is what I call the outer frame:  it reverses the whole logic of the movie up until then and forces us to accept the fact that Riggan has magical powers. Rationally, of course, we know he doesn’t have magical powers, but there is no way we can “disprove” that he does—the outer narrative frame doesn’t allow for any doubt.  You may not like the gimmicky ending—Salon magazine’s Andrew O’Hehir called it a “dopey magic-realist escape valve”—but it is a unified gesture that changes the entire spin of the film. Instead of the story of a screwed-up, half-crazy loser, we have the story of a messed-up artist who not only endures, but who becomes one with the figure he embodies (and in the process also manages to transcend the boundaries of three artistic media—film, literature, and theatre).

     The real “hero” of the film is of course not Riggan, but performative art itself. The movie shows how a talented individual transcends not only the crap in his everyday life but also the critical discourses and media influences that are weighing in on him from outside.  Most reviewers seem to have understood this, even though several found the ending hokey: Birdman has a 93% positive rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website. And, of course, the film worked perfectly on a very real performative level: it raked in four Oscars and got Keaton the Golden Globe for his undoubtedly stellar acting performance.  

     How does the movie line up if we apply the criteria from the Performatist Challenge?

  • Point 1 (monism vs. pluralism in the story line) at first seems pretty postmodern. The hero doesn’t seem to have all his marbles, he’s not the world’s most likable or stable guy, and he’s constantly buffeted by outside influences beyond his control. 
  • Point 2 (double frame vs. narrative openness) goes one-sidedly to the performatist column. The double frame is a game-changer that causes us to completely reevaluate the inner frame and turn Riggan from a loser into an artistic superhero.
  • Point 3 (authoriality vs. killing off the author) is also one-sidedly performatist. Only a very willful author could set you up for that gimmicky ending. The “author,” of course, is the unified organizing force behind the film and not Iñárritu personally, although if you do look at his other movies you’ll find that he does something very similar in each one. (Those interested in a performatist analysis of his movie Babel should take a look at my article in a collection of essays called The Planetary Turn edited by Christian Moraru and Amy Elias; for the exact source see the Performatism Bibliography).
  • Point 4 (theism vs. deism) doesn’t play much of a role in the movie, as far as I can tell (I’d have to watch it again though on DVD or read the script to look for God-talk; I saw the movie about a month ago and don’t have all the dialogue in my head). Implicit in the movie's ending is however the possibility of some form of artistically mediated transcendence.
  • Point 5 (mimesis and intuition vs. discourse) tends toward the performatist side because of the way it ascribes acting (i.e., imitating the behavior of others artistically) magical or transcendent powers.  Discourse, on the other hand, doesn’t come off too well: there’s an incredibly nasty theatre critic who writes her reviews without seeing the pieces, and the film makes fun of social media and its primitive voyeurism (as in that by now iconic scene with Michael Keaton running in his underwear through Times Square).
  • Point 6 (ethics of perpetration vs. ethics of victimization) doesn’t appear as a big issue in the film, which is more about aesthetics than ethics. Riggan may (or may not) let a stage light fall on a lousy actor’s head, and his daughter spits on a passerby during a game of “truth or dare,” but as a rule this is a film about performing well rather than doing good or bad. In any case there are mild acts of violence against others by two of the central characters, and Riggan turns out to be a (super)hero rather than a victim.
  • Point 7 (belief vs. skepticism) goes easily to performatism. The film is in fact nothing more than a giant trap set up to make us believe in its hero. If you are super-critical about this trap, then you can’t take the film seriously because you can’t accept its main formal premise. Like many other performatist works, this one gives you a clear choice: take it or leave it.

If we tally up the results, we see that performatist devices, themes, and strategies dominate one-sidedly over postmodern ones. Of course, postmodern patterns are always clearly visible in the background. However, the reason they are there is not because Iñárritu is pining away with nostalgia for postmodernism, but because he needs its clichés to set up the performatist punchline (until the very end we think that Riggan is just another sad-sack postmodernist hero). A metamodernist might say that the movie is "oscillating" between postmodern irony and modernist belief, but I don't believe this accurately captures what is going on, since the "oscillation" one-sidedly favors a supernatural or transcendent ending using devices that are neither typically modern nor postmodern.  

     The skeptical reader may still be inclined to ask “so what if a film turns the tables on postmodernism with a cheap trick?” The problem is that this sort of “cheap trick” isn’t a singular event (as Jameson might imagine, see Blog Post Nr. 2) or a “tentative local shift” as Hoberek would have it (see Blog Post Nr. 1). It’s a device that is singular only in the sense that it surprises us when we watch the movie for the first time. Otherwise, it is everything other than singular: it’s part of a much larger performatist pattern that I—with total confidence—predict will repeat itself in some way in whatever contemporary movie you watch or whatever book you read in the near future. Try it out for yourself and see!  


Post 2 

1 April 2015

The Prison-house of Postmodernism. On Fredric Jameson’s “The Aesthetics of Singularity”

 In my first post, I pointed out that almost all academics today subscribe to the notion of posthistoricism, meaning simply that they see the present (and also the future) as slightly modified extensions of the past. Accordingly, they explain current developments that seem to deviate sharply from postmodernism by either tweaking existing poststructuralist theories or “rethinking” them in a way that lets them keep on using them without any substantial changes. The result is an attitude that, if translated into regular English, sounds like “things in culture are changing, kind of—but not enough for us to really have to worry about changing the way we think about them.”

     When I saw on several Facebook posts that Fredric Jameson, the most eminent theoretician of postmodernism, had come out with a reassessment of the postmodernism theory that he had helped found, I was naturally intrigued. Would he actually address the problem of post-postmodernism? Would he break the posthistorical mold? 

     Some hope was offered by Jameson’s theory of postmodernism itself. Because Jameson is a Marxist, he retains an interest in History, and because his methodology retains elements of good old structuralism, he is quite capable of making binary distinctions between old and new. In fact, the major advantage of his seminal essay “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” from 1984 is quite simply that it makes a clear distinction between modernism and postmodernism that the competition doesn’t.  Francois Lyotard’s definition in The Postmodern Condition actually applies best to late modernism and not the Andy-Warhol-style postmodernism that Jameson explains so well, and Brian McHale’s otherwise useful structuralist definition of literature (in Postmodernist Fiction) hopelessly mixes up the categories of epistemology and ontology. Because of this, I’m a big fan of Jameson’s. If I have students who are clueless about postmodernism, the first thing I do is e-mail them a PDF of his famous article and tell them to work their way through it (Jameson is a notoriously difficult writer).

     So what does Jameson actually say in “The Aesthetics of Singularity” (New Left Review, March 2015)? As my title suggests, Jameson (unfortunately) remains in same posthistorical rut as almost everyone else. However, it’s a good opportunity to show the problems involved even with very sophisticated posthistorical thinking and also to highlight the alternative offered by performatism.

     Jameson begins his analysis of the "ontology of the present" by acknowledging that postmodernism as a stylistic system is for all purposes pretty much over with. As he admits, “insofar as the word post­modernism designated an artistic style as such, it has certainly become outmoded in the thirty years since I first used the term” (p. 104). You might think this would be a really good time to take a closer look at what has replaced that style (just like Jameson did in his original 1984 article). Jameson, though, is interested in something bigger, what he calls “postmodernity.” In fact, he says he would have been better off calling “postmodernism” “postmodernity” from the very start: “for I had in mind not a style but a historical period, one in which all kinds of things, from economics to politics, from the arts to technology, from daily life to international rela­tions, had changed for good” (p. 104).  

     But what does this new “historical period” look like? What makes it different from other historical periods? Part of this answer is Marxist (but also just common knowledge, the kind you get from reading the papers if you still do). Jameson says that one of the main differences between now and back then (the 70s and 80s) is globalization and certain exaggerated kinds of financial speculation, most notably with derivatives. Most people (including myself) could subscribe to that without too much difficulty. The argument becomes weird, though, when Jameson turns back to culture. This is because the “new” culture which he describes is almost exactly the same as the “old” culture of postmodernism he outlined so vividly in the 1980s. In particular, Jameson offers up his notion of “pastiche” as an explanation of “postmodernity,” pastiche meaning “the simulation of the past and its dead styles, a little like Borges’s Pierre Menard copying Don Quixote word for word three centuries later” (p. 106). So what Jameson is in effect saying is that pastiche (as a specifically postmodern stylistic strategy that appropriates older stuff in a deadpan, ironic way) lives on in his more encompassing category of “postmodernity.” The “new” part of this familiar argument is the focus on singularity, which is to say on things, events, or strategies that resist universalization and that seem to be unrepeatable in their being, a “pure present without a past or future” (p. 113).

     Jameson then turns to the problem of aesthetics and beauty per se. Looking at Jameson’s remarks on beauty and art I get the impression that he either hasn’t left the house for the last twenty years or, more likely, has internalized the unwritten code of posthistoricism, which means that you can pretty much ignore any cultural development that doesn’t fit into your postmodern mindset. First, he says that “the beautiful […] has […] in the age of images, lost all power either as an effect or an ideal” (p. 107). This will come as a big surprise to anyone who has followed the booming academic discussion on beauty that started with Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999) and similar works. It will also come as a surprise to anyone who has noticed the resurgence of non-conceptual, non-ironic art that many people think produces beauty in the good old Kantian way (without concepts, without norms, and intuitively—these works grab you by the gut when you look at them). To top it off, Jameson uses as examples Damien Hirst and his dead shark (p. 108) and the concept artist Jenny Holzer, both of whom are about as postmodern and ironic as you can get. So in terms of art history, we’re pretty much back where we started.

     I’ll skip a detailed discussion of the second part of Jameson’s article, which is on economics and, in particular, on derivatives, those shady bundles of “fictitious securities” (p. 117) that resulted in the financial crash of 2008. In his mind, they represent a kind of financial analogy to postmodern texts and works of art (which as pastiche or simulacra also don’t have any particular substance to them). Jameson’s take on derivatives sounds pretty good, but as a guy with an advanced degree in Slavic Literature I don’t feel especially competent to judge just how important they are for the capitalist economy as a whole, or whether proper regulation (Elizabeth Warren, where are you?) is enough to keep them in check. This is the point in expansive “cultural critiques” where I always think it might be nice to consult someone who has some sort of specialized knowledge about how these things work.

     In the third part of his discussion, Jameson turns to ideas, and, more specifically, to an explicit defense of posthistoricism. Jameson suggests that part of the third stage of capitalist development (i.e. postmodernity) is marked by singularity, which he defines as

“[…] something unique which resists the general and the universalizing (let alone the totalizing); in that sense, the concept of singularity is itself a singular one, for it can have no general content, and is merely a designation for what resists all subsumption under abstract or universal categories.” (p. 126)

Subsumption, for its part (which is bad),

“[…] means turning heterogeneities into homogeneities, subsuming them under abstractions (which are by definition idealisms), standardizing the multiplicity of the world and making it into that terrible thing that was to have been avoided at all costs, namely the One as such.” (p. 119)

 The focus on singularity (which is analogous to the singularity of art objects like Hirst’s dead shark and financial objects like derivatives) and on resisting totalization is a standard feature of postmodern philosophy. As a good Marxist, Jameson adds that it has contradictions that “cannot be solved philosophically” (p. 126), but my general impression is that he can live with this kind of thinking pretty well (he’s certainly not interested in locking dialectical horns with any philosophy outside of it). Whatever the case, both “aesthetics” and “ideas” turn out to be postmodern. There is nary a hint of any counter-trend or different path of development. And indeed it's hard to imagine how there can be. For if there really is a post-postmodern (performatist) "style" that runs counter to the materialist base of "postmodernity" Jameson's whole construct would fly apart at the seams.  

     If you have the feeling by now that Jameson has painted himself solidly into a posthistorical corner, you are right, and Jameson even seems to have this feeling himself. Thus he notes that there is even a danger that we might abolish temporality itself (p. 120):

“It is obvious that the deconstruction of postmodernity in terms of a dominant of space over time cannot ever, for the temporal beings we are, mean the utter abolition of temporal­ity, however melodramatically I may have staged our current temporal situation in the essay referred to above. We have here rather to do with an inquiry into the status of time in a regime of spatiality; and this will mean, not Bergson’s reified or spatialized temporality, but rather some­thing closer to the abolition, or at least the repression, of historicity.” (p. 120)

Non-academics may need a crowbar and a dictionary of philosophy to get through this passage. What Jameson is saying, though, is that we are pretty much in a posthistorical situation where very little will change in an across-the-board, “historical” or epochally defined way. The only thing that keeps what is left of history going are violent or destructive shifts in spatiality (Jameson cites the various “square” movements like Tianmen, Tahrir, Occupy etc.) and singularity, which is by nature not totally predictable. (I’m simplifying his arguments here, but not a whole lot.) 

     Jameson ends with what might be called a Marxist version of the spatialization argument used frequently in cultural studies:

 “This is why, as our system becomes ever more abstract, it is appropriate to substitute a more abstract diagnosis, namely the displacement of time by space as a systemic dominant, and the effacement of traditional tem­porality by those multiple forms of spatiality we call globalization. This is the framework in which we can now review the fortunes of singularity as a cultural and psychological experience, before passing on to its ultimate realization in politics today” (p. 128).

 Jameson’s strategy and his basic attitude are fairly typical of present-day academic thinking. First, he’s not interested in a discrete analysis of “style” or “form” above and beyond what he did around thirty years ago.  Secondly, he ties everything together in a very large package (“postmodernity”) and connects its various realms (art, food, philosophy, economics, politics) by way of analogy. Thirdly, he is pretty sure that we can explain any changes in that system through spatial analysis, i.e. charting individual, singular shifts in its make-up. The result is a self-fulfilling posthistorical prophecy: postmodernity will continue on indefinitely because from the very beginning it’s impossible to create any historical or temporal alternative to it. 

     Performatism is, if anything, about finding this alternative. This would involve, as a direct counter-program:

  • writing the discrete history of (post-postmodern) style or form that Jameson isn't interested in;
  • avoiding argument by analogy and focusing on functional relations within discrete spheres of cultural activity; we can still talk about their political implications without trying to ground them in a vast, vaguely defined socio-economic category ("postmodernity," or whatever);
  • start analyzing the massive deviations from postmodern art, theory, literature and finding new concepts and theories to do so, even if these deviate from postmodern orthodoxy.


 Post 1. The Misery of Posthistoricism, 23 March 2015

 If you start talking to any literary scholar today about what he or she thinks about post-postmodernism, you’ll almost always get the same type of answer. First, they won’t have any trouble agreeing that there have been pretty significant changes in literature and the arts in the last twenty years or so. In fact, they’ll probably freely admit that postmodernism has become predictable, and that something new is in the works. However, if you suggest that these pretty significant changes might be part of a consistent pattern that can actually be named, they’ll quickly switch to an argument that sounds something like this: “Well, yes, hmmm, of course, but the situation is really hard to get a handle on, there’s a lot going on out there.” And, if you try to narrow the conversation down to a single author who you are quite sure isn’t postmodern anymore (because you’ve just spent six months writing a 10,000-word article on her), you’ll get the reply “Oh no, she’s totally postmodern—there’s no doubt about it!” Further conversation reveals that your interlocutor, while keenly interested in new developments in literature and theory, doesn’t have the slightest interest in parting with his or her poststructuralist methodology, which is in turn tightly intertwined with the postmodernism aesthetics that you're trying to overcome.

     I’ve had this conversation with colleagues so many times that it’s practically archetypal. The reason for this attitude isn’t based on lack of knowledge or indifference. Rather, it's that almost everyone in present-day academia has bought into a broadly defined, methodologically very comfortable position called posthistoricism. What is posthistoricism, then, and why has it become such a problem except to its countless practitioners? 

     When I started studying Slavic literature in the early 1980s, it was still common practice to talk about epochs or “epochal thresholds,” especially in regard to (fairly) recent developments like the modernist avant-garde. The basic idea was that epochs are complex norm and value systems that have certain invariant, core aspects as well as many shifting, variant ones. We were aware that it was difficult to draw clear boundaries, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that understanding core aspects of specifically literary norm and value systems made it easier to talk about individual authors or developments that had no direct connection with one another, and it made it easier to make distinctions between writers caught up in different stages of literary development. Nobody would “confuse” the way Pushkin writes with the way that Dostoevsky writes. However it’s important to understand that Pushkin and Dostoevsky (with all their idiosyncrasies) were neither lonely geniuses nor mere functions of discursive fields but were also shaped strongly by two very different literary norm and value systems called, respectively, romanticism and realism. Most of my posthistorical colleagues (even if they don’t like the idea of epochs) wouldn’t have any trouble agreeing with this, and in fact most scholars still use these notions when talking about literary developments before 1900 or so.

     The problems start when poststructuralist (posthistorical) methodology gets tangled up with the period (postmodernism) that it is being used to describe. The conundrum goes something like this. Posthistorical thinking (which itself of course has a history of its own—it started with Foucault in the late 1960s) denies that there are categorical slices of normative time called “epochs” relating to discrete systems like literature or art. Instead, it says that literary production is an effect of power relations governed by discourse, and that literary production is in fact intertwined with an awful lot of discourses (political, economic, medical, legal, whatever). Instead of being divided into temporal chunks (epochs) literature is spatialized, which is to say spread out among the many overlapping discourses that make up our social life. Discourse analysis of this kind dissolves literature as an autonomous system but at the same time shows how it interacts dynamically with all kinds of other things going on around it.  There’s nothing wrong with this kind of approach as such, and in fact it’s enriched literary criticism and greatly broadened the scope of literary studies. (I’ve also used it myself, so I have absolutely nothing against it as a matter of principle.)

A Brief Excursus on the Term “Episteme” and Why We Should Stop Using It

What I’ve just described is the discursive approach to literature pioneered by Foucault. In his early phase, Foucault also proposed another, much more grandiose idea called the episteme (which he incidentally later dropped, for very good reasons). The episteme refers to a way of knowing that supposedly encompassed all forms of discourse in a certain segment of cultural development. At first this may sound something like the notion of an epoch. The catch here is that one episteme can’t have anything to do with another—for Foucault there was absolutely no continuity between them.  Also, the episteme is all-encompassing: it is supposed to apply not just to the arts but also to all forms of science, such as economics, biology, physics etc. Foucault made a very impressive case in The Order of Things (1969) for this kind of anti-historical thinking (it’s a brilliant book).  However this case crumbles quickly at second glance. First, Foucault had to sweep a great many continuous chains of thought under the rug (Seán Burke has demonstrated this nicely in his The Death and Return of the Author, Edinburgh 1992, pp. 63-115). Secondly, beginning with the 20th century, it became increasingly difficult to know enough about hard science to place it within a “way of knowing” that would also encompass things like art and literature (Foucault  was smart enough not to even try it).

     Foucault also made one very important stipulation: you can’t describe an episteme while you’re in it yourself. In other words, you can’t know your own way of knowing (to do so you would have to be in another episteme outside your own).  If you take all this into consideration, the episteme is pretty much worthless for describing post-postmodernism. For one, we can’t describe the new episteme in full empirical terms (you would have to show how today’s economics, physics, and biology operate with the same tacit ways of organizing reality that art and literature do). For another, we can’t describe our own way of knowing (we would have to be both in it and beyond it at the same time).

     In spite of this, the term “episteme” is still used a great deal by academics and has in fact entirely displaced the good old “epoch.” “Episteme” is, unfortunately, nothing more than a giant weasel word. It suggests that its user has an all-encompassing knowledge of knowledge (usually she just knows a lot about literature and maybe something about sociology or art or psychoanalysis or whatever). And, it suggests that its user is able to describe the way she is knowing from an outside position (which in the case of post-postmodernism doesn’t yet exist). The episteme also has other drawbacks if you take its original definition seriously. If you follow its logic, post-postmodernism would have to be an absolute break with postmodernism; it would represent a massive shift in discursive practice that stands postmodernism entirely on its head and is entirely unconnected with it.  For all these reasons I’ve stopped using the word “episteme” entirely and returned to using “epoch” (and would advise everyone else to do the same). “Epoch” may not sound very fancy, but it has four big advantages:

  • it focuses on literature (or other arts) as a more or less discrete system of norms and values;
  • it doesn’t imply that you know everything about everything when you don’t;
  • it allows you to make functional distinctions between old and new epochs. New epochs don’t have to be complete breaks with old ones; they can take formal aspects of old epochs and use them in new and different ways;
  • you can apply the term “epoch” right away because you don’t have to have a complete overview of a “way of knowing” that encompasses all discourse.   

But back to the problem of posthistoricism.

     Posthistorical thought isn’t just confined to Foucault. It includes such things as Baudrillard’s notion of history wildly spiraling out of control or Derrida’s definition of the event. As Derrida points out, any presumably “new” thing must necessarily always have been anticipated  by the discourse of which it was always already a part (everything “new” must necessarily also involve a repositioning of something old). Then there is Lacanian psychoanalysis, which is ahistorical to begin with, or Deleuze’s notion of virtuality, according to which different “sheets” of time overlap and actualize virtual images, or Hayden White’s critique of historiography that reduces historical narratives to four alternating tropes; the list goes on and on. While these various versions of posthistory are not always compatible and sometimes mutually contradictory, they nonetheless form a vast, authoritative field of reference for most scholars today. Indeed, one great advantage of posthistorical thought is that you don't have to "worry" about epochs any more—they simply dissolve in the interplay of various discourses and previously existing chains of signs.     

     The problem with posthistoricism is not so much whether it is right or wrong. Rather, at some point it becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If history is either governed by overlapping sets of discourse, or if newness is always already anticipated, or if history is made up of wildly proliferating chains of virtual signs, then why bother trying to describe anything new in a systematic way when it can be readily assimilated to what already exists? This is, in fact, the position still taken by the majority of academics, and it explains the massive resistance to the idea of a new historical epoch that would be categorically opposed to postmodernism.   

     Posthistorical analysis would have gone on happily forever if it hadn't bumped into a real historical problem—the end of postmodernism.   Around the year 2000 it had become clear to almost everyone that  a) postmodernist irony was becoming predictable, annoying, and boring b) that there were a lot of new works coming out that didn’t “feel” postmodern. 

     My reaction to this was to work out a set of concepts that would go beyond “feeling” and try to describe what these innovations were and explain them in functional terms, i.e. as literary devices. For example, the new kind of narrative was very often marked by closure, which is an absolute no-no in postmodernism (postmodernists think it sets us out on a totalitarian road to perdition). I tried to explain closure as one of several literary devices being used in a new way, not to promote totalizing authority, but to squelch postmodern irony and create an artificial frame in which things like love, belief, and transcendence could be experienced anew. The result was a historical theory called performatism which presented a clear conceptual alternative to postmodernism and poststructuralism (and which, as far as I can tell, has not set us off on a highway to hell).

     Posthistorical thinking works in exactly the opposite way. Since it assumes that anything new has always already been anticipated by something old and that literary systems are governed by a wide variety of different discourses that spatialize and diffuse them, there was no great rush to address the problem of literary or cultural innovation. In fact, between the year 2000 (when my first article appeared) and the year 2008 (when my book on performatism came out), only two collections of essays on post-postmodernism appeared. In the first collection, edited by Klaus Stierstorfer, about half the contributors didn’t even bother to address the question of post-postmodernism (they simply kept on talking about postmodernism as if it were still alive and kicking; Peter V. Zima, for example, wrote a prematurely optimistic essay entitled "Why the Postmodern Age Will Last").  A few of the contributors (Ihab Hassan, Vera Nünning) did actually allow for a possibility of post-postmodernism but remained vague about what it would look like (Hassan, for example, didn't bother to name a single concrete work exemplifying what he called an "aesthetics of trust"). 

     In the second collection, which was edited by Andrew Hoberek and appeared in the journal Twentieth Century Literature in 2008, seven fairly young (as far as I can tell) scholars managed to completely avoid committing themselves to statements any more binding than “there’s a lot of different stuff going on out there.” In several cases, when it came down to brass tacks, it turned out some of them didn’t really like the innovations connected with post-postmodernism at all (see Samuel Cohen’s put-down of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex for using—God-forbid—narrative closure). And, all the authors spent a great deal of their time and energy trying to reconcile the new developments as best they could with existing poststructuralist theory.  What could have been a milestone in literary history turned out to be a gigantic posthistorical dud. 

     To give a concrete idea of how this works in practice, let’s take a look at Andrew Hoberek’s “Introduction” to the collection of essays entitled “After Postmodernism” that appeared in the above-mentioned Twentieth Century Literature special edition in 2008. The crux of Hoberek’s posthistorical argument can be found in this paragraph:

"First, if contemporary fiction is indeed post-postmodern, this does not exemplify some singular, dramatic, readily visible cultural transformation—the search for which in fact constitutes a postmodern preoccupation—but grows out of a range of uneven, tentative, local shifts that in some cases reach back into the postmodern period and can now be understood in hindsight as intimations of a new order. And as a corollary, these shifts can be apprehended neither in wholly aesthetic nor wholly historical terms but only in the intersections of specific stylistic and historical phenomena." (241)

 Hoberek uses two concepts I noted above. The first is the postmodern, Foucauldian idea of the episteme (“a singular, dramatic, readily visible cultural transformation” that is a "postmodern preoccupation"). The second is a discursive concept of literature (“a range of uneven, tentative, local shifts” that “can be apprehended neither in wholly aesthetic nor wholly historical terms”). Hoberek quite rightly rejects the episteme (which requires a sudden, wholesale shift in ways of knowing that not even Foucault believed in anymore) and opts for the discursive model, which suggests a plurality of small, uneven, discursively governed shifts that can only be interpreted retroactively. Typically, he separates “aesthetics” or “style” (i.e., the study of literature per se) from “history,” which refers to the various discursive forces acting upon literature. Note that he does not think that “style” or “aesthetics” has a history of its own. Instead, “stylistic” and “historical” phenomena intersect in so many ways that they pretty much make any systematic or categorical description impossible from the start. The result is a posthistorical jumble of individual changes in literary practice unconnected by any sort of overarching pattern:

 "If, as I have already suggested, American fiction has entered a phase of as-yet uncategorized diversity similar to the one that prevailed following World War II, then the proper response to this shift consists neither of assertions of postmodernism's continued relevance nor of sweeping declarations of a potential successor but rather of concrete analyses of literary form and the historical conditions that shape it." (240) 

On the one hand, Hoberek doesn't believe that postmodernism is “relevant,” but on the other, his posthistorical position keeps him from looking for something that might replace it. Instead, he would prefer to muddle through the literary present using “concrete analyses of literary form and the historical conditions that shape it.” (Note that “literary form” is  dependent on non-literary, diffuse “historical conditions,” thus making it impossible to make any coherent statements about literary or epochal history to begin with.) The result is a more sophisticated formulation of the attitudes I cited at the beginning:“there’s a lot of stuff going on out there that’s hard to get a handle on” and “poststructuralist theory says we don't have to worry about epochal change anymore, so why bother!” 

     As long as this type of posthistorical thinking prevails there we won’t make much headway in defining post-postmodernism. Fortunately, there are signs that things are slowly changing. Several younger authors have recently come out with books that acknowledge and describe functional differences between postmodernism and a “something after.” But that’s a topic for another day.  [For more on these new developments see Post 4, “Theory Smackdown.”]