Stanely Mushava Literature Today
From Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, monuments of history’s bad guys are in the path of sledgehammer-wielding activists who see them as rallying points for reactionary sentiment. The call has not sat well with resurgent “Nazis” and “rednecks,” but many who fit neither category also oppose Photoshopping history to pacify any afterthought.
This year, a character who is neither colonialist nor confederate flared up her own public art brawl, one just as intense. The Fearless Girl, a sculpture of a young girl in the blast radius of the Charging Bull near Wall Street and Broadway, led some to question the adequacy of a child matador with a waving frock, rather than a grown woman, as a symbol of feminist strength.
While the feminists were at it, a grumpy iconoclast weighed in too: Arturo di Monica, the creator of the Charging Bull. According to The Guardian, the sculptor saw the installation of the Fearless Girl in vulnerable proximity to his bull as an overreach.
He felt that his work, originally purposed to represent optimism at a time of market turmoil, had been wrested out of context.
Oddly, metamodernists — philosophers of art documenting new attitudes and aesthetics in politics and culture — would see optimism and irony pairing just right. The sculpture fits identically into the metamodernist model where “informed naivety” is the dominant sensibility, where the new default is dizzy oscillation between modernist enthusiasm and postmodernist irony.
“This new feeling,” first explained by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in their 2010 essay, “Notes on Metamodernism,” has been proposed as the gravestone for postmodernism. The duo observes that postmodern tendencies of detachment, relativism and irony are being phased out by millennial forms of correspondence that are reviving engagement, affect and storytelling.
Whereas postmodernism largely maintained cynical detachment and pessimistic divestment from grand narratives and global problems, the turbulent 2000s facilitated a new structure of feeling equal to existential threats crawling the world, the civilisational faultlines and the moral failures of capitalism.
Fastening on to the three Greek definitions of “meta” as “with”, “between”, and “beyond”, Vermeleun and van ee Akker, place metamodernism “epistemologically (its handling of knowledge) with modernism and postmodernism, ontologically (its structure of concepts) between modernism and postmodernism, and historically (its period as the dominant cultural sensibility) beyond modernism and postmodernism.”
Yet the new romanticism sitting in the “trends and tendencies across current affairs and contemporary aesthetics” is not a hopelessly innocent one, Rather, one that basks in defiance while being to the limitations. In the essay, Vermeulen and van den Akker detail art works with lofty ideals but missing rungs, so to speak.
“The reason these artists haven’t opted to employ methods and materials better suited to their mission or task is that their intention is not to fulfil it, but to attempt to fulfil it in spite of its ‘unfulfillableness’,” notes the duo.
The Fearless Girl is not a fearless woman or a fiery matador, as feminists would have her signify, precisely to allow the irony of optimism. There is enthusiasm, but one alert to the misanthropic tilting of the setting, one that both pulls a cold calcus and thaws it with sunny optimism.
Seth Abramson explains the metamodernist concept of informed naivety as “a wilful decision to act as though the facts on the ground aren’t the facts on the ground. Informed naivete helps us come up with shockingly fresh ideas. In such instances it’s not that one forgets reality, it’s rather that, informed by reality, one makes a quite conscious decision to temporarily sidestep or even ignore it in service of one’s own mental health and/or the greater good.”
Spirit is not tamed by structure. That is what the little girl staring courageously at the charging beast possesses and any alteration would be a needless variable. That is what Kendrick Lamar, precariously standing at pole with a bull’s eye on his head, is chanting in defiance of the trigger-happy “popo.”
Smug elders who perceive in younger peers a naivety they were only plagued with before blending into the practical order of the world, who brush off zeal to change the world with knowing superchill: “That’s not how the world works, my dear,” are now confronted with a complicated breed of successors.
The “Notes on Metamodernism” duo imagines young artists telling themselves: “‘I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious.”
Postmodernism is associated with the “end of history,” captured by Francis Fukuyama as the neoliberal ship landing on Ararat with Karl Marx and others in its ideological body bag. Such complacent times gelled well with postmodernist “distrust of meta-narratives, the emergence of late capitalism, the fading of historicism and the waning of affect” where modernism had gravitated to “utopism, to (linear) progress, to grand narratives, to Reason, to functionalism and formal purism . . .”
Enter the turbulent millennium, with climate change, the financial crisis, geopolitical fragmentation, political instability, nuclear brinkmanship, populism, xenophobia, the digital revolution as well as its misanthropic nodes of capital, and nothing is quite the same.
New artists respond to the shifts but, emerging out of postmodernist cynicism, they can no longer move with modernist confidence or romantic abandon. Their defiance, desire and deprivation, oscillates like a pendulum between polar extremes, appropriating the insights inheriting contradictions.
Luke Turner’s “Metamodernist Manifesto” sets forth the imperative to “liberate ourselves from the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child” and proposes “a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage.”
Cultural lenses for viewing the world as cynical bystanders and innocuous entertainers have become unsustainable. Artists can no longer push aside the responsibility to be morally invested in the problems of the world. When the art of late modernity self-immolated under its apathy and cynicism, capitalism and state power not only floored the poor but also compromised the planet’s capacity to support life.
Metamodernists know that artists can no longer treat global problems as teapot storms that will boil out on their own yet they also acknowledge the real-time limitations of their project. They are with their postmodernist predecessors, short-circuiting grand narratives but they also see what can be redeemed from them.
Metamodernism has been theorised from varied angles (I commend articles of Seth Abramson, Luke Turner, Timotheus Vermeulen, Robin van den Akker, Hanzi Freinacht and associated acts for a fuller picture) but I am interested in mapping here changes within more African art forms.
For me, the foregrounding of the prophetic text in popular culture once again is a key metamodernist shift and, tied to it, the suspension of the prophetic from the ego and the hyperliterate blending of prophetic references.
If Sheol is connected to YouTube, Friedrich Nietzsche, the spiritual father of postmodernist Antichrists, may be turning in his grave to realise that the only funeral that happened is his own, not God’s, with invocations of the divine once again reigning atop popular culture. Religion is back, not as the opium of the masses but as the language for speaking truth to power.
The prophetic text is washing away hedonistic decay from popular culture and chanting down power factions. Crucially, the prophetic is suspended from the ego and from narrow sectarianism, both to deflate fanaticism and to maintain a buffer between prophecy and power.
A persuasive case would be the vital and experimental Kendrick Lamar. Visuals and lyrics to “Alright,” the default soundtrack for Black Lives Matter, where defiance rubs against vulnerability, magic against mortality in metamodernist fashion.
The juxtaposition of “u” and “i,” the cathartic progression of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the “double conflict” of “DAMN.” with its late-cut exclamation: “It was always me versus the world until I realised it’s me versus me” are essentially metamodernist.
The sonic experiments, the hyperliterate, part confessional, part sympathetic appropriation of prophetic texts from The Bible to Pan-Africanist figureheads, from Hiii Power mantra and gangsta rap to Hebrew Israelite doctrine, blend the canonical text with pop appeal, utopia and paranoia, the misanthropic system and personal warts into a great experiment of modern art.
In the metamodern, the collapse of the intellectual and the pop, as set for by Seth Abrahamson, is a key feature, a feasible cutting away from the post-modern’s anti-world monastery. And one needs only to contrast the Lamartian document with the gore-fetishising, ego-driven, smug and resigned motifs of earlier artists to appreciate the extent of the transgression.
Then there are the midlife spiritual crises of dancehall artistes who led the break from spiritually driven and socially engaged reggae, with Lady Saw, Mr Vegas, Sasha, Stitchie, Papa San and others reaching to the Bible for meaning, and younger acts like Chronixx, Bugle and Raging Fyah making Rasta pop again.
While this cultural front may not be readily bundled into the metamodern school, it shows a resurgent motivation to transcend.
There is new hunger, there is a new feeling and as the world increasingly stares into the Apocalypse, prematurely dismissed cultural strands like romanticism, myth, grand narratives, justice, truth, prophecy, reason and faith will still be pushing out of the postmodernist body bag.
But they will not be free from the darkness and conflict of the elapsed era.