10/13/2014 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2014

Metamodernism: The Basics

{NB: The below was written in response to a call by Timothy Green, editor of the literary magazine Rattle, for literary metamodernists, and this author in particular, to be clearer about what metamodernism means and intends.}

We live in a time in which we feel very isolated. The Internet is partly to blame; every day we say things online -- things that isolate others, and things that isolate us from others -- that are so unkind or merely thoughtless that we would never say them face-to-face. The result of this isolation is an increased awareness of distance, both the distance between objects and ideas and the distance between people. We also become aware of how much is lost in these distances (for instance, how much is lost in meaning and tone and body language when two people communicate, as we all increasingly do, over long distances) and we therefore begin to think that our culture, and even we ourselves, are coming apart at the seams.

Postmodernism feeds off distance; distance is what makes postmodernism go. For instance, in the distance between irony and sincerity, and the push and pull between the two, is born a thousand dissertations on postmodernism. Or in the distance between cynicism and naivete. Or, of more interest to me because I'm a poet, in the distance of contemporary poetry from popular culture.

I -- and many others -- have come to feel that postmodernism thrives on, and therefore entrenches, our feeling of being alienated from one another, and alienated from our communities, and alienated even from those aspects of our culture (and the human experience generally) that are shared.

Metamodernism, which is actually a fairly old term (if 1975 is "old") and therefore a fairly old idea, is a now-resurgent philosophy that an increasing number of people feel describes what "comes after" postmodernism. Particularly in Europe, some are calling it the dominant paradigm of the Internet Age, and pointing out that postmodernism rose to prominence as a cultural philosophy decades before the Internet was popularized; therefore, these "metamodernists" say, postmodernism couldn't possibly have the same applicability or utility now that it had during the Radio Age.

Radios, and even the early years of technological industrialization, emphasized distance in a way that was unmistakable. The Internet, by comparison, is a strange mix of distance and closeness, detachment and immediacy -- our sense of ourselves and strangers' varying senses of us -- that postmodernism doesn't really seem to describe well.

Thus, metamodernism.

Metamodernism seeks to collapse distances, especially the distance between things that seem to be opposites, to recreate a sense of wholeness that allows us to -- in the lay sense -- transcend our environment and move forward with the aim of creating positive change in our communities and the world.

Much postmodernism (which, when considered as a discrete theory rather than a broad philosophy, is more appropriately called "poststructuralism") is informed by Marxism. Marxist philosophy, inasmuch as it's focused almost entirely on the struggle between socioeconomic classes, requires "dialectics" -- a struggle between two distant objects or ideas in which only one of the two can emerge victorious.

A poststructuralist theorist will always find a way to put two things in opposition, like reality and unreality, or the proletariat (lower classes) and the bourgeoisie (the middle and upper classes), or new ideas and old ones. For instance, a poststructuralist will tell you that the only way a new way of thinking in literature can arise is if it's stepping on the neck of the previous one. Poststructuralists think, therefore, that if you collapse the distance between poetry and popular culture poets will immediately become complicit in the ravages of capitalism. To a postmodernist, either two ideas are in tension with one another or they are one and the same; to a postmodernist, everything is "zero-sum" -- every situation is "either/or" and no situation is "both/and." Poets are supposed to maintain a distance from their culture, an impersonal remove that leaves room for an ironic or simply hip detachment, deconstruction (the process of breaking phenomena up into their constituent parts and then showing how open to interpretation and reinterpretation each part is), and exactly the sort of knowing smugness the general public suspects all artists feel and has therefore long hated them for.

All of which is to say that there is a growing population of artists who are trying to collapse distance using a cultural philosophy, literary theory, and artistic practice broadly identifiable as "metamodern." One example of this is that poets are increasingly willing to respond to current events in real time, and to put those responses into the public sphere, even if it means not seeming sufficiently "distant" from their topics to look like the cool, detached, well-trained artists they usually want their peers to think of them as. Poets are increasingly writing "into their moment," and doing it "in the moment." The result is poetry that shows that poets are just as confused as everyone else, and just as likely to experience multiple contradictory emotions -- and equally powerfully -- at once. Metamodern poems will therefore seem both ironic and sincere, cynical and naive, accurate and false. The poet is laying different emotions on top of one another, giving each their full due in each poem mainly because they are feeling each of them with equal strength and sincerity.

Metamodern poems also tend to layer realities on top of one another, which simply means that the poet might mix her own creative writing with material she finds from elsewhere -- material that represents someone else's view of the world -- or artificially constrain her self-expressive words into a form someone else has devised. She does this to show that in the Internet Age we often feel like we're different people -- that is, different versions of the same person, or a single person so beset upon by the identities of other people on the Internet that we start to feel like a combination of how we see ourselves and how others see themselves.

The result of this kind of vertical layering of emotions or identities -- a layering in which each layer is co-equal in being present and active, rather than obscuring of other layers -- is that metamodern poems can sometimes seem sloppy or irresponsible or confusing or (most often) easy to read but difficult to understand. The reason for this is that the metamodern poet is "enacting" (making manifest on the page) what it's like to be alive in the Internet Age generally and to be on the Internet daily. Metamodernism collapses distance, helps us take stock of the experience of the world many of us are having now, and in doing so gives us a chance to "transcend" our present experience by removing it temporarily to a partly aesthetic, partly real-world sphere.

When postmodernist poets take ideas that have no immediate relation to how any of us actually live (or only have that relation if we also have a Ph.D. in English Literature and know a lot about literary theory) and make them into "aesthetic" objects -- art objects -- it doesn't touch how we think about ourselves or our lives because the ideas they're talking about are totally foreign to us in the first place.

When, in contrast, metamodern poets "enact," in art, the way regular people actually live, even if doing so makes them look silly in front of their peers or in relation to how poetry is "normally" written, they give all of us a chance to both (a) write that kind of poetry ourselves, using information from our own lives, the better to gain the same benefit from metamodern literature that the writers themselves are gaining, and (b) take such a hard look at what's happening to us daily that we begin to feel in control of it rather than it being in control of us. That dramatic reversal of power and authority (as between us and our culture) often feels sublime when we encounter it on the written page, and transcendent when we've authored what's on that page ourselves.

Lately, some postmodernists have been calling "avant-garde" a sort of poetry that only sort of collapses distances; particularly, it only sort of collapses the distance between itself and popular culture. This brand of poetry pretends to be invested in and wading about in the midst of popular culture, when in fact it's always winking at us and saying, "Don't worry, I think all of this is garbage and without value..." In other words, it is, however quietly, still cynical, ironic, smugly "knowing" -- and like all Marxist projects, and most poststructuralist ones, is uniquely obsessed with the idea that society is decaying and everything is in a state of rupture.

Postmodernists call this new type of poetry "kitsch," which is literary-speak for something that is intentionally preposterous but in a stunningly self-serious way. We can see, from all of the above, how in fact these postmodernists are just unwilling to admit that postmodernism and its obsession with distance is no longer healthy for the average Internet user, and no longer really produces the sort of creativity about our collective situation that leads to solutions to our most pressing problems. These postmodernists call kitsch poetry "avant-garde" and exciting and experimental and forward-looking because they're trying to hide the fact that this sort of literature is just the same sort of "distancing" writing postmodernists have been putting out for decades. In other words, the new is not at all new, it's just a slightly more palatable version of the old.

The metamodernist looks for a sincere and total collapse of distances, whatever the risk to the artist's reputation. Metamodernism isn't ironic or smug or deconstructive, even if it's sometimes so easy to read but hard to understand that readers assume it must be ironic. It isn't, though. It's reconstructive. It acknowledges that distances exist, it collapses those distances, and then it uses the admittedly sometimes problematic collapse of those distances as a way for all of us to collectively begin reconstructing our sense of self and our sense of community.

Of course when we reconstruct things, we acknowledge that they once were in pieces, so metamodernism certainly acknowledges postmodernism in this way. And of course when we reconstruct things, we acknowledge that all reconstructions of something we idealize (for instance, our culture or our "better selves") are going to be imperfect, indeed maybe just an illusion of wholeness. Still, metamodern literary art says that it's time for us to figure out how to live happily again -- as unhappy people don't normally have the personal resources to become activists for their communities, so consumed are they by navel-gazing and self-pity and just getting by day to day. (And we've all been there; this indictment of sadness isn't made without acknowledgment that my own tendencies are the same as anyone else's.)

So in response to postmodernists' obsession with decay and decline and rupture, metamodernists say, "Okay, let's say you're right. We still have to live, don't we? To try to be happy? Try to create? Try to be part of a community? What sort of philosophy could let us aim toward a reconstruction of ourselves and our culture -- however problematic or illusory it might turn out to be -- that could also form part of a plan for healthy living and great creativity and even new forms of political action?"

The sort of optimism on display in metamodernism is so out of fashion it's radical and, in the view of many literary artists, preposterous. That said, metamodernism is a "reconstruction," not a "construction," so it does recognize and internalize the fact that postmodernism happened.

When a metamodern poet "remixes" a pop star's song catalog, or a celebrity's chapbook of poems, or a celebrity's public apology, or a single poem and a single pop song into a credible single-author self-expressive poem, or uses some sort of conceptual constraint to write a "confessional" poem that's partly self-expressive and partly self-restrictive, there's an acknowledgment that everything culturally is in pieces right now and any attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again is going to be imperfect. In other words, the remix never comes out exactly right (as how could it, given how much it constrains its author), and seemingly soul-baring "conceptual confessionalism" often just reveals how hard it is for us to understand ourselves and one another, rather than painting a clear portrait of its author. Sometimes (and this has happened to me) applying a formal constraint to a remix of problematic language related to a current event can lead to misunderstandings among one's readership. And yet one of the risks of metamodernism is exactly this: being misunderstood, and in much the same way we misunderstand people online all the time. Pretending that metamodern art causes misunderstandings more than every single interaction on Facebook and Twitter already does is unrealistic at best, and willfully naive at worst.

The good news in all this, though, is this: the philosophy of distance and "dialectics" known as postmodernism has seen its day come and go. As John and Yoko once said about war, "poststructuralism is over if you want it." Looking back, we can see that postmodernism had sixty years to bring about real political change in America, rather than becoming merely the province of a small cadre of academics, and it's offered us little to no revolution outside the ivory tower of academia.

Likewise, postmodernism has now had more than two decades to help us make sense of Internet culture, and it's offered us no way to navigate the Internet Age without feeling increasingly helpless and alone. Metamodernism is ultimately a complex philosophy that will take academics and artists years to work through -- but it's new, it's not jaded, and it puts real people's real emotions and real lives first, rather than merely situating them in a Marxist narrative that is structurally engineered to always emphasize strife over (slow but steady) progress.

David Foster Wallace, widely considered the first metamodern novelist, once wrote the following:

The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point. Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal!' To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.

We're already seen this prediction come true. Metamodern poetry as often as not is either ignored by postmodernists, yawned at (on the claim that it's no different from postmodernism, though it couldn't be more so), or is the subject of derision -- as working with current events and popular culture and even the banal hard data of one's own life as literary material is treated, by postmodernists, as automatically inartful, irresponsible, egotistical, sentimental, and capitalistic.

In today's hyper-competitive literary world, it certainly seems that even the minutiae of Wallace's prediction have come to pass: poets and novelists now fear yawns and their own embarrassment more than the literary rebels of other countries ever feared bullets. Too many young authors speak brightly of risk while in fact avoiding the social cost of producing unpopular art by any means they can; they promote a cultural revolution they themselves have made certain will forever be purely academic and irrelevant to the great mass of Americans; and they speak of being "responsible" to art when it may well be time, after decades of political and social and spiritual failures in postmodernism, to start being responsible to people again.

Metamodernists aim -- much like the World War I-era avant-gardists of Western and Central Europe did -- to honor and enact both Life and Art simultaneously. They reject the idea (central to any employment of "dialectical" thinking) that literary artists need to choose one or the other. We can't know yet whether metamodernism in the arts and in culture generally can bring about positive change in our communities and in our own lives, but surely it has a better shot at this than a paradigm (postmodernism) that has failed miserably in that regard since Howdy Doody was bouncing about Americans' black-and-white television screens in the early 1950s.