Donald Glover's metamodern music video for "Sober."
Recently, I published an article entitled "Ten Basic Principles of Metamodernism" that aimed to summarize the state of metamodern discourse today. Below are five additional principles that are common to nearly every definition of the term "metamodernism" that has emerged since the word was coined in 1975 by university professor Mas'ud Zavarzadeh. (NB: The article that coined the term, "The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives," can be accessed here.)
1. 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, a "poststructuralist" analysis of homeland security issues might position the notion of "homeland security" as a constant struggle between very different ideologies and mechanisms for making meaning: for instance, an ideology emphasizing freedom and another emphasizing control, or one emphasizing intimacy and another the "public sphere." Metamodernism "reconstructs" the meaning of a term like "homeland security" by uniting its many overlapping dialectics and warring constituencies of meaning and ethics. For instance, metamodernism asks us, "What would the notion of 'public intimacy' look like? Or 'controlled freedom'?" To be clear, 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.
A proper metamodern "reconstruction" is a unified whole that can't easily be deconstructed into its parts. For instance, if someone asked you whether Twitter is a "free" or "controlled" environment, the honest answer would have to be "both" -- as much as the postmodernist in us wants to give an all-or-nothing answer that aligns with our personal politics. Or, more appropriately, one might say that it is "both and something else entirely, i.e. something the likes of which we haven't encountered before." This is why metamodern reconstructions are often referred to as "both/and" constructions (as opposed to the "either/or" of much postmodernism or even the "both/neither" of early conceptions of metamodernism). The hope is that "both/and" constructions allow us to move "between" the poles postmodernism has erected for us, and eventually "beyond" the very spectra on which those poles reside.
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. The problem with "metaxic oscillation" is that it merely re-entrenches postmodern dialectics by convincing us that every problem is fundamentally bipolar.) 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, and therefore preferable in all respects to the current state of these important debates.
In the early 2000s, a scholar from New Zealand, Alexandra Dumitrescu, analogized metamodernism to "a boat being built or repaired as it sails," and it's precisely this sort of reconstruction that metamodernism permits -- a manner of construction in which we simultaneously acknowledge that things are still in pieces, but also that the pieces we have must be treated as useable even if we still have some doubts about that. A metamodern "reconstruction" is not merely a "construction" because it recognizes that we are trying to "repair" something that was previously deconstructed; and it's not a deconstruction because we are, however cautiously and skeptically, setting about trying to build a "whole" object.
Reggie Watts' metamodern comedy special, "Why Sh*t So Crazy?"
2. Engagement instead of exhibitionism. Too often, meaning-making processes in contemporary society revolve around staking out a position and defending it -- and being seen publicly so staking and defending -- rather than engaging an issue collaboratively with an eye toward enacting positive change (however subtle and gradual).
If modernism's promotion of supposedly "universal" principles was unworkable because a moral high-ground fails to engage those who demur from its first assumptions; and if postmodernism's promotion of dialectics honored individual subjectivities but at the expense of effective collaboration and dialogue; metamodernism is less about pleasing one's own vanity -- either through adoption of a supposedly superior personal code or minute tailoring of one's worldview to one's personal perspective and experiences -- and more about engaging others proactively and with an open mind.
In the previous article linked to above, I discussed the notion of operating "as if" massive crises like global warming can be overcome -- even if one secretly fears they can't be -- and an ethos of "engagement" is very much related to this sort of "pragmatic naivete." The metamodern individual is willing to have his or her well-constructed subjectivity pierced by interaction with others, and to seek out hybrid subjectivities that are simultaneously self-expressive of the self and the heterogeneous communities one belongs to. It's not difficult to imagine, for instance, the metamodern politician: a person without party affiliation, whose political views on a range of topics fall at various points on the vast conservative-to-progressive spectrum, whose means of achieving his or her desired ends (or the ends desired by his or her very heterogeneous constituency) avoid exhibitions like the filibuster or the post-vote press conference in favor of coalition-oriented engagements.
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 worldviews on the masses, or b) postmodern cynics whose beliefs run only as deep as the latest polling cycle. The metamodern "politician" is therefore likely not much of a politician at all, whether we speak of former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, current Democratic Vermont Senator (but also avowed "independent socialist") Bernie Sanders, or (in those rare instances his policy positions actually are as hybridic as his rhetoric about being an "independent" would suggest), a politicized media figure like Bill O'Reilly. To be clear, the role of the metamodern politician is, in this imagining, as much 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 -- as it is to be the flag-bearer for any one discrete political agenda. While the metamodern politician is likely to be such a flag-bearer for particular groups on particular issues, this will be possible without pretending to be "most things to all people" or "everything to some people" -- both totalizing positions the metamodernist is likely to reject.
Bo Burnham's metamodern comedy special "What."
3. Effect as well as affect. In the arts, we often look for evidence of poststructuralist principles in either the absence or dominance of affect. For instance, 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.
One classic example of the difference between postmodernism and metamodernism is this one: in postmodernism, Andy Warhol films himself quietly and "normally" eating a fast-food hamburger while sitting at a table in what is obviously an art studio; in metamodernism, the same behavior is filmed while the artist is sitting in a McDonald's. The former is a critique from without -- and the latter a critique from within -- an economic and sociopolitical structure. Whereas the former lacks both affect and effect (because it is so obviously a staged statement), the latter produces such a generative ambiguity about whether what is being observed is art or not, or even what its relationship to its subject is -- e.g., critical or non-critical -- that it necessitates a response from its observer. When an observer is unsettled by an artwork being impossible to readily categorize or "judge," it is more likely to produce an interactive dialogue between observers that reframes the terms of an existing debate.
But metamodern "effect" is much more radical than this tame example. In fact, it is a reorganization 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. From this standpoint, we might judge as "poetry" any combination of text, audio, and/or video that produces a reflexive reaction having to do with the purpose and function of our idiosyncratic relationships with language. We might judge as "comedy" any artwork that engages us at the level of wit-with-levity. In short, art becomes what it produces as much as (if not necessarily in replacement of) how it is produced; all art (and even much that does not at first seem to be art) is increasingly treated as performance art, not because it is somehow insincere or artificial but simply because it is mindful that it must at some point engage with a live audience.
Alison Gold's metamodern music video, "Chinese Food."
4. Walllessness and borderlessness. These are unwieldy words that don't really exist in common parlance -- and with good reason -- but the idea that metamodernism eliminates the walls and boundaries between literal and abstract structures is an important one to 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. And once that breaking down of barriers has occurred, such barriers can never be fully reinstated; that is, once characters from your least favorite television program have suddenly appeared in the world of your favorite program, that sort of "cross-over" is now officially a possibility at all future moments in either small-screen world.
This is, again, just a very basic example of the concept. What about "slipstream" fiction, a metamodern subgenre in which a single story moves seamlessly between literary genres -- e.g., between the setpieces of mystery, romance, horror, science-fiction, fantasy, et cetera? What about works of art so multimedia and multi-genre that they are unclassifiable by the usual administrative designations we find in the Academy (e.g., a "fiction" class, a "poetry" class, a "screenwriting" class)? What about a single phone app that can simultaneously be used for very different purposes, by very different users? Or a lengthy academic article that is at once a piece of critical and creative writing, perhaps because it's structured as a Menippean satire?
The qualities of walllessness and borderlessness suggest not that an artifact is ambivalent about its utility or its ethics, but rather that it recognizes how utilities and ethics overlap and intersect in ways that are normally hidden from us. Sometimes this quality isn't even innate to the work; for instance, the increasing utility of National Geographic programs both for amateur zoologists and pot-smokers in Colorado seeking a surreal audiovisual experience is itself a "metamodern" condition -- especially when we consider that the makers of such programs cannot help but be aware of how their films are being (differentially) consumed.
The metamodern animation Rick and Morty.
5. 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. Moreover, the purpose of intertextuality is usually to establish a substantive and objective rather than idiosyncratic and merely stylistic relationship between texts. The idea behind intertextuality is that employing and acknowledging it gives us a better sense of not just one but two (or more) texts at once.
In modernist literature, allusions were common, and served not only to entrench a universal "canon" of references educated persons would be expected to catch but also the erudition of the author of those references; they 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; only intermittently substantive; ambivalent about whether they are readily recognized by every member of an audience; sometimes so distorted or jumbled up by the author as to even be unrecognizable as citations; intended as an idiosyncratic expression of the author's network of associations rather than the establishment of a broader canon of associations.
If modernist texts used intertextuality to enshrine universal metanarratives and symbols, and if postmodernist texts more commonly used intertextuality to critique or even significantly degrade those metanarratives and symbols, 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 (one thinks, for instance, of the very conventional-seeming opening credits of Alpha House, in which the show's actors are introduced not by their actual names but by the names of the characters they play; or, any plot on NBC's now-cancelled show Community in which a plot device used in another television series is uncomfortably and almost haphazardly crowbarred into a plotline that will fit the characters and setting of Community).
A metamodern video by musician Cameron Carpenter.
Because metamodernism is a cultural paradigm -- both a system of logic and a structure of feeling -- art and cultural artifacts that are produced "under its sign" are often recognizable as metamodern through their philosophy and ethos more so than their technical components.
For instance, Joss Whedon's "normcore" version of the superhero Hawkeye is a metamodern construction within the context of a fairly conventional action-movie franchise (The Avengers), though that franchise is itself part of a branded "cinematic universe" whose numberless cross-overs and instances of intertextuality bespeak a massive metamodern enterprise.
Wes Anderson's brand of otherworldly twee renders banality as mythic and the mythic as shockingly banal, but that doesn't prevent individual characters in Anderson's films from being archly ironic or repetitively sincere -- as it's not that Anderson is oscillating between extremes in such instances, but rather than his films and scripts develop a metamodern atmosphere within which many different types of "players" can roam.
YouTube, Weird Twitter, and Weird Facebook can cause individual metamodern videos, twitter accounts, or Facebook users to go viral, but as the virality of these metamodern curios is based on how we react to them as much or more than how or why they were created, their metamodern quality isn't erased if and when the motivations behind them are revealed to be generally modernist or postmodernist. For instance, Alison Gold's video "Chinese Food," with its ambiguous politics and implicit intertextual ties to Rebecca Black's "Friday," doesn't cease to operate in a metamodern fashion simply because we later discover it was intended as a deliberate parody of Black's abysmal pop "hit." As always, a metamodern effect can be present even in the face of a non-metamodernist mode of authorship.
Understanding how, why, when, and where metamodern structures arise helps us navigate elements of art and culture that might otherwise be unreadable. Why was America so enthralled when Senator Marco Rubio spent portions of his nationally televised response to the President's State of the Union address drinking bottled water? How does an epic novel like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest simultaneously infuriate potential readers with its length and textual difficulty while remaining impervious to any suggestion that it's merely an academic exercise? How do Bo Burnham and Sarah Silverman execute their savage social critiques without ever seeming any less friendly or adorable? Why do Vine users remain in awe of the "magic" of amateur filmmaker Zach King, when they know exactly what sort of computer wizardly produces his remarkable special effects? Why are partially ad-libbed movies and plays now so popular? Why are we seeing, in contemporary architecture, more and more works that are simultaneously absurdly stylized and entirely pragmatic? Why is "trick photography" the persistent subject of Buzzfeed articles and social media feeds? How do "bad" shows like many of those on the Cartoon Network -- shows with low production values, sloppy dialogue, flimsy premises, yet no reflexivity, either, about their badness -- develop such devoted cult followings? Why do some progressive Democrats watch Fox News religiously? How does "reality TV" stay so popular, long after its core fraudulence has been exposed? American culture is increasingly marked by people, events, and trends that are not readily explicable using poststructuralist thinking -- nor by simply reducing them to bite-size, single-entendre adjectives like "sincere," "naive," and "optimistic," however much these might play into the storyline preferred by modernists who wish to believe modernism is making a comeback.
While the fifteen principles discussed in this article and its predecessor comprise a non-exhaustive list of core principles in metamodern thought, disagreements between metamodernists still abound and will continue to be a topic of conversation online and in academic journals. What conditions produced the shift from postmodernism as a dominant cultural paradigm to metamodernism, and when did this shift occur? Does metamodernism manifest differently in different cultures? Does the "meta-" prefix of metamodernism rightly refer to Plato's "metaxis," Mikhail Epstein's "metabole," or simply the generic "between and beyond" translation of the prefix itself? Should we identify as "metamodern" artists who self-identify as postmodern? Does identifying someone or something as a manifestation of metamodernism mean that person or thing is free from all vestiges of modern and postmodern feeling, thought, and affect? Can modernist and postmodernist scholars even acknowledge the validity of the word (and concept) "metamodernism" without bringing into question the importance of their present and continued scholarship? If metamodern work is divisive -- if its crossing of time-honored boundaries infuriates some even as it thrills others -- must we consider it somehow contrary to the collaborative atmosphere or even the specific political advancements metamodernism hopes to provoke? Is metamodernism ethical? Can metamodernism exhibit an "oscillation" between states or affects without (perhaps justly) being termed dialectical and postmodern? Can it bill itself as being singularly involved with acts of sincerity and optimism without (perhaps justly) being termed single-entendre and therefore just a rehashing of modernism?
Future articles in this series will posit "juxtapositive metamodernism" as a way of avoiding these last two critiques of metamodernism and doing more -- it says here -- to both answer the many questions above and spot future metamodern developments we can't at the moment even imagine.
[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).