The Difference Between Post- and Meta-modernism

Lately I have written a great deal about metamodernism which is the overall philosophical school of thought this blog and my books are devoted to. I have introduced the notion of the metamodern aristocracy, proposed what’s going to be the meta-ideology of metamodern society, showed how we have progressed from pre-modern to metamodern thinking throughout history, and in series of posts presented the metamodern stance towards life, its view of science, reality, existence, society and the human being (you can read the first one here). However, to some it may still be rather unclear what exactly the difference between postmodernism and metamodernism is. And since there’re other interpretations and uses of the term “metamodernism”, mostly in terms of a cultural phase, which diverge significantly from how I use it to describe a developmental stage, a philosophical paradigm – and – perhaps most importantly, a political ideology; because of that there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the term. So in order to alleviate this inconvenience I’ll attempt to clarify the distinction, how I use the term and why you should bother.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the appendix about metamodernism as a cultural phase, developmental stage and a philosophical paradigm.

”Only now, in the age of internet and social media, are we approaching a time which can truly be described as postmodern”

As the word is used by scholars nowadays, the basic premise of meta­modern­ism is that it comes after and completes an earlier cultural phase, called postmodernism. Post­modernism in turn means “that which comes after modern society”. Modern society is based around beliefs in science, progress, an obj­ective and independent reality, the individual, and so forth. “Modern­ism”, in this sense, is the standard worldview we get in secular West­ern soc­ieties today (unless we happen to attend very religious schools or get liberal arts degrees at the universities, where other para­digms are dom­inant).

Postmodernism is a catch-all term for the ideas and cultural currents that have increasingly challenged the standard modern worldview, at least from the late sixties and onwards. But postmodernism isn’t really an acad­emic school of thought – usually when people speak of postmodernism they have in mind the French post­structuralist thinkers. These include Michel Foucault, Jean Baud­rillard, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard – and perhaps Americans like Richard Rorty, Daniel Bell or Frederic Jameson and Judith Butler. I am not going to try to describe post­modernism in any detail; suffice to say that postmodernism does not believe in “progress”, is suspicious of grand narratives for our day and age, likes to focus on details, exceptions and peripheries, and is critical of the power and prestige that science wields in modern life.

Postmodern art (to make matters more complicated this is what people usually call “modern art”, which you can read more about in my book The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History) can give us an intuitive sense of what post­moder­n­­ism is. It is perhaps best descri­bed with the image of Andy War­hol – who, in the sense I use the term here, can be called a post­modern artist. War­hol shows us that fine art and popular culture are not so different from one another: sur­faces and appear­ances within contexts are all that really matter. His triptychs and paintings indicate that mun­dane and popular things such as images of canned tomato soup or Marilyn Monroe repeatedly drow­ned in shrieking col­ors can also be fine art – because there is really nothing behind the curt­ains, no depth or sec­ret to reveal, nothing “special” about the artist and his art­work. Post­modern­ism sees through all such illusions. There is only surface. And you can play with these surfaces in irreverent ways: Pablo Picas­so squeezes several dimen­sions and multiple perspectives into the same two-dimen­sional frame – and the pastiche becomes increasingly popular. Pastiche is the mixing of different styles, fashions or epochs in surprising and often ironic ways.

In early forms, postmodern thought first showed up in late 19th century liter­ature: you may remember the wizard of Oz, who, upon being revealed as a fraud, points out to Dorothy that he’s not a bad man – only a bad wizard. Or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, in which the stupefying dialogues reveal the absurd and contingent nature of speech and lang­uage. Surface, context, absurdity.

Postmodernism is closely related to such things as relativism, social const­ruct­ivism and a kind of cynicism that comes from seeing many different per­spectives, with no longer being a naive believer in religious, politi­cal or even scientific movements. Postmodernism is interested not so much in what is true, in what should be done, but rather in questioning everything, in pick­ing things apart, deconstructing them, to make us think again, to make us less sure, to make life harder for those who would control or manipulate others: the politicians, the media moguls, the scien­tists and the medical prof­essionals. To the postmodern mind, the goal is to reach an anti-thesis – the critique or criticism of the existing is what counts as a real result; not to give answers but to refute old answers and dwell on new questions.

Whereas postmodernism, in some vague proto- form, appeared in arts and philosophy already during the 19th century, and prospered in the arts and literature in the early 20th century, it was clearly formulated only in the 1960s and 70s – and it became a powerful academic trend in the 80s and 90s. Soc­iolo­gists remarked, however, that the rest of society was hardly “postmodern” in the ways that the French theorists had descri­bed – which is why other epoch labels such as “late modernity” and “second modernity” were tried out to describe the period. Only now, in the age of internet and social media, are we approaching a time which can truly be described as postmodern – where surface truly is everything, and where everything becomes a cut-and-paste collage, an endless pastiche.

”…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.”


But history is always on its way – we never seem to catch it. So while society in the rich parts of the world is finally becoming post­modern, the phil­o­sophers and cultural theorists are already spotting the next tendency: meta­modernism.

Metamodernism, the word, is a silly adaptation in a way. “Meta” means “after” in old Greek, just like “post” does in Latin – so it’s the same word as postmodernism, basically. But the connotations are different. The “meta” pre­fix brings to mind such things as “meta-discussion”, i.e. a discussion about the discussion and “meta-theory”, which is theory about theories. So the meta­modern cultural phase somehow brings with it a bird’s eye on modern life and it begins to reflect more deliberately upon it, to try to shape it.

Meta is often taken to mean above, or beyond – and sometimes both of these. Metamodernism as a cultural phase is what comes after post­modern­ism, but it does so by being more postmodern than postmodern­ism itself – just as the postmodernism of the 1980s was more secular and dis­ench­anted than the modernist mindset itself (you can read more about this here).

In a now famous 2010 paper, the two Dutch art theorists Timotheus Verm­eulen and Robin van der Akker described a trend in art and arch­itecture they had spotted in recent years – a trend they called meta­modernism. Art, arch­itecture and to some extent popular culture, are coming out of their cynical, ironic, critical postmodern phase with manifestations of abstract art and com­edy such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Post­modernism was antithetical to a lot of what the modern age had brought; it was concerned with being an antithesis, with questioning what we take for granted.

Metamodernism instead sees itself as a synthesis of modernism and post­modernism – or rather, a protosynthesis, (a “proto”-synthesis because it ackn­ow­ledges that whatever story we tell ourselves, it must be incon­sistent and temporary). As Vermeulen and van der Akker write, meta­modernism “osci­ll­­ates” between modernism and postmodernism. To oscillate means to move back and forth like a wave – you may remember the word from physics class. I’d best quote Vermeulen and van der Akker:

“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.”

Vermeulen, T. & van der Akker, R., 2010. Notes on Metamodernism. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Volume II, pp. 1-14.

Ontology is a word for what you believe about reality, about what is “really real”. So when Vermeulen and van der Akker claim that meta­modern­ism oscillates “ontologically”, they mean to say that the metamod­ernist artists adopt a new view of reality itself. In this view you are both a modern believer in science and progress, and a skeptical, ironic critic of your own naive belief.

We will not go farther into the analysis of art and architecture that these authors present with a rich array of examples. Basically, metamoder­nism is keeping the postmodern suspicion of progress and “grand narratives” (sci­ence, socialism, etc.) but bringing in the modern hope and sense of direction through the backdoor, as vaguely suggested open potentials.

Vermeulen and van der Akker are chiefly leftwing intellectuals like most people of their brand, and they link this new trend to a wider hope in political renewal, critique of capitalism (or neoliberalism), etc. Their paper spurred considerable attention and there is a blog named after it, Notes on Meta­modernism, with many different intellectual contributors. We should mention one: Luke Turner, an art scholar, who had the Holly­wood star and scandalous polymath artist, Shia Laboef (of the Trans­formers movie, you know those giant robots, and dancer in Sia’s music video for Elastic Heart), figuring as author of the 2011 Metamodern Mani­festo. This text outlines some of the principles of this artistic and cultural current. The manifesto proposes such ideas as informed naivety, magical realism and pragmatic roman­ticism.

When we speak of metamodernism as a cultural phase, as a Zeitgeist, it is possible to make the argument that it shows up in all manner of present day contexts – that many of the current day events are “metamodern phen­o­mena”. Note, again, that this is not how I use the term.

But note also that what we said about postmodernism holds true of meta­modernism: the fact that there were some French theorists writing about it did not mean that society as a whole was suddenly “postmodern”. These people were ahead of their time, and their analyses were certainly rushing things. In a corresponding manner people who think we today live in a meta­modern age, are precocious and ahead of their time. If they study today’s society instead of working out the philosophy inherent to a metamodern perspective, they risk mistaking late or extreme forms of postmodernism for metamodernism. But 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.

Some societal phenomena of our day and age could be described as meta­modern ones, because they require a metamodern mindset to under­stand and respond correctly towards. Take ISIS (the Islamic State). Can it be seen as part of the metamodern Zeitgeist? To really understand what is going on with ISIS, why it emerged with such force, you must be able to understand the logic of a globalized information society in which sincerity and irony merge.

Although ISIS is hardly run by people at the metamodern stage of develop­ment, its very occurrence is, in a way, a metamodern phenome­non – its rise pertains to the logic of a globalized, online society and its develop­mental pathologies. Viewed from this perspective metamodernism is the domin­ant, underlying cultural logic of the internet age. But that cultural logic has yet to come fully into play.

”In my version of metamodernism, we are not contented with viewing metamodernism as a cultural phase. There is also the devel­op­­mental stage dimension, a general philoso­phical dimen­sion and … a political dimension”

Bringing A New Metamodernism into Being

What I am doing in my work is something that is closely related to cultural theory, but still quite different. I share much of the analysis of these different scholars of meta­modernism (whose works, to be fair, I have presented in a simpli­fied manner). But I also add a few things that I believe they would hardly appreciate. I think these scholars are right in their analysis, by and large, and I share their spirit. But they fall short; their project doesn’t really land us in hope and pragmatic idealism. It doesn’t really take modern soc­iety into its hands and look beyond it, towards what comes after.

I commend these thinkers as scholars, but I denounce them as small spirits and yellow cowards. They are too careful, too critical of themselves, too afraid of putting forward visions of progress and development. They are too wary of evoking existential or spiritual faith. They are, in a sent­ence, not sufficiently sincere in their sincerity – or, indeed, ironic enough in their irony. This lands them in late or extreme forms of post­modern­ism, rather than making them authentically metamodern.

In my version of metamodernism, we are not contented with viewing metamodernism as a cultural phase. There is also the devel­op­­mental stage dimension (that people and societies develop to a meta­modern stage, according to adult development psychology, etc.), a general philoso­phical dimen­sion (the paradigm I outlined above) and, which is the main focus of my books, a political dimension – a certain analysis of our time which points to how society is evolving and how we as a society can and should reasonably proceed, a vision of what politics we need.

I am hereby stealing the term “metamodernism” from its original context, and adding more meaning to it. Like all wild things, information must be free. And one of the most metamodern phenomena, if we use the term as a cultural phase again, is the piracy of symbols for idealistic pur­poses. Meta­modernism is being shanghaied.

When I found it, the thing called “metamodernism” was a cute little obses­s­­ion for academic conferences and art expositions, perhaps a source of inspir­ation for architects and filmmakers. When I am done with it, you have a powerful, effective ideo­logy that can save societies from collapse and drama­tically improve the lives of millions – a stream of thought that can out­compete and replace liberal democracy and capital­ism.

If you believe me when I’m saying that, you are either a naive fool, or you may be starting to finally get a hang of this “magical realism” thing.

”Political metamodernism is built around one central insight. The king’s road to a good future society is personal development and psych­o­logical growth. And humans develop much better if you fulfill their inner­­most psych­ological needs.”

Why Political Metamodernism Is the Future

What I call political metamodern­nism is a new perspective on politics. It changes not only how we do politics, but also what the role of politics in society is in the first place – and of course, it sets new goals for what we want to achieve in society, and it provides explan­a­tions for why.

Very basically, political metamodernism tries to bring about the society that comes after, and goes beyond, what we usually think of as “modern soc­iety”. Take a modern country today, like Sweden, and consider how diff­erent it is today – politically, socially and economically – from a cen­tury ago. And how very different its citizens are. Where did all the hack­ers, yoga people and feminist vegans come from, for one thing?

The Social Democrats of the early 20th century had an ideology – a vision, an idea of what the future welfare society might look like. In large parts, that society has successfully been materialized. But since a few deca­des, we have no such visions or goals – even as the world is changing more rapidly than ever and the technological possibilities are much great­er than before. So where are the major political visions?

Seriously. Where are they? The Left works only to maintain the welfare state, the Greens to maintain the sustainability of our current civil­ization, the libertarian Right to boost economic growth and the nationalist or conservative Right seeks to maintain the old nation state in the face of immigration and globalization. All of these movements and ideologies are stuck in the mindset of party politics that evolved from industrial society, with its classes and issues. None of them actually offer us anything new, or anything that might substantially improve our lives in a way that would com­pare to the building of the modern liberal democracy with a market econ­omy and welfare state. What is the equivalent of this system in the society of the future, a society we know is globalized, digitalized and postindustrial? In which dir­ection can and should our society evolve? Is that an unreasonable question? I don’t think it is. I think it’s deeply un­settling that we, as humanity, are not having that conversation.

This is where political metamodernism comes in. Political metamoder­nism tries to achieve a society that is as different from today as today’s Sweden is from Sweden in 1900. Everything is going to be different. For good or bad, people are going to vote differently, educate differently, work differently, live and travel differ­ently – even love and socialize differently. We will have diff­erent ideas about the world and our place in it. Just being alive will feel diff­erently.

So the aim of political metamodernism is to take us from one “mod­ern” stage of societal development (liberal democracy, party politics, capital­ism, welfare state) to the next “metamodern” stage of develop­ment. It is aiming to outcompete liberal democracy as a political system, out­com­pete all of the pol­itical parties and their ideologies, outcompete cap­ital­ism as an economic syst­em, and outcompete and replace our current welfare syst­em. There. Did I get your attention?

Political metamodernism is built around one central insight. The king’s road to a good future society is personal development and psych­o­logical growth. And humans develop much better if you fulfill their inner­­most psych­ological needs. So we’re looking for a “deeper” society; a civilization more soc­ially apt, emotionally intelligent and existentially mature.

There are three different parts of political metamodernism:

  • The Listening Society – which is the welfare of the future, a welfare that includes the emotional needs and supports the psych­o­logical growth of all citizens. A society in which everyone is seen and heard (rather than manipulated and subjected to sur­veill­ance, which are the degenerate siblings of being seen and heard).
  • Co-Development – which is a kind of political thinking that works across parties, works to keep egoissues and emotional invest­­ments and biased opinions in check, and seeks to improve the general climate of political discourse: “I develop if you develop. Even if we don’t agree, we come closer to the truth if we create better dialogues and raise the standards for how we treat one another.”
  • The Nordic Ideology – this is my name for the political structure that would support the long-term creation of the listening society and make room for co-development. It is called the Nordic ideology because its early sprouts are cropping up in and around Scandinavia. It includes a vision of six new forms of politics, all of which work together to profoundly recreate society. A large part of this has to do with how to defend citizens from new sources of oppression that can emerge as a side-effect of a “deeper” society. These new forms of oppress­ion are generally of a more subtle and more psychological kind than what we have seen in the 20th

So these three things taken together are what I call political metamod­ern­ism. My book The Listening Society explains how we as hum­ans develop and grow psychologically. The idea is that there is an intim­ate connection between understanding how humans grow and evolve – intellect­ually, cognitively and emotionally – and how good or bad society is going to be. Hence, it should – or must – become a top political priority to supp­­ort the psych­ological development of all citizens.

The second book, titled Nordic Ideology, is going to tackle the issues of how societies develop, how the new political system works, and how it’s going to beat today’s system of liberal democracy.

I have increasingly come to believe that political metamodernism is excee­d­in­gly useful for add­ressing society’s ailments, such as:

  • the multifaceted eco­logi­cal crisis;
  • the instability of the economy;
  • the excessive global inequalities;
  • the wide­spread anxiety, or “alienation”, that modern people harbor;
  • the challenges of global migration;
  • the transition to a postindustrial, robotized and digitalized economy;
  • and the challenges of transnational governance.

In other words – I believe it can productively address the major prob­lems of late modern society. The listening society is the bridge that can take us, in a few gene­rations, from the modern world, to a meta­modern soc­iety.

So basically, a meta­­modern society is defined as one which has “solved” the pro­blems of modern society, much like modern society “solved” the problems of pre-industrial, traditional society (dramatically reducing pov­erty, disease, wars, serfdom, slavery and misuse of monarch power).

Because metamodern thinking encapsulates much of the logic of our curr­ent day and age, it is also useful for you as an individual person – espec­ially if you have political ambitions.

So, in a nutshell, the mission of political metamodernism is thus:

To unite the many struggles
of the exploited bodies of the poor
with the struggles of the lost,
suffering souls of the rich world.
And to expand that struggle
to sustainability across time and space.
And to expand that solidarity
to fathom the vast suffering
and multiplicity of perspectives
of the animal realm in its entirety.
And to deepen the struggle
until it is reborn as play.

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, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.