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Kersten & Wilbers: Metamodernism in contemporary British literature

This ‘Research in the Picture’ is a double-portrait of Dennis Kersten (1976) and Usha Wilbers (1974), who not only share an academic background, but a love for British pop music as well. “When we find time to discuss our research, we usually spend the first hour talking about that,” admits Kersten.

Nevertheless, their current research concerns their other shared love: English literature. “We had both noticed that modernism seems to be making a return in the contemporary novel,” says Wilbers. This led to the two of them organizing an expert meeting at Radboud University in October 2015, with researchers hailing from Japan, Belgium, the UK, Ireland and Poland. This in turn led them to submit a joint research proposal in the UK. Wilbers: “Starting in January, we are going to build a network of researchers who study metamodernism. Through lectures and conferences we want to try to get a grip on what is happening with modernism.”

Dennis Kersten

Kersten: “The researchers in this network share an interest in this apparent return of modernism as well as the question of what comes after postmodernism.” Some researchers, such as David James and Tim Vermeulen have suggested that metamodernism is the post-postmodernism. While metamodernism may appear to gain traction as an emerging discourse, Kersten and Wilbers are quick to point out that this is not entirely the case. Kersten: “A lot of researchers are simultaneously writing about metamodernism, but their definitions are competing with one another. Metamodernism is just one way of engaging with the legacy of modernism and just one of the answers to the question of what comes after postmodernism. Even if it’s becoming a dominant discourse, it’s not a very stable one.” Wilbers: “By setting up this network and working towards a joint publication, we want to stabilize things some more. We are not concerned with metamodernism being the ‘right’ name for this development, but more with analyzing and mapping it.”

HLCS leden 29 jan kleur-11Wilbers, U.

Wilbers continues: “We start from the conviction that postmodernism as a label seems to be used up. This has led to different kinds of reactions, one of which is that some authors return to modernism, but each in their own way. One author may use narratological techniques associated with modernism, such as stream-of-consciousness writing, while another may clearly make references to canonical authors such as Joyce, Woolf, and Eliot. The insights that postmodernism has given us are still relevant today, but postmodernism’s lack of ethical commitment, for instance, doesn’t seem to fit in with contemporary art. We see authors use postmodern techniques to deal with serious matters, essentially revisiting literature as a way of providing answers to certain societal problems.”

Kersten notes that most of his colleagues in the metamodernism network study the literature itself. While he initially wanted to go more in that same direction, he credits Wilbers with shaping their current research project: “Usha pushed strongly for our research to focus on the reception instead.” Wilbers explains: “We analyze a corpus of five contemporary British novels, including Tom McCarthy’s C (2010) and study how the label ‘modernism’ is used by authors, critics and publishers to describe those novels.” Kersten elaborates: “We often see that novels are labeled as modernist, but for reasons that are more characteristic of postmodernism. One of the possible reasons for authors to use modernism as a label could be to distinguish themselves in a very busy literary field, because postmodernism just isn’t ‘happening’ anymore.”

Regarding the size of the research project, Kersten says: “We have a number of questions we would like to find the answer to, but we don’t have the time to address those right now. Just by focusing on two words alone – ‘modernism’ and ‘avant-garde’ – in literary criticism we are able to write an article of more than 5000 words. There are novels and tags that could similarly yield interesting results, but we haven’t gotten to those yet.” Wilbers: “It would be great if we had some PhD students working on those subprojects. Because the project encompasses so many different players in the literary field, who each raise different questions, it is simply too big for just two scholars.”

Dennis Kersten is Assistant Professor at the Cultural Studies Department of Radboud University. His research interests include life writing, especially the rock star memoir, and Victorian culture and literature. Usha Wilbers is Assistant Professor at the English Department of Radboud University. Her research interests include American and European periodical studies and literary criticism since the 19th century. Both share a love for the contemporary British novel, which led to their current research project, their first collaboration.