Metamodernism: a Philosophy of Crisis

Metamodernism: a Philosophy of Crisis

. 13 min read

The impact caused by the devastation of the First World War cannot be overemphasized. Even as the ink upon which the Treaty of Versailles was being written on began to dry, the ancient empires of Europe—Imperial Germany, Czarist Russia, the Austrian-Hungarian empire—had dissolved, and in some cases, violently, as the peace that would set the stage for the next global conflict was already being drafted.

It's for this reason that I make the case that “modernity,” such as we understand it, truly began in earnest. I know that I am going against the grain here, as most historians place early modernity as early as the 15th or 16th centuries and typically as late as 17th and 18th centuries with both the so-called “Age of Reason” and the “Enlightenment,” respectively. In my mind however, this is and remains a gestation period for what would become true modernism, the advent of which would only make itself manifest in what would be the Second Boer War (1899-1903) and the First World War (1914-1918) in which the mass introduction of machines into human society, most notably warfare, would set the stage for the mechanization, globalization, and the eventual decline of the last traditional Christian monarchies throughout Europe.

This “embryonic” phase of modernism I am referring to can be described, for the sake of convenience, as protomodernity or protomodernism, and it is within this period where we can pinpoint two major historical events that would set the stage for the crisis of the modern world: first, the Thirty Years War, and specifically, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which would more or less define the borders of what would become the nation-states of Europe up until the next great internecine conflict in 1914.

Secondly, the English Civil War (1642-1649) which would set in motion, beginning with Cromwell and his Roundheads, a long line of democratic-revolutionary leaders who would challenge the long-established privilege of the divine right of kings; first with Robespierre and the Jacobin Revolution in France (1789-99), the Revolutions of 1848 which, like their French precedent, had a liberal democratic character to them, and finally, with the Lenin and Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917).

The emphasis I place on these two events is, I believe, not misplaced, as they sum up what I think defines modernity in opposition to "Tradition." First, with Westphalia; the desacralization of the Empire or realm into the liberal democratic nation-state, and secondly; with Cromwell, and later Jacobinism, the victory of revolutionary politics, and thus, ideology, over divine right and sacred tradition.

With this backdrop in mind, we now need to return to the events that were taking place in aftermath of 1918 when the fires that illuminated Europe were finally starting to be quenched.

The destruction of the First World War had shaken the faith of many—faith in progress, in the goodness of the human being, in technology, and also religious faith, especially those of the Protestant churches which were struggling to grapple with the developments made by science with regard to the evolutionary origins of human beings and the growth of modernism, which would only intensify after the post-War recovery of the nineteen-twenties. It was out of this turbulent environment that a reaction took place in the form of "neo-Orthodoxy" which was developed primarily by Swiss theologian Karl Barth but also by other Protestant theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann and Emil Brunner.

Neo-Orthodox theology aimed to be a reconciliation between the orthodox Protestant theology of the Reformation and the emerging liberalizing tendencies that began to be accepted by many academic theologians. Neo-Orthodoxy emphasized the incomprehensible transcendence of God and stressed the importance of the personal "crisis," or "the encounter" that the believer has with God. Neo-Orthodoxy also assigned a lower importance to human achievements, seeing in them the germ of pride, vainglory and hubris. It is for this reason that neo-Orthodoxy went by another more well-known name: Crisis Theology.

I bring up this historical anecdote because I believe it plays well into the situation at hand. After the end of High Modernism (1940-1980) and the beginning of what we now call postmodernity, Western academia and its cultural institutions grappled with the loss of meaning to those same questions regarding the loss of faith in beliefs in progress, in "grand narratives," in the belief that science, philosophy and economic determinism could morally shape the character of the human being. Postmodernism began to deconstruct these institutions, or what one author calls the "master categories,"¹ but failed to replace them with anything meaningful, to build up something with a solid foundation in their place.

The same can be said with regard to religion, which in the Postmodern period has universally come to viewed as a relic of the past, or at the very least, relegated to an anthropological subject of study. Religion has come to be overshadowed by existentialism due to the influence of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Satre during both the Early (1900-1940) and High Modern periods. This, coupled with the destructiveness of the World Wars, proved to be a crucible that even the most pious of theologians struggled to grapple with.

Now we find ourselves at the end of the Late Modernity, still struggling with that great specter which haunts us like a poltergeist from beyond the grave, viz., the loss of faith. I am not alone in thinking this way, as metamodernist and professor of cultural studies A. Severan writes,

"After the First World War (the first truly modern war) left the old world on its last legs, there arose a particular new urgency for articulating such a stable Truth. High or "heroic" Modernists desperately sought to create an orienting mythology fit for the modern age." (Severan 9).

By faith I do not mean the loss of religious faith, merely. But also, our faith in our cultural institutions, in ourselves, in our existence as a society and even as a civilization. Clearly, we are at the end of something and at the beginning of something. Already the academics have coined the term "metamodernism" to describe this "structure of feeling" that oscillates between modernism and postmodernism; between aesthetic and language, between past and future.

Severan likens this oscillation to that of the LED lights attached to a pendulum or metronome in an electronic clock which gives the illusion of something static, something fixed, but in reality, exists as the result of rapid movement of the lights within the machine. Writing that,

"Through this movement, something stable appears, held up by nothing, and which relies upon, but is not reducible to, the two extremes it shuffles between. The result is sort of a paradox; stillness in motion, unity in and through polarity, etc." (Severan 39).

This article isn't meant to be in depth analysis of metamodernism, as theory, of which I've already written about previously. Rather, in many ways this piece is meant to be a continuation of what I've already elaborated on, a fleshing out of what it means to be a man or woman in this particular junction in historical space-time. After all, as Severan notes, metamodernism is a historical label, not a political one. ² As such, much of what I will attempt to be expanding upon will be focused on the temporal, not merely the philosophical, aspects of the crisis of metamodernity.

And it is this crisis which is at the heart of what I am attempting to get at here, which, as I've previously, stated, goes back at least to First World War if not to Cromwell and Westphalia. Ask anyone today and they'll very likely be in agreement that world-situation we find ourselves in is exceptionally dire. In fact, I would argue that we are on the verge of what Guillaume Faye has termed the "convergence of catastrophes," where the calamities of demographic implosion and replacement, cultural and moral decline, economic and ecological collapse are rapidly accelerating towards a collision course towards an intersection.

Many, whether on the Left or Right, whether interested in politics or not, seem to acknowledge that we are, at the very least, in troubling times. Although the description that we are "in troubling times" could pretty much describe nearly any period of our historical human story, there is something about the early 21st century that seems to give off an apocalyptic air of "finality." As I've stated in the above, clearly, we are at the end of something and the beginning of something, but the question of quantifying what exactly this "something" is seems to allude us.

Cultural critics and armchair sociologists on both the Left and the Right agree, for the most part, that we are either at the end, or approaching the end of what has been called postmodernism. Determining what comes afterwards, however, has been a point of contention for polemicists on both sides.

The Right imagines that the modern world, and postmodernity with it, is eventually going to collapse under the sheer weight of its own internal contradictions. The Left, and especially metamodernists on the Left, have made it their task to save liberalism, social democracy, the welfare state, multicultural pluralism and the gender identity experiment from the growing influence that Right-wing populism and authoritarianism has had at the beginning of this decade by "reforming" it.

I myself am personally inclined to side myself with the Right on this matter—albeit for different reasons. Unlike traditionalists, conservatives or reactionaries, I do not think any "revolt against the modern world" is possible any more than it was possible for a Sumerian scribe in 3800 BC to "revolt" against the advances of the Agricultural Revolution. Modernity, I think it is safe to say, is baked it into the cake at this point.

It is taken for granted among the ranks of the Right, almost to the point of being a truism, that eventually the modern world will somehow implode on itself once resource scarcity and mass demographic changes in Europe and North America eventually force "Western man" to confront the harsh, tribalistic reality of human nature once our post-industrial economy is no longer able to support the kind of lifestyles that have made multicultural democracy, women's "liberation" and the gender ideology movement possible. Once, it is assumed, civilization has the rug pulled out from underneath it due to the previously mentioned "convergence of catastrophes," Western man will have no other choice than to wake up from his stupor and reclaim his destiny.

I agree that a fatal combination of resource scarcity and increased ethnic tribalism among peoples who don't resemble each other in any meaningful way is almost a given in lieu of where we're headed, but the problem of this proposed model of civilizational salvation put forward by some members of the Right is that it overlooks one key takeaway, viz., as Alex Kurtagic said in his famous, now seemingly forgotten Masters of the Universe speech; a sudden, calamitous societal collapse  would "wipe the slate clean for everyone."

At any rate, global collapse is a slow burn, and it's doubtful everything wrong with global society is going to implode all at once. Be that as it may, we still need to acknowledge that postmodern man is shaped entirely by his having been produced by a world in crisis. This, I think, is the defining feature of what separates metamodernists on the Right from those on the Left, which is to say, their ability to take the spirit of crisis with the serious it deserves.

Very few Integral theorists or social commentators within the "metasphere" or Liminal Web have given the existence of this "crisis consciousness" that seems to permeate the minds of Western people in Late Postmodernity the attention that it needs, with the possible exception of individuals such as Jonathan Rowson and Daniel Schmachtenberger whose concept of a "meta-crisis" is, to at least my liking, still widely insufficient for charting a course towards a rediscovery of meaning amid a world of ruins.

To my eyes, much of what constitutes contemporary Integral theory and metamodernism is focused on saving the values produced by Enlightenment-era liberalism and the progressive sociological projects inherited from both modernity and postmodernity, a task that seems to become more futile and Sisyphean with each decade as the generous welfare-states of northwest Europe are beginning to crumble under the weight of having to support an ever-increasing non-European migrant population who take far more from the welfare system than they put in and whose values, rooted deeply in an Islamic or African cultural-consciousness, are often invariably at odds with the liberal progressive values of the postmodern West.

It is probably far more accurate to say that there are different strains of metamodernisms than a single working theory for metamodernism. This is because metamodernism is a way to understand how people orient themselves toward ideological positions in an epoch where any belief in a unipolar grand narrative has become nearly non-existent.³ There is an orthodox, academic form of metamoderism epitomized by cultural critics, religious scholars, architectural, film and literary theorists and a more eclectic group of denominations that are far more sociological in their way of thinking, exemplified by the writings of Hanzi Freinacht, Brendan Graham Dempsey and, with some controversy, what has been called the Meta-Right.

The Meta-Right is the Right's response to the crisis of the Late Postmodernism. It is a myriad collection of overlapping tendencies within the Right itself rather than a cohesive, unified project or movement. The Meta-Right can be Traditionalist, or futurist, it can be minarchist or post-libertarian in its approach to economics or it can be outright syndicalist, Georgist, or prefer some other variety of social nationalism or post-Capitalist theory. It can wholly embrace ethnonationalism or reject in favor of voluntaryist intentional communities. It can be Christian, pagan, Buddhist or entirely secular while acknowledging the human need for connection with the divine. Simply put, it is a thought experiment by those members of the Right who find themselves struggling to find meaning in an age where meaning has ceased to have meaning; where the search to connect with real forms of authenticity by those dissatisfied with the postmodern have slipped into the parodical.

Severan writes,

"Meanwhile, metamodernists on the Right, such as they are, read the tea leaves differently. The decadence of postmodernism is over; its skepticism, its cynicism, its moral relativism are dead. The grand narrative returns, but qualified; myth speaks once more, but myths we must now recognize us constructed. If it is fitting and even necessary to have myths again, though, then why not myths of grandeur, of majesty, of dignity, of power? Why not myths of land, of soil, of communities, of peoples? Perhaps the dream of egalitarian democracy itself is but a vestige of the modern world, something that a revitalized metamodernity might purge in favor of—what? Something aristocratic? Something hierarchical?" (Severan, 50).

Metamodernists look back to perceive a future that was lost from sight.⁴ No discussion of the Meta-Right's vision for a future after postmodernism would be complete without touching on the hauntological, aesthetic vision which captivates the Meta-Right's fascination with lost futures. The Traditionalist or reactionary seeks to return to an imagined past, the Meta-Right, on the other hand, desires to reclaim a vision of the future that was lost or became unattainable somewhere between the advent of Early Modernism and the end of the period of the World Wars.

There was no guarantee that modernity would be defined by liberal democracy, universal suffrage, the welfare state, capitalism, Keynesianism and neoliberalism. It was entirely possible, although perhaps unlikely, that Communism or fascism could have defined the course of events that both High and Late modernity would have undertaken had the Second World War and Cold War gone another way. It is entirely possible that the version of liberalism we have come to accept as normal in the West since the American and French Revolutions onward were never destined to develop the way that they did.

"The first feature crucial to post-postmodernism that I would like to draw out is the 'specter of Identity' that haunts it. Having been keenly deprived of it in postmodern consumer culture, this new generation seems particularly attracted to the intensity and energy of things that have history, depth, a story, a character. Not quite nostalgia, and no longer pastiche per se—but somewhere straddling these and other sentiments is a long for value, for richness, for the worth and warmth of some deeper history and heritage." (Severan 53).

This paragraph by Severan perfectly encapsulates the temporal condition, the "structure of feeling" that has come to define the Meta-Right in spite of the ideological heterodoxy of those who identify with that moniker. It is not archaism or the desire to return to the past, or for a vision of utopia somewhere in the near or distant future, merely, that characterizes the spirit of the Meta-Right, but something "in between." Rather, it is an aesthetically mediated set of beliefs on the nature of time and history that verges on anachronism. It is anemoia, a deep and painful longing for a time that one has never known.

In many ways our time has become incredibly anachronistic, haunted by the ghosts of previous cultural forms that refuse to die or are continually resurrected to fill vacancy for a future that never materialized. It is this vacancy, what Mark Fisher called the "slow cancellation of the future," that, more than anything else, has come to define the anxieties associated with life under Late Postmodernism. Our collective disappointment in a future that never came to be is at the heart of the crisis of the postmodern condition.

In many ways we are at a threshold. In front of us stands an open door to a future we cannot begin to predict, but, through a glass, darkly, only vaguely manage to capture a glimpse of what lays beyond that portal. Around us is a vast, seemingly infinite, horizontal plane which spreads far and wide, far beyond our field of vision. This analogy is meant to demonstrate our position at this particular place in space-time; all around us is the past and history; all around us, not just before us, lies the future, and not just the future, but all possible futures. The door represents the path we must, by necessity, take.

To be a metamodernist on the Right is to have a sense of oneself standing at the threshold, not bound by the past or limited by either hope or anxiety for the future. It is to have a deep sense of historical depth, of meta-consciousness, of the sense of the possible; of that sensation of "in-betweenness" mentioned earlier. In short, what defines someone who finds themselves on the Meta-Right is a sense of the liminal.

Whether it's visions of glimmering cityscapes bathed in the purple and yellow glow of neon lights, where large domed Byzantine style cathedrals tower over both high-rise and overpass in a post-Cyberpunk future where the means of technological proliferation have been seized from the talons of nefarious corporate overlords, the hopeful verdant self-sustaining green cities of glass and white concrete common to the Solarpunk genre or the downsized, communal settlements where ceramic, glass, steel, stone and wood all mesh together in harmony amidst arboreal forests, desert canyons, and pelagic bays where a Techno-Primitivist protopia has emerged from the ruins of an apocalyptic past. Our shared visions, hopes and imaginings for a better world, long after the convergence of catastrophes, provide the aesthetic language for a sentiment that is only now beginning to make itself known to the individuals and communities living in the long shadow cast by postmodernity.  

I have never been a person that has claimed to have all the answers. The coming convergence of catastrophes, the "meta-crisis" of the Liminal Websters, may already be far out of the reach of our collective ability to solve. However, as much of a cynic as I am, even I should stress the need to be optimistic, even in the face of looming catastrophe.

Cynicism and defeatism solve nothing. And in the grand scheme of things, human beings have endured far worse in our historical journey to the Contemporary Era than what we're experiencing now. If I can still have my morning coffee in the middle of the climate apocalypse, I'll take that as a good sign of our chance towards making a rebound. Metamodernism—or rather, the metamodernism that I have laid out, not the metamodernism of the academics—is a philosophy informed by "crisis," by the personal encounter with the loss of meaning, the transcendent; coming to the realization that God is dead. But this encounter is meant to be transformative. Metamodernism (or Crisis Philosophy if you prefer) is also about the recovering of meaning, recovery of the transcendent, the imminent (and immanent) hope that God is indeed coming back.

In a world of ruins, the only thing left to do is to build new foundations.

Sources Cited:

¹Jason Ananda Joseph Storm. "Metamodernism: The Future of Theory."

2A. Severan and Brendan Graham Dempsey. "Metamodernism and the Return of Transcendence." Pg.44


⁴A. Severan and Brendan Graham Dempsey. "Metamodernism and the Return of Transcendence." Pg.49.