“Let’s just say it: it’s over”
Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernity
Metamodernism might be the most important idea you encounter this year. In a world that is growing increasingly fractured and complex, Metamodernism is a worldview that offers a way forward.
In last week’s article we looked at the difference between the worldviews of Modernity and Postmodernity. Each of these evolved in response to particular historical and cultural trends.
Modernity, as we saw, was the cultural phase that was at its height in the 19th– and early 20th-centuries. Postmodernity emerged in the 1960s and is the dominant cultural perspective in the 21st-century.
Our current cultural landscape is polarised along these battlelines. With only these two worldviews to choose from it seems that society is doomed to fracture. But this is where Metamodernism comes in.
Metamodernism has been emerging in the past couple of decades and it offers a way past the gridlock.
The Meta in metamodernism comes the ancient Greek word Metaxis used by Plato and Plotinus to capture the sense of in-betweenness. In the case of Metamodernism this means being in-between Modernity and Postmodernity. But it is not simply a middle ground.
In the language of Ken Wilber’s Integral school of thought — which is the main theoretical underpinning to Hanzi Freinacht’s school of Political Metamodernism — Metamodernism transcends and includes these previous worldviews. This synthesis is critical for the problems we face in the 21st-century.
In this age of the meta-crisis, we find ourselves staring down the barrel at half a dozen existential crises all at once. It is not simply the climate crisis, but the meaning crisis, the mental health crisis, the dangers and potentials of emerging AI technology which on the one hand may make us redundant as a species and on the other hand with technology like swarms of AI drones flying around, AI technologies threaten our survival in a much more tangible way. There’s the energy crisis, diminishing natural resources, the politics of space, the Cold War shaping up between China and America not to mention increasing inequality and the coming deluge of unemployment brought on by robots.
This is an age of complex problems and much of our public discourse is so much rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. The challenges facing humanity are too complex and too dangerous for us to fall back into the luring narrative of us and them. Metamodernism at the very least is a new worldview that doesn’t fall into this us and them left and right trap. It is a complex worldview for an age of complexity.
In this article, we are going to look at the characteristics of this new cultural trend. its relationship to the previous trends of modernity and postmodernity and why, in this world in crisis, we need Metamodernism.
The Metamodern Synthesis
In the previous article on Modernity and Postmodernity we looked at the characteristics of these two worldviews.
To briefly summarise, Modernity was characterised by an exuberant self-confidence. Hegel believed we lived at the end of history, Wittgenstein believed he had dissolved all the problems of philosophy, Freud believed he had found the source of all mental illness, Einstein came up with his theory of relativity and believed that a theory of everything was within his grasp. In short, we seemed to be solving all the problems that faced us at an incredible pace and ultimate truth seemed to be just around the corner.
There was a fervent belief in Progress, and Reason sat in the throne left vacant by God. Even in the countertrends of Modernity Marx and the work of Anarchists such as Bakunin and Kropotkin, there was an audacious vision of a utopia within our grasp.
Modernity then was characterised by grand narratives in every domain from the social and political to the philosophical and scientific. The tone of modernity was an almost arrogant faith, a haughtiness that modern man was the pinnacle of life itself.
Postmodernism, as characterised by Jean-Francois Lyotard, is defined as distrust towards grand narratives. The focus of Postmodernism is the fringe cases, the peripheries the exceptions basically all the cracks in Modernity’s beautiful narratives.
Postmodernism deconstructed all the bullshit of Modernity. The jadedness with the kool-aid of Modernity’s optimism was embodied in Postmodernity’s tone of cynicism, sarcasm and irony.
Rather than seeking a monolithic objective truth, postmodernism exposed the million and one truths of different perspectives. It gave a platform to the voices exploited and neglected by Modernity’s narrative: the voices of African-Americans, women, the LGBT community, colonial voices and those of prisoners and the insane. All the voices in short that modernity had excluded from its great proclamations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of liberty equality and fraternity.
In taking such an abundance of perspectives, a spirit of relativism and nihilism came to prevail in the broader Postmodern perspective. In trying to give equal voice to so many perspectives, Postmodernism had no unified central vision as Modernity had. It had no anchor point to orient itself towards.
It turned its back on finding a grand narrative that tried to encapsulate all of these perspectives.
And this, is where Metamodernism enters the scene.
What is Metamodernism?
In the language of the Hegelian dialectic, Modernity was the thesis to which Postmodernism’s antithesis opposed itself.
Out of this conflict a new synthesis has begun to emerge in Metamodernism.
The challenges facing humanity today refuse to be tamed by either the arrogant optimism of Modernity or Postmodernity’s relativistic multiplication of perspectives.
By the same token these complex problems cannot be solved without the audacity of Modernity and the nuance of Postmodernism. And so what is required is an integration of these virtues while moving past the gridlock. What is required is to transcend and include.
As Hanzi Freinacht notes in his book on political metamodernism “The Listening Society”:
“metamodernism is qualitatively very, very different from postmodernism: It accepts progress, hierarchy, sincerity, spirituality, development, grand narratives, party politics, both-and thinking and much else. It puts forward dreams and makes suggestions. And it is still being born.”
From the perspective of Metamodernism, the Postmodernists had thrown a lot of baby out with the bathwater of Modernity. There’s no doubt that these traits can have dark sides and turn toxic but that does not mean they should be discarded.
In facing the problems of the 21st century, we need the bigger picture that Modernity offered. We need the structure and order of hierarchies; we need a vision of progress and a grand narrative about why it all matters.
And more than that we need to be able to talk about big issues without getting ensnared in mere cynicism and irony.
If there’s one thing that the different commentators on Metamodernism have all noted, it is its peculiar tone of ironic sincerity.
This dynamic is already familiar to us all from social media.
There are people who post honest depressing posts on social media like this person and it doesn’t inspire compassion and empathy. It just makes everyone else
Then there are the humblebraggers like this guy.
The thing with social media is that you can’t simply post something. There are rules of discourse that you must follow or god forbid you’ll end up posting cringe.
Most people now have the more nuanced awareness of what other people are going to think about what they’re posting and so they can avoid most of the pitfalls but still it leaves us with something of a predicament: how can you say something meaningful on social media?
The transparent antics of the one-dimensional are eviscerated by the ironic cynicism of those with some basic social awareness. But this awareness also constrains the expression of genuine emotion. This isn’t limited to social media of course it’s just the latest and most visible appearance of a cultural trend stretching back to the ironic detachment that first made David Letterman an icon in the 1980s.
Over against this we have the work of people like the shame researcher Brene Brown who talk about the importance of vulnerability. And we have a culture that likes to make a lot of noise about mental health but usually without a word said about why it is so hard to express emotion.
So the real question becomes how do we communicate something genuine in a culture where emotional expression tends to be so disingenuous? How can we be earnest without the cringes?
The Metamodern Tone
And this is where the Metamodern enters the scene. The Metamodern tone has been characterised as ironic sincerity.
It uses irony as a delivery mechanism for deep sincerity.
There’s no better example of this than Bo Burnham’s masterpiece of Metamodernism Inside which we’ll be looking at in greater depth next week. The opening song of the special is called Content.
This song epitomises ironic sincerity. When Inside was released, it had been 5 years since the release of Burnham’s previous special and so there was something of an elephant in the room.
How can you explain to the fans that love you why you’ve been away for 5 years? He could have opened with a heartfelt moment to apologise to the fans and explain that he’d been having some troubles with mental health. But he couldn’t do that because that would be cringe.
He could have given into the Postmodern straitjacket that limits this type of expression. He could have justified it as not needing to explain himself to his audience. He could have played it cool. But that’s not a great option either.
And so instead Burnham integrated it into the opening song. The song is hilarious, it’s catchy and it says sorry in a joking ironic way but one that overflows with sincerity. Genius.
He doesn’t say sorry please forgive me and I hope you like it. Except that he does but he wraps in a container of sweet, sweet irony that makes this earnest message wholesome rather than cringey.
And that is the very essence of the Metamodern tone. It’s acknowledging the cynicism of Postmodernism which sees in most forms of earnestness a sort of performativity. The ironic packaging acknowledges this, modestly mocking itself but in doing so it reveals an earnestness.
This ironic sincerity is an example of the oxymoronic theme that runs to the core of metamodernism. When the creators of the 2011 Metamodern Manifesto used phrases like Pragmatic Idealism, Informed naivete and Magical Realism they were pointing to similar juxtapositions.
Metamodernism is moving beyond the cynical straitjacket of Postmodernism and striving once again for a greater form of meaning, a truer form of connection and a deeper sense of truth.
In aspiring for a grand sense of meaning and idealism, the Metamoderns aren’t fervent believers like the Moderns. Instead, as noted by the Dutch art scholars who first ignited the Metamodern Movement with their 2010 paper Notes on Metamodernism:
“their intention is not to fulfill it, but to attempt to fulfill it in spite of its ‘unfulfillableness’.”
Or as Hanzi Freinacht puts it in The Listening Society:
“The metamodernist has her own unapologetically held grand narrative, synthesizing her available understanding. But it is held lightly, as one recognizes that it is always partly fictional—a protosynthesis.”
And so we might say that one of the traits of the metamodern is playfulness. It takes the awareness of our limits that Postmodernity became so acutely aware of but instead of being crippled by them it instead opts for playfulness for an acceptance of its inadequacy—its fallible nature. It’s a delight in the attempt; it’s the belief that there is something beautiful in the striving.
This playful spirit of Metamodernism, this ironic sincerity and pragmatic idealism is essential for the problems we face today.
We need Metamodernism. Our world is drowning in complexity. The naiveite of Modernity and the relativistic nihilism of Postmodernism are only compounding the problems that we face. We need a bigger vision once again.
Our world is facing a meta-crisis – we have a climate crisis, a meaning crisis, a mental health crisis as well as approaching another political crisis and perhaps a new Cold War. We are a world in crisis and no amount of naiveite or nihilism is going to get us past this. We need a grand narrative again. We need something that is going to give us hope once again. Metamodernism is the trend that is evolving out of that need. It is the bridge-builder between all the different factions in our world. As Freinacht notes:
“Metamodern principles are already inherent to the contradictions of modern society; late modern society is pregnant with metamodernism. People need irony in order to build interpersonal trust based on self-knowledge, humor and critical thinking. Only when such trust is in place can we successfully gather around a meaningful struggle for something greater than ourselves, like the climate crisis.
There, another ironic quirk of our age: Irony brings trust. And trust crowns a winner.”