Metamodernism: The Conquest of a Term

Now for the million dollar question: What is metamodernism? There are three different ways of viewing this, each of which is related to the other two. We’ll delve into the deepest and most significant of these three meanings. We’ll dive deep and fast, so please hold on to your mouse or smartphone. Also, the definition of metamodernism is contested, and yours truly is admittedly a contestant. En garde.

Metamodernism as a Cultural Phase

The first and most widely known understanding involves seeing metamodernism as a cultural phase: you know, like when they study different phases in arts and literature: romanticism, realism, futurism, cubism and so on. This kind of cultural phase is said to be showing up in artists like LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner (yes, Shia LaBeouf as in the movie star from Transformers and dancer in Sia’s music video for Elastic Heart ), and in a wide array of painters and architects as famously described by the Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker. Especially, Vermeulen and van der Akker focus on the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. The Romanian professor of literature Alexandra Dumitrescu works to delineate “a new paradigm” in the field of artistic writing.

There are many talented thinkers in this field. You can find plenty of interesting stuff on metamodernism as a cultural phase by a number of talented theorists and authors on the community page Notes on Metamodernism. There is even a Metamodernist Manifesto, signed by none other than Shia LaBoeuf. They describe a stance towards life that comes after postmodernism, after the irony and criticism against modern society, where a critically informed mind reintroduces hope and progress, while “oscillating” back and forth from cynical detachment: hence such concepts as “sincere irony”, “informed naivety” and “pragmatic romanticism”.

If you view metamodernism as a cultural phase, you can also analyze different current events and phenomena as being “metamodern” in the sense that they embody the cultural logic of the internet age. This is what the American poet, attorney and scholar Seth Abramson has been doing, looking at Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos (in Huffington Post as well as here on Metamoderna) in an impressive barrage of articles. Seth Abramson has also written an authoritative introductory guide to metamodernism as a cultural phenomenon defining our time.

As a Developmental Stage

The second vision of metamodernism is that of a developmental stage – one that can be studied in societies as well as individual people. This is outlined in detail in my book The Listening Society (psychological stages of development, much of which is grounded in adult development research) and the upcoming sequel Nordic Ideology (sociological stages, which are more difficult to study “objectively”, but can be approached by means of social theory).

In The Listening Society I study four aspects of human development: 1. cognitive stages, 2. the cultural “code” that people base their world views upon, 3. subjective states (wellbeing as well as spiritual experience) and 4. existential depth (i.e. people’s existential relatedness to the world).

These four dimensions taken together form what I call “the effective value meme” of a person. So there are traditional people, modern people, postmodern people and metamodern people – depending on our mix of the different dimensions of personal development. The metamodern people have only been showing up in history recently, because only now is there a society that corresponds to this kind of adult development. Long story.

Needless to say, the developmental understanding of metamodernism makes much stronger claims than the “cultural phase” understanding. Metamodernism in this sense is something that logically can only emerge after postmodernism, and that describes some key patterns how people function in society and life at large. It says something about how they think, about what values they have (or at least the structure of those values), about how they relate to the world, about their life goals and aspirations. A lot of the metamodern people can be found within what I call the triple-H population: hipsters, hackers and hippies.

Because people at the “metamodern value meme” function differently, they also tend to team up and work for a what might loosely be called a metamodern society, much like modern people teamed up and worked to create a modern society during the Enlightenment and onwards. They intuitively see the world differently than do their modern and postmodern fellow citizens. So there is a close connection between the stages of personal development and the structures of society.

What the students of “metamodernism” as a cultural phase have done is to describe some of the expressions of metamodern people. What they haven’t done it to understand how this fits into a larger developmental sequence and how it rests upon a certain stage of psychological development. To see metamodernism as a stage, not only as a phase, makes it a much more powerful and universally applicable tool for understanding the world and effecting change in it.

The Metamodern Philosophy

The third view of metamodernism is that of a philosophy; a coherent but ultimately open-ended stance towards life, science, reality, spirituality, art, society and the human being. There are many strands of thought in contemporary philosophy that could be branded as metamodern, or proto-metamodern, or at least at the border between late postmodern thinking and metamodern thinking.

Among the authors writing specifically about “metamodernism”, what I would call a metamodern philosophy has been most closely approach by Seth Abramson. But most “metamodern” thinking isn’t necessarily branded as such – you have the philosophies of Karen Barad, Quentin Meillassoux, Ken Wilber, Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist and others, not all of whom would acknowledge one another’s works.

So let us begin this brief tour into Hanzi Freinacht’s bullet-point formulation of the metamodern philosophy. Can we wrestle this term from its loose contexts and give a larger, coherent meaning? I’ll begin metamodernism’s general stance towards life – to be followed up in future posts. All larger philosophical programs must include a general life philosophy, a relationship to life; one that is lived and embodied, one that guides everyday actions, goals, activities and ways of expression.

Metamodern Stance towards Life

  • To be exquisitely ironic and sincere, both at once.
  • To be both extremely idealistic and extremely Machiavellian.
  • To see that God is dead and humanism dying (humanism is the hum­an­­ity-centered worldview originating in the Renaiss­ance) and to accept and celebrate this by taking meaning-creation into one’s own hands.
  • To intellectually see, and intuitively sense, the intimate inter­connected­ness of all things: “the universe in a grain of sand.”
  • To accept and thrive in the paradoxical, self-contradictory, alwa­ys incom­plete and broken nature of society, culture, and reality itself.
  • To have a general both-and perspective. But note that it is not either “both-and” or “either-or” – rather, it is both “both-and” and “either-or”. In each case, it is still possible to have well-argued preferences:
    • both political Left and Right (and neither one!);
    • both top-down and bottom-up governance;
    • both historical individuals and social structures;
    • both objective science and subjective experience;
    • both cooperation and competition;
    • both extreme secularism and sincere spirituality.
  • To accept and thrive in both manifesting, systematizing philo­sophy (like Plato or natural science) and non-manifesting, pro­cess oriented, open-ended philosophy (like Nietzsche or crit­ical social science).
  • To recognize the impermanence of all things, that life and exist­ence are always in a flow, a process of becoming, of emer­gence, imman­ence and ever-present death.
  • To see normal, bourgeois life and its associated normality and profess­ional identity as insufficiently manifesting the great­ness and beauty of existence.
  • To assume a genuinely playful stance towards life and existence, a play­ful­ness that demands of us the gravest seriousness, given the ever-present potentials for unimaginable suffering and bliss.

”The solution that metamodernism offers is to keep the postmodern irony, keep the distance, but to create a new sincerity and self-consciously naive belief on top of it.”

Alright, so there is a bit to unpack here. The first point is the mixture of stark irony and pristine sincerity, which all of the cultural theorists have observed. In recent decades you have had a rise of irony – postmodern irony – that the young generation has been brought up with. The aim of this irony has been to relate critically to our commercialized world, full of sales pitches and promises. It creates a distance between us, the critically minded people, and the hysterically pursued ideologies of the 20th century. By being ironic, we can stay safe. And we can avoid the ridicule of others. So we watch South Park and The Simpsons and make internet memes drooping in irony. This irony helps us reveal things: it shows that everything is dependent on the context, that humor can be more powerful than the faith of the “true believers”, that we are always relating to surfaces that others have created for us to see, that we are continuously being manipulated by one another, that people and their aspirations are always more trivial, more banal, than they’d like to admit.

The problem with irony is that it always leaves you at a distance. You can keep going your whole life, always being the smart dude who said the clever thing and avoided being the sucker. But does that really make us free? We still have things we believe in, after all, things worth fighting for. The people of the 20th century really believed in things like human progress, that science will set us free, in the freedom of the market, even in communism or spiritual gurus or the struggle to save the whales. All of that seems a bit silly today, and it seems that if we subscribe uncritically to any of the above, we’ll end up being suckers, or oppressors – or both.

The solution that metamodernism offers is to keep the postmodern irony, keep the distance, but to create a new sincerity and self-consciously naive belief on top of it. So you make yourself vulnerable by stating what you really believe, what you think must be done, what really moves your heart – but you stay ironic towards your own convictions. Think about it – why is this blog relatively different from other commentators? The difference is that I keep presenting you with my own visions of society and reality, and pointing towards what society I think we must achieve: a listening society, a more existentially mature civilization. My neck is exposed. You can cut me up, rearrange me, quote me, ignore me, interpret me and put pieces of me into places I couldn’t dream of. The reader, not the writer, has the power.

”…what is the greater vanity? To hold sincere beliefs and addressing the meaningless tragedy of existence, or to stay at sarcastic distance?”

Metamodernism is the marriage of extreme irony with a deep, unyiel­ding sincerity. These two sides are in superposition to one another. The sin­cerity makes the irony much more effective, because it becomes genuinely ambigu­ous; the irony, because it is all-encompassing, creates room for an unapologetic, even religious, sincerity of emotions, hopes and aspirations. Without the irony and sarcasm, my sincerity would simply be too much; it would awaken severe suspicions, and for good reason too.

This both-and perspective leads us down through all of the other points on the list: to be Machiavellian and idealistic (to not be a game accepter or game denier, but to seek to effect “game change”); to see that you can be an atheist but still have a profound spiritual life and be brimming with faith in the divine; to be both Left and Right (but still taking positions, like the Alt-Left explored on this blog); to have a holistic perspective where all things are beautifully interconnected, yet recognizing that the universe is always tragically broken and that there is no hope for full salvation.

And in that hopeless place of a broken universe, and no God, and no direction of progress, and with a guarantee that you’ll always be mistaken in the end, and with the recognition that whatever you say will be misinterpreted and misused, and that you won’t be the hero or the good guy in the end – you still go ahead with religious fervor, with pristine sincerity – with an ironic smile at your own self-importance.

Religious, glittering, gleaming faith and iron resolve in the face of utter meaninglessness. That is the space that the metamodern stance towards life opens for us. After all, there is development in the world, and I can serve that development: humanity can advance to higher stages. The problem is only that my own vision of development is destined to be disproven and mistaken.

Because, after all, what is the greater vanity? To hold sincere beliefs and addressing the meaningless tragedy of existence, or to stay at sarcastic distance? Surely, the sarcastic distance is a greater insult to the universe. Can that sarcasm and “critical perspective” ever be truly sincere? Is it not perpetually concealing the simple fact that we do care, that we are utterly vulnerable and invested in this reality, here and now?

At the very least this metamodern stance gives me something to do. Something other than posting ironic memes under the open vastness and terrifying mystery of the clear night sky.

So metamodernism is more than a neat cultural phase in architecture. It is a development of a mature stage in which human beings take responsibility as co-creators of our own socially constructed universe. And it is a philosophy.

We must conquer this term and use it, taking the hero’s journey to save the world.

I take it you understand I am being ironic.

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