Whether we realize it or not, we live in the shadow of postmodernism. Contemporary philosophy is a response to the postmodernist challenges to Enlightenment thought. And yet, nearly all the proposed alternatives fail to go beyond the postmodernist framework. Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm shows why philosophy has failed to overcome postmodernism and proposes his own alternative.
Despite recent polemics, postmodernism’s philosophical heyday has long passed. While “postmodernism” was once indeed important, the iconic works that made the term popular focused on artistic and intellectual movements of the 1970s and 1980s that have since become outmoded. It has been a long time since Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, or Philip Glass were among the most influential in their respective fields. Likewise, the theorists most routinely associated with postmodernism as an academic paradigm, such as Lyotard (born 1925), Foucault (born 1926), Derrida (born 1930), and Irigaray (born 1930), were all older than Elvis (born 1935); and even if some constellation of their disparate philosophies was once dominant, the current moment is better seen as a squabbling match between postmodernism’s presumptive successors.
The opposition to postmodernism gave it more coherence as an alternative to positivism. The formation of postmodernism was less a “French invasion” than an Anglophone bricolage construction.
Postmodernism took hold initially as a polemical category. Much of the early writing about “postmodernism” or the “postmodern condition” was intended to as condemnation. But these writings appeared when logical positivism (and related movements) had attained ascendency in Anglo-American philosophy departments. The increasing specialization of Anglophone philosophy and its attempt to turn itself into a “scientific discipline” meant that scholars in other academic fields were already beginning to look elsewhere for broader reflections on knowledge and meaning. The opposition to postmodernism gave it more coherence as an alternative to positivism. The formation of postmodernism was less a “French invasion” than an Anglophone bricolage construction. It occurred by way of textbooks and other anthologies that presented together, and in translation, selections from the work of disparate Continental thinkers from different academic disciplines who often saw themselves in conflict with each other. The canonization of these thinkers became increasingly associated with emancipatory political battles both within the framework of existing departments and alongside the emergence of women’s studies and many ethnic studies programs. The more critics opposed postmodernism, the more postmodernism solidified itself as a counter-movement with a sceptical stance. In this respect, it emerged via a feedback loop between polemical criticism and actual disciplinary paradigms. It also served the general function of providing a shared canon and conversation across a range of disciplines. But in becoming dominant in many disciplines, it has increasingly lost its claims of counter-hegemony, and many of its philosophical insights have come to seem stale.
The last two decades have seen the gradual bubbling up of alternatives. Although many of them were short-lived, today there are four main kinds of alternatives whose signature differences from each other are rooted in part in what they see as postmodernism’s shortcomings.
The Post-Postmodernism Alternatives
First, various New Realisms reject what they see as postmodernism’s “anti-realism,” fetishization of social construction, and skepticism about the human capacity to access a mind-independent reality. In response, most Neo-Realists describe what they take to be “the world out there.” Second, proponents of the related New Materialism movement argue that the central problem with postmodernism (and the semi-overlapping “poststructuralism”) was that it focused too much on discourse, the power of language, and the capacity of linguistic categories to determine thought. In response, New Materialists deemphasize words in favor of focusing on things, vibrant matter, and the stubborn persistence of materiality. Third, various Political Pessimisms argue that the problem with postmodernism was its moral relativism; and instead, they argue that the central task of scholarly inquiry should be to draw attention to the ongoing effects of discrimination, racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, or climate denial. A fourth movement, which we might call New Scientism, is not fighting for succession but instead is dismissive of postmodernism altogether on the grounds that postmodernism is jargonistic, obscurantist, and excessively skeptical. As an alternative, they insist strongly on the triumph of reason, assertions about “objective truths” or incontrovertible facts, or they evoke the (imagined) spirit of the Enlightenment and a naively optimistic account of European historical progress.
Both realists and antirealists often share more than they realize.
While I have sympathies for these movements, they have generally remained trapped within postmodernism’s horizons and phantom oppositions. I have my own alternative which I will come to later, but first I want to clarify the shortcomings of the movements discussed above.
First, New Realists should know that the split between “realists” and “anti-realists” is mainly a phantom opposition. Both realists and antirealists often share more than they realize; both tend to grant that human perception is limited and that commonsense objects are not what they appear to be. Their actual disagreement is rooted largely in the realists’ confidence in a “reality” that functions mainly as a stand-in for a non-specialist’s notion of the current worldview of physics. More damagingly, most New Realists describe a universe defined by “hyper-chaos,” incomprehensible flux, or “vicarious causation.” In this respect, New Realisms are often committed to the existence of a less constant, less predictable, and less intelligible universe than that suggested by the supposedly anti-realist postmodernists they oppose.
Second, New Materialism’s technical vocabulary and central conceptual innovations have been directly imported from the very thinkers they malign. I mean this literally. For instance, New Materialists often argue that instead of studying language, scholars should focus on “actants,” “networks,” and “assemblages.” But the word “actant” was a key term in poststructuralist literary analysis where it referred to a functional unit in a narrative; while “assemblage” and “network” were central to the vocabulary of structuralists’ linguistics, where the terms were used as near synonyms to the now discredited notion of linguistic “structure” itself. So the New Materialists are often repeating about the world the same thing they accuse the postmodernists of having said about language, while ignoring their own interpretative procedures.
Third, Political Pessimisms start from a common critique of postmodernism as “moral relativism.” Most postmodernists, however, were moralists even as they were committed to either value neutrality or some form of moral, or cultural, relativism. How was this possible? In brief, positive ethics was often regarded as incompatible with scholarly objectivity or cultural relativism. But calling out other people’s misguided values wasn’t seen as a form of moralizing, but as a higher form of critique. For instance, identifying that a particular argument has been distorted by racism could be seen as an attempt to make it more, rather than less, objective. One consequence of this is that negativity has prospered in academic moralizing and is primarily expressed in terms of disparagement and condemnation. The Political Pessimists, therefore, who think of themselves as replacing postmodernist moral relativism with activism, remain trapped in the modes of scornful moralizing that are not the departure from postmodernism its proponents imagine.
By failing to truly engage with postmodernism or the philosophical problems it evokes, the New Scientists can’t even rebut it. They just keep getting caught in its traps.
Fourth, the New Scientists do not so much repudiate postmodernist philosophy, which they rarely actually read, as they aim to laugh it out of the room. This group is composed of psychologists, physicists, and social scientists (and occasional analytic philosophers) whose central move is to dismiss postmodern doubts as unfounded or postmodernist writing as incoherent or incomprehensible. None of these moves is productive. By failing to truly engage with postmodernism or the philosophical problems it evokes, the New Scientists can’t even rebut it. They just keep getting caught in its traps. Moreover, their fulsome evocations of (supposedly) certain knowledge feed the scepticism they despise. This is because any truth claim can be doubted, and scientific “facts” are regularly being revised or rejected. Indeed, this whole line of engagement, which happens to be the most common form of critique of postmodernism, is just a modernist return that if anything contributes to feeding postmodernism’s coherence as an oppositional and sceptical movement.
In summary, while these putative successor movements all have things to commend them, most are unsatisfying as repudiations of postmodernism because they inherit rather than reject the very features of the philosophy they attack. Moreover, polemical opposition that fails to take postmodernism seriously is probably one of the few things currently propping it up. In this respect, these alternatives have become their own worst enemies.
Metamodernism argues that the best way to diffuse scepticism is not insisting on “the facts,” but by learning to be sceptical of scepticism.
But to confess, I have my own alternative, namely what I call “Metamodernism,” and I want to argue offers both a satisfying critique of postmodernism and a way to move beyond it.
Metamodernism as an alternative
The first thing you need to know about Metamodernism is that it is a form of “no bullshit” theory. I mean this in the philosophical sense. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously argued that “the essence of bullshit” is that a bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly” or not. Critics are right that many postmodernists are impossible to disagree with because obfuscation and jargon make it hard to apprehend their actual arguments. Their bullshitting was reproduced because the people asserting it do not really care if it is true or not. Even today, many theorists only care if their assertions sound evocative and can get published. In response, Metamodernism is a “no bullshit” theory, that rejects unnecessary jargon in favor of argumentative clarity. I want you to be able to figure out what I am saying and tell me when I may be wrong.
Working backward I want to show you how Metamodernism improves on the various current, anti-postmodernisms.
First, Metamodernism makes the case for a new stance toward knowledge that is neither the naïve certainties of the New Scientism, nor the dogmatic skepticisms of Postmodernism. Metamodernism argues that the best way to diffuse scepticism is not insisting on “the facts,” but by learning to be sceptical of scepticism. Sceptics often define themselves in terms of their doctrinaire commitment to the very things they don’t believe in. Dogmatic scepticisms inevitably harbor residual epistemological commitments; their very doubts are propelled by their attachment to lost certainties. The answer to post-truth is to be more sceptical not less. When scepticism commits to purifying itself, learning to doubt its own propelling beliefs, then it ceases to be sceptical. Postmodernists embraced scepticism because they thought it was emancipatory. But historically scepticism has most often been associated with a defense of the status quo. Doubting the power of truth has often left systems of power in place. Doubting doubt can, however, lead us toward emancipatory, humble knowledge. Metamodernism concretely shows how this humble knowledge can be produced.
Postmodernists embraced scepticism because they thought it was emancipatory. But historically scepticism has most often been associated with a defense of the status quo.
Second, Metamodernism agrees with the various Political Pessimists that the current moment is run through with various intersectional forms of oppression. It agrees that it is incredibly important to bring our attention to the realities of victimization, colonization, and climate change. But Metamodernism argues, these critiques are not enough. Metamodernism grants, and even takes its impetus, from the various forms of injustice the Political Pessimists have so rightly identified, but instead of terminating in the negative, it starts from there. It argues that we will never solve the intertwined catastrophes of the present moment if we do not exercise our capacity to imagine better futures. In so doing, it complements urgent efforts to mitigate injustice by articulating a critical virtue ethics directed toward multispecies flourishing. (Although it also reminds scholar-activists that it doesn’t advance the cause to distort evidence for the sake of predetermined conclusions.)
Third, New Materialists were right to criticize the dominant philosophy of language that scholars in many fields inherited from postmodernist circles. But instead of simply moving from linguistic theory to ontology, Metamodernism provides an alternative account of not only how the world functions in signs but also how human sign-making activities are on a continuum with animal and plant communication. By doing so, it provides a fresh theory of the meaning of meaning, which suggests humans approach the world semiotically, but like our fellow animals we are not imprisoned in language.
Fourth, against the phantom opposition between realists and antirealists, Metamodernism argues that “real” is mainly a contrastive term, which generally rests on an unstated contrast (e.g., to say something is “real fish-and-chips” might mean that it is real as opposed to plastic food, or it might mean that it is real as opposed to inauthentic cooking, and so on). Moreover, there is a long history of identifying the “real” in contrast to mind-dependence or social construction. This is as though a given category (e.g., “gender”) is either real or socially constructed. Rejecting this binary, Metamodernism provides an elaborate theorization of how socially constructed entities are made “real” or given ontological grounding.
This leads us toward the final significant innovation of Metamodernism. Irrespective of postmodernism, Metamodernism offers a new vantage for philosophy of human sciences by providing an account of society’s ever-changing nature—what I call a “Process Social Ontology”—and its materialization in temporary zones of stability or “social kinds.” This new approach serves as an answer both to over-historicism and to essentialized notions of cultural categories. Once we recognize that we make our own kinds, it means that we can work to study them in new ways, to understand them better, to improve or demolish them, to transform them, to struggle together to build a better world. Metamodernism will help us do that.
All that is to say, Metamodernism consolidates the positive ground postmodernism achieved without succumbing to its pitfalls and it has the capacity to go beyond postmodernism in directions that will be generative for scholars across a range of disciplines.