After Metamodernism

This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2022 print edtion of Ad Fontes. It is part of a sympoisum on Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm’s book Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (University of Chicago Press 2021). The other essays can be found below.

Metamodernism and Its Premodern Forebear” by D.C. Schindler
A Few Thoughts on Jason Josephson-Storm’s Metamodernism: The Life and Death of the Christian use of Worldview” by Derrick Peterson
After Metamodern Progenitors and Progeny” by Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm

I must admit, for better or worse, that I love intellectually dramatic projects. In a world of endless academic compartmentalization, it is refreshing to encounter a monograph that actually says something big (indeed, several such things!). Still more impressive is that the book does not sacrifice the specific for the general. Jason A. Josephson Storm demonstrates comprehensive awareness of the state of the question in each of the disciplines addressed. If one might pardon a phallocentrism, a project like this requires testicular fortitude—what the generations before Z called “balls” (even if only the process social kind, on which…).

Certainly one of the central claims in Metamodernism is that the master disciplinary objects of the human sciences (religion, art, society, etc.) can be clarified if we come to understand that each is not a fixed and transhistorical entity but rather possesses an irreducibly temporal quality. To talk about religion intelligibly is always, as when identifying a biological “kind,” to draw boundaries which could be drawn otherwise. One might also say that boundaries could have been drawn otherwise, since these ways of understanding are largely inherited. It can be a bit disorienting to realize just how little our ancestors thought in terms of the contemporary category of “religion” (or its analogues), but crucially, this does not mean that such notions are mere social constructions or are ultimately arbitrary. Stated more precisely, there is an account of social construction that could never be described as mere, and which is an irreducible aspect of any full account of reflexive human self-understanding and action. Just as the boundaries drawn by biologists are not arbitrary (even if they could be drawn otherwise), so human self-understanding generally arises from a concrete circumstance which elicits a particular discursive approach to the world. This approach is continually justified precisely because the world yields some understanding to it. It is true that there are important conversations to be had about the role that power plays in such construction, but human interpretation is demonstrably and inescapably more than a deliverance of power.

Storm’s discussion of realism helps set the stage for how we can make greater sense of this. The realism/antirealism debate (i.e. whether we can know anything mind-independent, and a cluster of like queries) has been fraught with mutual projection, and our author brings clarity to the discussion to argue for a more nuanced grasp of what precisely we mean by “real.” Often left hanging as a loose signifier, Storm argues that we only really get concrete in a discussion of reality if we know what we’re contrasting “the real” with. In any case, the payoff is that the world really yields to many discourses, as each way of speaking about it generates insight and orientation. And yet, such plural realism renders an account of translation urgent. The book is especially insightful, therefore, in the discussion of the possibility of interpretation (one might even say persuasion)—showing that different “realities” can communicate with one another, even if “the other” always exceeds our approximate grasp.

In all of the above, Storm details a tension between modern and postmodern theory and seeks to transcend each with metamodernism, giving theory a different footing not by discovering perfect solutions, but rather by framing the questions (and therefore acquiring answers) that are demonstrably superior in their explanatory power and which also escape the inevitable antinomies of contemporary discourse. But, and this is perhaps the chief virtue of the book, Storm recognizes that this is no purely academic affair. The solution to the problem of wrongheaded theory cannot be simply more theory. Rather, behind theories are theorizers— persons who are not reducible to their interpretations and utterances. And to fail to see this directly is to fail to understand precisely how theory works. In point of fact, the question of value—indeed, the question of virtue (!)—is essential to freeing up progress in the human sciences. Epistemologically, this looks like a “way of repentance” that rests content in the humble and provisional knowing of finite pilgrims, rather than demanding artificially the lofty vantage of angels (the author does not quite put it that way). Pragmatically, this requires being self-conscious about the precise values that shape one’s project, but not—as per the emphasis on humility—as a matter of declared insistence. Rather, bringing the question of values to our conscious awareness allows us to sharpen one another into greater wisdom.

The virtues of this book are many. To read it is an education in itself, and each of Storm’s general judgments strikes this particular reader as full of precisely the kind of wisdom, creativity, concreteness, and (most preciously) openness of soul that wins through magnanimous persuasion. Responding to such a work in such a limited space leaves me with the difficult task of identifying a “main” line of response. Several contenders present themselves. On the one hand, I’d love to suggest that almost all of our author’s ideas seem to have pre-modern precedent. To this reader, the “future of theory” looks very much like a new performance of an old chant in a somewhat different style. Nevertheless, truth is no team-sport. Interested readers will want to know that the philosophical writing of W. Norris Clarke, Stephen R.L. Clark, and our own panel’s D.C. Schindler, would go a long way toward correcting frequent projections upon pre-Renaissance thought (which is not to say Storm’s). Nevertheless, it remains the case that any such return is still a fresh act of creation. Appropriated by the same muse, our circumstances are different, and the implications of an overlapping grammar will not be precisely the same as our intellectual ancestors. But, more importantly, the humanistic journey of thought since the Renaissance cannot be reduced to a detour.

Many people who emphasize the recovery of pre-modern philosophy understand the whole trajectory of post-Renaissance thought as fraught with error and illusion such that philosophical maturity involves “starting over again” in some crucial respect (whether in the mode of corrected presuppositions or in the mode of different institutional commitments— outsourcing one’s judgments to this or that hive-mind). Indeed, it is remarkable just how much philosophical output is retroactive justification (even if persuasive on the face of it) of what one is attached to for pre-discursive reasons. William Bartley diagnosed this as the modern tendency toward a “retreat to commitment.” We all tend (in our own way) toward cultishness in knowledge, and it is especially here that the questions of wisdom and virtue come to the forefront. Let us consider this.

The subtitle of the book is The Future of Theory. In the same vein, here I want to ask what comes “after” metamodernism. Storm, as noted above, is not simply trying to replace bad theory with better theory. He is dealing with persons, and the solutions to our quandaries require growing in our values and our goals, and therefore in our vantage point. I agree. But I am left wondering who is adequate to the task. Who can discern what will aid humans toward maturity, factoring in all their weaknesses, and actually motivate the world of discourse to something beyond its contemporary self-consumptive impasse? We all know that this needs to be done. Some theorists are better at seeing the theoretical problems (our author excels here). A few can see the moral problems (our author is downright prophetic here). And we can even piece together what sort of ship is needed to get us sailing in the right direction (a humility sail, a clarity sail, etc). But a ship cannot move without wind. Knowing the way and moving through it are two different things. And I am left wondering how academic communities help “form persons” who take on this pilgrimage. In many respects, the current crisis is ultimately one of motivation.

This is not a trivial concern. No “way” is without its parodies and idols, and it is wisdom which discerns between what will end in the very flourishing that Storm finds orienting, and what only superficially gets us there through the kind of feigned aloofness that obscures its own hidden tyrannies. Put more simply, a lot of people think they are after human flourishing when they aren’t.

And it is precisely here that I think we need to feel the pain. Who among us is wise? In a moment of globalized existential crisis, how does one distinguish clarity and cult? Hungry and agitating for orientation in a world of suffocating complexity, we are especially tempted toward projects which “tie it all together” for us. And it is here that I am cautious of any mere return to a previous arrangement, even one as venerable as that outlined by D.C. Schindler in these pages. Even if much of what Storm writes can be discovered in previous sources, these do not change our concrete intellectual situation. Moreover, such mere conservatisms do not actually escape the existential quandary of contemporary discourse, because (again) our quandary is more than theoretical.

A different account of the last half millennium is available, however. Despite many of the false binaries that we have needed to transcend, the shift in accent toward the human sciences reflects a shift of focus toward the concreteness of human life. And yet it is a shift authorized, in its own way, by the developing grasp of the centrality of persons in medieval thought. This shift brings its liabilities and characteristic tendencies to forgetfulness, but it also brings its fruit and vantage points. Dostoyevsky is not reducible to pieces that came before him. And yet the metamodern could also be called the philosophical grandchild of a trajectory contained in premodernity. In my judgment, our spiritual and intellectual conditions are best captured by C.S. Lewis in Miracles. Interpreting the decline of older philosophical grammar, Lewis writes that in our time,

“Plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before. We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it. There may be two explanations for this. It might be that humanity, in rebelling against tradition and authority, has made a ghastly mistake… On the other hand, it may be that the Power which rules our species is at this moment carrying out a daring experiment. Could it be intended that the whole mass of the people should now move forward and occupy for themselves those heights which were once reserved only for the sages?… If so, our present blunderings would be but growing pains. But let us make no mistake about our necessities. If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying a tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her/himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go: to stay here is death.” (66-7)

If going back is impossible, the choice between life and death is the choice between remaining as we are and dying or maturing and living. And yet the “way of repentance” this requires involves, I suspect, a greater death than we have fully internalized, for we are (all of us) more pathological, ideological, and reductive of others than we realize. And ironically, it is precisely because a search for common (universal) understanding is implied here that it is clear that we must continue to die. For late modern humans, it is precisely this tacit search that makes clear that none of us has arrived. All in some fog, who will lead us? Persons, we insist, ultimately follow other persons. Perhaps (like Levinas’ Messiah) our needed exemplar is the sort that never arrives. But recognizing our need perhaps renders the search for one nodal point plausible— a metaphysical, moral, and temporal lighthouse that gathers all realities into a unity. Perhaps, moreover, it is possible to claim the centrality of some One without hubris or manipulation—indeed, precisely as freedom’s own arrival.

Joseph Minich (PhD, University of Texas at Dallas) is a Teaching Fellow with The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence (The Davenant Press, 2018), and co-host of the Pilgrim Faith Podcast. He lives in Texas with his wife and children.


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