Ten Basic Principles of Metamodernism

04/27/2015 04:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015


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. While some metamodernists claim that metamodernism has been a dominant cultural force since the mid-1970s -- arising in response to the political, economic, and natural-resource upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s -- other theorists claim metamodern processes first became dominant in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, usually by emphasizing its particular responsiveness to the crises of those decades.

Regardless of one's reading of the history of metamodernism, a number of key principles have emerged in nearly every major reading of the term:

1. 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 favor 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.

2. Dialogue over dialectics. Postmodernism favored "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 emphasizes areas of overlap between contesting opinions that could lead to effective collective action on a slate of issues.

One example of this would be a campus debate in which the frequency of a given problem is debated by opposing groups. In the postmodern worldview, one is either "for" solving a given problem or "against" it, so even a debate over the frequency with which a problem arises must be taken as a sign that anyone interested in that debate (that is, anyone interested in determining with specificity the frequency with which an issue arises) must actually oppose solving the problem at all. The metamodernist would support first collaboratively determining the frequency with which a given problem arises, and the nature of the problem in the first instance, and then forming a coalition of individuals who, having fully understood the scope of the problem, decide that they want to solve it -- even if some of them still don't see eye-to-eye on a host of other 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 (in fact) both are degraded and destroyed in number and in spirit. Meanwhile, in a metamodern scenario, at least something gets achieved, even if it doesn't resolve all disputes between the two groups or ensure that they'll be able to work together on other issues. As to those other issues, other metamodern alliances (perhaps between very different groupings of parties) will be formed to address them.

3. Paradox. 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 recognize they are not shared -- or even necessarily understood -- by others. This paradoxical relationship between how we conceive of truth "locally" and how we conceive of it at the level of society allows us to constantly exhibit and participate in paradoxes, as we are simultaneously aware and accepting of how we individually operate and how that differs dramatically from how others do.

4. Juxtaposition. Juxtaposition occurs when one thing is super-imposed atop 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. This particular juxtaposition -- which is also a paradox, as how could any person or text simultaneously be sincere and ironic? -- occurs when an individual's sincere relationship with their own feelings butts up against a simultaneous awareness that these feelings are preposterous to everyone else. Or, alternately, this juxtaposition can arise when an individual feels an ironic detachment from their culture, but this detachment gives rise to a series of entirely earnest emotions and perspectives. Writers within the metamodern literary subgenre of "New Sincerity," for instance, are so achingly earnest about expressing their thoughts and feelings that, as readers, we can be certain that they're aware of how preposterous they sound to everyone else. We therefore experience such writing, and such individuals, as being simultaneously sincere and ironic.

5. The collapse of 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, which came of age in the Age of Radio, is therefore likely to emphasize how meaning degenerates as it moves across the vast expanse of space between selves and groups of selves. Metamodernism, which came of age in the Digital Age, recognizes 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. The simultaneous anonymity and false intimacy of the Internet also so confuses self-identity that it makes it harder and harder to distinguish our opinion of ourselves from others' opinions of us, or distinguish what we could or do believe from what others believe. This means that it's harder than ever before to pretend that we are in a dialectical relationship with other people or ideas -- rather than being in the midst of a swirl of identity and belief we only sometimes feel we control.

6. 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. After all, you have to know exactly where you stand if you're going to say that someone with a different self-identity stands opposed to you and yours. 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. For instance, in the simultaneously anonymous and falsely intimate spaces of the Internet, we often find ourselves joining our words and actions with people we know nothing about -- except that they agree with us as to the one issue we're discussing in the moment. In this way we can feel as though we share a subjectivity with other people who, if we knew them in real-time, we would realize were "different" from us as to (for example) their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, political views, and so on. Experiencing multiple subjectivities means having the right to reject or deemphasize permanently a subjectivity one would normally be thought to associate with, switch subjective positions as feels emotionally and/or logistically appropriate, tune out certain subjectivities temporarily in order to collaborate with others, or create entirely new subjectivities that have more meaning to one than do the received categories of difference that currently dominate public discourse. This also means empathizing with others' multiplicity of subjectivities even when one does not share all or even most them, rather than seeing such differences as sites of contestation. To be clear, none of this reflects a desire to erase or sideline existing subjective categories, merely to complicate our models of how they develop, interact, intersect, and in time help form our individual and collective identities.

7. Collaboration. Metamodernism encourages not only dialogue but collaboration. In a world in which we are constantly being influenced by innumerable forces -- some we recognize as influential for us, some we don't -- metamodernism literalizes this experience by encouraging us to consciously join our efforts and perspectives with those of others. Metamodern learning models, for instance, are likely to emphasize 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. In the metamodern world, we therefore encounter what might normally seem to be bizarre "alliances" -- for instance, when far-left ACLU attorneys defend in court the right of far-right neo-Nazis to march on public property, as both groups are (in this instance) invested in the operation of the First Amendment. This doesn't mean the ACLU "supports" neo-Nazis -- or vice versa -- but that accomplishing something tangible and valued by both groups was temporarily more important to each group than were other elements of their political and cultural philosophies.

8. Simultaneity and generative ambiguity. Early descriptions of metamodernism suggested that an individual thinking metamodernistically "oscillates" between opposing states of thought, feeling, and being -- almost as though human beings were pendulums swinging between very different subjectivities. More recent understandings of metamodernism emphasize, instead, simultaneity -- the idea that the metamodern self does not move between differing positions but in fact inhabits all of them at once. The paradoxical element of metamodern juxtapositions is produced by this very simultaneity; after all, if one were to very self-consciously "oscillate" between opposing positions, one would in fact just be acknowledging the dominance of postmodern dialectics (i.e., binary systems with "poles" at either end that one can swing between).

The simultaneity and ambiguity of metamodernism also give rise to its interest in indiscernible "affect" (as in the unearthly, unreasonably twee, and/or unreadable characters of a Wes Anderson or Miranda July film); five- and six-dimensional reasoning (as in scientific theories that presume multiple realities are possible and can even co-exist, even if only one can be perceived), and neo-Kantian sublimity (the belief that we can be generatively overwhelmed and inspired by realities so juxtaposed and paradoxical we don't even understand what we're looking at or experiencing). While by no means explicitly connected to drug culture, metamodernism often indulges paradoxes and juxtapositions more readily observed and accepted in an altered state of consciousness, which is why so many television programs and books that appeal to the drug-using demographic -- for instance, all of the programs under the "Adult Swim" banner -- can be considered metamodern. Likewise, visual and literary arts that are "meta-" in the conventional sense (like the late television program Community, or the notion of the "nonfiction novel" in literature) are often said to be metamodern when they frustrate our ability to determine what is real or unreal, sincere or insincere.

9. 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. The metamodernist does not presume that optimistic civic engagement will save the world -- or resolve an individual crisis -- merely that a) it couldn't hurt, b) it gives one a reason to hope and the ability to stave off despair, and c) in rare instances our sense that a harm is incontrovertible and/or inevitable is incorrect. This sort of optimistic behavior often requires the embrace of metanarratives -- for instance, the idea that human culture can "improve" the level of justice and fairness it exhibits over time -- even in the face of one's suspicion that metanarratives like this are not, finally, supportable. If postmodernism negated the possibility of personal, local, regional, national, or international metanarratives other than those that were/are strictly dialectical, metamodernism permits us to selectively, and with eyes wide open, return to such metanarratives when they help save us from ennui, anomie, despair, or moral and ethical sloth.

10. 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. To be clear, this is not an anarchistic opposition to structure, but rather a thoughtful and civic-minded interest in the radical reevaluation of structures with an eye toward progressive change.

[Scroll down at this link for more essays on metamodernism.]

Seth Abramson is an Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire and the Series Co-Editor of Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in late 2015. His most recent book is Metamericana (BlazeVOX, 2015).