Metamodern Art, Culture and Politics


How does metamodernism, an academic study of art and culture, relate to the recent developments in politics seen in Scandinavia and elsewhere, with movements like the Alternative? Indeed, how can we say anything meaningful about the pattern that connects metamodern art, politics and culture? Now that the cameras are rolling, I’d like to thank all my friends at metamodernism.com.

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“We know that we’re not ‘the good guys’, not on ‘the right side’, but that we are always bound to be both good and bad. Society can be deep and meaningful, even sublime, but that is precisely what makes it such a risky business.”

In this post I celebrate the kinship between us, mainly political-philosophical metamodernists, and you, the cultural-critical movement closer to aesthetics, architecture and film. I know I can speak not only for myself when saying that we political activists like you guys and your work, both the artists/designers described as metamodern and the academics who described the trend (rats in the cellar, you know who you are ☺). The good part is, in an intellectual and cultural context, you don’t even have to like us back. We can still use your ideas, your taste and your sensibilities to change society for the better.

Dutch Renaissance

Apparently, these words by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker, appearing in a 2010 paper in Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, hit a chord:

“Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”

I believe this quote constitutes the core of what might be called a little Dutch Renaissance in its own right. These two authors, while concerned primarily with academic trend spotting in art and culture, must have known that they were on to something of wider applicability. The blog started by them (with the same name as their paper, Notes on Metamodernism) touches upon politics and philosophy as well.

What then is reborn, as the word renaissance would suggest? Quite simply the modern qualities lacking in postmodernity: enthusiasm, hope, unity, totality, purity. While we all know that these things taken by themselves create all the evil hotchpotches of modern times – Stalinism, fascism, the New Age, market-oriented neoliberalism, state socialism – now has come the time when we are sufficiently saturated with postmodern irony and critique to let them in again, through the back door.

I don’t think people today, academics in particular, nearly enough appreciate how postmodern we have become. Nobody calls themself postmodernist. But everybody is. Everybody is suspicious of progress, of grand narratives, or utopias, or even of bold claims or encompassing theories. The Simpsons set the agenda, and South Park set the norm. Climate change may be the only exception – still a locus of hope and despair, rather than ironic detachment.

Now we can hurry up to hope and progress, just to hurry back to criticism and deconstruction of the same. Oscillating. We can create little utopias, small syntheses and try to build a more globally sensitive and ecologically concerned culture. We can allow ourselves that spark, because we today have more means to criticize it, to know it’s never all that, never a final answer. We can even allow ourselves to recognize the depths glimpsed in spiritual experience and meditation, because we know that not even in faith and devotion are we safe. We know that we’re not ‘the good guys’, not on ‘the right side’, but that we are always bound to be both good and bad. Society can be deep and meaningful, even sublime, but that is precisely what makes it such a risky business.

It’s more than that. We recognize that we need that spark in order to meet the challenges and live up to the possibilities ahead. But oscillation back and forth at the speed of sound is hard work. So we need a good psychological and social foundation to build upon. Many people may not be ready.

If people are not ready, then so be it. Metamodernism should work through art and culture to create the setting for people who feel inclined to oscillate.

Trends versus stages, or both

Metamodernism can be contrasted to Wilberian Integralism in that it does not necessarily view itself as a new (higher) stage of cultural or personal development. Rather, it sees itself as working with postmodernism, being between modernism and postmodernism, and beyond postmodern historically.

While you can see metamodernism as a time period, a series of trends that simply came after postmodernism, I would still suggest a little stage theory can come in handy. I would suggest that metamodernism can indeed be viewed as a higher stage than postmodernism. But don’t worry, I’ll oscillate right back.

Anyone who prefers metamodernism to postmodernism must have some kind of argument for why. If you retort with a “I simply prefer it because of its symbolic value in a structural trend I am under the influence of” you have in fact given a postmodern, relativist answer, and you are stuck where you started. Another option is to claim that it is inherently better. That would be a moralistic, essentialist answer. Let’s not go there. A third option is to respond: “Because it includes postmodernism, but transcends it, allowing me more freedom of thought and action”.

If you prefer the third response, you have indeed implicitly crafted a simple stage theory, comparable to the stage transition in the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. If something includes and transcends something else (but not vice versa), this is to claim it is of higher stage.

I suggest that metamodernism should be seen both as a trend and stage transition. It is both after and beyond (or above). But now oscillating back from progress to skepticism, we must ask the question, in which ways and in what contexts is a higher stage better? I have already suggested that metamodernism is more psychologically demanding. And it is certainly more demanding in terms of craftsmanship, just consider the works of the metamodern artists. I would also argue it is more difficult to grasp, in some ways even with greater risks of elitism – or with being misunderstood. The most dangerous way of misunderstanding metamodernism is to cling to its modernist parts and forget the postmodern ones.

Macro, macro man

This can be further developed if we view metamodernism as part of a greater global trend. It is possible to argue that this macro pattern is one the evolution of human thought in many fields: complexity science, adult development, posthumanism, integralism, postconstructvism and much more.

The fun part is that these kinds of analyses are now open for us. It’s OK to have a hypothesis of where society is going, where we should be going, about changes in epochs and the development of nature and culture.

Even if metamodernism as idea is sprung from concern with minute details and understanding the uniqueness of art, it opens the door to more macro understandings. It gives us a language to frame our bold, naïve hypotheses, and still remain relatively unattached to and critical of them.

Participant description, analytic creation

Metamodernism is both descriptive and prescriptive. It both says something about what seems to be going on out there, and adds something about what should be going on. Again, this surely complicates things, because it means that anything (or anyone) we like happens to become metamodern, only to lose that same glow when it falls out of favor. It’s a recipe for self-deceit, hypocrisy and confusion.

And yet, for people who no longer want to live postmodern ironic lives, it seems to be the way forward. That is why authenticity becomes important. No, not the authenticity of yesteryear, of the artwork, the artist, the innermost touchy-feely feelings. Man, I could have stolen all the stuff for this blog entry without blinking.

The authenticity is one of critical observation. To be merciless on ourselves and one another. And, even more pertinent: that critical observation creates new discursive space for dreams, hopes and bolder theories. We are getting rid of shame, and we must build social settings where even shame isn’t shameful anymore. We have to show ourselves how stupid and limited we are, so that we can truly blossom.

When we describe reality, we also create it. Metamodernism, then, is a movement to help us more authentically describe reality, to tell the story of what we really think and feel. In this description not only the actual is included, but also the potential. Ideally, this makes the self-organization of society more intelligent, reflexive and creative.

The sheer, unapologetic power of cool

And metamodern art and culture, then, hold a certain quality that makes them politically powerful: they are cool. This coolness stems for the ability to be both ironic and sincere at the same time. To nudge on notions like sublimity and depth and complexity, but without putting it vulgarly in your face (like the New Age).

Metamodern music, softly alluding to the vastness and mystery of reality, the transhuman and superhuman potentials of man – but putting it in a silly pop song and getting drunk to it. Metamodern painting, design, politics; they speak the same language.

This coolness means that people are drawn to it and seek to identify with it for more primal reasons. It is, again, one of the main dangers of metamodernism. Coolness is seductive. But it should be held unapologetically, because it is our chief means to affect, change and transform deep aspects of our culture and politics.

Metamodern poetry is more powerful, all said and done, than the Russian army.

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Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of the upcoming books ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.

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