VAN Nov/Dec 2014: ‘History Returns with a Vengeance’ Kris Dittel Reports on The Metamodernism Marathon

small Meta Marathon
As the speakers inside the Stedelijk debated the subject of metamodernism, actor Shia LaBeouf embarked upon an actual (#meta)marathon around the perimeter of the museum. Photo by Ernst van Deursen, courtesy of Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


On the 25 September the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam organised the 12-hour symposium event Metamodernism Marathon. This marathon talking shop aimed to reflect on the particular discourse of the ‘millennials’: the generation born after the 1980s who have known no other context for adult life than the terrain effected by events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 terrorist attack and the financial crisis.

The symposium was subdivided into four panels, respectively considering the years 1989, 2001, 2008 and 2011. Running from 11am – 11 pm the event featured, among others, Francis Fukuyama, Michel Bauwens, Hassnae Bouazza, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Nina Power, Cally Spooner, Jonas Staal, Adam Thirlwell and Camille de Toledo.

Cultural theorists and researchers Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker coined the concept of metamodernism in 2009, founding the webzine in the same year. As outlined during their opening talk, metamodernism is an idea that seeks to surpass postmodernism as a response to and reflection upon the present, which is dominated by urgent and multiple crises: economic, ecological, political and ideological. Crucially, Vermeulen and Van Den Akker see metamodernism as something of a return to the pragmatic idealism of modernity and its faith in imagining a better future.

Talking from their personal perspectives as ‘millennials’, Vermeulen and Van Den Akker contrasted the present with the politics of compromise that characterised the 1990s: the era of political handshakes and big gestures; Western domination of the geopolitical system; and endless economic growth as the status quo. Given the circumstances of the 1900s, the theories advanced by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History served as a kind ideological comfort zone. Nothing, he argued, could threaten the prevailing Western neo-liberal order. (1)

At no point during the Metamodernism Marathon did Vermeulen and Van Den Akker seek to provide a definitive or exhaustive explanation of the concept of metamodernism. Instead they stressed that the notion was best understood in terms of a loose ‘structure of feeling,’ i.e. various current modes of cultural phenomena, practices and thought that can be broadly characterised by the return of modernist ideas – in terms of an interest in grand historical narratives and a desire to surpass postmodern irony and pastiche.

Appropriately enough, the first keynote speaker of the day was Francis Fukuyama – he who had famously declared the ‘death of history’ in 1989. Of course now it’s all too apparent that history has risen from the dead in a zombielike manner. But back in that year, as the Berlin Wall fell, mankind’s ‘ideological evolution’ appeared to some to be reaching an end point. Western capitalist liberal democracy had triumphed and was set to be the prevailing global status quo.

Fukuyama’s talk was dominated by a linear and Western perspective of history and referred to Denmark as the example of a prosperous democracy that represents the perfect utopia for ‘developing countries’. Fukuyama gave Iraq and Nigeria as examples of countries where, in his view, corruption, hierarchy and religious dogmas stand in the way of prosperous development.

Unfortunately Fukuyama didn’t consider the role of the West in these struggles and seemed wilfully blind to the problems of contemporary Western society (broadening income gaps, xenophobia, unemployment). In Fukuyama’s view what stands in the way of this development is that “nobody wants to be the last man”; rather, people want to engage in great struggles and strive for something that gives them the feeling of belonging, i.e. identity politics.

Dutch artist Jonas Staal presentation filled in some of these gaps by pointing out the impossibility of not admitting the West’s responsibility in the destabilisation of these countries and colonial history.

The following keynote speaker, writer and artist Camille de Toledo, introduced his opera piece Fall of Fukuyama, which was staged at an airport shortly after 9/11. De Toledo presented an antidote to Fukuyama’s views and proposed that art and cultural resistance play a role in countering an ‘end of history’ as such. They constitute history, he argued, by reopening the world to other worlds, to other futures.

The 2001 discussion was dominated by the topic of 9/11 and preceding events – including again the fall of the Berlin Wall, when people were “rushing towards the global airport”. Yet only a few words were spoken about the climate before 2001, which culminated in the attack on the twin towers and subsequent war on terror.

Speaking on this panel the writer and journalist Jelle Brand pointed out that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not a positive or welcome event for all Russians and that many people are now willing to trade their ‘freedom’ for a more economically prosperous society.

The conversation continued in a passionate manner about the possibilities of democracy. In Brandt’s view, it is only a matter of time before countries stabilise themselves and create conditions for democracy – a view that Jonas Staal vehemently opposed. He does not accept the idea that liberal democracies will naturally appear following Western intervention and neocolonialist action. He proposed the reconsideration of our views on Western democracy in light of recent happenings, when, for example, young Western citizens are joining ISIS in Syria, arguing that this is a product of our failing democracy.

The 2008 panel focused on the financial crisis of that year and its consequences. The overall view was little had really changed: deregulation of financial markets continues unchecked and capitalist apparatus imposes a ‘politics of temporisation’. Nina Power explained how neoliberal capitalism “weaponises time” and turns it against us. We live in a present where not everyone is provided with the same future (if any at all), and where the time we give is measured up to our personal debt, which dictates whose finitude counts and whose doesn’t. Time has become the measure of politics, the way we measure success or failure.

Indeed earlier in the day Hassnae Bouzza (panel 2001) referenced cynical dismissals of the recent Arab revolutions as ‘failures’ only a few weeks after they had begun. Seemingly we have no patience or attention span left. All the panellists appeared to agree that we are now constantly bombarded with information, which prevents us from developing a thorough analysis of events, or maintaining a focused practice.

The novelist Adam Thirlwell’s refreshing keynote presentation (2011) broke with the gloomy atmosphere of the previous panel and reminded us that revolutions are not an event but an epoch. Thirlwell spoke about his recent projects: testing the possibilities of collaboration through the fixed and old-fashioned format of a novel.

During the 2011 panel discussion a small light of hope shone through in the strategies and approaches of its participants. Birgitta Jónsdóttir (artist, writer and member of the Icelandic Parliament for the Pirate Party) described herself as a ‘poetician’, not a politician. Jónsdóttir considers her position in the parliament as that of a pragmatic anarchist who challenges and hacks the system from within. Another panelist, writer and theorist Michel Bauwens, compared the previous discussions about ideological beliefs to a romantic relationship that can only exist until the parties involved have something to argue about. Bauwens sees a real possibility in commons and shared knowledge that already creates a considerable 6% of the US GDP.

The Metamodernism Marathon ended on a remarkably short endnote, offering neither fixed conclusion nor final thought to take home. Ultimately the event was an assembly of brilliant thinkers with many ideas. During the course of the day it was easy to become overwhelmed by all the information. Thus the Metamodermism Marathon symposium left us in a place between modern sincerity and postmodern irony, between prospects and melancholy, and very much in a state of limbo – where the known problems are repeated again, yet still glued to the past.

Kris Dittel is an independent curator based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 1992. This book expanded on Fukuyama’s 1989 essay of the same name published in the international affairs journal The National Interest. In the book, Fukuyama argues that the advent of Western liberal democracy may signal the endpoint of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution and the final form of human government.

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