“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.

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I wrote the first few chapters not long after our conversation in 2011, and a few years later I organized a conference on “Theory After Postmodernism” here at Williams. But I shelved the project in order to write a very different book about the history of the Human Sciences. For a time, I thought the two were connected-—since in that one I was trying to undo modernity and this began by trying to undo postmodernism—but they quickly diverged. This book remained in my thoughts, however, throughout that process.

But in many ways, I feel as though I have been preparing for this project for my whole life. My parents are both analytic philosophers. I started reading continental philosophy in middle school (I was seriously a nerd and I was going to a Francophone school, which made that easier). At thirteen I wrote my first long-form paper on Nietzsche. In college, I took courses widely in analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, Greek philosophy, as well as South Asian and East Asian philosophical traditions (which were my real passion). As a graduate student in Cambridge (USA), Oxford (UK), Paris, and Palo Alto, I made pilgrimages to lectures by such “postmodern” luminaries as Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, René Girard, Bruno Latour, Richard Rorty, Cornel West, and Slavoj Žižek, among many others. I wrote a dissertation about Japanese thought but in a Foucauldian mode under the tutelage of Bernard Faure (who had been Foucault’s translator in Japan). I subsequently went to Germany where I studied the foundations of German social thought with significant scholars of Hegel, Max Weber, Reinhart Koselleck, Niklas Luhmann, and the Frankfurt School. All that is to say, I did my tour in the trenches of postmodern theory.

But in conversations with colleagues at Williams College (and a host of other institutions in Europe and East Asia where I gave talks and/or had sabbaticals) I became convinced that we needed a new model. When I began this project almost a decade ago, the writing on the wall about postmodernism’s demise was already clear, and I had high hopes of finding or cobbling together an alternative rooted in one or more preexisting movements. But the more I researched and the more I investigated the putative alternatives, the more disillusioned I became with them (in part because they often too quickly dismissed postmodernism without actually working through it). I realized that I couldn’t find what I was looking for elsewhere. What I was looking for was something new, and so I conceived the idea of “Metamodernism.”

Fascinating. In a nutshell, can you give us a quick summary of the most important arguments in the book?

I never worked out a good “elevator pitch” or quick summary for the book because it makes multiple big arguments; but basically, Metamodernism is a solution to the problems of critique that doesn’t abandon critique. It also argues that if we want to change society, we need to understand it better (and aims to provide techniques and models in order to do that better). It then reevaluates the very meaning of value and provides a positive project for the human sciences as a way of life directed toward multispecies flourishing.

Put differently, the book is an attempt to provide an ambitious defense and systematic reappraisal of the human sciences (humanities + social sciences) in two grand areas—a revaluation of values and a profound reorientation toward our basic subject matter. The stakes for all scholars in the humanities and social sciences couldn’t be bigger.

The book is an attempt to provide an ambitious defense and systematic reappraisal of the human sciences (humanities + social sciences) in two grand areas—a revaluation of values and a profound reorientation toward our basic subject matter. The stakes for all scholars in the humanities and social sciences couldn’t be bigger.

In the first case, the book argues against many different strategies for legitimating the purpose of the human sciences. Against attempts to justify the academy and our research in terms of the job market, vague notions of cultural progress, or anemic accounts of “critical thinking,” I argue that the human sciences could be better undertaken as a way of life directed toward compassion and multispecies flourishing. Combining a form of virtue ethics with critical theory, I argue that if you want to live a life worth having lived, and if you can recognize that others want to do the same, this will transform your view of not only your personal habits, but the whole scholarly enterprise.

In the second case, the bulk of the book addresses fundamental issues in the human sciences aiming to provide a fresh epistemology, ontology, and semiotics that should be generative for work across a range of disciplines. This is because, whether they are aware of it or not, I think most scholars in a range of disciplines need epistemology, ethics (or at least an intellectual goal), a notion of meaning, and a set of research methods for studying social kinds.

This book begins with a deconstructive dojo and as such is the first full-length work to line up the various critiques of master-categories (“religion,” “science,” “art,” “race,” etcetera) and trace out their affinities and shared conceptual roots. But my project is not merely demolition work. I argue that if all these critiques addressed are granted, they actually tell us something fundamental about the social world and the nature of the categories themselves. The book works through and out the other side of the critiques suggesting they imply a Process Social Ontology, which I elaborate and argue includes temporary zones of stability called “social kinds.” This is in effect a new theory of what society is (applicable not just to humans but also other social non-human animals) and how to study it.

The book also addresses the semiotic composition of social kinds, which leads us to philosophy of language. I argue that too much previous theorizing has been modeled on human language production. Hylosemiotics—an alternative, naturalized, material semiotics—explores not only how the world functions in signs but also how human sign-making activities are on a continuum with animal and plant communication. I put forth a new theory of meaning as inference and argue that sentient beings interpret both voluntary and involuntary signs, which I address further in the book. All that is to say, the core of this monograph is an attempt to articulate the implications of this social ontology and semiotics for scholarship across the human sciences.

And who is the intended audience for this book? You mention scholars of social sciences specifically, but is it for other readers as well?

Yes, this book is intended for all readers, though my ideal reader is probably a scholar or graduate student in the human sciences who has a research project they are passionate about, so that they might make practical use of the theoretical tools provided in the book. To make this work more widely accessible, I intentionally avoided jargon, obfuscation, and, well, bullshit. It is still an academic book, and the prose is dense, so careless skimming should be avoided. For a reader to get the most benefit, the book must be read carefully, with the hermeneutics of charity, and with resistance to disciplinary territorialism. But I hope it will reward that effort.

My ideal reader is probably a scholar or graduate student in the human sciences who has a research project they are passionate about…. To make this work more widely accessible, I intentionally avoided jargon, obfuscation, and, well, bullshit…. For a reader to get the most benefit, the book must be read carefully, with the hermeneutics of charity, and with resistance to disciplinary territorialism.

Was there anything you had to leave out of the book?

Yes. I had to leave out a lot. The manuscript as originally written was much too long for conventional publishing standards, which seems to always be my problem. I extensively trimmed the chapters and moved a lot of my debate with secondary scholarship into the notes. The main text of this book is just the tip of the iceberg; the endnotes are heavily interwoven with diverse secondary literature in varied philosophical traditions and academic disciplines in multiple languages.

Preparing the monograph for publication also resulted in a number of orphaned chapters on topics such as power, causation, Adorno, Derrida, Foucault, Hegel, Quine, and the history of postmodernism. I will likely publish some of these separately.

Are there any misconceptions about the book or its topics you’d like to clear up?

I think when people see the title, they often assume that the book is going to be clarifying some preexisting thing known as “Metamodernism.” But while I’m not the first person to use the term, only a handful of significant theorists have used “Metamodernism” previously. I discuss previous usages in the book, but with all respect to other scholars and what they have characterized as Metamodern, I’m not trying to describe Metamodernism so much as produce it. Basically, I’m calling for a paradigm shift and trying to provide such with a new philosophical foundation.

To explain, the term “postmodernism” (among other things) has often been used to describe a particular scholarly paradigm or model. In this book, I dialectically work through postmodernism and modernism alike to try and suggest a new way to do scholarship that recoups the best of both preceding movements while cancelling out or transcending their various impasses. At the end of this process, we get “Metamodernism.”

The “meta-” prefix thus primarily suggests a higher- or second-order position beyond (post)modernism. Put differently, the main emphasis in Metamodernism should be on this “meta” and not on “modernism.”

That said, I don’t presume that readers must care about the meaning of postmodernism other than as a springboard for serious theorizing. Metamodernism is not an argument rooted in the authority of particular philosophical progenitors; nor is it an attempt to describe an already inchoate moment. It is rather an exercise of first-order theorizing that should stand on its own.

Were there any alternative titles you considered?

I used to joke that the title was “Confessions of a Recovering Postmodernist,” which captured something of the feeling of the book and my reasons for writing it, although I never seriously considered that as a title.

The official working title for most of the manuscript’s history was “Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory After Postmodernism.”  It was a reference to a pair of quotes:

“Once autonomous reason has failed…philosophy falls into a crisis from which there is no escape: the absolute disruption (‪絶対分裂) of being torn to pieces by antimonies and cast into the pit of contradictions.”

Tanabe Hajime, Zangedō to shite no tetsugaku

“[Spirit] obtains its truth only when, in its absolute disruption (absoluten Zerrissenheit), it finds itself.”

-G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes

But people kept thinking it was a Hegel or Tanabe book and as much as I was inspired by these thinkers that wasn’t what I had in mind.

I only came to the term “Metamodernism” quite late. I wanted an inspirational project name, and I also wanted to avoid being ideological or promoting another new “-ism.” But, in sharing drafts with colleagues, people kept referring to the project as an example of “post- postmodernism,” which frankly made me throw up in my mouth. So I knew I needed an “-ism” and thinking especially about Moyo Okediji’s work, I came to the term “Metamodernism.”

Are you working on anything now?

I’m working on a new book about power. Scholars frequently describe their research in terms of power. Indeed, evocations of power are extensive—and even nearly omnipresent—across the humanities and social sciences. But systematic theories of power largely calcified in most academic disciplines in the 1980s and not only are these theories outdated they have led toward paradoxical conclusions. To solve the question of power, I try and do something that sounds even more impossible, which is provide a theory of causation for the Human Sciences (building on the Process Social Ontology articulated in Metamodernism). It turns out that this new causal theory has direct implications for formulating a novel theory of power.

Thank you for your time.

[Order a copy from the press website. You can find podcast interviews and/or read more about the book here]

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