Talks on Metamodernism with Seth Abramson:
Part 1 of 3
by Kirsten Clodfelter
Sometimes Shia LaBeouf makes movies with cool robots and sometimes Shia LaBeouf gives us a reason to talk about the metamodernist paradigm and how it’s functioning in art and poetry in America. For both of these things, we should feel grateful. I had too many questions about metamodernism and the way it’s shaking up postmodern art than Wikipedia could appropriately handle, so I recruited the brilliant and talented Seth Abramson to tell us everything he knows about the metamodernist movement. It turns out he knows about a whole book’s worth, so we’ve broken up our very informative, super fascinatnig Q&A into a four part series that will run here at AIOTB over the next several weeks. Feedback and questions are welcome in the comments section below, and ahead of our highlight on Seth’s own poetry later this month, you can learn more about his writing and work here.
Kirsten Clodfelter: Can you start by building us a bit of a foundation for metamodernism? How can we identify metamodernism in practice?
Seth Abramson: I think the most important thing to remember is that metamodernism is a cultural paradigm, not a literary movement, clique, or series of technical compositional gestures.
The two men who coined the term as we presently understand it, cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker, have referred to it as a “structure of feeling,” meaning (to quote Raymond Williams) “a particular quality of social experience… historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period.”
KC: So, what would be some of the qualities of a metamodernist social experience?
SA: The social experience pointed to by the term “metamodernism” is one in which an individual simultaneously benefits from, and is burdened by, two very different intellectual heritages: modernism and postmodernism. I say “burden” because living in the Internet Age, decades after the peak years of the modernist sensibility and in the midst of postmodern fatigue, one feels caught “between” two very different paradigms. And this is one of the ways the prefix “meta-” is being used in the term “metamodernism”—to denote a cultural paradigm that is in the “middle” of two others that have shaped particularly the Western intelligentsia over the last century.
KC: There seems to be some debate about how, at least as it’s being used in literature, the metamodernist movement is taking form in Europe and how it’s taking form in the United States. How do you feel metamodernist ideals differ from one side of the Atlantic to the other?
SA: I think one of the things American metamodernism has brought to the table—something that has been somewhat deemphasized in the European conception of the idea—is this notion that our joint modernist/postmodernist heritage can also be a tremendous boon to each of us as human beings. Approaching the wealth of hard and soft data in our personal, professional, and civic lives using the metamodernist paradigm as a praxis may contain, encoded within it, the possibility of transcending the modernist-postmodernist spectrum—and many other, similarly polarized spectra—to our own betterment as living beings generally and citizens specifically.
Admittedly, there’s a focus on self-improvement in a claim like this, and a possibly foolhardy desire for “wholeness” in human subjects over time, and on a workmanlike brand of self-enlightenment. These naively idealistic and somewhat self-involved elements of metamodernism seem to me particularly well-suited—for better or worse—to the American temperament in the Internet Age.
KC: Can you highlight for us what this looks like, specifically?
SA: Because metamodernism is not merely a series of technical gestures that one might see exhibited in a poem or painting or sculpture or photograph, it’s easy to confuse a metamodern work with a modernist or postmodernist one. The reason is that, situated simultaneously between and beyond the modernist and postmodernist paradigms as it is, metamodernism is apt to draw upon both inheritances in the same space, and in fact to oscillate so quickly between the two (“oscillation” being the first principle of metamodernism) that we may imagine a wormhole opening up in the nature of the time-travel device depicted in the film Contact. In other words, the tendency among some creative writers—exacerbated by the “workshop” as it’s traditionally been conceived—to read every text as merely a collation of technical gestures makes it difficult to speak of metamodernism in the way it deserves and requires, as we constantly note in the metamodern the use of techniques that are (rightly or wrongly) more commonly associated with either modernism or postmodernism. For instance, a metamodern poem might feature modernist allusiveness and postmodern parataxis simultaneously, but deploy these techniques to a very different end than would have been the case in their original cultural contexts. Or a metamodern poem might conjoin a modernist sort of naivete with the degenerative disjunction and juxtaposition we typically read as conspicuous detritus of the postmodern.
A good example of the metamodern paradigm in verse is Jesse Damiani’s “Lou Reed’s Obituary.” We see in this poem elements from discrete heritages fused together under a paradigm that aims to overleap received tradition altogether. “Lou Reed’s Obituary” was published less than two weeks after the Velvet Underground front-man’s death, at a time when it was still a very raw (i.e., immediate, relevant, and emotional) event not only for the nation generally but also, I suspect, for the poet personally.
Yet “Lou Reed’s Obituary” is “conceptual” in its form: it embodies an abstract idea; it lacks a tone; it’s not autobiographical; there’s no first-person lyric “I” at work; it’s neither optimistic nor cynical; it doesn’t stand (or claim to be able to stand) outside of any phenomenon and call it true or untrue. What it is, however, is a self-expressive, allusive, highly creative collage—one a Modernist could be proud of—that is circumspect enough about the nature of truth, and the cacophonies of language and data, that its highly deliberate veneer of cohesion comes apart upon inspection. In fact, it’s a compilation of statements about famous people that the poet found on Wikipedia; whether any of the facts in the “obituary” are “true” to the lived experience of Lou Reed, and/or whether the poem in toto is a fitting tribute to the wildness of any (but particularly Reed’s) life as an only partially willing celebrity, is something the reader either seeks to discover for themselves or never does. The poem cares little enough about extracting itself from this subtly ambiguous middle space of technique and sensibility that its clarification of concept is found only at the base of the poem and in small type.
Whereas in, say, Conceptual Writing—the foremost postmodern verse mode at present—there’s often an avoidance of data that’s intimately relevant to the poet himself or herself (i.e., self-expressive in both context and application); and a use of appropriation that’s almost always “in bulk,” rather than phrasal or clausal; and an issuance of attribution for any appropriations up-front (or as part of its packaging and marketing), rather than only once the poem has been consumed; and not only no tone but also no acknowledgment, implicit or explicit, that the poet is navigating and attempting to overleap a polar spectra (e.g., truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance, Modernist naiveté and postmodern cynicism); no one would read “Lou Reed’s Obituary” and call it “uncreative,” or deny its self-expressive quality, or fail to see that it is putting in play certain aesthetic and conceptual spectra that an “uncreative,” non-expressive, minimally curated, conspicuously attributed, bulk-appropriation transcription—such as we would expect to see in Conceptual Writing—would not.
In other words, in “Obituary” the death of Lou Reed is a landmark event, one justly worthy of poetry, but it’s also just another celebrity death in a string of such events related to us daily via online and print media. If our recollection of the facts of Reed’s life blends into our recollection of the facts of other celebrities’ lives (some living, some not) it is not because we don’t care about Reed or music or living and dying, but because when poetry is used as a data-processing praxis we realize how much of the data that means the most to us is internally contradictory, misleading, untrue, speculative, recycled, or irrelevant in ways we normally don’t or can’t appreciate. Moreover, none of this data, however compiled, accumulates into a single reality, but rather a palimpsest of overlaid realities that we move between organically. This video makes the point far better and more succinctly than I can.
Taken as a whole, “Obituary” is untrue, but all of its elements are true in their native context; taken as a whole, there’s something cynical about proposing the incoherence of biography, but there’s also something earnest about using poetry to process a troubling and indeed highly emotional life-event; taken as a whole, the poem seems to deprivilege knowledge-acquisition systems, even as its use of such systems underscores just how readily we can access knowledge in the Internet Age (even if we later misuse it); taken as a whole, the poem may seem to be Art for Art’s sake, but we see in its composition a poet very much trying to intertwine the praxes of Art and Life—specifically, by processing important real-world data through the imperfect but still hopeful filters of verse.
The experience of reading “Lou Reed’s Obituary,” much like the experience of hearing Reggie Watts’s metamodern performance poetry, is generatively bewildering. The metamodern paradigm for Art and Life permits such a rapid oscillation between contradictory poles of thought and aesthetics that the result is a momentary freeing of the self from these limitations. The first time one is confronted with the inability to distinguish between real and unreal, for instance, it’s either frightening or off-putting; the tenth time, it’s a new poetics; the hundredth time, sublime; the thousandth, possibly a new worldview; the ten thousandth, possibly a new politics.
When I say metamodernism is pursuing “a different end” than these other two cultural paradigms, I’m referring to that element of the Metamodernist Manifesto, written by Luke Turner in 2011 and inspired by the work of Vermeulen and van der Akker, that posits the metamodern sensibility as a way of negotiating and ultimately (the Americans argue) transcending the polar spectra modernism and postmodernism seem to have locked us into. These spectra include, but are by no means limited to, ignorance and knowledge, truth and falsehood, Art and Life, optimism and cynicism, and sincerity and irony. Metamodernist art permits artists to perform the incongruity of these spectra with contemporary living, and perhaps even, by so wrestling, move beyond these spectra altogether.
KC: Is it true, then, that this “moving beyond” comes in the form of how the poem is interpreted? Is the response or reception of the work a key function of a piece of metamodernist art?
SA: I think that Modernism demanded of the readers of the early twentieth century (and all those who came thereafter) certain reading technologies, as did and does postmodernism. For instance, one can’t productively read much postmodern verse without learning to put a special, novel form of pressure—deconstructive—on language. Postmodern poetry gave us one possible reification of language-as-material, of language as immanent. Metamodernism aims to put the same sort of pressure on the idea (in fact, the scientific certainty) of multiple realities, and on polar spectra that are largely unsupported by lived experience, and offers us, therefore, reality-as-material, and realities (plural) as immanent. It’s a drilling “up,” rather than down, on language. So I definitely think metamodern Art requires new reading and seeing and listening and even feeling technologies that we’re all still developing. But I wouldn’t say that this means a reader’s response to a poem determines the work that poem is doing, rather that with better readers comes a better understanding of what poetry both is and can be doing.
A common reaction to a metamodernist poem, for instance, might be a generative confusion on the part of the reader as to whether the poem is sincere or ironic—with the anticipated conclusion being that it is neither and both. Another metamodernist poem might treat truth and falsehood as interchangeable, as the Manifesto argues—consistent, I think, with human experience—that all forms of knowledge are useful. (“Error breeds sense,” says the Manifesto.) Another metamodern work might appear to posit, quite optimistically, the possibility of coherent self-expression in the Internet Age, while locking that claim into such a form that it finally seems (and this may add a patina of cynicism) incoherent and unfeasible. Throughout, the metamodernist is likely to be using technical gestures that draw generously from both the modernist and postmodernist traditions while investigating new ones that are clearly hybridic and therefore arguably “metamodern.”
Seth Abramson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose. A regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, the first edition of which is forthcoming from Omnidawn in September 2014. He is presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo