By Evan Murphy, University at Buffalo Class of 2018
If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist.[i]
I. General Introduction
My contention here is similar to Borges’ but more general in its scope and less lucent in its formulation: I argue that critical writing does not detachedly describe current trends or ‘structures of feeling[ii]‘ within the culture at large, but instead allows for these things to exist in the first place; indeed, that it ends up creating them.
To be more specific, I claim that the ever-multiplying descriptions of what is supposed to come after postmodernism — automodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, hypermodernism, etc. — that these things are not really descriptions in any strict sense of the word, but are instead elaborate examples of what might be called ‘theoretical bricolage[iii].’
My case-study here is metamodernism: in the course of this piece I will argue that metamodernism was not an already-existent structure of feeling which was glimpsed and then described by cultural theorists but was, instead, something cultural theorists themselves created; that it was patched together out of coexistent but ultimately dissimilar pieces of art and the culture at large, and then sent off into the world as if it had been discovered as is.
IA. Important Interpolation
This paper and my thesis hang in large part on Borge’s observation that “if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist.” To move forward, then, and to move forward surely and precisely, a complete understanding of what this line means and implies is needed.
To keep this brief: what I believe Borges is getting at, here, is that Kafka himself was a kind of bricoleur of otherworldly talent, that Kafka’s work was the result of him weaving together several disparate strands of thought and art which proceeded him.
After Kafka, we perceive these ‘strands’ as being connected — but only because Kafka connected them. In reality they were quite unrelated until he put them together in the haunting bricolages that are his works; Kafka did not write in an already existent tradition, then, but established one instead.
I will argue in the course of this paper that this is what a lot of cultural theorists end up doing. In general I will say that the art alluded to in their works and treatises may partially resemble the ‘described’ structure of feeling, but that the individual pieces do not resemble one another, and that this last point casts serious doubt on the idea that these structures of feeling already existed and are now being described; instead it seems to suggest that they are now being bricolage-ed into existence out of dissimilar materials; that they are, to put it another way, being written into existence by the various authors, essayists, scholars, and critics which populate today’s journals and reviews.
II. Rough Plan of Paper
The plan of this paper is as follows: I will take a paper in cultural studies as a case study; in my study I will show that the artworks this paper analyzes and gestures towards do not, in general, resemble one another or the structure of feeling being described; I will then argue that this suggests that the structure of feeling itself did not, in a rigorous sense, exist before the paper was written; and finally I will then outline the process whereby I believe this species of critical writing actually creates the perspectives it purports to describe, and how this allows for the creation of new art.
III. Metamodernism: A Basic Definition
According to Vermuelen and Akker, metamodernism is defined by a “pragmatic idealism,” an “informed naivety.” The metamodern artist understands that the historical telos implied by modernist notions of invention and progress does not and can not exist, but works “as if” it does or could. If the concept of the metamodern still isn’t clear Vermuelen and Akker have more neat symmetrical characterizations in store: “Inspired by a modern naivete yet informed by postmodern skepticism, the metamodern discourse consciously commits itself to an impossible possibility,” it “moves for the sake of moving, attempts in spite of its inevitable failure.”[iv]
Vermuelen and Akker take great handfuls of art as evidence for the existence of this new structure of feeling, and it will be my contention that, although these works oftentimes contain certain aspects that can be seen in a metamodernist light, or understood using the metamodernist vernacular, almost none of them are metamodernist in any rigorous sense, and almost none of them actually resemble each other — the same way none of Kafka’s precursor’s were Kafkaesque in a complete sense of the word[v]; the same way none of Kafka’s precursor’s really resembled each other, either.
IV. Wes Anderson and David Lynch: An Illustration
I must admit now that it will be impossible, in the space I have been provided, to establish with any thoroughness just how metamodern the majority of the art alluded to in Vermeulen and Akker’s paper actually is, for the simple reason that Vermuelen and Akker namedrop at least thirty individual artists, two different art exhibitions, and seven other movements in the arts throughout the course of their paper — an insurmountable heap, as far as interpretation is concerned.
Nonetheless, I believe that the way they talk about and attempt to relate two artists in particular — David Lynch and Wes Anderson, to be specific — that this is illustrative of Vermeulen and Akker’s interpretive strategy in general, and all of its faults and functions.
. . .
Anderson is metamodern according to Vermeulen and Akker because of his “attempts to rekindle the naivety and innocence of [his] childhood,” while Lynch is metamodern because his work — specifically, the film Blue Velvet — “[alternates] from comic to tragic, from romantic to horrific and back; turning the commonplace into a site of ambiguity, of mystery, and unfamiliarity, to us as much as to its characters.” The link between the two artists is, according to Vermuelen and Akker, formal: although their actual content differs markedly, they are linked — as all metamodernist artists are linked — by their “use of tropes of mysticism, estrangement, and alienation to signify potential alternatives; and their conscious decision to attempt, in spite of those alternatives’, untenableness.”
This might be true, to a certain extent, but it doesn’t seem like Anderson or Lynch proceeds in this way in any unequivocal sense. What I mean is this:
Even if it’s ceded that David Lynch makes use of the tropes of “mysticism, estrangement, and alienation to signify potential alternatives,” it seems less likely that he does so with “those alternatives’ untenableness” in mind —— which of course is the true mark of a metamodern work as Vermuelen and Akker define it[vi]. Indeed, Lynch’s work is as it’s always been: thoroughly ambiguous[vii]. He might be completely earnest in his suggestions, or he might not be sure of how he feels about them himself, or — in keeping with his intuition-driven artistic philosophy[viii] — he might not even be suggesting anything at all, or talking about what Vermeulen and Akker charge him with talking about. His work might be bent into a metamodern shape, interpretively, but then it might be bent into an expressionistic one, too, or a modernist one, or a postmodernist one, simply because of how invertebrate and multiform it is. Some of Lynch’s films or scenes or even shots might be metamodern, then, or describable in the metamodern vernacular, but to call him a metamodernist director — this requires an enormous amount of gloss to be applied to his work; it requires innumerable bumps and contrary characteristics and ugly splotches to be smoothed over and covered up in the name of interpretive exactness.
The same goes for Anderson. Assuming that Anderson does make use of the tropes of mysticism, estrangement, etc. — and assuming that he uses these to suggest ‘potential alternatives’[ix] — the question remains, again, whether he does so with their untenableness in mind. If Anderson is in fact concerned with rekindling childlike naivety — in his characters, his audience, etc. — then he seems to do so with a great deal of optimism. In The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, Royal’s antics with his grandchildren, his attempt to rekindle childlike naivety in children who have effectively been made into small adults; this is only shown to be revitalizing, helpful, good. It saves his son’s relationship with his children, and gives Royal joy in his final days. “Untenableness” is never suggested or — to be even more precise — it’s never explored in any serious way. His work might be close enough to metamodernism for Vermeulen and Akker to draft it to the cause without seeming absurd or outlandish — but on closer inspection it lacks some very vital characteristics of the structure of feeling as Vermeulen and Akker (purport to) describe it.
In the work of these artists, — and, I suspect, in the work of many of the other artists Vermeulen and Akker mention in their paper — some traits of metamodernism can be seen, but metamodernism as whole is never glimpsed. What’s more, the work itself is disparate, un-similar. Lynch and Anderson may both make use of the tropes of “mysticism, estrangement, and alienation” — but these tropes are so broad, some timeless, that this alone is no guarantee of resemblance. Indeed, in Lynch’s work the ‘mystic’ tends to be interpreted literally, as incomprehensible and often malicious supernatural force; in Anderson’s work the mystic is often a mindset — a sense of whimsy. In Lynch, ‘estrangement’ often occurs in a metaphysical dimension; people are quite literally estranged from themselves or from reality, e.g. the horrific metamorphosis the protagonist of Lost Highway undergoes halfway through the movie, or the extended dream sequences throughout Mulholland Drive. In Anderson’s work, estrangement is much more straightforward and conventional: people are simply made to feel lonely or left out. There is, in other words, a very noticeable gulf between the works of Anderson and Lynch, despite the very broad themes they deal in — indeed their connection with each other is not obvious at first or even sustained glance.
And yet Vermeulen and Akker have done just this: they have connected the two in their writing. Why, and to what end? Moreover, what is the value of this paper, which describes something that seems to be not quite there, this ‘metamodernism?’
V. Theoretical Bricolage and the Creation of New Art
My contention is that the value of Vermulen and Akker’s paper lies in this: that even if nothing like metamodernism existed at the time of Vermeulen and Akker’s writing, it could, by virtue of their writing, exist now. Indeed it would be very unlikely, I submit, for anything like metamodernism in a rigorous sense to exist unless Vermeulen and Akker had written their article.
I believe this point can be illustrated very succinctly: whereas the work of David Lynch and Wes Anderson is only partially, or fragmentarily metamodernist, there has emerged in recent years work which is almost formalist in its adherence to the ‘metamodern’ —- and this is, of course, because these artists have access to Vermeulen and Akker’s writings as a reference. A critically acclaimed country music album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was released just last year; Shia LaBeouf, to much media buzz, put his name on the Metamodernist Manifesto published a few years ago[x], shortly before setting out to stage consciously metamodern performance art[xi]; metamodern galleries and exhibitions have begun to be staged[xii] across Europe and America; there is, in other words, a growing number of artworks which self-identify as metamodern, and which attempt to encapsulate all the characteristics of metamodernism as identified by Vermuelen and Akker.
What all this looks like from faraway is this: just as Kafka bricolage-ed a new literary tradition out of previously unrelated, or mostly unrelated materials, Vermuelen and Akker bricolag-ed the concept of the metamodern out of works of art which were, on close inspection, not quite metamodern themselves, or even that similar to each other, either. In doing so, they allowed for true metamodern work to be made, because in doing so they established the guidelines for creating metamodern work in the first place. The two of them did not perceive a new structure of feeling in the arts so much as they helped create one; they formalized a previously disparate and amorphous sensibility in the arts into a neat and recognizable shape — one which they called ‘metamodernism.’ Another formulation: just as none of Kafka’s predecessors were ‘Kafkaesque’ in a rigorous sense of the word, none of the works which were originally used to identify metamodernism ‘metamodern’ in a rigorous sense; just as it was only after Kafka’s writings were published that truly ‘Kafkaesque’ work could be produced, it was only after Vermuelen and Akker published “Notes on Metamodernism” that truly metamodern work could be produced.
The creation and dissemination of theoretical perspectives, then, seems vital in the creation of contemporary culture; it is only by reinterpreting the past that the fields of the future are opened up for us, artistically speaking. There will always be artists who completely disregard or contradict critical opinion, yes, but the recent outpouring of self-identified metamodernist works, and of metamodern exhibitions and galleries — this should be ample evidence as to what one single theoretical perspective does for the creation of new culture, let alone theoretical perspectives altogether. The key point in appreciating these writings and their role in the culture seems to be acknowledging that they are writings in the first place — that like all writing, all art, they mainly work to engender more writing, more words, more spilled ink and paint, more images and sounds and film.
They just go about doing it in a very special way: by presenting themselves as if they’re describing something that’s been here all along, when really they’re in the subtle process of bringing it into existence.
[i] Borges, Jorge. “Kafka and His Precursors.” Labyrinths. New Directions Publishing. 2007
[ii] A term from the work of Raymond Williams, who defined it as “characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a ‘structure’: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.” (As quoted in Kim, Sue. On Anger: Race, Cognition, Narrative. United States: University of Texas Press, 2013. Print. Pg. 63)
[iii] Claude Levi-Strauss uses this word extensively in his writing — most prominently, in The Savage Mind — but I don’t mean to draw any of his associations or connotations into this paper by employing it here. Rather, when I refer to ‘bricolage,’ I am literally referring to the act of bricolage, of taking a diverse range of objects and combining them to create something new.
[iv] “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture. vol. 2. 2010.
[v] That is, in Borges’ example, each of Kafka’s precursors’ contained an aspect of Kafka’s later work, but never its whole or even its outline — otherwise the adjective would be ‘Browningian,’ or ‘Zenonian,’ etc.
[vi] Using mysticism etc. to suggest potential alternatives has been an artistic strategy since at least the 1800s, after all; it’s the acknowledgment that these potential alternatives are as untenable in the long run as anything else, coupled with the decision to attempt them anyway, that’s new and unequivocally metamodern
[vii] Baftaonline. ‘David Lynch Interview’. 25 Feb. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luB1IGrS89g>.
[ix] However broadly you’d like to construe this term
[x] Turner, Luke. ‘Metamodernist Manifesto (by Shia LaBeouf)’. The Internet Archive, 8 July 2014. Wayback Machine. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. <https://web.archive.org/web/20140708064633/http://www.metamodernism.org/>.
[xi] Schwarz, Abigail. ‘On Shia LaBeouf’s Metamodern Performance Art’.Notes on Metamodernism. N.p., 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. <http://www.metamodernism.com/2014/04/08/on-shia-labeoufs-metamodern-performance-art/>.
[xii] Forbes, Alexander. ‘The Metamodern Mindset’.www.Berlineartjournal.com. Berlin Art Journal, 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <http://www.berlinartjournal.com/issue/metamodern-mindset>.