Metamodernism

Metamodernism refers to a number of related discourses about cultural developments that move beyond postmodernism by means of postmodernism. Many metamodern theorists characterize it in terms of mediations between aspects of modernism and postmodernism; for others, the term suggests an integration of those sensibilities with premodern (indigenous and traditional) cultural codes as well. Metamodernism is one of a number of attempts to describe post-postmodernism.

History of the term

A pendulum swinging back and forth.

To describe “the structure of feeling” of metamodernism, Vermeulen and van den Akker use the metaphor of a pendulum continually oscillating from the sincere seriousness of modernism to the ironic playfulness of postmodernism.

In 2002, Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheon stated that a new label was necessary for what was emerging after postmodernism, writing: “Let’s just say: it’s over. …The postmodern moment has passed, even if its discursive strategies and its ideological critique continue to live on – as do those of modernism – in our contemporary twenty-first century world. …Post-postmodernism needs a new label of its own, and I conclude, therefore, with this challenge to readers to find it – and name it for the twenty-first century.”

Early usages

The term “metamodern” appeared as early as 1975, when scholar Mas’ud Zavarzadeh used it to describe a cluster of literary techniques which had been emerging in American literary narratives since the mid-1950s. In 1999, Moyo Okediji utilized the term “metamodern”, applying it to contemporary African-American art that issues an “extension of and challenge to modernism and postmodernism.” In 2002, Andre Furlani, analyzing the literary works of Guy Davenport, defined metamodernism as an aesthetic that is “after yet by means of modernism…. a departure as well as a perpetuation.” The relationship between metamodernism and modernism was seen as going “far beyond homage, toward a reengagement with modernist method in order to address subject matter well outside the range or interest of the modernists themselves.” In 2007, Alexandra Dumitrescu described metamodernism as partly a concurrence with, partly an emergence from, and partly a reaction to, postmodernism, “championing the idea that only in their interconnection and continuous revision lie the possibility of grasping the nature of contemporary cultural and literary phenomena.”

Vermeulen and van den Akker

In 2010, cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker contributed significantly to the theorization of post-postmodernism, using the term metamodernism. In their essay “Notes on Metamodernism,” they asserted that the 2000s were characterized by the return of typically modern positions that nevertheless did not forfeit the postmodern mindsets of the 1980s and 1990s. According to them, the metamodern sensibility “can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism” characteristic of cultural responses to recent global events such as climate change, the financial crisis, political instability, and the digital revolution. They asserted that “the postmodern culture of relativism, irony, and pastiche” is over, having been replaced by a sensibility that stresses engagement, affect, and storytelling through “ironic sincerity.”

Timotheus Vermeulen at the Between Irony and Sincerity Lecture at Columbia GSAPP

The prefix “meta-” referred not so much to a reflective stance or repeated rumination, but to Plato’s metaxy, which denotes a movement between (meta) opposite poles as well as beyond (meta) them. Vermeulen and van den Akker described metamodernism as a “structure of feeling” that oscillates between modernism and postmodernism like “a pendulum swinging between…innumerable poles”.

“Ontologically,” they write, “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. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro or back and forth, the metamodern negotiates between the modern and the postmodern.”

For the metamodern generation, according to Vermeulen, “grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed.”

The return of a Romantic sensibility has been posited as a key characteristic of metamodernism, observed by Vermeulen and van den Akker in the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron, and the work of artists such as Bas Jan Ader, Peter Doig, Olafur Eliasson, Kaye Donachie, Charles Avery, and Ragnar Kjartansson. They claim that the neoromantic approach to metamodernism is done in the spirit of resignifying “’the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar, and the finite with the semblance of the infinite.” By doing so, these artists seek to “perceive anew a future that was lost from sight.”

Vermeulen asserted that “metamodernism is not so much a philosophy—which implies a closed ontology—as it is an attempt at a vernacular, or…a sort of open source document, that might contextualise and explain what is going on around us, in political economy as much as in the arts.”

Metamodernism in the arts

Since Vermeulen and van den Akker’s seminal 2010 essay, there has been a growing contribution to metamodern aesthetic analysis amongst academics, critics, and artists.

Explicitly drawing upon the work of Vermeulen and van den Akker, Luke Turner published The Metamodernist Manifesto in 2011 as “an exercise in simultaneously defining and embodying the metamodern spirit,” describing it as “a romantic reaction to our crisis-ridden moment.” The manifesto recognized “oscillation to be the natural order of the world,” and called for an end to “the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child.” Instead, Turner proposed metamodernism as “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons,” and concluded with a call to “go forth and oscillate!” In 2014, the manifesto became the impetus for LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s collaborative art practice, after Shia LaBeouf reached out to Turner after encountering the text, with the trio embarking on a series of metamodern performance projects exploring connection, empathy, and community across digital and physical platforms.

An image of Herzog and de Meuron’s Elbe Philharmonie, Hamburg. Notes from Modernism describes it an example of the metamodernism in architecture.

Vermeulen and van den Akker state that the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron is expressive of “attempts to negotiate between such opposite poles as culture and nature, the finite and the infinite, the commonplace and the ethereal, a formal structure, and a formalist unstructuring.”

A number of exhibitions devoted to metamodernism have been staged. In November 2011, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York staged an exhibition entitled No More Modern: Notes on Metamodernism, featuring the work of Pilvi Takala, Guido van der Werve, Benjamin Martin, and Mariechen Danz. In March 2012, Galerie Tanja Wagner in Berlin curated Discussing Metamodernism in collaboration with Vermeulen and van den Akker. The show featured the work of Ulf Aminde, Yael Bartana, Monica Bonvicini, Mariechen Danz, Annabel Daou, Paula Doepfner, Olafur Eliasson, Mona Hatoum, Andy Holden, Sejla Kameric, Ragnar Kjartansson, Kris Lemsalu, Issa Sant, David Thorpe, Angelika J. Trojnarski, Luke Turner, and Nastja Säde Rönkkö.[24][25][26] In 2013 Andy Holden staged the exhibition Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity 1999-2003: Towards a Unified Theory of M!MS. The exhibition examined the manifesto he had written in 2003 that called for art to be simultaneously ironic and sincere. The exhibition told the history of the writing of the manifesto and subsequently M!MS it now often cited as a precursor to Metamodernism as a ‘structure of feeling’.

According to Kim Levin, writing in ARTnews, metamodern oscillation “must embrace doubt, as well as hope and melancholy, sincerity and irony, affect and apathy, the personal and the political, and technology and techne.”

James MacDowell, in his formulation of the “quirky” cinematic sensibility, described the works of Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Miranda July, and Charlie Kaufman as building upon the “New Sincerity”, and embodying the metamodern structure of feeling in their balancing of “ironic detachment with sincere engagement”.

The 2013 issue of the American Book Review dedicated to metamodernism included a series of essays identifying authors such as Roberto Bolaño, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace as metamodernists.

Linda Ceriello’s work with Greg Dember on popular cultural products such as Joss Whedon’s seminal television show Buffy the Vampire Slayerand on Whedon and Goddard’s 2012 film The Cabin in the Woods proposed an epistemic taxonomy of the monstrous/paranormal to distinguish the character of metamodern monsters from those which could be read as postmodern, modern or pre-modern.

In a 2014 article in PMLA, literary scholars David James and Urmila Seshagiri argued that “metamodernist writing incorporates and adapts, reactivates and complicates the aesthetic prerogatives of an earlier cultural moment”, in discussing twenty-first century writers such as Tom McCarthy.

In 2014, Professor Stephen Knudsen, writing in ArtPulse, noted that metamodernism “allows the possibility of staying sympathetic to the poststructuralist deconstruction of subjectivity and the self—Lyotard’s teasing of everything into intertextual fragments—and yet it still encourages genuine protagonists and creators and the recouping of some of modernism’s virtues.”

In his fourth novel, More Deaths than One, published in 2014, the New Zealand writer and singer-songwriter Gary Jeshel Forrester examined metamodernism by way of a search for the Central Illinois roots of David Foster Wallace during a picaresque journey to America. In it, Forrester wrote that “metamodernist theory proposes to fill the postmodernist void with a rough synthesis of the two predecessors from the twentieth century [modernism and post-modernism]. In the new paradigm, metaphysics, epistemology, and ontology all have their places, but the overriding concern is with yet another division of philosophy – ethics. It’s okay to search for values and meaning, even as we continue to be skeptical.”

In May 2014, country music artist Sturgill Simpson told CMT that his album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music had been inspired in part by an essay by Seth Abramson, who writes about metamodernism on his Huffington Post blog. Simpson stated that “Abramson homes in on the way everybody is obsessed with nostalgia, even though technology is moving faster than ever.” According to J.T. Welsch, “Abramson sees the ‘meta-’ prefix as a means to transcend the burden of modernism and postmodernism’s allegedly polarised intellectual heritage.”

In 2017, Vermeulen and van den Akker, with Allison Gibbons, published Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth After Postmodernism, an edited collection of essays exploring the notion of metamodernism across a variety of fields in the arts and culture. Individual chapters cover metamodernism in areas such as film, literary fiction, crafts, television, photography and politics. Contributors include the three editors, James MacDowell, Josh Toth, Jöog Heiser, Sjoerd van Tuinen, Lee Konstantinou, Nicole Timmer, Gry C. Rustad, Kuy Hanno Schwind, Irmtraud Huber, Wolfgang Funk, Sam Browse, Raoul Eshelman, and James Elkins. In the introductory chapter, van den Akker and Vermeulen update and consolidate their original 2010 proposal, while addressing the divergent usages of the term “metamodernism” by other thinkers.

In a 2017 essay on metamodernism in literary fiction, Fabio Vittorini stated that since the late 1980s, memetic strategies of the modern have been combined with the meta-literary strategies of the postmodern, performing “a pendulum-like motion between the naive and/or fanatic idealism of the former and the skeptical and/or apathetic pragmatism of the latter.”

Starting 2018 the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded a Metamodernism Research Network. The Network has hosted several international symposia and conferences.

A strand of metamodernism can be identified in Sci-Fi, taking the place of Postmodernism. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is seen by Pappis as an example, “in that it explores an oscillation in and transcendence of time”.

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and Inside have been described as metamodern reactions to growing up with social media.

The 2022 film Everything Everywhere All at Once was explicitly identified by the directors, The Daniels, as a metamodern film.

Metamodernism in philosophy

In 2021, American philosopher and historian Jason Josephson Storm published Metamodernism: The Future of Theory, a work of metamodern systematic philosophy. Acknowledging the works of other metamodern thinkers, he writes: “If the thinkers above are the first significant theorists about metamodernist culture and art, I aspire to be the first significant metamodern philosopher.” In the book, Storm establishes another method for critical scholarly research in the social sciences and humanities, disciplines which he refers to using the umbrella term “human sciences”. Specifically, the metamodernist mode of analysis involves metarealism, process social ontology, hylosemiotics, Zeteticism and a “revaluation of values.”

Storm’s philosophy of metamodernism builds on and critiques both modernism and postmodernism, arguing that those two preceding movements are not as disparate as they have been made out to be. Ultimately, while incorporating modernist and postmodernist elements, Metamodernism foregrounds the importance of reflective, self-analytical, interdisciplinary scholarship. As he writes: “Metamodernism is what we get when we take the strategies associated with postmodernism and productively reduplicate and turn them in on themselves. This will entail disturbing the symbolic system of poststructuralism, producing a genealogy of genealogies, deconstructing deconstruction, and providing a therapy for therapeutic philosophy.”

Specifically, Storm accomplishes this by taking up the reflective negatives of postmodernism’s 1) antirealism, 2) disciplinary autocritiques, 3) linguistic turn, 4) broad climate of skepticism, and 5) ethical nihilism. In a Hegelian move, he then “negates” these negations. Completing the dialectical turn, antirealism is sublated into a metarealist frame, where multiple notions of the “real” can be seen to exist in relation; autocritique culminates in a powerful new process ontology for cultural analysis; the linguistic turn casting the world as language is completed by casting language as part of the world; radical skepticism finishes by doubting itself, rendering provisional knowledge possible; and radical relativism’s pluralist values find positive expression. With these transformations, Storm offers a robust philosophical response to the driving challenges of the postmodern paradigm

Metamodernism in sociology

In a seminal chapter in a 2021 anthology on metamodern thought entitled “Metamodern Sociology: An Ironically Sincere Invitation to Future Scholars,” sociologist Dr. Daniel Görtz outlines the contours of a post-postmodern, multi-perspectival sociological approach informed by developmental psychology and the “transpersonal” formation of enculturated individuals. Moving beyond the simple relativization of worldviews accomplished by postmodern sociology (e.g., through the turn to social constructivism and power analysis), metamodern sociology attempts a still higher-order analysis of how such worldviews relate to one another.

Görtz writes: “It is a tenet of metamodern sociology that perspectives are not arbitrarily ordered, but that they emerge in recognisable patterns. A poststructuralist critique of literature has never emerged in a tribal society with no writing; quantum theory has never emerged in a traditional, premodern society. Even if strands of thought can be linked backwards in history (process philosophy back to Heraclitus and so forth), there are indeed specific ideas that build upon one another: multiplication builds upon addition. And these sequences are, in turn, always dependent upon social and material – ultimately, even biological – conditions, with which they interact. Postmodernism did not emerge before modernism, nor could it have. For this reason, metamodern sociology always looks for meaningful explanatory developmental sequences, putting them in relation to one another on some kind of developmental scale. This developmentalism thus accepts at least some minimal form of stage theories… Each stage must be, in clearly definable terms, either more complex than the former, or, at a minimum, be derived from the former and qualitatively distinct.” In sum, Görtz says, “Metamodern sociology thus takes up the task of cataloguing, understanding, comparing and non-arbitrarily evaluating the many perspectives of society, self and reality.”

In 2017, Görtz and theory artist Emil Ejner Friis present such a metamodern sociological account in their book The Listening Society. Writing under the shared pen name Hanzi Freinacht, they frame metamodernism’s emergence from postmodernism as part of a broader process of cultural complexification. In this context, metamodernism is understood not merely as a cultural phase, but as a developmental stage, which is manifested at both the individual and the collective levels. Employing an approach akin to Jürgen Habermas’s reconstructed dialectical materialism, Freinacht looks to developmental psychology, particularly the Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC), to draw parallels between cultural discourses and developmental stages. He makes the following correlations:

Stages and their Value Memes |Complexity Stage|Cultural Code| |7: Preoperational|Archaic| |8: Primary|Animistic| |9: Concrete|Faustian| |10: Abstract|Post-Faustian| |11: Formal|Modern| |12: Systematic|Postmodern| |13: Metasystematic|Metamodern|

In September 2018, Görtz conducted a TEDx talk in Berlin outlining the development of “value memes,” claiming that the metamodern value meme constitutes the most recent memetic value structure to date.

In 2019, Lene Rachel Anderson published her book Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World, in which she claims: “Metamodernity provides us with a framework for understanding ourselves and our societies in a much more complex way. It contains both indigenous, premodern, modern, and postmodern cultural elements and thus provides social norms and a moral fabric for intimacy, spirituality, religion, science, and self-exploration, all at the same time.”

2019 also saw the publication of The World We Create: From God to Market by Tomas Björkman, a work exploring the complex origins of our precarious situation today, along with a set of proposed solutions utilizing a metamodern framework.

In 2021, Perspectiva Press published Metamodernity: Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds, an anthology of essays on metamodernism and society by chess grandmaster Jonathan Rowson and others.

Politics

In 2019, Hanzi Freinacht published Nordic Ideology, a detailed vision for a political metamodernism based on his metamodern sociological account of worldviews. Using the Nordic countries as a model, Freinacht argues that a developmental approach to politics might take Green Social Liberalism as a shared, overarching metaideology, and that this overarching shared ideology allows for considerable political nuance in a system with many political parties. This is presented in stark contrast to the binaries present in the two-party system of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Swedish political party Initiativet is based on metamodern principles. It is a sister-party of Danish political party Alternativet.

More recently, one of the originators of metamodernism, Moyo Okediji, has said that he views metamodernism as a powerful dialogic tool “as becoming some kind of bridge discourse that is capable of finding ways to initiate some kind of reconciliation without necessarily being able to solve problems.” He states “Problems will always be there, but we need to talk about them in a way that enables us to continue a dialogue because it is when people stop a dialogue, the war begins.”

Metamodernism in religion

In 2013, Linda C. Ceriello proposed a theorization of metamodernism for the field of religious studies, connecting the contemporary phenomenon of secular spirituality to the emergence of a metamodern episteme. Her analysis of contemporary religious/spiritual movements and ontologies posits a shift that is consonant with the metamodern cultural sensibilities identified by others such as Vermeulen and van den Akker, and which has given rise to a distinct metamodern soteriology.

In 2014, Brendan Graham Dempsey identified a unique kind of mythopoeia (“mythmaking”) in a metamodern register in his essay “Reconstruction: Metamodern ‘Transcendence’ and the Return of Myth” published in Notes on Metamodernism. In his 2021 book Metamodernism and the Return of Transcendence, Dempsey argues that metamodern developments in culture signal various ways in which “the transcendent” is more and more coming to be reimagined as a component of the immanent frame, and not as something “super-natural” (i.e., outside the naturalistic world). He draws on the work of Verumeulen and van den Akker, Raoul Eshelman, Ceriello, and others in making this case.

The first peer-reviewed article applying metamodern theory to the study of religions was published in 2017 by Michel Clasquin-Johnson.

In 2022, the book Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World was published, in which Dempsey articulates a mythopoeic meta-religion based on the narrative of cosmic complexification. He frames this as a form of metamodern mythopoeia that would re-engage spirituality from a metamodern perspective.