“Metamodernism: The Future of Theory” Q & A

Hi, Jason. In terms of your new “Metamodernism” project, I’d like to hear about how you got started thinking about this subject, which is much more directly theoretical than your previous two works. What inspired you to tackle the idea of “metamodernism?”

I came to the key idea for this monograph in 2011, over drinks with an old friend in a café in Vienna. He asked me what I was going to do for a second act after my first book came out, given that the work was set to deconstruct my entire area of study. The key insight he rightly suggested is that it might have something to with what was going to come after postmodernism. I had just come from an interdisciplinary conference in which scholars of religion were bemoaning the dissolution of the discipline’s central category (a dissolution to which I had contributed) and I was primed to try and think big about new orientations to social scientific study. Furthermore, the more scholars I talked to in other disciplines, the more I heard reference to similar dilemmas. Anthropologists were worried about the status of the category “culture” and the viability of ethnography; economists and sociologists were concerned about the lack of recent grand discoveries in the social sciences and the failures of attempts to model human behavior; English professors bemoaned the fragmentation of the discipline or their alienation from what made literature appealing… and so on. It seemed that many scholars in the humanities and social sciences were intellectually discomforted in similar ways and lacking in the philosophical resources they needed to make progress.

(Click to read more)

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Hack the Metaverse: A Metamodernista’s Take on Facebook’s Rebranding

What is the metaverse? Why is Facebook rebranding itself as Meta Platforms? And what does it have to do with the 1990s cyberpunk novel Snow Crash?

The most obvious answer is that Mark Zuckerberg’s rebranding is a desperate response to two entangled issues:

1. The Facebook Papers have suggested that company leadership knew, and basically didn’t give a shit about, the corrosive impact Facebook’s social media platform was having on mental health and global political discourse.
2. For some time now, Facebook has also been hemorrhaging users and facing a particularly steep decline in engagement from teenagers (who are its most lucrative advertising market) with internal projections estimating a further projected “drop [of] 45 percent over the next two years [in teen users].”

Faced with bad publicity and investor worries about its flagship product, it’s no wonder that Zuckerberg wanted to rebrand. By why “Meta?”

Etymologically, the prefix meta is a “word-forming element of Greek origin meaning 1. ‘after, behind; among, between,’ 2. ‘changed, altered,’ 3. ‘higher, beyond’,” which has produced a host of common terms, such as metaphysics, metaphor, metabolism, meteor, and so on, and so in this case it might as well represent “metastasizing metadata.”

For Facebook, however, one of the advantages of the word “Meta” is that it is an already ubiquitous (and even trending) term/prefix. Picking a semi-generic term functions to camouflage search results due to algorithmic confusion (e.g., Google’s transformation into the ultra-generic “Alphabet”). In this, Zuckerberg and company seem to have overshot insofar as it turns out that there is already a computer company called “Meta.”

But the name change goes deeper. For a while now, Zuckerberg has been pitching Facebook’s transition into the “metaverse.” A term which at first pass (meta + [uni]verse) suggests a digital “otherworld” or perhaps a hypercapitalist afterlife. 

In what follows, I’ll explore the meaning and context of the metaverse. It matters because, if you are reading this virtual blog post, you are in some sense already living through a dystopia into which Zuckerberg and company, if they have it their will, will drag you even deeper. Follow me over the fold for further elaboration.

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A Folktale of Disenchantment: A Small Research Note

 

 

I was looking for something else and stumbled on a German folktale fragment recorded by Adalbert Kuhn and F. L. W. Schwartz in 1848 that basically puts disenchantment in folkloric form.

It is very short. Loosely/hastily translated from the German it reads:

“Now there is no more magic (Zauberei) or witchcraft (Hexerei). This is because the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses cannot be used any longer. It was these books that meticulously inscribed and recorded all witchcraft, magic, and incantations (Besprechung). These two books are sealed in Wittenberg and they are exhibited as curiosities, but cannot be borrowed.”

I’m posting it here as a small research note. One of my arguments in The Myth of Disenchantment is that the story of magic’s departure has a long history in folktales themselves. For example, as I discuss, Chaucer, The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe (ca. 1380–1400) already says that the land was once full of fairy enchantment, but by the fourteenth century, nobody could see the elves anymore.

(Continue reading for a little more on the subject of fairytales of disenchantment)

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A note on the dating of Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation”

 

2MaxWeber2.JPGHaving recently taught Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” (Wissenschaft als Beruf), I noticed that in their response essays many of my students were unsure about when he gave this famous lecture. Some of the students dated the lecture to 1918 and others to 1917. They aren’t alone in this perplexity as one sees both 1917 and 1918 in the English scholarship (especially among non-specialists). Plus on Facebook I’ve now seen two different discussions among colleagues as to the authoritative date. So I’d like to weigh in.

When I wrote The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, I also worried about the exact dating as I was attempting to juxtapose occult Germany/Switzerland with Weber’s most famous account of disenchantment.

On the side of the 1918 date, Marianne Weber suggests that the lecture was delivered in 1918 and published in 1919.[i] Similarly, the most widely read translation of “Science as a Vocation” (Gerth and Mills) also gives the 1918 date.[ii] But this dating is incorrect.

The scholar Wolfgang Mommsen found an article in the Munich Neueste Nachrichten newpaper from 1917 that clearly dates the “Science as a Vocation” lecture to November 7, 1917.[iii] Similarly, we have on record a letter (to Marianne Weber) from Frithjof Noack who attended the lecture and dates it to early November 1917.

On the basis of this textual evidence the consensus seems to be that Max Weber delivered “Science as a Vocation” in 1917. It was then first published in printed form in 1919. Hence, the authoritative version of Max Weber’s works (Max-Weber-Gesamtausgabe) also gives 1917 as the date of delivery and 1919 as the date of publication. The November 7 date also appears in Joachim Radkau’s recent biography.[iv]

So consider the matter settled.

PS. On a personal note this is part of why I am thrilled to be able to give a lecture on “Science as a Vocation” and Weber’s notion of disenchantment in Munich this fall, as part of the centenary celebration of his famous lecture.

Click continue reading for the references.

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A Postmortem on Postmodernism

[Back in 2014, I organized a workshop here at Williams College on Theory After Postmodernism. Having gotten The Myth of Disenchantment off my desk, I’ve returned to my manuscript project (working title "Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism") which directly focuses on that subject. Although my presentation from the workshop probably won’t make it into the new manuscript, I thought my opening remarks were worth posting here for those interested. Posted July 2017]

In Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The crisis of European culture), the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz described what he saw as a catastrophe afflicting European intellectual and cultural life, and he argued that global capitalism, shallow materialism, and conflicting nationalisms had produced an ethical vacuum. Moreover, he faulted the European philosophical academy for its inability to produce a sufficiently robust moral philosophy to resist the relativizing onslaught. Strikingly, Pannwitz suggested that this collective zeitgeist had spawned a new type of person, stating: “The postmodern man is an encrusted mollusk, a happy medium of decadent and barbarian swarming out from the natal whirlpool of the grand decadence of the radical revolution of European nihilism.” While the prose is rather florid, Pannwitz might seem to be describing our contemporary epoch, especially by connecting the postmodern with nihilism and a pervasive ethical disaster, and it is not hard to find thinkers who use similar terms to describe the current era as being in a “postmodern crisis.”[i]

The problem is that Pannwitz wrote this account in 1917, not 1987, much less 2007. The appearance of this text and even its term postmodern almost a century ago allows us to see that the postmodern condition is far from new. Nor was Pannwitz the only one. The first English book with “Postmodernism” in its title came out in 1926. Indeed, like the almost imperceptible tremors that anticipate a major earthquake, tantalizing references to the “postmodern” or “postmodernists” (Sp. postmodernista) began appearing more than a half century before the term would attain common currency in the 1970s.[ii]

Criticizingpostmodernism” is far from novel. On strictly philological grounds, what these examples show is that the term “postmodern” became lexically available shortly after 1901 when variants on the term “pre-modern” appeared and came into common usage in a number of European linguistic repertoires.[iii] By becoming the quintessential periodization, “modernity” was read as a fundamental rupture from the past, but accordingly it became possible to imagine its future eclipse.

I have another project [“The Myth of Disenchantment”] that challenges notions of “modernity” as rupture,[iv] but what I’d like to do this morning is talk about the function of “postmodernism” in the contemporary Euro-American academy. So while you eat your bagels and drink your coffee, I want to warm up our workshop by sorting through a host of terminology—from deconstruction to poststructuralism to postmodernism and then gesturing toward a simple argument—that no matter how you consider it, the “postmodern” period is over and the central theoretical commitments we associate with “postmodernism” have collapsed. In this respect, I’d like to begin with an autopsy to figure out what postmodernism was, which should help us think about where we should be heading.

[To read more, follow me over the fold]

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“Arrival” of the Sinosphere or the Political Unconscious of Space Invaders

 

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A few weeks ago, I sat down with my buddy Christian Thorne and my delightful wife Dalena Storm to watch “Arrival” (2016). We discussed the movie afterwards and Christian encouraged me to write up my first impressions, so this is meant to be a light post in which I interrogate a movie for its implicit politics. Basically, the kind of thing I say about a movie after a few beers (sorry I’m a total critical theory nerd). Warning: Spoilers.

For all the buzz about the philosophy of language in “Arrival,” the film’s politics have been little discussed. Part of this might be because they are hard to parse. I see this as due to the fact that most “first contact” Science Fiction can be sorted into three different master themes—alien invasion, space ethnography, or stellar revelation—and while “Arrival” is closest to the third, it actually passes through all three. So in what follows I’ll map out the latent politics of different sub-genres of first-contact science fiction and then use that to explore the film’s political unconscious.

If you are curious, follow me over the fold…

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The Myth of Disenchantment Errata

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The proud author with his advance copy!

The new book–The Myth of Disenchantment–is hot off the press and it looks awesome! Order your copy here (or here in the UK). I’m totally enthralled with the cover image by the excellent Alex Gross and have wonderful things to say about the whole process of publishing with the University of Chicago Press. But there was a small miscommunication during the copyediting phase and some of my corrections never got input. Plus I missed some things (mea culpa).  I’m going to use this page to track errata and typos. I haven’t caught all of them yet. So I plan to amend the list periodically.

UPDATE: The press contacted me to say that a new print run was upcoming and that these typos will be corrected! I’m delighted these errors will be fixed (and I’m extra thrilled at the book’s sales so far). But I’m sure the list I sent the press of typos wasn’t exhaustive. So do please let me know if you catch other errors.

Masterlist after the jump

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Positivism and Magical Realism

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Otto Dix “The Seven Deadly Sins” 1933- crop

[Opening Parenthetical: There were no entries on this blog in 2016 and readers may imagine that I’ve gone into hibernation. But 2016 was a crazy year both professionally and personally. Much of my time was spent finishing my new book, The Myth of Disenchantment, forthcoming May 2017 (order on Amazon here). The energy I usually reserve for blogging was mostly spent on Facebook posting about the shit-show that was the 2016 US election. On a personal note there were a few too many deaths and political disasters last year, but the shining ray of light in the dark-cloud of 2016 was my marriage to the ever-delightful Dalena Storm.

In the process of finalizing the book, I had to do a lot of trimming and one of the things left on the cutting room floor was a short section about the connection between the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivism (or Logical Empiricism) and the artistic movement known as “magical realism.” The connection is interesting, but much less robust than the link between famous Positivists, magic, and paranormal research that takes up the chapter. Still I figured some readers might find it interesting as an oddity in the history of philosophy. So it is reproduced here as a small research note.]

Follow across the fold if you are interested.  Continue reading

The Force of Secrecy: Spoilers, Neo-Liberalism, and “The Force Awakens”

star-wars-force-awakens-spoilersIn his commentary on Euclid’s elements (roughly 320 CE), Pappus of Alexandria recounts the strange case of a Pythagorean who was drowned for what amounts to giving a spoiler. It was said that a wayward mathematician of the Pythagorean society shared the Pythagoreans’ most important and secret teaching – that there was such a thing as irrational numbers (like the square root of two) – and paid for the revelation of this confidence with his life.[i] Similarly, in Japan the punctuation used in the Confucian Classics was treated as a form of secret lore, and the Kiyohara and Nakahara noble families guarded closely their readings of the texts for hundreds of years. In so doing, they accrued a prestige nearly equivalent to being the descendants of Confucius. In 1599 Fujiwara Seika exposed this secret for the first time and freely taught his contemporaries the key to the texts. In his case the effect was almost the reverse of that of the unfortunate Pythagorean. Fujiwara wasn’t murdered, but by giving spoilers he effectively cheapened the original secret. After the secret of how to parse the sentences of The Analects was widely known, it became a matter of mere triviality, thereby dooming the formerly prestigious secret tradition to irrelevance and obscurity.[ii]

Nor are these the only examples of societies rooted in secrecy. One can think of numerous groups – from Scientologists to Freemasons to various criminal societies – that build their social cohesion around a shared secret and which have historically threatened punishment for those who disclose these secrets to the world at large.

Although by no means as serious, contemporary Anglophone culture seems to be somewhat united around a prohibition concerning spoilers to “The Force Awakens” (Star Wars Episode VII) with fans texting what are probably joke death threats to those who break this particular covenant without warning. I saw the movie on Friday, and these are my first impressions. They amount to trying my hand at assessing the film’s marketing campaign, and particular the contradictions of its anti-spoiler component.

Please follow me across the fold for some spoilers… more importantly, I’ll be using the sociologist Georg Simmel as a stepping off point to talk about the secrecy/spoilers in global marketing and to assess the film’s implicit politics. Again: WARNING, THERE ARE SPOILERS. Read only if you have been initiated into this secret society or if you think its holy secret is (blasphemy!) trivial.

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