Metamodernism and Its Premodern Forebear

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.

A Few Thoughts on Jason Josephson-Storm’s Metamodernism: The Life and Death of the Christian use of Worldview” by Derrick Peterson
After Metamodernism” by Joseph Minich
After Metamodern Progenitors and Progeny” by Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm

After participating for most of his career in the anarchic thrill of postmodern deconstruction, Jason Josephson Storm has come to see the need to build anew in the space that such destruction has cleared. His current book, Metamodernism: The Future of Theory, is offered as something of a programmatic text for this hopeful effort into which he wishes to invite his colleagues in the various disciplines typically known collectively as “the humanities.”  The proposal he announces is “apocalyptic,” in the sense that it arises in the later days of the crisis into which any sentient observer would admit the humanities have fallen, but at the same time it is “revolutionary,” not just proclaiming the end of something but heralding the beginning of something new.

Confessing the difficulties that inevitably beset the attempt to find a label that can truly be said to fit cultural phenomena or intellectual movements, Storm names as his target in this book “postmodernism,” which he identifies more or less with five different philosophical positions: 1) antirealism; 2) an emphasis on endings; 3) an extreme version of the linguistic turn; 4) skepticism; and 5) ethical relativism.  Taking his cue from deconstruction, or perhaps even more fundamentally from Hegelian dialectic, Storm—philosophizing, as his name would indicate, “with lightning”—quite cleverly affirms each of these positions, and then proceeds to turn them against themselves, showing how, for example, genuine skepticism, which aspires to doubt everything, must inevitably learn to doubt its own doubt.  The point in such a dialectical critique is not, it must be emphasized, to dismantle postmodernism so that we may return, perhaps chastened but more confident and self-aware, to the certainties that constitute modern thought.  Even less is it simply to absolutize the negativity of postmodernism, so that we end up in the sterility of an utter void, and, at least as far as the humanities go (to say nothing of our daily lives), to satisfy ourselves with the scholarly pursuit of increasingly minuscule objects that make no “grand” claim to any sort of meaning.  Instead, the point is to move beyond both modernism and postmodernism at once, overcoming them both from within in much the same way that Nietzsche sought to overcome the nihilism of weakness that he believed was overtaking Europe in the late nineteenth century. The point, to be more precise, is to outline a new kind of theory (rather than just a new theory), which Storm calls “metamodernism.”

It is hard to know which is more astonishing, the ambition of the book or the seemingly infinite resources Storm effortlessly draws on to tackle the task he has set for himself.  It is rare to find a scholar with such competence and internal freedom, able to bring long-held notions into the light, not necessarily just to expose hidden flaws but, more positively, to reconsider things in a fundamental way and to retain only what is genuinely worthwhile.

But there is one question that arises right at the outset of the project, namely, whether and in what sense the approach to theory Storm sketches out in this book is in fact new and revolutionary. The point in raising this question is not simply to discredit the argument or deflate the pretensions of the claims Storm is making but, as I hope to explain, concerns the substance of the matter directly. Storm is devastating in his characterizing of the various stages of the postmodern critique of modernity and modernism, which have unfolded since the latter half of the twentieth century, typically under the banner of some sort of “Turn.”  But his account does not acknowledge that there has been a strong critique of modernity that has never claimed for itself the title of “postmodern,” and has none of the five features Storm has loosely grouped under this title.  This current, which for a variety of very good reasons has never sought to give itself any particular title, may be described, for the sake of a helpful contrast, as “pre-modernism.”  This current, which ought more fittingly (since it is certainly not defined by its relation to modernity and is not after all principally a temporal movement) to be called perhaps simply “the Western tradition,” or more provocatively “the Catholic tradition,” was critical of modernity “before it was cool,” to use the popular expression.  In fact—and the paradox is intended—it may be said that this tradition, precisely as a tradition, has always, and from the very beginning, been critical of modernity.  

By “Catholic tradition,” I mean the Christian synthesis, achieved in the reality of history, of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, the aspiration (in principle, however much the principle has been betrayed in practice) to receive and affirm whatever is good, true, and beautiful wherever it may be found and from whomever it may be received, as the cosmos is brought in and through time into the body of Christ.  This synthesis is an ongoing mission, but it is not essentially revolutionary because it takes its starting point as authoritatively given and understands its openness to the other as a fruit arising from deepening its obedient reception of its starting point—rather than by denying it has a starting point and constantly substituting for it something new. In other words, this tradition affirms that the universal is best reached through the particular (hence: catholic) rather than by eliminating the particularity of the particular (or more honestly put, claiming to eliminate that particularity, which can never be eliminated in fact and so always tends to return surreptitiously).

This mission has amassed an intellectual treasure of extraordinary proportions, which, far from being a museum of dead artifacts that can be exhaustively catalogued, has arguably never been, and never will be, fully understood by any individual.  It is a treasure semper inveniendus (“always to be discovered anew”), as it were.  Inspecting this treasure, one sees a number of things that may be said to anticipate almost every aspect of Storm’s metamodernism.  The most obvious example is the recovery of virtue ethics that he proposes, centered on a notion of “eudaimonia”; this may be given an “East Asian” twist, as Storm observes, but it nevertheless resonates quite straightforwardly with the traditional view. More subtly, Storm seeks to avoid “essentialism”—that is, the idea that there is a “fixed essence” to things like art or religion, which appears exactly the same in every context—without falling into a now rather tedious postmodern “anti-essentialism.” 

The traditional notion of analogy achieves this, and arguably in a more satisfying way than the solution Storm proposes.  Analogy beats a path between both univocity (modern “essentialism”) and pure equivocity (postmodern “anti-essentialism”) by insisting that being is radically diverse, even while it remains one, because that diversity is not opposed to unity: there are no two things simply alike, because each thing that is always is according to a diverse mode, and so its unity is shot through with difference from the ground up.  Similarly, one familiar with the classical tradition knows that the supposition that something can be real only as “mind-independent” is a modern confusion: Plato (to take an obvious case, but one could go back to Heraclitus and Parmenides before him) understood that reality is essentially mind-related, and this notion was a bedrock foundation to the Christian neoplatonism that constitutes the heart of the Western soul.  Moreover, Storm’s “process ontology” has a forerunner in the new privileging of the category of relation in Thomistic metaphysics (admittedly only really developed in the twentieth century) over and above Aristotelian substantialism, and Storm’s “zetetic abduction”—the notion that we do not ever simply come to a definitive conclusion in our thinking, but every result ought to be taken as a new beginning and every insight as a revelation of how much more there is to understand—has a pre-resonance in Augustine’s exhortation, “Let us therefore so seek as if we should find, and so find as if we were about to seek.” 

Now, to say it again, the point in claiming that these various insights and proposals are not altogether new is not to “show up” Storm and undermine his project.  In a sense, it can reinforce and encourage that project by revealing that it has an old ally, a premodern forerunner.  But this ancient tradition also allows a different, and it seems to me ultimately more promising, way into some of the basic notions Storm proposes. For instance, as many have observed regarding Hegel (starting already with his old roommate Schelling), the negating of a negation is not the same thing as affirming what is positive, even if the dialectic appears to cover similar ground.  Positivity as result is actually profoundly different from positivity as archē (beginning). To take a specific example, doubting one’s universal doubt, as Storm’s metamodernism proposes, is not enough to open one up beyond radical skepticism, because this self-destroying doubt still stands ultimately under the banner of the negative.

One still holds oneself back from giving assent, even if it is in this case assent to one’s endeavor to doubt everything.  Such an endlessly recursive skepticism can be fruitfully transformed only by beginning with what is positive precisely as positive by receiving the tradition that is given to one as a tradition, which is ultimately to say: as a gift.  With respect to this grateful reception, doubting even one’s doubt can help put one in a condition of docility that might, in fact, truly open up to an affirmative reception of what is given; in this way, even if it cannot be ultimate, doubting doubt can be genuinely useful. The contribution that Storm’s metamodernism promises to make, I submit, can be most fruitful if taken up within a much more ancient current, which would enable us to face the general human task of resisting the life-denying reductions of both modernity and postmodernity.

D.C. Schindler is Professor of Metaphysics and Anthropology at the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University of American, in Washington, D.C.  He is the author of many books, including Freedom From Reality: On the Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty (Notre Dame, 2017), translator from French and German of works in philosophy, theology, and poetry, and an editor of Communio: International Catholic Review.  His work has been translated into five languages.


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