Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Original artwork by Julia Jarzyna
The increasing political activism regarding the climate crisis poses a significant implication for understanding our position in history. I argue this as post-modernism’s defining characteristic, the scepticism of the metanarrative, may be defied by the reintroduction of a metanarrative. This is because imminent climate crisis has the potential to act as a politically mobilising metanarrative.
Already, environmentally orientated platforms and manifestos are gaining political awareness. The Green New Deal’s shift in public consciousness, from obscurity to mass-media headline, symbolises this process. In the decade since its inception, the Green New Deal has progressed from pipeline dream, talking point for Green Party candidates and now, as a potential manifesto for the Democratic party. Although the Green New Deal’s resolution failed to advance in the US senate, the point remains. The Green New Deal’s metanarrative has begun to enter the political consciousness.
If an environmental metanarrative continues this trajectory into the political consciousness, it is logical to assume that it will also become politically mobilising. If political mobilisation does occur, an environmental metanarrative becomes highly significant to historicity. This is because, since Christianity, mobilising metanarratives have continually defined Western historical periods (Vattimo, 1985). From the Renaissance’s humanism to the Enlightenment’s basis of reason and science, teleological metanarratives have mobilised political groups and by extension, been the reference for historicity (Gray, 2003). These metanarratives have been continually teleological as they have each assumed that historical evolution is linear and results in a function or conclusion (Vattimo, 1985). This has only been the case since Christianity first offered a similarly teleological metanarrative; that the world is linearly progressing towards an eventual rapture and salvation. Prior to this, ancient philosophy had an opposing view of history. Both ancient Greece and China perceived history as cyclical. Hence, as is Gianna Vattimo’s thesis, our teleological understandings of history are inherently derived from the metanarratives of organised religion (Vattimo, 1985). Vattimo cites this as having led to the inevitability of post-modernism (Vattimo, 1985). As the Western world becomes increasingly sceptical of God, so too is it sceptical of metanarrative.
Our current historical epoch, post-modernity, is characterised by a scepticism for these metanarratives (Jameson, 1991). According to Jean-François Lyotard, this scepticism is critical of universalist ideals, such as linear sociological evolution and emancipatory scientific knowledge, propagated by the metanarrative of modernity (Lyotard, 1979). John Gray argues that the enlightenment-derived modernist value of societal meliorism (or the improvement and perfection of the world) is apparent in seemingly opposing modern political ideologies (Gray, 2003). Whether Marxism, Nazism, liberal capitalism or Islamic fundamentalist, all adhere to a belief in progression and universal application. All of these have historically failed in providing both sustainable and universal doctrines. Even liberal capitalism, which may be regarded as the closest to universal, often fails to offer sustainable solutions. This is apparent as the IMF’s universalist approach of offering a singular economic solution, neoliberal austerity, to a wide variety of domestic problems is rarely effective (Gray, 2003). As such, post-modernism’s incredulity towards metanarrative is entirely logical.
Yet it is this incredulity towards metanarrative and by extension, radical political action, that has rendered an immobilisation of alternative political thought. Mark Fisher articulated this immobilisation as capitalist realism; capitalism’s stranglehold on alternative political thought (Fisher, 2009). It is not coincidental that decades of neoliberal reinforcement of capitalist realism has occurred immediately prior to the left being unable to mobilise in the face of global crises. In other words, as Thatcher’s ‘There is No Alternative’ slogan has become cemented in the societal unconscious, the public is therefore unable to comprehend an alternative to neoliberalism and its offspring global crises (Fisher, 2009). It doesn’t have to be this way. If a politically mobilising metanarrative arises as a response to climate crisis, then so too does the ability to conceive alternatives to neoliberalism.
If this metanarrative should come into effect, then what does it spell for post-modernism? The debate over what would constitute a post-post-modernity has been in rage for decades. Although the paradigm shift is inevitable, it is too early to stake a realistic prediction on what paradigm will best describe the next epoch. However, of these currently theorised paradigms, I’m most convinced by metamodernism. Metamodernism is loosely defined as a mediator between aspects of modernism and post-modernism (Vermeulen and Akker, 2010). This is most evident in relation to metanarratives. Metamodernism would retain post-modernity’s criticism for the universalist nature of metanarrative yet ultimately revert to modernity’s advocacy for the metanarrative. In Timotheus Vermeulen’s words (one of the first to academically engage with metamodernism), "grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed." (Vermeulen and Akker, 2010). An inevitable criticism of such a statement is that Vermeulen doesn’t explain what political actions this mediation would actually consist of. Here, climate crisis as metanarrative answers this criticism and paves a way forward.
Assuming that manifestos such as the Green New Deal set a precedent, this metanarrative adheres to the logic of metamodernism. This is because, realising a Green New Deal is not inherent to a single economic model. Its policy goals, of improved standards of living and reduced environmental damage, could be realised in various types of market ownership. Presumably, these economic models would be dependent on countries. The nature of these economic models may also be determined by the presence of future innovations, such as the growing likelihood of automation. The possibility of a plurality of economic models is increasing, as states such as China have an idiosyncratic economic model. Although far from ideal, the China model shows the potential for the co-existence of different economic models. This plurality of economic models would be at odds with modernism’s metanarratives for a universal adoption (most notably, neoliberal-capitalism). Hence, a climate crisis metanarrative is post-modernist, as it shares a scepticism for modernism’s universalist metanarrative. Simultaneously, it is modernist for its recognition that metanarratives are a political necessity. By sitting between these two positions, a climate crisis metanarrative would be metamodernist.
To further the credibility of metamodernism as a descriptive paradigm, it should be noted that it draws on two significant traditions of Western thought. The first, is that it derives from Plato’s theory of metaxty. Metaxty refers to the ‘in-between’ or ‘the middle ground’ (Plato, Symposium). Plato believed that dichotomies could not adequately describe living. Rather, he perceived man as moving continually between sensory perception (the world of becoming) and transcendence (the world of being) (Plato, Symposium). Hence, metamodernism is the continual movement between modernism and post-modernism. So too does a potential climate crisis metanarrative.
Secondly, metamodernism follows the same logic of the Hegelian dialectic. The Hegelian dialectic asserts that discourses around ideas are developed through different stages (Singer, 2001). The first stage, is that of the thesis. Here, the idea exists in its initial form. This gives rise to the second stage, that of an antithesis. This is when a contradictory idea is presented. A tension between the thesis and the anthesis occurs. Eventually this tension is resolved by the third stage, the synthesis. Here, the synthesis reconciles the contradicting ideas to form a new proposition (Singer, 2001). Similarly, metamodernism synthesises the contradictory thoughts of modernism and post-modernism. Again, a potential climate crisis metanarrative could do the same.
Whether metamodernism is realised or not, climate crisis is the most mobilising metanarrative available to us. It is imperative that it should continue to mobilise and hopefully, pave the way to our next era.
Fisher, M. 2010. Capitalist Realism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books. Gray, J. 2003. Al Qaeda And What It Means To Be Modern. London: Faber. Jameson, F. 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso.
Lyotard, J. 1979. The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Plato. 2001. "Symposium". In Plato. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press. Singer, P. (2001). Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vattimo, G. 1985. The End Of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press. Vermeulen, T and Akker, R. 2010. "Notes On Metamodernism". Journal Of AESTHETICS & CULTURE 2 (0).