One of the points on which the modern and postmodern paradigms are in fact united — though they appear as mirror images of one another — is the power of definitions. The metamodern orientation rejects this shared ground of modernism and postmodernism by divesting descriptive language of the quasi-mythic power it is seen to have by both of these established frameworks.
Painting in broad brushstrokes, the modernist largely buys into the project of creating essentializing definitions of various object-phenomena as a productive intellectual activity leading to genuine knowledge of the material under investigation. Through coming upon the correct description or understanding of the object of study, the modernist discovers real qualities of the object — i.e. pre-existing truths are revealed once there is a consonance between the description and the real qualities of the phenomena in question.
This leads, in the modernist paradigm, to objective and universal knowledge which may be transferred between minds regardless of various personal idiosyncrasies, identity positions, etc. The essential definition has revealed some portion of actual facts about the object of study that may now be disseminated, applied, or put into conversation with other material.
One of the chief postmodern insights in this domain is that there is a reciprocity between perspective (stemming from the various aspects of one’s identity — a person’s social, political, historical contexts) and the “knowledge” produced by definitional language. Before the essential characteristics of a given object-phenomenon are even identified, there are myriad psychological, sociological, and historical-contextual factors that delimit what data is even taken as relevant for the intellectual activity at hand. As such, any knowledge obtained is created — not discovered or revealed, per modernism — on the grounds of the inescapable ways that perspective and positionality guide and delimit any knowledge-seeking activity.
A major consequence of this revelation is that all definitional knowledge is seen to be inherently bound up with power dynamics. Whether intentional or not on the part of those involved in knowledge production, there will always be forces of de/legitimization and the establishment of regimes of control that issue forth from such projects. The ethical implications of such a perspective become immediately clear: a chief responsibility of anyone doing knowledge-work is to critically interrogate the positionality of received scholarship and make explicit the previously implicit manifestations of bias and power dynamics in this work, while also being forthcoming and critical about one’s own positionality vis-à-vis the object of study. As opposed to essential, universal definitions, the postmodernist contents themself with plural manifestations of a given phenomenon, particularly focusing on those relevant examples which they identify as having been under-represented in received knowledge regimes and which problematize previous “uncritical” essentialisms.
Granting the genuine insights of the postmodern paradigm, while not fully rejecting the knowledge-discovery framework of the modernists, metamodernism takes a somewhat different approach. In a certain respect, I would say the metamodernist takes the postmodern vision of knowledge-construction more seriously than the postmodernist themself — and rather than holding this perspective in a way that constrains and confines intellectual inquiry, realizes it as a radically liberatory revelation. If the project of knowledge-production is always going to be “contaminated” by subjectivity and positionality, we may instead take a creative, experimentalist, artistic, playful, and pragmatic approach to this activity. Just as a musician confined to a particular key, or a sculptor confined to a certain material, this “constraint” is not felt as an enclosing limit, but on the contrary is the very locus for the creative realization of novelty and intensity.
In this paradigm, definitional language is divested of its mythic power to either reveal truths in a vacuum or inherently oppress as it is seen as essentially provisional, open-ended, dialogical, and, quite simply, one intellectual move among many others that can be used creatively to constellate some novel and exciting intellectual product.
Here is a basic sketch of this experimentalist-artistic methodology and how it is taken up with regard to definition: like a scientist or artist, the metamodernist approaches intellectual inquiry and asks the curious question “what happens if I understand [relevant object-phenomenon] as X?” and goes on to fully inhabit this perspective from the inside, exploring the contours, possibilities, and unique perspectives provided within this definitional framework. However, this is an essentially iterative process, not singular and/or final as per the modernist. Instead, the metamodern knowledge-seeker will then go on to ask “what if I understand this as Y?”, “what if I understand this as Z?”, etc. going on to inhabit each perspective, once again, from the inside; and now, with more data collected, very interesting questions can be raised such as “understanding the topic through the perspective of Z, how does the definition based on X come across?” This methodology occasionally pops up in postmodern approaches, but only in a limited way, with Z in the above nearly always being a historically-marginalized or otherwise under-represented perspective and X being an essentializing perspective on the topic based on a more modernist framework. Where the metamodern experimentalist-artistic method differs is in its intention to constellate myriad diverse perspectives, constantly oscillating between looking at and looking through frameworks and definitions to see what each provides.
Consider the metaphor of landscape painters. If you behold a single painting of a given landscape, you will perhaps appreciate the beauty, technique, and vision of the painter, though upon critical reflection you will certainly realize this is one possible interpretation and that other artists would have made different choices in terms of style, representation, etc. Now take instead a scenario where one commissions a dozen or more artists to paint the same scene, all from different vantage points, and each with their own unique styles. Even if one has never personally visited and explored the particular landscape the painters took as their artistic object, seeing the scene from myriad different angles will give a much heightened sense of intimacy and familiarity with the location — not in spite of the “contamination” of the unique subjectivities of the artists which we typically term “style,” but because each unique approach highlights particular contours that may be less prominent in the works of the other artists.
What of realism? A complaint may be raised that this method gives a sense of relativism or pure socio-linguistic constructivism of knowledge — something that could be productive of nihilism and which feels particularly untenable in our age which necessitates ecological awareness, since the world is ever more incessantly coming into focus as something real with the increasing intensity and frequency of climate emergency.
In general, metamodern thought seems to be more aligned with new realism as compared with much of poststructuralist and continental thought more generally — which although not often explicitly idealist, regularly seems to sidestep the questions and retreat (advance?) into purely linguistic, social, textualist, phenomenological, etc domains.
From this experimentalist-artistic methodology, the metamodernist plays with myriad perspectives and frameworks as forms of relationship with a real world that we are actually in meaningful contact with. No perspective gives one direct or total contact with an object-phenomenon, but there is certainly contact — always mediated, always from a particular position, but genuine and real nonetheless (is one’s relationship with a lover “unreal” even as their body can only ever be felt piecemeal — certain regions of skin touching certain other regions of skin, never full and total envelopment?).
This is perhaps well-described as an “asymptotic realism” with intimacy being the valid measure of contact with the object-phenomenon.
When we are intimate with someone, we are able to see them from many different vantage points — taking the frame of Person or Thou, rather than instrumentalizing “objective knowledge” — while also being able to inhabit frames where we are seeing the world through the various perspectives unique to their existential position. This paradigm holds true for non-human entities as well. Here, intimacy signals multifaceted contact and concomitant increases in agency while at the same time providing a space where one’s Self as an atomized center of action and identity is brought into question; for real intimacy means a willingness to be deeply receptive and open to transformation at the hands of the Other.
What of “truth”? Are there not certain perspectives that are more or less in contact with a given actuality if we are maintaining a realist framework? Definitely so, but the pragmatic and experimentalist aspects of this approach give an alternative mode of relating to these questions. Here, Alfred North Whitehead’s provocation that “it is more important that a proposition be interesting than it be true” may provide a helpful entrypoint (See Process and Reality, 259).
Rather than first dwelling significantly on the truth-value of a given proposition or perspective with regard to a particular object-phenomenon from the outside, the metamodernist may confidently advance directly to applying or inhabiting the framework if it seems alive, provocative, and/or interesting, comforted by their knowledge that these things are always provisional and ought to be brought under the scrutiny provided by inhabiting alternative frameworks and propositions which naturally do the work of questioning the validity, utility, or scope of the propositions now entertained. However, by bracketing some of these truth questions in advance of inhabiting a perspective, it becomes possible to discover/construct new connections, relationships, insights, etc which one may not have been able to apprehend from alternative perspectives. And so a certain playful boldness is warranted with regard to the various schemes and ideas one entertains and inhabits — here is a space of creative novelty, a novelty which may be appropriated in further artistic and experimental ways to scaffold further ideas and insights around a given topic.
To further substantiate this approach, some ontological points are perhaps warranted. When approaching a particular object-phenomenon in intellectual inquiry, it must be remembered that one is approaching something radically plural and composed of many disparate pieces — an assemblage of numerous object-processes which themselves contain/employ various propositions and perspectives to obtain their (semi-)stable interrelationships. This material itself may be dubious when viewed exclusively from the perspective of truth-value. In this regard, the cybernetician Heinz von Foerster makes the incisive point that paradoxes may provide stable structures upon which complex relationships and processes may develop (see The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics, 131–3). There is dirty ontologizing all the way down — or certainly at least as far down as autopoietic systems reach.
One of the cardinal mistakes one finds in the modernist perspective is that it will try to cleanse the object-phenomenon of complexities arising from paradox and contradiction, seeking for some fundamental, simple substance within it, or deciding the object-phenomenon is merely epiphenomenal in itself, but composed of simple, discrete foundational entities. Either of these approaches may lead forthright to a derealization of empirical experience — hence the nihilism that comes out of the strange materialism which takes only the atoms of physics as foundationally real, or the kind of world-renouncing gnosticism which can take hold when reality is seen only as a world of appearances, divorced from the truly real which resides exclusively in some spiritual plane with God/the gods.
The metamodernist experimentalist-artistic approach strikes a middle path here, preserving the genuine value and authenticity of our empirical experience of reality, while not taking this as an unmediated encounter where object-phenomena fully disclose themselves in their numinous plenitude. Here the provocation of Object-Oriented Ontology which universalizes and de-anthropocentrizes the Kantian divide between phenomena and noumena may offer some additional clarification: the relationships between any entities — whether physical, mental, processual, or a complex combination of these — involve a partial prehension of other entities as “sensual objects,” which, although inextricably linked to the “real objects” from which they emerge, are essentially limited and relationally-colored. A fungus which is feeding on the plant fibers which make up the pages of a copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time is taking the book as a complex sensual object which has the quality of “food” for the mycelial organism, and in the sense that this is a life-promoting relationship, it is evident that the fungus is in intimate contact with a real feature of Heidegger’s book, even as there is absolutely no apprehension of the intellectual content of this object that talks about Dasein and the like. Yet if I tried to directly reproduce the fungi’s genuine, intimate contact with Being and Time by eating the text for breakfast, I’d likely only end up with a stomach ache or worse — hence the relational quality of intimate contact. However, note also that I, too, would be forming real intimacy with Being and Time in this scenario — just not an intimacy which is able to directly mirror that of the fungus. But the absurdist act of consuming Being and Time as biological rather than intellectual nourishment does put me in real contact with my stomach (and digestive system more broadly) as well as the fibrous, inedible (to me) qualities of the paper. Whitehead’s ideas surrounding the “withness of the body” (Process and Reality, 62–4) and “prehension in the mode of causal efficacy” (Ibid. 168–83) may help to further explicate these particular dynamics.
But note that the dubiously true proposition “the works of Heidegger make for a tasty lunch” leads to something nonetheless. Material which may be self-evident to many, but something which may prove exciting or useful for a performance artist trying to satirize or intensify Heideggerian ideas about Dasein and embodiment — and an engaging performance taking up this proposition as serious play could lead to novel and productive insights about how Heidegger’s intellectual schemes relate with diverse aspects of actuality. Et voilà, another rich datum which with we can further constellate Heideggerian philosophy as an object-phenomenon, one which we may go on to use as a lens for substantiating the constellations of other object-phenomena under question or which we may further interrogate and complexify by taking other material or frameworks as such lenses. Through this experimentalist-artistic project of constellating myriad perspectives ever greater intimacy is established with regard to the object-phenomenon in question. And with intimacy comes dynamism, flexibility, intensity of affect, personal investment, insight, creativity, mutually-increased and reinforcing agency, and numerous other qualities we would wish to promote in light of ecological embeddedness in a world currently under duress — crises which manifest continuously along bio-ecological domains up into human religio-socio-cultural-political domains.
Hence we arrive at a new perspective of knowledge-production-qua-discovery. It is neither that truth is simply discovered is isolation from the kind of mutuality and relationality that always exists between subject and object, knower and known; nor is it that truth is merely constructed by human socio-linguistic machinations, disconnected from real ecological, geological, and cosmological contexts. When one hears social constructivist discourses in postmodern circles, there is often an implicit sense that the term constructed used as a qualifier for a given object-phenomenon signals that it is arbitrary or unreal, or at least it seems implicit that the only barriers to the object-phenomenon being reconstructed in a different form are human socio-cultural barriers. Yet there’s another vision of construction — and perhaps here we can be inspired by ecological notions of niche construction — where this activity is no longer considered in purely anthropocentric mental-linguistic domains and is instead seen generally as the extension and expansion of reality via coordinated and facilitated emergence. So of course intellectual activity is knowledge-construction — but there is also “constructed” knowledge in the evolution of the organ such as the eye, as photons considered in the abstract, away from biological (or mechanical) receptors that engage these particles, do not have an intrinsic quality of creating spatial representations of physical bodies any more than neutrinos or other particles. Yet in the evolution of the eye, real qualities of photons (as well as real qualities of the earth-environment and social-system-environment more generally) were apprehended and appropriated for this knowledge-construction. Hence knowledge-production-qua-discovery: both elements are always at play.
What of postmodern concerns surrounding the harms that stem from the power dynamics of knowledge production? Well, this is certainly something that ought to be included in the dynamic and evolving constellation of any object-phenomenon, though the degree of relevance and applicability to the overall emergent multi-perspectival vision of the object of inquiry will naturally vary depending on the real (relational) qualities at play. If we are considering the ideas of race, gender, or sexuality (very common topics in postmodern forms of scholarship and knowledge-production), one intuits the immediate applicability of such frameworks and it is sensible to have such material play a prominent role in one’s experimentalist-artistic constellating of such object-phenomena. However, I may be considering the imaginally-augmented relationships I had with various toys as a child — in such a context, there appears to be less immediate applicability of these frameworks, though oftentimes these kinds of unintuitive connections have the possibility of shepherding acute novelty, so this may not necessarily be a reason for writing off a particular lens in a given context. But the point here is that there are no master frameworks which de facto or necessarily must always be included in one’s artistic-experimentalist constellating of a given object-phenomenon. To maintain such a position is no more sensible than saying all artworks must include the color yellow or all songs must include a GMaj7 chord. In certain contexts, the absence of these particular qualities may be felt as a palpable lack that, if remedied, would improve the resonance of the art object. But this is always particular to the art object in question, never something global or universal.
One may also, of course, take the postmodern ideas of the power dynamics at play in knowledge-production itself as an object phenomena to constellate through interrogating it from a complex variety of perspectives and frameworks, allowing it to be transformed, qualified, empowered, aestheticized, etc in the process. What does knowledge-as-power look like from the perspective of Latour’s actor-network theory? Sanskrit and Pali words typically translated into English as “knowledge” and “power” have very different semantic fields — how does taking these terms as quintessentially normative change how the knowledge-as-power framework functions? What happens if we take up the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga’s idea that play is the foundational human activity at work behind myriad socio-cultural systems and processes? Is power now potentially much less nefarious, seen in the context of play? Ah, what of schemas from game theory — could these perhaps elucidate different forms and manifestations of power (and the knowledge to which it is connected), providing less uniformity and more complexity or higher resolution to these frameworks? One could go on and on (and should — let the creative and experimental spirit soar!) but these few examples should suffice to elucidate the basic methodology in question in relation to this particular topic. Keep in mind, however, that the complexified constellation of the object-phenomenon of knowledge-as-power that results from this inquiry is now further equipped in itself to provide a route to dynamic intimacy with an ever widening variety of material for which it may itself be used as a lens or framework of engagement.
In the above I attempted to sketch the basic contours of a metamodern experimentalist-artistic methodology for knowledge-production-qua-discovery and preemptively answer possible concerns surrounding this approach. It may be noted that the process described in fact mirrors human intellectual activity viewed from a macro perspective to a significant degree. You have partisans of various knowledge-frameworks using their preferred lenses to interrogate the conclusions and methodologies of other camps. Perhaps the only thing novel about the methodology described herein is 1) the explicit intention to reproduce these macro dynamics the individual level and 2) the experimentalist and provisional disposition which curiously and artistically explores the contours, novelties, and possibilities provided by inhabiting myriad perspectives from the inside, and iteratively interrogating an object-phenomenon from multiple perspectives while also using this object itself as a lens or framework for interrogation.
I’ve employed the qualifying term “artistic” throughout to imply an aesthetic-focused paradigm that first explores the moods, vistas, and potentialities that spring forth from the various perspectives that are provided by particular definitional schemes or frameworks of normativity. This helps to usefully disenchant “essentializing language” since such material may now be taken up as an artist takes up any other material — whether that be the words, phrases and morphemes that the poet plays with, or the colors, shapes, and contrasts that are essential for the painter’s work. Like these other artists, the metamodern philosopher takes up their aesthetic materials consisting of various provisional normativities and definitional schemes of object-phenomena to constellate something of real artistic value — something productive of intimacy with regard to the material in question.
Yet this artistic quality is paired with an experimentalist disposition which qualifies and balances this aesthetic focus. If one only takes the aesthetic frame, it’s easy for relativism to creep in and the realist insistence of our framework to be lost. The experimental scientist, like the artist, is creatively bringing many disparate parts together (microscopes, photons, enzymes, spreadsheets, calculus, ecologies, etc), coordinating them in evocative ways that lead to novelty and intimacy with the object-phenomena in question. Here, however, the genuine (but, of course, partial and relational) contact with “reality” or “the world” comes into sharper focus. The scientist is only able to effectively do this work as a result of deep attunement with the real qualities of the object-phenomena with which they are working. Of course — and with a hat tip towards a realist ontology — there are times when aspects of the material under investigation which are thus far unknown to the scientist jump out as salient features: sometimes nitroglycerin, penicillin, or LSD is invented without express intention or prior hypothesizing. Yet the events-qualities-processes which jump out from various object-phenomena in scientific contexts are only able to be taken up as revolutionary discoveries precisely because of the complex constructed knowledge constellations of scientists who are able to intuit the use cases of explosives, antibiotics, and psychedelics. Knowledge-production-qua-discovery is very much the same in other contexts: the intimacy produced by the process of complex constellation of a given object-phenomena puts one in genuine, relational contact with particular actualities that than opens up new vistas of exploration, construction, feeling, agency, etc.
This artistic-experimentalist-provisional approach to knowledge-activities such as stating normativities or providing definitions has significant potential to advance scholarship, especially in the humanities, where one regularly encounters cul-de-sacs of discourse due to the interplay between naïve deployments of essentializing definitions from those influenced by modernist epistemology, and the postmodernist reaction that is often able to provide little constructive contribution to the conversation beyond problematizations, qualifications, or counterfactuals vis-à-vis the contributions of the former. Both of these paradigms buy into the quasi-mythic power of definitional language, but by reframing such activity with a metamodern artistic-experimentalist methodology, new avenues for promising knowledge-production-qua-discovery may still emerge.
Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. Great Britain: Pelican Books, 2018.
Von Foerster, Heinz. The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics. Edited by Albert Müller and Karl H. Müller, translated by Elinor Rooks and Michael Kasenbacher. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1985.