Postmodernism’s critique of everything from truth to art has left us in the intellectual wilderness. Greg Dember argues that Metamodernism, a nascent movement which protects subjective experience from the ironic distance of postmodernism whilst rejecting the scientific reductionism of modernism, is the solution to our need for a new –ism.
Metamodernism, as a conceptual category, is new enough in its adoption curve that – when writing about it for a general audience—one still has to introduce the basics before saying anything novel or specific. Also, since metamodernism is always understood in some sort of relation to modernism and postmodernism, one really ought to make clear how one is using those terms as well. So, let’s start by getting all of that out of the way.
Metamodernism is generally understood to be both the name for a cultural period and a term for the sensibility that has arisen during that period. The period in question began roughly a few years before the turn of the (recent) millennium and continues into the present. It comes after postmodernism; is in some sense a reaction to postmodernism; and in some sense depends on postmodernism to even make sense. Postmodernism has a similar relationship to modernism in terms of its periodization. Each reacts to, builds upon and/or refutes the previous epistemic period. So I will begin with describing modernism and work my way through postmodernism and back to metamodernism and then share some thoughts about how metamodernism is showing up in 2023 and speculate about future developments.
Inasmuch as one can define modern, modernity and modernism in numerous, sometimes conflicting ways, let’s quickly distinguish modernism from modernity. (The category distinctions I’m making here are not universal, but they will apply at least within this article, so the reader can know what I mean, more precisely.) Modernity is the term often used for the long historical period that began with the Enlightenment in the 17th century. Put very briefly, modernity is all about humanity developing independence from nature and from humanity’s past—the pursuit of new and better ways of doing things and the faith that such an endeavor is possible. Meanwhile, modernism (beginning, much more recently, in the last few decades before the twentieth century and continuing until some point in the mid-century) is often taken as an intensification of the ideals of modernity with a focused expression of them in the arts, literature, architecture and philosophy. Ezra Pound’s rallying cry for modernism in literature and the arts was “make it new.” In general, whether in architecture, the arts, or philosophy and science, modernists sought to figuratively scrape away the detritus accumulated on the surfaces of things and reveal deeper, more fundamental truths found underneath. Modernism idealistically sought universalisms, but often went about this by employing atomizations. Generally, when people in the arts and humanities speak of postmodernism or metamodernism, it’s modernism (the shorter, recent period) that we are contrasting it with more than modernity (the earlier, much longer period.
Postmodernism is a distrust of universalized narratives and a preoccupation with context, relationality and systems.
In any case, sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, a postmodern sensibility begins to show up in various arts and cultural arenas. In the present day, many people—wrongly, I would say—specifically identify postmodernism with left-leaning social justice movements that advocate for the rights of marginalized people. An interest in under-represented voices is indeed a part of postmodernism, but it is only a part. Generally, postmodernism is a distrust of universalized narratives and a preoccupation with context, relationality and systems. Where modernism would seek “facts” through closely examining particular objects, the postmodern approach was to focus on the context connecting those objects. In the case of postmodern artworks, an important emphasis was on reminding the viewer/reader/audience that what they were experiencing was, in fact, an artwork, and therefore tacitly initiating reflexive examination of the relationship between artwork, creator, audience and society. While an interest in context coupled with a deemphasis on “the dominant” frequently lead to a concern for the rights of women, non-white people, and sexual minorities, i.e., groups commonly advocated for by the Left, there is also a postmodern Right and perhaps most prevalently an apolitical postmodernism.
Artists and their audiences had grown weary of much of what came along for the ride with postmodernism.
Somewhere around 2000, many scholars claim that another sensibility emerged—the one we call metamodernism. Artists and their audiences had grown weary of much of what came along for the ride with postmodernism: a presumed sense of embarrassment towards sentiments of earnestness or vulnerability, a sort of denial of personal interiority and an overly cautious approach towards committing to values and belief systems. In 2010, looking back on the previous decade, the scholars Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker observed cultural expressions that did not seem describable in terms of academia’s prevalent postmodern models. In painting, film, literature, music and architecture, they saw works evoking a sensibility that “…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.” In their essay in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture they named this sensibility metamodernism. Though others had used this term earlier, this was the first time it had caught on and instigated a discourse, first in academia and then beyond. Scholars in diverse fields as well as arts journalists began using Vermeulen and van den Akker’s notion of metamodernism in order to account for shifting aesthetics in many arenas of contemporary culture.
Some examples of metamodern cultural artifacts: In television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Community, Fleabag and Atlanta; in film, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, Wes Anderson’s entire body of work, and very recently, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie; in literary fiction, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, much of the work of Zadie Smith and much of the work of Jennifer Egan; in popular music, artists such as Elliott Smith, Childish Gambino and Billie Eilish.
To me, what all of these have in common is that they bolster the proposition that interiority matters. Not usually through any sort of intellectual argument, but through evoking a similarly complicated feeling: a braiding of playful irony or experimentation with an unabashed delight in the intricacies of being human.
That modernism was preoccupied with propelling humanity forward with the quest of pursuing objective, universal truths, and postmodernism was preoccupied with drawing attention to what was missing in modernism: an awareness of context and relationship.
It can be said that modernism was preoccupied with propelling humanity forward with the quest of pursuing objective, universal truths, and postmodernism was preoccupied with drawing attention to what was missing in modernism: an awareness of context and relationship. Metamodernism’s preoccupation, then, is with restoring a place for this interiority or felt experience after the meaning-degrading “side effects” of postmodernism’s relativism and modernism’s reductionism. A catalog of examples of the metamodern sensibility drawn from the arts and popular culture is available at the website that I co-edit, called What is Metamodern?
Some may ask: Why is it necessary to respond to postmodernism’s shortcomings by inventing a new -ism? Why not simply return to modernism? One way of answering this question is to point out that nobody is “in charge” of what society does en masse. Would it have been a better idea for society to simply return to straightforward modernist narratives and aesthetics rather than move on to something that maneuvers between modernism and postmodernism in a new way? Perhaps, but that’s not what society seems to have done. Similarly to scholarship about postmodernism, metamodernism scholarship focuses on observing, reporting and making theories about culture. Not about making recommendations.
But perhaps that answer begs this question: What reason do artists and audiences have then, for wanting to move on from postmodernism but not return directly to modernism? Why did they do it? Well, just as postmodernism has perhaps required a course correction, thus inspiring metamodernism, we should remember that postmodernism itself was inspired by the shortcomings of modernism. Therefore, rather than being regarded as a mistaken viewpoint/worldview that never should have happened, postmodernism appears to be a necessary response to the hubristic over-reach and blind spots of modernism. A response that has its own inadequacies; hence metamodernism.
Here’s another question someone might reasonably ask: If metamodernism emerged in the late nineties as a reaction to the excesses of postmodernism, then in 2023 is the metamodern sensibility still relevant? If postmodernism is a thing of the past why does it still need a response? Again, a two-part answer. 1) Postmodernism, like modernism before it, never fully disappeared. As an aesthetic and as a way of thinking, it’s still in the “air” that we breath and it still manifests in our art and popular culture. So we will likely continue to observe throughout culture a metamodern response to it. 2) And, perhaps more interestingly, over the last 25 years the world we live in has more and more come to embody – in ways that we experience in our everyday lives – sensibilities that formerly were mostly present only in art. In a world in which reality is fractured through the kaleidoscopic lenses of the internet; competing, easily-manipulated “truths”; and rapid-fire advances in technology (not least of which being the recent explosion in artificial intelligence), perhaps our need is even greater now for films, songs, and myriad forms of culture that point the way to acceptance of the mysteries, the messiness and the quirks inherent in being humans living in a hyper-reality that cannot be merely wished away.
2022’s multiple-awards-winning movie Everything, Everywhere All at Once is a well-known example of a metamodern film that features explorations of a mind-bending multi-verse (which is a metaphor for the fractured nature of contemporary lived realities), but ultimately concluding that kindness and familial connection are paramount. The recent Spiderverse films cover similar ground. Billie Eilish’s music has an updated metamodern vibe that incorporates techno’s stark and often thrashy attitude without sacrificing vulnerability and childlike enthusiasm. I think we will continue to see more examples in which metamodern aesthetics interweave with hyper-real vibes, while more classically metamodern artists and auteurs like Wes Anderson and the band Wilco continue to produce works that are aesthetically continuous with their earlier output.
Another direction in which I see room for metamodernism to expand is in developing philosophical anchor points. Thus far, metamodernism has primarily been noted in aesthetic and cultural forms, as well as in the theorizing about those forms. Just as modernism was propelled by thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Einstein, and postmodernism’s leading philosophers include (for example) Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, metamodernism has arguably begun to develop philosophically. One such candidate that emerged in the 2000s is Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), whose primary exponents are Graham Harman and Timothy Morton. This ontological approach centers not on people, but on objects, which it defines as those things that resist (modernist) “undermining” into constituent parts and resist (postmodern) “overmining” as the product of contexts and influences. Though one might think that a focus on objects rather than people is antithetical to metamodernism’s emphasis on individual interiority, I see it as an extension of the locus of agency into more possible agents.
Storm’s project is to propose a new approach to scholarship and the generation of knowledge that moves past the debates between modernism and postmodernism, arriving at what he calls a “humble knowledge”.
In the coming years, I would hope to see the investigation of OOO and perhaps other existing 21st-century philosophical movements as potentially metamodern exemplars. This does not need to be the work of the originating philosophers themselves, but rather would more likely be the work of others using the lens of metamodernism in order to situate such philosophical developments. All of this having been said, there has been a development in philosophy that explicitly calls itself metamodern. In 2021, Jason Ananda Josephson Storm published his Metamodernism: The Future of Theory. Storm’s project is to propose a new approach to scholarship and the generation of knowledge that moves past the debates between modernism and postmodernism, arriving at what he calls a “humble knowledge” in which one can make assertions based on roughly—but reliably—drawn categories. Storm’s hope is that his proposals will influence scholarship in the humanities and social sciences widely.
In my upcoming book that aims to provide a guided tour of metamodernism in popular culture, featuring close readings of exemplars, I tell a story about the kinds of stories people are frequently telling these days. Those that prioritize human interiority in the face of modernist reduction, postmodern relativizing, and hypermodern fracturing. We are likely to see even more of these stories emerge and—in the work of academics and journalists—more stories about them. It seems to be what we need right now.