A5, Metamodernism, A Turning Point


I first came across the term Metamodernism when reading about The V&A's exhibition in 2011, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990. It seems that this retrospective style exhibition is one of the many markers of the end of an era. Postmodernism, it seems, is either out, or on the way out. Metamodernism is not the only contender for the new throne of "what comes next". Tom Turner, in 1995, called for a post post-modernist turn in urban planning, which was to bring a more organic and timeless quality to urban design. Eric Gans, an American cultural theorist put forward the name "post millennialism" with it's primary thrust being the rejection of victimary thinking and dialogue. Alan Kirby's rather more bleak "digimodernism" regards a trance-like media induced shallowness. Nicholas Bourriaud's term altermodern, was coined by him at the Tate's Triennial in 2009, and encompasses the end of postmodernism, cultural hybridisation, travelling as a new art form, as well as expanding formats of art, particularly with reference to the new global consciousness that mass communication has facilitated.

Having repeatedly fallen over the term as I was reading critically engaged material, particularly when looking at artists whose work resonated with my sensibilities, I dug further. Despite having a rather non-metamodernist thing as a manifesto, the meaning of metamodernism appears to be an evolving and organic thing. Rather than being a dogma it attempts to reflect the realities of our era, yet in a way that re-engages hope. After the deconstruction of Post Modernism, metamodernism attempts to reform, and reconstruct, but not in the utopian inflexible manner of the modernists but in a new, flexible and positive yet pragmatic way. Metamodernism can encompass many of the aspects of the other "isms".

Metamodernism is variously called a cultural paradigm, a cultural philosophy, a structure of feeling, and a system of logic. All these phrases really mean is that, like its predecessors modernism and postmodernism, metamodernism is a particular lens for thinking about the self, language, culture, and meaning — really, about everything.

While metamodernism is not a movement or a manifesto for living, it is nevertheless possible for individuals, groups, and even social and political structures to come to be informed by metamodern principles. Metamodernists believe that this increasingly happens whether we will it or not; such philosophers and theorists consider metamodernism to be the “dominant” paradigm in many places, which simply means that events and structures in those places naturally gravitate toward a metamodern state.

None of the above suggests that modernism and postmodernism have disappeared as culturally operative concepts. It simply means that, in the view of metamodernists, modernism and postmodernism are not currently many cultures’ most active cultural philosophy.

Metamodernism as a negotiation between modernism and postmodernism. Because postmodernism was a direct response to modernism, these two cultural philosophies include a number of diametrically opposed first principles. For instance, modernism posited at least the possibility of universal truth, while postmodernism rejected that possibility in favour of a belief that meaning and truth are subjective values that are always “contingent” (that is, in a state of constant movement or flux). Metamodernism negotiates between modernism and postmodernism by submitting that the first principles of modernism and postmodernism need not be seen as being in opposition to one another, but in fact can both be operative simultaneously within a single individual or group of individuals.

Dialogue over dialectics. Postmodernism favoured “dialectics” over dialogue, whereas metamodernism explicitly advances the cause of dialogue. Where the “dialectical” thinking of the postmodernists assumed that every situation involves just two primary opposing forces — which do battle until one emerges victorious and the other is destroyed — dialogic thinking rejects the idea that there is no middle ground or means of negotiation between different positions. For instance, while neo-Marxism, an important postmodern worldview, presumes an eternal socioeconomic battle between the “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat” economic classes, at the end of which only one remains intact, metamodernism holds that dialectical struggles tend to destroy all parties that participate in them and enact no abiding change whatsoever.

Metamodern dialogue does not pave over differences between parties and positions, it simply emphasises areas of overlap between contesting opinions that could lead to effective collective action on a slate of issues.

The theory here is that, in a postmodern scenario, nothing ever gets solved because the contending forces angrily oppose and caricature one another until both are degraded or destroyed. In a metamodern scenario, at least something gets achieved, even if it doesn’t resolve all disputes between two groups or ensure that they’ll be able to work together on other issues.

Metamodernism embraces the paradoxical. For instance, in negotiating between modernism’s belief in universality and postmodernism’s belief in contingency, metamodernism posits that certain ideas can be “objectively” true for an individual even though the individual also understands that they are not universally true. The paradox of something being “objectively true for me” simply means that each of us does, in fact, respond to guiding “metanarratives” (the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and what they mean) which operate as absolutely true to us even as we recognise they are not shared — or even necessarily understood — by others.

Juxtaposition occurs when one thing is abutted to another thing from which it would normally be deemed entirely separate. A good example of a metamodern juxtaposition is the juxtaposition of sincerity and irony that we often find in metamodern literature. 

Metamodernism collapses distances. The distance between the self and others, and between the self and society, is one that postmodernism celebrates by finding myriad ways to put the self (or groups of selves) in a dialectic with opposing selves or groups. Postmodernism is therefore likely to emphasise how meaning degenerates as it moves across the vast expanse of space between selves and groups of selves. Metamodernism, like Bourriaud's altermodernism, which came of age in the Digital Age, recognises that we feel at once distant from others — because on the Internet almost everyone is a stranger, so we are daily surrounded by more strangers than at any other point in human history — but also incredibly close to others, as the Internet allows us to create connections more quickly than ever before. This makes it harder to pretend that we are in a dialectical relationship with other people or ideas — rather we are in the midst of a swirl of identity and belief. Multiple subjectivities.

Postmodernism required the “Balkanization” of self-identity — the partitioning of the self and groups of selves into clear boxes of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and so on — in order to establish its dialectics. Metamodernism embraces, instead, the notion of multiple subjectivities: the idea that not only do we all find ourselves in numberless subjective categories all at once, but that we even temporarily occupy and share subjectivities with others who might seem very different from us. It recognises a fluidity in our relationships both within and without ourselves. Through our digital identities we can feel as though we share a subjectivity with other people who, if we knew them in real-time.

Metamodernism encourages not only dialogue but collaboration. In a world in which we are constantly being influenced by innumerable forces metamodernism encourages us to consciously join our efforts and perspectives with those of others. Metamodern learning models, for instance, are likely to emphasise students working together to create projects that are simultaneously self-expressive for each individual member and also an adequate self-expression of the group, however diverse its viewpoints and subjectivities may be. In the political sphere, metamodernism encourages individuals and interest groups to find areas of generative overlap so that they can work together on one-off projects that advance the values of all involved. The idea here is that even if you disagree with someone else on 99 things out of 100, if that hundredth thing matters a great deal to you and another person you can work fruitfully together on that topic.

Originally metamodernism made much of the idea of oscillation. More recent understandings of metamodernism instead emphasise simultaneity — the idea that the metamodern self does not move between differing positions but in fact inhabits all of them at once. An optimistic response to tragedy by returning, albeit cautiously, to metanarratives. Since the term “metamodernism” was coined in 1975, metamodern theorists have all agreed that metamodernism is used by individuals and societies as a generative response to tragedy; indeed, the phrase “a romantic response to crisis” is often used to describe metamodernism.

Metamodernists are as aware of political, economic, climatological, and other forms of chaos as is anyone else, but they choose to remain optimistic and to engage their communities proactively even when and where they believe a cause has been lost. Theorists describe this way of thinking as an “as if” philosophical mode; that is, the metamodernist chooses to live “as if” positive change is possible even when we are daily given reminders that human culture is in fact in a state of disarray and likely even decline. Metamodernism permits us to selectively, and with eyes wide open, return to such metanarratives when they help save us from ennui, despair, or moral laziness.

Metamodernism embraces interdisciplinarity. The reason metamodernism is so oriented toward crisis-response is because its tendency to dismantle and rearrange structures is a tacit acknowledgment that those structures — as they were previously arranged — are what likely caused the crisis in the first place. The metamodernist is therefore likely to support the dismantling, realignment, and rearrangement (or even the exclusion altogether) of received terms like “genre,” “party,” “department,” “discipline,” “institution,” and other similar demarcations of difference and segregation. This is not an anarchic opposition to structure, but rather a thoughtful and civic-minded interest in the radical reevaluation of structures with an eye toward progressive change. Reconstruction instead of deconstruction.

If postmodern deconstruction encouraged us to use “dialectics” — a zero-sum tug-of-war between opposing principles — as a way of understanding how meaning is constructed differently depending upon where one is standing, metamodern reconstruction attempts to unite opposing principles even if the result is a paradox. For instance, metamodernism asks us, “What would the notion of ‘public intimacy’ look like? Or ‘controlled freedom’?”

Metamodernism doesn’t prescribe such reconstructions as specific political solutions, but rather thought-experiments that aim to push us away from entrenched ideologies. An example of 'public intimacy' might well be the 'social discovery application' Tinder; a good example of 'controlled freedom' is the 140-character free-for-all that is Twitter. It is in this sense that “metamodernism” uses the prefix “meta-“, meaning “between and beyond.” (Note that earlier conceptions of metamodernism used “meta-“ as a reference to Plato’s “metaxis,” which signals an oscillatory movement between poles. Moving “between and beyond” currently entrenched positions offers us the hope of novel solutions to longstanding crises like global warming, police brutality, and gender inequality. These solutions will often be imperfect, but they will be a progressive and generative evolution away from the status quo.

Engagement instead of exhibitionism. The metamodern politician might be a member of very different coalitions on different issues, but what will remain a constant in such an individual’s policy practice will be an emphasis on progress over preening. Too often, contemporary politics is defined by a) modernist dogmatists who wish to impose their rigid world views on the masses, or b) postmodern cynics whose beliefs run only as deep as the latest polling cycle. The role of the metamodern politician is more to create an environment in which ideologues and cynics struggle to practice their politics — and to cause sufficient disruption to business-as-usual that all stakeholders are forced to innovate new ways of doing business.

Effect as well as affect. In the arts, we often look for evidence of poststructuralist principles in either the absence or dominance of affect The “uncreative writing” promoted by late postmodernist poets lacks any affect at all because it merely bulk-appropriates an existing text not written by the uncreative “author”; the detached critique of language and meaning it offers is performed by its very detachment from affect. On the other side of the coin, music informed by postmodernism (think Lady Gaga) often performs its critiques using a highly exaggerated affect or even a series of clearly “put on” (as opposed to “authentic”) affects.

In each case, the emphasis is on the “exhibition” of affect rather than its production. Metamodern art is as or more focused on the effect it generates in the reader or observer as it is on the affect(s) its author is able to perform or negate. The theory behind “effect-oriented” art is that if an artist calibrates the effect of a work as or more carefully than its technical composition or “craft,” the work is more likely to engage and therefore move to action its audience. We can see in this ethos of “effect” an attempt to tear down the wall between Art and Life and the distance between the two that postmodernism fetishizes. Metamodern “effect” is a reorganisation of the arts on the basis not of how an artwork performs the affects associated with its “genre” but on how the work is calibrated to provoke an emotional and intellectual response.

Again like Bourriaud's altermodern, metamodernism recognises borderlessness. Metamodernism eliminates the walls and boundaries between literal and abstract structures, and is an important facet of the paradigm. For instance, the phenomenon of “cross-over” episodes on television is a metamodern one; it pierces the fantasy that a single fictional world (or even a seemingly “realistic” world) is self-contained by permitting what is clearly another discrete world to flood into the first. Once that breaking down of barriers has occurred, such barriers can never be fully reinstated; that is, once characters from your least favourite television program have suddenly appeared in the world of your favourite program, that sort of “cross-over” is now officially a possibility at all future moments in either small-screen world.

Flexible intertextuality. “Intertextuality” refers to the presence of relationships between individual texts. Traditionally, when we find intertextuality in artwork it’s intentional — a clearly “authored” effect that’s achieved through conspicuous devices like allusion and quotation.

In modernist literature, allusions were common, and served to entrench a universal “canon” of references and also sought to infuse common points of reference with metanarratives about how and why we should consider these references abidingly significant. In postmodern literature, we more commonly saw intertextuality in the form of parody or pastiche — the referencing of another text in order to, through the distance between the two texts, insert a social critique or ironic commentary. In metamodernism, the uses of intertextuality are much more flexible: often brief intended as an idiosyncratic expression of the author’s network of associations rather than the establishment of a broader canon of associations.

Metamodernism approaches intertextuality as one means of idiosyncratically processing both public and private data. It’s for this reason that metamodern artists use re-mixing, mash-ups, obscure citation, and fluid weavings of discrete realities.

Because metamodernism is a cultural paradigm — both a system of logic and a structure of feeling — art and cultural artefacts that are produced “under its sign” are often recognisable as metamodern through their philosophy and ethos more so than their technical components.

In true metamodern style, this blog post is a mash up of text from Seth Abrahams, Timothy Vermeulen and various other writers as well as interpolations, edits and understandings of my own. It is not the source that matters here but that my understanding and view, my truth has been represented. You are invited to see how well it may suit you!

As such, I choose to label myself a metamodernist. My understanding of metamodernism suits my ideas and hopes for both my personal world, and the world at large. Whether or not this is finally recognised or accepted by people in general doesn't really matter. The terminology does not matter. It suits my purpose, it reflects what is actually happening in the world at large, and  at the same time offers us solution-focussed and hopeful yet pragmatic strategies.