Metamodernism: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism
By Jason Josephson Storm
Work in Progress.
(under contract with the University of Chicago Press)
The various Human Sciences used to presuppose the possibility of intellectual progress. But for decades now, a host of scholars have called into question the universality of the disciplinary objects and their utility as analytic categories. It now seems naïve to presume the existence of the unique categories of “art,” “literature,” or “religion,” much less the possibility of progress or knowledge. Faced with the skeptical arsenal of deconstruction, scholarship was dominated for a time by a kind of poststructuralist poetry rooted in the play of homonyms; and worse, by way of backlash, it has lately been overwhelmed by a wave of radical particularity that is frightened of all generalization. Both are errors. Retreating to the sociological survey, the FMRI, or the archive does not provide a solution in and of itself, but a temporary gesture. As bad as word-play was, to renounce abstraction (as many now seem to be doing) is to abandon communication and to fall into fragmentation.
As I argue, it would be an equally grave error to try and reverse course and retreat into the insincere comforts of a false universalism or realism. There is a temptation in the face of this abyss of meaning to recoil from its edge and to try to reconstruct the master categories, in effect, to answer negation with restoration disguised as redefinition. This would be a fatal mistake. It would result in merely the indefinite deferral of the central problem. Not a minor matter, this dilemma is central to the fate of the academy under the sign of the negative. The decay of master narratives has led to a near universal distrust of universals, while deepening particularity seems to promise nothing but further dissolution. Is there a way forward that rejects both modernist essentialism and postmodernist skepticism? Fortunately, as the world slides out of postmodernity, new possibilities are appearing.
Taking Hegel’s account of the negation of the negationas its inspiration, this monograph works through five problematics associated with postmodernism: 1) anti-realism, 2) disciplinary auto-critiques, 3) poststructuralism and the linguistic turn, 4) a broad climate of skepticism, and 5) ethical nihilism. Working through each of these seriously and dialectically produces something new: 1) metarealism, 2) process social ontology and social kinds, 3) hylosemiotics, 4) Zeteticism and 5) critical virtue ethics. Taken together, these five components form the basis of Metamodern theory.
The argument proceeds as follows: The split between realists and anti-realists organizes a number of polemic conflicts, but members of these putatively rival camps actually share more than they realize. Reconstructing their views shows where realism and anti-realism diverge and where they actually turn into each other. This permits a new theoretical vantage on these debates, Metarealism, which recognizes the existence of multiple modes of the real, including those brought into being by social construction itself. The next part of the book then departs from various skeptical challenges and forms of anti-essentialism to concretely re-theorizes how social construction works.
This is the first full-length work to line up the various critiques of the disciplinary master-categories (religion, science, art, etcetera) and trace out their affinities and shared conceptual roots. It suggests if all these sundry critiques are granted, they actually tell us something fundamental about the mechanisms through which concepts and social categories are produced and maintained. They suggest that the social world should be seen in terms of a Process Social Ontologywith temporary zones of stability called “social kinds.” This amounts to a new theory of society and a new methodology for research in the human sciences.
The monograph then shows how these social kinds are composed semiotically, which leads us to philosophy of language. The problem is 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 (including social kinds) are on a continuum with animal and plant communication. The core of this monograph is an attempt to articulate the implications of this social ontology and semiotics for scholarship across the human sciences.
Finally, the work broadens out to fundamental issues of the relationship between knowledge and value. Skepticism inevitably harbors residual epistemological commitments; its very doubt is propelled by attachments to lost certainties and its own doxa and dogmas. When postmodern skepticism learns to doubt its own propelling beliefs, then it ceases to be skepticism and becomes Zeteticism—an epistemological stance directed toward humble, emancipatory knowledge. Once the value of emancipatory knowledge itself has been defended and once appeals to value-neutrality have been reevaluated, the cynicism and moral outrage associated with postmodernism can be channeled into positive ends, namely, a Critical Virtue Ethicsdirected toward multi-species flourishing, which I call “Revolutionary Happiness.”
Metamodernism represents a major intervention with implications across the humanities and social sciences. It is intended to be a concise prolegomenon to a new research program that will be generative to work in a diversity of fields. If we want to improve society, we need to understand it better. This project aims to establish the groundwork for that kind of work. It is an invitation to engage in epistemological and ethical questions that are relevant to us all, no matter our area of study. Metamodernism provides a way through postmodern skepticism and out the other side, envisioning a brighter future of theory in which new forms of both progress and knowledge can be realized.