Timotheus Vermeulen talks to Cher Potter

Text by Cher Potter

Photography by Anna Kari

Timotheus Vermeulen, with fellow cultural theorist Robin van den Akker, introduced the term metamodernism in 2010 as a declaration of independence from postmodernism. But rather than a two-fingered-salute to a previous generation, metamodernism is a gesture of, "sorry-we've-grown-apart".

Cher Potter As a way of explaining metamodernism, what does the transition from postmodernism tell us about our generation? Timotheus Vermeulen: I would say it tells us that twenty-somethings have come to the realisation that the critical and creative vernacular with which their parents tried to intimate and influence what was going on around them is no longer sufficient to capture, let alone change, their experience of the world today: a world in all sorts of geopolitical, economic, ecological turmoil, where "left" and "right" are suddenly actual categories again, where jobs are scarce, and where melting icebergs are no longer a projection but a reality. Today's students have learned all about postmodernism, they understand its critical value, but they find it difficult to relate to it. Politics doesn't end with Lyotard, art doesn't stop with Derrida. Jeff Koons' critique of consumerism, Brett Easton Ellis' interrogation of mediation, Todd Solondz's play with white, middle-class suburbia; they suddenly seem anachronistic in the contorted face of capitalism 4.0, populism and so forth.

The metamodern generation oscillates between a postmodern doubt and a modern desire for sense: for meaning, for direction. Grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed.

CP Can you explain the meta in metamodernism.
TV For Robin and myself, meta signifies an oscillation, a swinging or swaying with and between future, present and past, here and there and somewhere; with and between ideals, mindsets, and positions. For us, the prefix meta indicates that a person can believe in one thing one day and believe in its opposite the next. Or maybe even at the same time. Indeed, if anything, meta intimates a constant repositioning: not a compromise, not a balance, but an at times vehemently moving back and forth, left and right. It repositions itself with and between neoliberalism and Keynesianism, the "right" and the "left", idealism and "pragmatism", the discursive and the material, web 2.0 and arts and crafts, without ever seeming reducible to any one of them.

CP As a philosophy with its own blog, one way in which metamodernism exists is as an open-source document with tabbed divisions of architecture/arts/fashion/network culture. Have outside contributions added any wildly unexpected avenues to the work?
TV Yes, definitely. For us, metamodernism is not so much a philosophy - which implies a closed ontology - as it is an attempt at a vernacular, or as you say, a sort of open source document, that might contextualise and explain what is going on around us, in political economy as much as in the arts. When Robin and I began writing about metamodernism, that vernacular was very limited. Each new author has stretched those limits up. Sometimes a lot, other times a bit. Our contributors, among them Hila Shachar, an Australian cultural theorist, James MacDowell, a British film scholar, and Nadine Fessler, a German literary critic, have turned our attention to phenomena, art works and texts that we had no awareness of, picking out and unpicking artistic choices we would have never considered, and as such have expanded the idiom far beyond its initial boundaries.

CP A year ago, the German newspaper Die Zeit declared that metamodernism would dominate the arts in 2011, MAD museum has just held a metamodernism exhibition and metamodernism was on the programme at this year's Frieze Art Fair and Moscow Biennale. Can you explain the appeal?
TV I can only guess. Curators and collectors, too, will have noticed shifts in cultural discourses. We offer a vernacular that may enable them to tie some of these shifts together and make sense of them.

CP Metamodernism announces a new romanticism and a rediscovery of love and affect - what are the tenets of this emergent Romanticism?
TV It depends. In some works of art, like the installations by Olafur Eliasson, for example, Romanticism is most clearly present in the attempt to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, something we cannot but be aware of and contemplate simply because it is in its ordinariness unlike anything else. There are works concerned with the idea of the Romantic sublime; with fate; with craftsmanship. But by and large, I would say that what characterises the Romanticism that has been increasingly visible in contemporary culture since the early 2000s is romantic irony: to strive for infinity in spite of one's finiteness; to hope in spite of one's better judgment. In the arts we see this attitude in the work of someone like Ragnar Kjartansson, whose work I like a lot. But also the protesters at Stuttgart 21 or Occupy Wall Street: they realise that what they are doing might be futile; that doesn't mean that they cannot at least give it a try.

CP This search for optimism and sincerity reminds me of the 2008 internet-released film The Cult of Sincerity, an almost ironic tragedy in which a Williamsburg hipster looks for a way beyond cynicism by attempting to make genuine human connections and art - while knowing and proving that this idealistic integrity is ultimately unachievable. Do you think genuine sincerity is possible?
TV Of course, to be sincere always implies a moment of insincerity, at least towards yourself. But that is another question.

What is meant, I think, when people talk about the so-called "new sincerity", the artistic movement associated with writers and film-makers like David Foster Wallace and Wes Anderson I imagine you refer to, is that someone temporarily suspends irony. It does not mean that, say, someone is so naive to believe that his or her love song is the only true love song. After all those postmodern parodies that is impossible. It merely means that for the time being, that person pretends it is so as to convey as much "truth" as possible. That is why new sincerity has sometimes been called post-irony and other times performatism. To be sincere, at least today, is not a natural quality but a choice, a performance you know might be impossible to put on forever, but try and maintain as long as you can.

David Foster Wallace spoke about the next generation of literary rebels who might  "…dare somehow to back away from ironic watching", "to rally behind the single-entendre...(and) eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue" - it does seem that people from different fields are picking up on this romantic sentiment.

I would say that it is at once (1) a passionate reaction to years of postmodern deconstruction, ironic distance, and cynicism,  (2) the formative experience of a generation coming into its own by setting itself against the discourses of their parents, and (3) a response to changes in society which necessitate a different attitude. It's about addressing 21st-century problems, but it is also simply young people saying to their parents: "We're tired of listening to your whining. If you are so concerned about the moral state of society, then do something about it." It helps, of course, that we've got the internet and various kinds of social and locative media to share those views.

Eighteenth-century Romantic notions of genius - in the context of today's art production, an industry obsession with innovation and a simultaneous acceleration of the often ingenious copy - is a pertinent point of revision. What is the metamodern genius?

The question of genius is extremely pertinent, especially since it ties in with one of the most important questions for philosophy today: how should we conceive of the subject after poststructuralism? I, unfortunately, do not have an answer to either one of those questions myself yet.

Goethe once said that genius is the ability to see what no one else can see even though it is open to everyone. If there would be such a category as the metamodern genius, she or he would not be someone who is more talented than others, but rather someone who is able to put into words alternative relationships. But really, I would have to think about this matter some more.

CP You and Robin never took to the idea of a manifesto. However, the artist Luke Turner has put one together for you, consisting of eight principles with the ambitious and heart-warming final call: "We must go forth and oscillate". Do you feel it does the theory justice?
TV I feel Luke's manifesto summarises well some of the developments we would say characterise metamodernism. However, for Robin and myself, metamodernism is not a program, is not a call for whatever kind of protest. On the contrary. Although we are personally quite excited by some of the trends and tendencies in the arts and literature, we are far less thrilled about certain recent events in politics - such as the rise of right-wing populism, or the disintegration of the political centre, to name just a few. Again, I should emphasise: metamodernism is an attempt to come to terms with what is happening all around us, not a blueprint for how to achieve it. §


  • Timotheus Vermeulen - Cher Potter