An Introduction to Metamodernism

by Philip Damico  /  @philipsdamico

You know I’ve heard about people like me

But I never made the connection.

They walk one road to set them free

And find they’ve gone the wrong direction.

   – Don McLean, Crossroads, 1971

Metamodernism is an emerging movement that hopes to synthesize both postmodernist, modernist and premodern (romantic, enlightenment) ideas while moving our civilization and culture forward in a positive way. Metamodernism is the fight against the cultural effects that postmodern thought has had on our social interactions, artistic endeavours and thought processes. This includes dissolving the alienation from society that many of us suffer from on a daily basis as a result of these postmodern values. Yes, it is true that many foundational institutions in our society still operate on modernist standards or using modernist methods (mostly financial or economic institutions that are yet to be affected by the creeping nihilism we intend to combat) but the cultural postmodernism and nihilism that is eating our minds alive shows no signs slowing down.  

Literature that engages in sincere expression while being aware of its appearance from a postmodern perspective is considered metamodern. This particular movement within the arts is perhaps the truest manifestation of metamodernism to date. It was popularized in the 1990s by author David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon and is characterized by works that defy postmodern cynicism and irony, representing a return to past movements and trends such as Romanticism that placed an emphasis on honesty. Honesty from the author concerning their intentions and meaning, something that’s severely lacking in postmodern works.

Music has also been experiencing a “new sincerity” movement. Artists emerging in the late 90s and early 2000s such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom have been identified as members of this unintentional movement characterized by its stylistic return to conventions of artistic choices long forgotten found in visual presentation (album art and live performances) or instrumentation and vocal styles that would hardly sound out of place playing in the background of some Late Baroque statehouse 240 years ago. In addition, acts like Neutral Milk Hotel, Sufjan Stevens and many others relate to metamodernism in that they are so glaringly honest and without pretense they would appear ridiculous from the viewpoint of anyone invested in cynical, ironic art. They commentate on things the artist finds beautiful, true or worth loving in a climate full of flat, apathetic art.   

The defining characteristic and most important aspect of the metamodern movement is the “as if” mindset. Metamodernism is not a rejection of postmodern moral relativism and cynicism but a progression from it. We have, as a result of postmodernism, been convinced that humanity is in decline (statistics tend to say otherwise, but that doesn’t matter when truth is a construct, as postmodern thought tends to teach). The metamodernist wants to live as if positive change and progress can be achieved for several reasons. Firstly, it can never hurt to have this belief and it could absolutely be helpful. Secondly, such a mindset staves off existential despair induced by postmodernity, an issue that many of us struggle with. If we collectively take up the attitude/belief that progress can be achieved, that the idea of progress exists, our society will benefit greatly. This is tied to the practice of favoring dialogue over dialectics. We do not all need to share the same idea of progress but if we are able to avoid reducing our goals to uniform, unyielding ideological messes, things will begin to move forward. Attorney and professor at the University of New Hampshire Seth Abramson writes: “In a postmodern scenario, nothing ever gets solved because the contending forces angrily oppose and caricature one another until (in fact) both are degraded and destroyed in number and in spirit.” Metamodernism wants to fight this both cultural and political occurrence by focusing on discussing the overlap between two opposing forces rather than falling into the practice of ridiculing each other to no avail other than the boosting of one’s ego.

Another essential aspect of metamodern thought is the return of hierarchies. Hierarchies are everywhere. An airplane is more physically complex than a car, a car is more physically complex than a bicycle, a bicycle is more physically complex than a skateboard. This is a hierarchy according to physical complexity, which almost no one would deny the validity of. Many moral and ethical relativists (I will refer to them as postmodernists both because moral relativism is a defining characteristic of the postmodern era and because the vast majority of moral relativists exhibit other characteristics of postmodernism) support the deconstruction of hierarchies that measure ethical validity. Postmodernists are unable to determine if love is preferable to hate or if peace is preferable to conflict. Metamodernism aims to bring ethical hierarchies back into play because of what they can do to solve the issues that arise from the flat moral landscape postmodernism has created but cannot solve. Moral deconstruction is a brick wall. It doesn’t move and nothing moves through it. With a resurgence in ethical hierarchies we can finally move past the roadblocks set by postmodernism that have prevented cultural, social, personal and political progress and done nothing but bog us down. These roadblocks include the postmodern position that no one position is more justified than the other which leads to apathy concerning progress or change of any kind. If your position isn’t better than any other that oppose yours, why is a position that you might achieve in the future better than the position you have now? With a return to hierarchies we can once again justify progress.

The final and perhaps essential facet of the metamodern movement is reconstruction. As I’ve already stated, deconstructionism is a dead end for which postmodernism offers no solution. The objective of reconstructionism is simple – to not only observe, describe and interact with what isn’t, but what is. The postmodernist has no answers for what is true, real or good. They don’t know. Postmodernism doused objectivity in gasoline, dropped a match on it and walked away without so much as a “hasta la vista, baby”. And so, from the postmodern perspective, we are now alone in the universe. Freed from truths and knowledge but trapped by the lack of a standard with which to judge anything by. Seth Abramson writes: “If postmodernism negated the possibility of personal, local, regional, national, or international metanarratives other than those that were/are strictly dialectical, metamodernism permits us to selectively, and with eyes wide open, return to such metanarratives when they help save us from ennui, anomie, despair, or moral and ethical sloth.” If we are able to return to discussions about the world around us from a constructive perspective, from the perspective of wanting to improve ourselves and the world around us, progress will be made – progress in every way.

Metamodernism is not a concrete set of beliefs but a collective way of approaching things. The same is true for postmodernism. There are no commandments to or tenets of postmodernism but there are many, many ideas and practices that can be individually identified as postmodern. Many of these ideas and practices are shared among the demographic known as “postmodernists”.

And so metamodernism stands in the rubble of all knowledge humanity had amassed over thousands of years of progress. The rubble created when postmodernism smashed our collective thought to bits in the name of intellectual emancipation. With this blank slate we will combine all human knowledge and begin to construct a new grand narrative, one subject to constant discussion and consideration. It will be honest and it will push itself forward by justifying itself, not attacking the thoughts and positions of others. Human thought is vulnerable and fallible and if we accept that we’re all in this together and fighting for the good of all people, we’ll get further than postmodernism could ever hope to.

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7 thoughts on “An Introduction to Metamodernism

  1. Very well written and informative article. Thank you for taking the time to explain metamodernism so clearly.

    I have just started to become aware of metamodernsim in art (mainly literature and television) while being a avid fan or postmodernism for so long. So I am wondering if you could recommend any literature that has these metamodernism characteristics? I am sure Infinite Jest would be the first that comes to mind although I have never read it. I have read The Corrections by Franzen and currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Chabon, but am curious to know what books come to mind when you think of metamodernsim?

    I wholeheartedly agree that postmodernism can leave us feeling demoralized. I’ve heard DFW say postmodernism has no “redeeming” qualities or as you so apply put it, “The postmodernist has no answers for what is true, real or good.” I must say this is a tough pill for me to swallow since I have enjoyed postmodernist literature so much, but I am excited to learn and experience more metamodernsim and see where I end up. Anything recommendations of metamodernism books, tv shows, or music that you did not mention in your article would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you for your time.

    Best Regards,
    Billman Rowe

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    1. Postmodern literature is certainly interesting if not particularly productive. One of my favorite books, Slaughterhouse Five, is often considered postmodern. As for metamodern books, tv shows and music – I’d say stay tuned on our website for more of that to come.

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  2. An example of Metamodernism is basically the revolution of Memes on the Internet. Also, how every post, painting, music clip, article, movie, and so on and so forth, are rendered by the Media from sincere to ironic and vice-versa. There is also the idea of Creation – Process – Final Product. The last stage “Final Product” in Metamodernism means that for example Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is never a finished product, and that the final product is for society to shape (in this case, memes), it only depends on whether the final craft will be sincere or ironic.

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  3. Hi,

    I really enjoyed this introduction but I have some more questions.

    You mentioned a return of ethical hierarchies in metamodernism but did not provide much in the way of example. I’m still sort of unclear on what you mean by ethical hierarchies and how they would look under the scope of metamodernism.

    Could you give some examples of the ethical hierarchies that postmodernism tore down and how metamodernism expects to rebuild them?

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  4. I enjoyed this, thank you. Compared to other descriptions of metamodernism this was lucid and relatively jargon-free.

    Have you looked into Meaningness.com? It seems very similar in that it focuses on how you move from subscribing to myths (premodernism) to ideologies/systems (modernism) to falling into nihilistic despair (postmodernism) and towards crawling back up and reconstruct meaning (metamodernism?) albeit with an awareness of its nonfoundational nature. Recommend it.

    My own interest lies partly with art/literature but mostly with science/truth/knowledge and what objectivity can be rebuilt from the pomo-wreckage. I don’t know how much you intend to write about such things, but in any case I’m looking forward to seeing where this is going.

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