The Metamodernist Manifesto

04/08/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

What I'm describing is at once entirely scientific and the stuff of fantasy.

Last night I saved two people from being swept up in a tornado. It wasn't the largest tornado I've ever seen, or even the largest tornado I've ever imagined, but it was without question the most terrifying. There was a raging fire at the heart of it that conjured up thoughts of Biblical devastation as opposed to just the regular kind. I say it was terrifying because it did actually terrify me, and in fact I led the two people I'm speaking of to safety as much because I was terrified for myself as terrified for them, a fact which would cause me shame if these events had occurred in my waking hours. In fact had these events occurred during a period of consciousness rather than semi-consciousness I would have been doubly ashamed, as the two people I saved were an ex-girlfriend and my wife, two individuals I never imagine or would wish to imagine occupying the same space either in real-time or any other iteration of time. But because all this occurred in the dreamspace, it was possible to save both women while holding just one hand; in the dreamspace one person can simultaneously be two, as we all know and have experienced ourselves.

Scientists have told us for decades that in the dreamstate our brains process information that during our waking hours fits into one or more of several discrete categories: (1) information we did not sufficiently process while awake, by virtue of devoting to it too little attention and letting it creep about at the corners of our consciousness; (2) information which in any state but the dreamstate would be paradoxical, therefore irresolvable by means of any commonplace logic; and (3) information integral to our daily consideration of ourselves and others but to which we are nevertheless entirely insensible. When I first learned about the stuff dreams are made of many years ago, I felt a wash of relief because it meant I could escape certain nightmares that had recurred for me since childhood, simply by consciously processing key parts of those nightmares during the day. And it worked. I began to intently "pre-process" prospective nightmares to avoid having my brain do the same work on the more vivid landscape of my dreams.

It is, in fact, scientifically possible to simultaneously save from a natural disaster both an ex-girlfriend you do not care for any longer and a wife whose physical and emotional health is more important to you than anything else in the world. It is not, however, possible in four-dimensional spacetime. What's required to experience two separate realities as one, without in any way denigrating or diminishing either of them, is five-dimensional spacetime. Five-dimensionality seems a fantastical notion, one appropriate only to science-fictional tales, until one considers that by now it's rudimentary science. Our top astrophysicists daily conduct quantitative thought experiments -- made material by almost impossibly intricate mathematics -- in eleven dimensions. However fantastical the thought of five-dimensional space may be to us as laypersons, and however fantastical the experience of five-dimensional space we have while dreaming each night certainly is, it is in fact both a mathematical certainty and a useful scientific instrument for our most erudite scientists.

Postmodernism abides in dialectics -- the contestation of opposing ideas across what can be visualized as a two-dimensional spectrum. Even the most complicated and subtle postmodern theories are finally reducible to such two-dimensional spectra, whether we speak of neo-Marxism (the proletariat and the bourgeoisie) or Guy Debord's theory of "spectacle" (in which phenomenological and constructed realities are collapsed into a single point in space opposed, dialectically along a spectrum, by a second point representing a readily navigable reality/hyperreality interface). At base, postmodern theories are all "deconstructive" in the same way: they appear to render reality more complex by dividing and subdividing its operations perpetually, when in fact they divide four-dimensional reality into an infinity of two-dimensional dialectics that are as rigid as they are unhelpful. Postmodernism offers us, in other words, a perpetual wartime footing under the guise of broad-minded, flexible analyses. It's not just a tiring state of affairs, it's one that has led many of us into depression, despair, and self-defeating interactions with friends and strangers alike.

A less theoretical manifestation of poststructural thinking takes place every day in our domestic political sphere, where online public policy debates invariably descend into militaristic madness. While postmodernism has been invaluable in investigating and actualizing once-marginalized subject positions -- for instance, by hammering home for us that two people of different subject classifications (gender, racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and so on) are almost certain to experience the same event very differently -- it has done far too little to instrumentalize those subject positions in support of effective political and cultural progress. It has also so overprescribed these subject positions that we can hardly find any basis for agreement with one another anymore. We all, in other words, exhibit signs of George W. Bush's "with us or against us" mentality; if someone we encounter online only mostly agrees with us on a topic, but also vocalizes some disagreement, we are more inclined, as now-instinctive postmodernists, to put that individual on the other side of a dialectical spectrum from ourselves. Every interaction is all-or-nothing; no longer do we say "either you're part of the problem or you're part of the solution," but rather "either you occupy exactly the point I do on a two-dimensional dialectical spectrum or you are, yourself, the entirety of the problem." The result is that we feel that the world is more nuanced than ever -- because we are able to inhabit and express our own subjectivity more intelligently and articulately than ever before -- but we also feel further apart from other humans than we ever have, because almost no one can be said to occupy the same infinitely deconstructed sociopolitical and psychosocial space that we do.

In the dreamstate, all of our processes are vividly rendered in a "metamodern" space. Metamodern spaces emphasize dialogue, collaboration, juxtaposition, and generative paradox by permitting the overlay of clearly distinct realities without any of these realities being in any way diminished. For instance, as in my case, one can simultaneously hold, as a single hand, the hands of two very different individuals while running from a flame-engorged tornado. If, after I awoke from my dream, someone had asked me whether my ex-girlfriend was in it, I would have said categorically "yes." Had I been asked the same thing of my wife, my answer would again have been categorical and in the affirmative. While I might briefly have been inclined to say "sort of" rather than "yes" -- as a way of acknowledging that the reality I experience in dream does not carry with it the exactness of waking thought or action -- while in the throes of the dream I had no doubt whatsoever that there were two physical bodies present but three discrete identities. When metamodernists speak of the generative juxtaposition of opposing poles, whether these poles map onto modernism and postmodernism or sincerity and irony or optimism and cynicism, this is exactly what they mean. In metamodernism there is no "oscillation" between discrete states, however much some may say so, for to say that metamodernism manifests in the oscillation between states is merely to entrench the idea that discrete states do and must exist at either end of dialectical spectra. In the "middle" and "beyond" spaces denoted by the prefix "meta-", dialectical spectra are only visible in their detritus; that is, I can acknowledge theoretically, in a metamodern space, that both irony and sincerity could exist separate from one another, even as phenomenologically I am presently unable to untangle the two.

Metamodernists also speak of two other features of the dreamstate that are incredibly important to our ability to process surprising, complex, obscure, incomplete, harmful, anonymously authored, or paradoxical data in the Internet Age: (1) the presence of metanarratives; and (2) the capacity for ideational reasoning. In postmodernism, metanarratives are suspect because they seem to be straining toward some "universal" truth that can't and doesn't actually exist due to the natural fracturing of language, meaning, and truth into individual subjectivities. In metamodernism, metanarratives are not just present but instrumental. However, the metamodern metanarrative is not an attempt to generate and perpetuate universal truths, nor to pave over differences between subjects; rather, it is an attempt to create locally sufficient narratives that conjoin two or more realities into a meta-reality. In my dream about the tornado, my brain semi-consciously narrativized the juxtaposition of discrete realities as though these realities were all part of a single dimensionality, that dimensionality being a space in which entirely contrary data can and do coexist. This sort of metanarrative is in no way an attempt to enforce a universal truth upon an unwilling population of idiosyncratic humans; on the contrary, it is nothing more than a single mind's attempt to render contrary data as generative rather than stifling. If the dialectics of postmodernism lead us to a sense that our public sphere is in a constant state of decline, decay, and degradation, the dialogic and collaborative spaces of metamodernism accept that everything is fractured but contend that nothing about that circumstance makes personalized and/or localized metanarratives counterproductive. Indeed, such metanarratives are no more improbable or destructive in our waking hours as they are in the dreamspace, astrophysics, or, for that matter, the pages of fantasy and science-fiction novels. They animate us, even in the face of our exhaustion and our doubt.

As you can see from the above, metamodernism is highly invested in "ideational reasoning," this being a juxtaposition of rationality and pragmatism (unadulterated rationality normally being non-pragmatic, of course, as we do not live in a rational world, and thinking otherwise is in fact enormously inconvenient). Some metamodern theorists describe ideational reasoning in the terms Immanuel Kant outlined long ago; Kant noted that even when we know a given series of facts are untrue, we can live "as if" those facts are assimilable into our working reality. Kant was not encouraging "false consciousness" -- the unconscious maintenance of a fictitious relationship between ourselves and our world -- but rather the opposite: the conscious embrace of contrary data on the grounds that they need not be obstructive to our daily living. In the "as if" state of metamodernism, for instance, we can suspect that our global climate has already passed the tipping point and is now on a path toward certain destruction -- and the extinction of the human race -- even as we commit ourselves to fighting climate change in the public sphere. Why would someone certain that the climate can't be changed fight arduously to prevent climate change? Well, because to do otherwise is to abide in a postmodern hopelessness, which does no good for either the individual or society. In other words, there's no harm in fighting climate change even if one believes it's too late to win the fight. Lost causes often animate us much more than ones whose eventual success is inevitable, and on rare occasion we even find -- by fighting for a lost cause with just as much ferocity as we'd fight for an eminently winnable one -- that the lost cause wasn't so lost after all. Metamodernism's ideational reasoning is at once a paradox and an actionable plan for a healthy, vigorous, fully engaged life. The metamodernist doesn't go online and claim to be engaging civil society by flaming opponents in some dialectics-obsessed comment-stream; the metamodernist is a pragmatic idealist, and encourages dialogue and engagement over dialectics and exhibitionism -- precisely because she knows we no longer have anything to lose but hope.

My dream about the tornado was in every respect a nightmare. It had all the usual features of a nightmare: the threat of death; the presence of a particular phobia (for me, tornadoes); the discomfort of trying to reconcile the past and the present; and, of course, purposeless running. But when I awoke from my dream to write this manifesto I did not feel scared or discouraged; in fact, an unusual heart palpitation that had started just the day before, and which I'd never before experienced, had entirely disappeared. Instead, I felt a certain silly pride at having saved not one but two people, and at having engaged two data-points that cannot ever occupy the same space in a way that was generative rather than destructive. We have all had the experience, at least once, of dreaming about someone we knew long ago only to awake with a feeling of guilt at having thought of them at all; we ask ourselves, "Why now?" In five-dimensional space we need not either obscure or fetishize the fact that we have a past, that we have at various and even simultaneous points in our lives cared about different people, by self-shaming ourselves into silence and sadness. Instead, we can and do experience all parts of our lifespan -- and all of our myriad subjectivites -- all at once, a sort of self-actualization that in no way denies even a single one of the complexities of living. The metamodern artist therefore remixes, mashes up, and otherwise juxtaposes or conceptualizes both original and found material as a way of overlapping discrete realities. In the metamodern all chaotically combines to bear discernible fruit: accuracy and inaccuracy, clarity and abstraction, knowingness and naiveté, Life and Art, veracity and falsehood, nostalgia and the frenzy of technological invention, optimism and cynicism, the belief in universality and iconic genius that typified the Modernists and in fragmentation and the decay of certainty that has typified postmodern art for more than a half-century. The Modernists and postmodernists had their day; the network culture of the contemporary world is a new day, a metamodern era, and one in which we need no longer give in to crippling doubt and an eternally deconstructed and deconstructing despair.

This metamodern "manifesto" is, itself, a cogent and deeply personal metanarrative rather than a series of bullet-pointed prescriptions for universal thought or action. That too is intentional. In the democratization of history that metamodernism heralds, the only true metamodernist manifesto is the one you wrote for yourself. Maybe you find yourself feeling nostalgia for a time in the past you never lived in; maybe you find that the falsehoods you hear on the Internet are having as profound an emotional effect on you as the facts they obscure; maybe you've ceased to recognize the boundaries of genre, medium, or convention as having any lasting meaning whatsoever, while seeing in this collapse of distinction boundless potential for both self-expressive and appropriated creativity; perhaps you find yourself quoting lyrics or commercials or films without realizing you're doing it; perhaps you enjoy visual and material art whose constituent parts are readily discernible but whose totality feels somehow otherworldly; perhaps you feel the most and least yourself when you're anonymous on the Internet; perhaps you recognize that emotional truth and objective veracity are separable but of equal force in the lives of individuals; perhaps you think it's time to actually dialogue with, rather than merely shouting at, those whose worldview is decidedly different from yours, to finally take small and tentative steps together, in areas of generative overlap, into a still-uncertain future. As a cultural philosophy, a structure of feeling, a system of logic, and a set of experiential first principles capable of instrumentalization in both art and public policy, this new "metamodernism" is present, dynamic, and actionable intelligence. Get ready for it.