Mar 8th, 2021
Preamble by Jonathan Rowson
The text that follows is almost 11,000 words of niche intellectual terrain, mostly about the nature of oscillation in the meaning of metamodernism. While much of it is scintillating and the casual reader is very welcome to stay, they should feel no compunction about giving this one a miss.
I would not have thought of the discussion below as interesting, never mind important, until I started making a serious effort to research metamodernism, establish my own relationship to it, and consider its contemporary relevance. For the last few weeks, I have been writing a preface to the forthcoming book for Perspectiva Press called Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and Emergence in Metamodernity. It matters that we have a way of relating to our cultural context that goes beyond postmodernism, and for many metamodernism is our last best hope. But what is it?
I will keep my own powder dry. Here it suffices to say that metamodernism is often wrongly associated exclusively with Hanzi Freinacht’s books about creating a deliberately developmental society, but it actually has a much richer and diverse origin story, as well as an established academic community who use the term very differently to refer to a ‘structure of feeling’ in the experience of culture. In all cases I have noticed that it is not trivial to establish a meaning of metamodernism that does not collapse into postmodernism and/or modernism or a version of their relationship that is not generative. The intellectual dignity of metamodernism therefore depends on it having a distinctive underlying nature, mechanism, mood or resonance. What that is precisely is unclear, and considered below. Given that many now derive meaning in life from metamodernism, and others seek to build their identity and political hope through it, the stakes are quite high.
The nicheness at hand has its own dignity. While it may seem indulgently abstract at first, it really does seem that we can’t make sense of metamodernism without understanding the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. And in that endeavour, it really does appear to matter whether the relationship between the sentiments and proclivities of modernism (e.g. science, bureaucracy, future-orientation, progress, system-building, devitalisation, alienation, universalism) and postmodernism (e.g. perspective, critique, reactivity, reflexivity, plurality, irony, pastiche, specificity) is characterised as a form of, for instance oscillation, juxtaposition, superimposition, or braiding, which are all somewhat different in their meaning and implications. Insisting on the importance of this discussion feels silly, a kind of meta-metamodernism, and that makes me wonder if I have lost my way, not just in this analysis, but in life more generally.
The good news is that I am not alone, and I share this internet exchange here in the spirit of joyfully geeking-out. I felt the exchange below deserved a clearer setting and a fuller airing, if only to help ‘find the others’ on this particular matter. The authors gave their consent for the transfer from Medium, but have not edited their texts in any way. This brief preamble is followed by a reposted article by the London-based writer Samuel Ludford called Against Metamodernism and then, the heart of the matter, an exchange of comments between Samuel and Greg Dember, an editor at the website What is Metamodern? (with occasional backing vocals from the Cognitive Scientist Liam Kavanagh). It’s all deliciously niche, and although I do not expect many to read all the way through, if you do so, please share this online, and let us know what you think. Enjoy!
Original Text by Samuel Ludford: Against Metamodernism
The original title of this post was Against Oscillation. In a sense this would be more accurate — my goal is certainly not to take aim at everything which has ever called itself metamodernism, which would be silly, but to offer a few criticisms of its central motif. By this I mean the oscillation between modernism and postmodernism which is said to define the metamodern sensibility¹.
However, to put it like this would be a little disingenuous. As I hope will become clear in what follows, my own view is that the oscillation is essential to metamodernism. Without it metamodernism fades into something too amorphous to be useful, a bag of fragments with no unifying glue. In some sense it stands or falls with the value of the oscillatory model as a critical and/or strategic device. Some metamodernists will no doubt agree with that; others may not.
I am coming from a perspective which is sympathetic to the concerns that motivate metamodernism. I think metamodernists have been right to identify a state of inertia in Western democracies, to diagnose it as inherently bound up with postmodern culture, and to understand shifting the inertia as more or less synonymous with transcending postmodernism. I appreciate the emphasis metamodernists have placed on things like complexity science, game theory, and consensus process. I find little to quibble in either their observations or their goals.
I am less convinced by their strategies. Many of these tie in with the oscillatory motif, in more and less direct ways. Metamodernists have been perceptive in identifying the oscillation in contemporary cultural trends; they have been less perceptive in their celebration of it, in my opinion. I’ll approach this by considering how the oscillatory model is applied in four different domains: epistemology, political action, cultural criticism, and artistic strategy.
The motif at the heart of metamodernism is that of oscillating between perspectives or attitudes. This refers primarily to an oscillation between modernist sincerity and postmodernist irony, but also takes on a broader sense captured by the notion of ‘both-and’ reasoning, or the hopping between and simultaneous occupancy of multiple conflicting perspectives.
Oscillatory movement across perspectives is imagined as a technique for producing a synthesis between them. Here is Brent Cooper, summarising the overarching position of Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van der Akker, Luke Turner, Hanzi Freinacht, and Seth Abramson, some of metamodernism’s most familiar protagonists²:
According to them, metamodernism is basically defined as the oscillation between modern and postmodern modes, the rapid dialectic of which creates a new synthetic discourse, and its manifestation is then largely tracked through art and culture.
Against a background of media polarisation, financially incentivised antagonism, and general breakdown in the capacity of the public sphere to support meaningful dialogue, it’s not difficult to empathise with the driving forces behind this. However, if we take the idea of oscillation at face value I think we will quickly encounter some problems.
Consensus seeking dialogue can fail in two ways. If it is so intolerant that it does not permit the presence of conflicting perspectives, then it cannot sustain the productive tensions required to drive the formation of a new synthesis. But if it is too permissive, in the sense of admitting multiple perspectives but without actually recognising their conflicts and incompatibilities, then it will also fail to sustain productive tensions.
Successful consensus seeking dialogue therefore depends on two things:
The risk of the oscillatory model is that it achieves the first only by throwing away the second. It is easy to create a space that harbours conflicting perspectives by systematically weakening the way that conflict presents within it. But this does nothing to assist the dialectical process, and in fact undermines it. You can oscillate between conflicting models only by suspending commitment to any one of them — but if what we’re aiming at is an action-guiding synthesis then this is something we must ultimately be committed to, and this is only possible once the conflicts have been actively resolved, not just bounced across as if they weren’t there. The contention here is that oscillating between beliefs is indistinguishable from believing nothing.
Taking media polarisation as an example, we can note that there are actually two things happening which undermine dialogue. One is the exclusion of difference — the kind of knee-jerk ‘I’m not even going to talk to these facists’ reaction which metamodernists are rightly sceptical of. But there is also the flattening of difference, such as occurs when deeply conflicting viewpoints get artificially clustered together on the basis of superficial aesthetic similarities or for strategic publicity reasons, as if their conflicts were non-existent. Shallow alliances are as much a threat to meaningful dialogue as shallow antagonisms. Metamodernism is at risk of this kind of shallowness — it appears to be licensed directly by its oscillatory motif.
There is a peculiar sub-genre of metamodernist writing which consists mainly in making huge lists and charts of other metamodernists. This is ostensibly about movement building, which is fair enough. But in the absence of any attempt to systematically analyse and integrate the differences between them their unity often feels more aesthetic than rational, a good marketing gimmick but useless for action coordination. I won’t pick out particular examples of this, because that is not the point. There are many areas of metamodernism’s discourse which are not like this. Brent Cooper is a good example of someone who avoids these traps, and seems just as intent on making disconnections as making connections. The point I am making is just that difference-flattening practices are consistent with and effectively encouraged by the logic of oscillation. And this is why ultimately, someone like Cooper feels like an exception that proves the rule³. Making connections is easy — it is like chucking a load of body parts together in a heap; making disconnections is what is needed to actually get the monster twitching on the slab. Disconnection is where synthesis begins, but also where oscillation ends. The continuation of oscillation is just the failure of synthesis.
It could be objected that I’m taking oscillation way too literally here, and that I’m consequently appraising the idea at its worst rather than at its best. It might be argued, for instance, that oscillation is a handy metaphorical device but nothing important hinges on it. What the shift to postmodernism really represented was a breakdown in transcendent truth — the modernist myth of a view-from-nowhere in which all situated perspectives can be weighed with an even hand. Postmodern critique exposed this framework as a structure of domination: turns out the view-from-nowhere was really just the bourgeois European perspective masquerading as a transcendent authority all along. Against this background, the metamodern project can be reframed as moving toward an immanent conception of truth. A metamodernist epistemology attempts to develop consensus processes that traverse and integrate diverse, sometimes incommensurable perspectives without appealing to the transcendent authority of some privileged perspective. Oscillation is a figurative device intended only to convey the necessity of immanence.
Fine. But the thing about this is that it is lots of people’s project. If this is what defines metamodernism, then it will turn out that very many different people have been metamodernists all along. Richard Rorty’s liberal ironism would certainly fall under this heading. Jürgen Habermas’ communicative action too, no doubt. You could probably corral Donna Haraway into this framework if you really insisted. Come to think of it, what about capitalism? Isn’t this kind of immanent mediation exactly the kind of thing markets are supposed to be good at? Hasn’t a solution to this problem already been implemented in ‘the marketplace of ideas’?
And indeed there is a tendency within metamodernism to do just this, sifting through history to retroactively identify various characters as proto-metamodernists. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad idea in itself, but the risk worth highlighting is that the more metamodernism abstracts itself to encompass various other positions, the less concrete it becomes in its guidance for navigating contemporary problems. While there are many projects seeking immanent truth practices, they differ significantly on implementation details, often in ways that imply radically different courses of action. What distinguishes metamodernism among this crowd is its own implementation: the oscillation — without it it risk sliding into something extremely generic. This is the danger of greedy abstraction. If metamodernism wants to retain enough specificity to be relevant, it should be cautious about claiming other thinkers unless they can be convincingly interpreted as committed to a specifically oscillatory model of immanent truth. But if it does embrace an explicitly oscillatory epistemology, then it faces the task of explaining how this does not amount to a kind of trivialism in which everything is true and therefore nothing is meaningful.
2. Oscillation is not Agency (it’s Meta-Passivity)
So far I’ve glossed over the difference between descriptive and normative metamodernism. This is mainly because I think the difference is somewhat artificial: descriptive metamodernism is nearly always celebratory, and this makes it implicitly normative⁴. This is in marked contrast with postmodernism, whose usage has historically often been critical or neutral.
Nevertheless, there do seem to be some differences between the orientation of the descriptive and normative camps. In this conversation, for example, Greg Dember and Jonathon Rowson wonder whether the thing that Hanzi Freinacht’s normative metamodernism prescribes is really the same thing that descriptive metamodernism describes.
I think this points to a real tension, but that it has nothing to do with descriptive vs normative understandings of what metamodernism is. I think it derives from the fact that oscillation is literally incoherent as a principle of action. Clearly you cannot act on two contradictory maxims at the same time — at the point of action, oscillation must resolve to one pole or another. Oscillation can only ever be a descriptive category, and insofar as action is concerned the only thing it can describe is a state of paralysis.
Perhaps I could be accused of over-literalisation again here, but I believe this points to a deep issue. From the perspective of action, the problem with modernism was that in its naïve commitment to grand narratives it often replicated systems of oppression under the guise of universal inclusion, kind of like when Christians thought they were bringing salvation to the Americas but actually just brought smallpox. Postmodern deconstruction unmasks this complicity as complicity, but since it provides no alternatives to the systems it still inhabits it is reduced to a kind of passive cynicism, left with no option but continued complicity in the very systems it recognises as oppressive. And this is ultimately useless, because reluctant complicity is still complicity.
How does metamodernism resolve this dilemma? It’s supposed to go something like this: you keep the postmodernist critical self-reflexivity, but rather than letting it ossify as cynical detachment you just kind of merge it with some modernist earnest, and that leaves you with…. well with what, exactly? The answer to this question is nearly always something that looks suspiciously like playful complicity. Indeed, what else could it be? If modernism is the medieval physician who’s kicking you in the balls because he genuinely believes it will cure you, and postmodernism is also kicking you in the balls, but is extremely embarrassed about it and is apologising profusely on behalf of the structural forces that are making her do it, then metamodernism is also kicking you in the balls, is also aware that structural forces are making them do it, but instead of apologising they have put on some glittery leggings and are being all present and mindful and really feeling into the swirling flows of ch’i as their foot arcs gracefully into your groin. Perhaps they were even kind enough to sell you a mindfulness workshop beforehand, so you can receive the pain with gratitude. Playful complicity is still complicity.
For sure this is an exaggeration, but how much of an exaggeration? Take an article like Hanzi Freinacht’s How to Outcompete Capitalism. The practical advice here boils down to: don’t try to fight capitalism as such, just channel your energies into the production of cultural capital rather than traditional capital. Don’t compete for cash; compete for clout. Don’t be a banker, go be an artist instead — just do it within existing market structures. What’s important is that you produce the right kind of commodities. Without getting into Freinacht’s theory of how this is supposed to alleviate the excesses of industrial capitalism, for the present purposes what is significant is the way this advice is contextualised within a framework that claims to be offering some kind of new synthesis (a metamodern one, no less). But in fact, this recommendation is just garden variety liberalism. It is a call for responsible capitalism, with some small caveats on what ‘responsible’ means⁵. How is this not just modernism?
Or take Seth Abramson’s Twitter strategy, which responded to Trump’s hazing of factual integrity by firing out an impressively persistent deluge of truths, exposés, and political minutiae in threads sometimes racking up over a hundred tweets. The postmodernist perspective on this might be something like: Trump’s ability to haze the truth depended on exploiting a structural feature of the platform — Twitter is fundamentally incapable of supporting meaningful dialogue because its horizon’s are dictated by commercial interests, and it is in these interests to design the platform in ways that systematically maximise polarisation and reward empty, performative conflict. Engaging with it is worse than useless, because it means channelling political energy into a sinkhole. What makes Abramson’s strategy a metamodern strategy is presumably that he’s aware of these kind of critiques, but goes for it anyway⁶. But this still leaves us wondering whether or not he actually thinks the postmodern critique is a good one. If he does, what exactly is it that he thinks he’s achieving? Perhaps he doesn’t think these critiques are good. Fair enough, but then how are we not just back at modernism?
If we were to try to summarise the imperative common to these strategies, it might be this: use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house! But hang on — what the hell has happened to postmodern critique? What we were supposed to be doing was holding onto the useful aspects of postmodern deconstruction while jettisoning its more inhibiting affects, yet we seem to have done the exact opposite. We have combined the modernist capacity for cheerful complicity with the postmodernist capacity to laugh off the consequences. In the end, is a metamodernist not simply a smirking modernist? Where is this new synthesis we’ve heard so much about? I am not seeing one.
3. Oscillation is not Liberation (it’s Alienation)
It is difficult to think of a TV show that more perfectly demonstrates the oscillatory co-existence of cynicism and sincerity than BoJack Horseman. In its brightly coloured portrayal of depression and addiction in the life of a minor celebrity rattling around Hollywood’s vacuous social scene, a kind of persistent despairing amoralism coincides with genuine affection and moments of reckoning and repair, often reversing their polarities in alarming ways. Turner’s claiming it as a metamodern cultural artefact makes a huge amount of prima facie sense.
But to describe it as metamodern is to do more than identify the oscillation within it — it is to position it within a trajectory that supposedly escapes the inertial clutches of postmodernism. The contrast with South Park is telling here. The metamodern criticism of South Park is that by criticising everything it puts no commitments of its own on the line, and this is why it is ultimately impotent. Where there is no risk, there is no opportunity. By reintroducing a dimension of sincerity without reverting to modernist naïveté, in effect BoJack Horseman recovers the stakes of the game. Turner does not say any of this explicitly; it is a subtext I am reading in. But it is consistent with the way metamodernism has tended to positively position the so-called New Sincerity within its framework of cultural criticism.
The problem with this positioning is that it completely fails to do justice to the tragic dimension of BoJack Horseman, which far surpasses that of something like South Park. Does the oscillation really serve an emancipatory function within the show’s logic, optimistically charting a trajectory beyond inertia? I do not think so: its function is clearly cathartic. Some of the most dramatic polarity reversals occur at moments of reckoning, when a series of bad decisions and spiralling consequences finally catch up with BoJack. There is always a moment of cynical submission to fate, bringing with it a dark kind of peace — fuck it, let it all burn. But there is always also something to destabilise this: a beautiful sunset, or another character finds something redeeming in the situation. But these intrusions of sincerity are never substantial enough to provide real liberation. Their function is rather to provide the bare minimum of transitory hope needed to draw BoJack back into the cycle of despair. They serve only to undermine the cathartic function of cynicism.
BoJack Horseman does not merely portray the postmodern deprivation of meaning that took hold in the 1990’s. It goes beyond this to portray the extra dimension that has been added by the 21st Century: the culture of obligatory enthusiasm, positive reframing and feigned optimism, and the way these have undermined our collective ability to process the meaninglessness (in the 90’s it was at least still possible to be meaningless together). Its depth lies in the fact that by successfully representing the metabolic dynamics of contemporary alienation, it reestablishes the cathartic function that used to be performed by irony. To try to position this as a datapoint within metamodernism’s emancipatory mythology is to do something worse than miss the point — it is to replicate the dynamics portrayed within the show at the level of its critique, undermining once again the cathartic space it fights so hard to recover.
4. Oscillation is not Intimacy (it’s Tourism)
I’m so sorry to do this, but I’m going to talk about the Shia LaBeouf thing. I appreciate LaBeouf is probably not at the top of anyone’s dinner list right now, and that there is a whole universe of metamodern art out there. There is a simplicity to it, however, which very clearly demonstrates its metamodern credentials. This makes it a useful test case for thinking about how this is supposed to work as an artistic strategy:
Taken on its own terms I think this is actually quite clever. The postmodern dimension is materialised in LaBeouf’s awareness of himself as speaking from a screen. Both the generic green room background and the frustrated shouting give the deliberate impression of someone addressing you from a tiny box in a virtual world. LaBeouf does not address us as one person to another, but as content to an indifferent audience. His celebrity status amplifies this effect; so does the fact that the whole thing is kind of silly and cringe. This is a neat acknowledgement of the atomised quality of postmodern social texture. The postmodern subject relates to others foremost as a consumer of their content, and to themselves foremost as content producer. Nothing symbolises the separation produced by the mediation of the social by content better than the Screen.
But the Screen does not just separate; it is also transparent. And this is where the modernist sincerity comes in — it is as if it is saying, ‘we may be separated and atomised, but we are still connected in some way, we can still see each other, still hear each other, and even though these lines of connection may be ephemeral and narrow we can still forge real solidarity across them if only we just shout loud enough’.
This strategy (which is distinctively metamodern) involves a dialectic between separation and transparency that tacitly assumes a model of atomisation. This model sees separation as the primary effect and transparency as a contingent secondary effect — their logical independence is why transparency can be turned against separation. The reason I think the strategy fails is that this model is ass-backwards. Transparency is not something that contingently accompanies separation; separation is a necessary effect of transparency. We are separated by the Screen in order to become transparent to one another, not despite it.
To say that separation is an effect of transparency is just another way of noting that an aesthetic attitude requires a suspension of participation. You can’t admire a rattlesnake’s scales when you’re in the tank with it — to do so you have to get out, then look in through the protective glass. The atomised quality of postmodern subjectivity is, on this model, an effect of the suspension of participation in one another’s space of involvement required by a general aesthetisisation, by the imperative to become visible to one another. But if this is the true apparatus of atomisation, then it is useless to try to leverage transparency against separation — all this will do is double-down on the separation. And this is why LaBeouf’s metamodern prank ultimately fails to break through the Screen. Rather than recover a lost space of mutual involvement beyond the apathy of content, all its self-reflexive mechanism achieves is to enable us to consume our own apathy as content. And since this creates a spark of feeling where previously there was only a vacuum, it almost feels like the same thing. But it isn’t — it’s just a simulation. This spark does not split the atom, it is merely implanted inside it; alone it quickly fades out.
Peter Sloterdijk has described the social texture of late modernity as a foam⁷, an image aptly capturing the combination of separation, transparency, and proximity. Atomisation is accompanied by hypervisibility; the metamodern artist seeks opportunities in the latter. We may be confined to our bubbles materially but we can travel aesthetically, traversing the membranes with our gaze at the speed of electricity (a motion that parallels the familiar perspective hopping of metamodern epistemology). The metamodern artist as traveller can leverage these new gazing possibilities to weave new spaces of involvement. Their tools are the natural gaze, the self-reflexive gaze, the vulnerable gaze, the critical gaze, the intimate gaze.
But this is misguided, and misinterprets the relationship between hypervisibility and atomisation. Atomisation is the effect of hypervisibility, an absence of participation produced by the reduction of the social relation to the gaze. It does not matter which gaze. That it may be polyvalent in its affect is neither here nor there — it separates merely by virtue of being a gaze. The intimate gaze is still the gaze of the tourist, a perpetual gazer. There is no real intimacy to be found here, only a suspension of intimacy accompanied by the demand for its performance. Intimate content is not intimacy — it is just content⁸.
A Final Note
I’ve criticised metamodernism’s appeal to oscillation in four different but related domains. In the case of epistemology and political action, I’ve considered the role of oscillation as a general logic. In the case of cultural criticism and artistic strategy, I’ve pulled out two particular examples. I’ve tried to head off cherry-picking criticisms by considering how these examples are positioned by metamodernism at the same time as questioning these positionings.
Another possible objection to this post is that it criticises without suggesting alternatives. Surely the last thing anyone needs is another episode of South Park? I am sensitive to objections of this kind. My response is that the aim has been to make substantial criticisms, to engage in good faith and take metamodernism on its own terms. While I do not think a useful criticism is necessarily a constructive criticism — sometimes it can’t not be destructive — it can at least always be contentful.
When substantial, criticism always implicitly points the way to alternatives. If atomisation is a function of transparency, visibility, and appearance, then a strategy of de-atomisation should leverage translucency, ambivalence, and disappearance. If the oscillation between sincerity and irony present in contemporary culture testifies to a diminishment rather than an increase of agency then it should be critiqued, not celebrated. If we have good deconstructive reasons to believe that a certain practice is futile or worse, then we should refrain from participating in it. If we can see no alternatives, then we should either keep thinking or build one. It is true that the clock is ticking — but futile action saves no time.
If oscillation is failed synthesis, then we should stop oscillating. Rather than trying to bounce across multiple perspectives, we should be creating new perspectives by actively grappling with and resolving the tensions between existing ones. This does mean allowing conflicting perspectives into the same conversation, but not at the price of eliding their conflicts. It means getting better at making disconnections. Ultimately, the important line is not the one between connection and disconnection (between construction and deconstruction), but the one between the contentful and the contentless, the concrete and the formal, the substantial and the performative. Shallow disconnection and shallow connection amount to the same thing — they both halt dialectical motion. But by the same token, substantial disconnections can’t fail to be the basis of new connections.
Comment from Liam Kavanagh:
I think what might be at the root of your issue here is that an outcome of a skillful mindset (oscillation) is often equated with that skillful mindset (accepting the limitations and uses of many views). Its a bit like taking self-depracating as a sign of humility, it can also be a tool of a narcissist.
An important notion underneath the lauding of oscillation is one that is common in science ─ convergence across perspectives is a good sign and divergences are interesting. You will not find these convergeneces and divergences without oscillating. To me the point is not to demand synthesis, but not disavow it, either. Oscillation is a given if all views are inadequate, so we can oscillate without shame. This turns dysfunctional when oscillation is equated with development. Synthesis is still good where you can get it, but demanding a unified view is foolish.
Comment from Greg Dember:
If you watched the video conversation between Jonathan Rowson and me (thanks for mentioning it!), or read my article in the Sideview that prompted Jonathan to invite me to his channel, you know that I’m not convinced that the metamodernism described by the Hanzi authors is at all the same as the academic-originating metamodernism described by Vermeulen and van den Akker, and many others including myself and my writing partner Linda Ceriello. One really important difference is that the folks in my ‘camp’ really mean it when we say we’re talking specifically about an oscillation between modernist and postmodern polarities, NOT oscillations between any sets of opposing positions (chocolate vs. vanilla, vegetarian vs. hunting, Democrat vs. Republican, Labor vs. Tory, etc.).
The general approach to thinking characterized by oscillating/integrating/embracing seemingly opposed positions could be called multi-perspectivalism, and I would say that THAT is a postmodern thing.
The descriptive vs. normative (prescriptive) dichotomy is a way that people who use ‘metamodernism’ in the general way that the Hanzi authors do attempt to account for the existence of the earlier and academically much more firmly established metamodernism of Vermeulen, van den Akker, and others. At times I have used those labels myself, out of convenience. However, I think it’s an inadequate way to make the distinction, for two reasons.
1) There is an actual difference in content. The sensibility or structure of feeling that we’ve observed in cultural products prevailing in the period beginning shortly before 2000 is not the same sensibility promoted by the Hanzi authors and those inspired by them.
2) While what my ‘camp’ does is primarily description, and what ‘they’ do is primarily prescription, we both also do some of the other. I have heard Gortz attempt to give examples of existing cultural products that fit his definition of metamodernism. And, as you pointed out, we academics and journalists who do the ‘cultural’ metamodernism do end up championing or celebrating these products more often than not.
I should note, however, that the lens of what you call ‘descriptive’ metamodernism HAS been applied critically to things that the observers don’t like. And I would like to see more of that.
This may or may not be a fair critique of your critique, but from my point of view, what you’ve largely done is offered a reasonable criticism of the ‘normative’ (I’m just using your distinction for convenience) ‘metamodernists’ while erroneously conflating that body of thought with the work of the theorists of ‘descriptive’ metamodernism, seemingly largely gathering your sense of ‘descriptive’ metamodernism FROM the point of view of the ‘normatives’, who I don’t think entirely understand ‘descriptive’ metamodernism.
I should add that I enjoyed your description of the complexities and subtleties of BoJack Horseman, and I would argue that the sense of metamodernism that I employ DOES account for what you’ve beautifully observed about the show, definitely including its over-riding tragic dimension.
(From Liam: Great point Greg. One that is missed often with Postmodernism as well. E.g. Jameson is often lumped in with post-modernists despite the fact that his work is deeply critical of much post-modern thought).
Response from Sam
Hi, Thanks again for your comment and engagement. First let me just accept your objection to the descriptive/normative language—all I meant by this was the familiar distinction between a cultural metamodernism (which aims to analyse an actually existing phenomenon, but may make value judgements as outputs of the analysis) and political metamodernism (which stipulates some prescriptions, but may recruit descriptions of existing cultural trends to support them).
When I said that cultural MM was implicitly normative (and I confess that perhaps this was not clear enough) I was making a stronger claim than that it outputs value judgements—I was saying that it seems to gerrymander its descriptive scope to ensure that it only ever outputs positive value-judgements. And furthermore, that this renders it inadequate as an analytic framework because it misses the full extent of the way in which the oscillation manifests in contemporary society (and here I am talking explicitly about the pomo/mo oscillation, not a general oscillation). The acid test here is whether cultural MM is capable of outputting negative value-judgements, hence the footnote point about a critical MM. You are saying it has done this—I have not encountered any of this work myself, but if it does exist, that’s wonderful! I’d love to see some examples—it would help to change my mind about cultural MM.
It’s worth noting that there’s plenty of this going on outside MM—Mark Fisher frequently described the defining characteristic of 21st century culture as a naturalisation of postmodernism which has flattened its ironic dimension, allowing the regurgitation of the same basic gimmicks (anachronism, pastiche, etc) to be presented with a revolutionary earnest that modernism reserved for formal innovation. I think this framework could be applied to many of the cultural phenomena that have been claimed as metamodern, though it would reinterpret their structure of feeling as one of mourning rather than yearning. This is basically the framework I am applying to BH.
But I do want to stand by my claim that the content of political MM and cultural MM are not nearly as distinct as you are making out. As you say in your article, ‘What’s metamodern is oscillation between multi-perspectival relativism and enthusiastic conviction’. Looks to me like this is exactly what political MM is aiming at—in itself, it is just an example of the kind of phenomenon that cultural MM analyses. The tension doesn’t arise from the fact that what political MM is aiming at is different to what cultural MM is analysing, it derives from the more downstream fact that aiming at this thing makes literally no sense whatsoever. This is why it can’t help but collapse into multi-perspectivalism at the level of discourse and uncritical conviction at the level of praxis. I agree that multi-perspectivalism is pomo—that’s exactly my critique! The combined point I am making in the first two sections is that pomo discursive norms + modernist politics does not amount to a developmental synthesis at either level. What it amounts to is the cultural logic of late capitalism writing itself an alibi.
I’ll just end by making a quick response to the point that political metamodernists like Hanzi and Abramson do not talk about oscillation as such. (A point which I appreciate was not made by you Greg, but I’ll put here for completeness.) In the first two sections, the argument structure uses the oscillatory model as a wedge. What everyone claims to be aiming at is something like a developmental synthesis between postmodernism and modernism—I am questioning the mechanism through which this is supposed to be achieved. If it is oscillation, then this has some problems. But if it is not, then it is….. what exactly? Abramson may not talk about oscillation, but he does talk about ‘juxtaposition of contradiction’, and this is vacuous for exactly the same reasons. Nothing in my argument hinges on people holding oscillation as an explicit value, only that they appeal to some equivalent of it or just leave an insubstantial gap.
In the final two sections I am contesting what I take to be cultural MM’s standard analytic plays, and I think it’s pretty clear that there I am talking very directly about the pomo/mod oscillation.
Hi Sam. Thank you for engaging with my feedback!
I think the main reason I’m motivated to respond to your article is to emphasize the difference between metamodernism as construed by academics and cultural theorists from how it has been construed by activists for social transformation who call themselves ‘metamodernists.’ (Such as the Hanzi authors, but not limited to them).
Regarding ‘descriptive’ vs. ‘normative’ as distinguishers: I understand the convenience of using those two terms and I have done it myself. It’s just that it’s only ONE of many dimensions along which the two construals differ, and I’ve witnessed folks from the Integral/Sensemaking/Hanzi/etc. community reducing the difference to simply that. Thereby suggesting that if you understand *their* notion of metamodernism, but take away the activist element and use it simply as a set of qualities to look for in existing social structures, you then understand cultural metamodernism. And I strongly disagree with that. That having been said, there is no one easy dichotomy that covers all the differences and is not itself overly black and white. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to use ‘cultural metamodernism’ and ‘transformationalist metamodernism.’ Someone might object to that language for valid reasons and if so I apologize in advance!
Regarding the tendency of theorists of cultural metamodernism to write about artworks and cultural products that they like much more than about ones that they see problems in: I absolutely agree with you that the litmus test for whether cultural metamodernism is the same kind of thing as postmodernism and modernism – a broad category that is useful for analytically understanding cultural trends – is whether it has the potential to output negative value judgements about things that it also categorizes as metamodern. I even say that, myself, in the Sideview article!
‘A descriptive, epistemic theorization of metamodernism allows for exemplars not favored by the theorist. Put plainly, if “metamodernism” is used to refer only to content you agree with and like, it’s probably not metamodernism.’
In the same article, I characterize the American ‘Alt-Right’ movement as a phenomenon of metamodernism, while making it clear that I oppose their politics and their behavior. In another article, written in 2016 before Donald Trump won the election, my thinking partner Linda Ceriello characterized Donald Trump’s appeal (not necessarily he, himself, nor his politics), as metamodern. Linda also writes on a more sophisticated level about the Alt Right as a metamodern phenomenon in her dissertation.
And yet… It’s an entirely valid critique to point out that overwhelmingly, the writing about cultural metamodernism focuses on examples that are seen as ‘good’ or ‘effective’ and it’s not uncommon for there to be a celebratory or cheerleading tone. (In research that treats broader cultural trends, such as developments in religion, or in scholarly literary criticism, the tone is more likely to be neutral rather than celebratory, but, still, there is not much that is clearly negative in judgement.)
I will offer this excuse: Since the notion of metamodernism is still being established, people who write about it are interested in making clear that it really is a thing. This is a lot easier to do with examples that the researcher can show as being compelling, effective or successful artworks. Especially in my own work on What is Metamodern, which is geared more to popular culture fans than to scholars, I’m motivated to provide readers with material that they can get excited about. I think if you had access to the journals where scholarly treatments of literary fiction are found, you’ll see more complex investigation that is more about exposing how metamodern cultural products *work* than in cheerleading for them. And yet it’s probably true that there aren’t many offering a downright negative estimation of the works that they are treating.
Nevertheless, I would argue that there is no lack of potential to identify metamodern qualities in ‘bad’ cultural products. I’ve read ‘positive’ metamodern theorizations of artworks that I personally do not like, and yet agree belong under the umbrella metamodern. And just the other night I watched a streaming movie I Care a Lot, that I think failed because of unconvincing tone shifts that were clearly shooting for something I would call metamodern. I just didn’t happen to like it or think they pulled it off. I could easily imagine writing a negative review of that film that invokes the notion of metamodernism to try to explain what they may have been shooting for, and why shooting for that target set up the film to fail.
I can imagine several ways the notion of metamodernism might be employed in negative criticism of a cultural product:
1) It’s making metamodern ‘moves’ that obscure an important contradiction or missing piece in the subject matter.
2) It shoots for a metamodern ‘move’ but doesn’t pull it off effectively, yielding a disorienting or self-undermining or contrived-seeming result. (I often feel this way about derivative indie-folk or worse, commercial jingles that are derivative of indie-folk).
3) Its treatment of the subject fails because it’s overly modernist or postmodern, in a way that falls flat given today’s aesthetic sensibilities/expectations. It needed to be more metamodern.
I guess you have to take my word for it, but I don’t think any theorist of cultural metamodernism would deny the potential for that kind of criticism. I just think that in practice, they haven’t chosen to do it often, because, with limited time and limited opportunities to publish, they prioritize writing about things they are excited about. I absolutely hope that this will not continue to be exclusively the case.
In contrast to cultural metamodernism, I would argue that transformationalist metamodernism, by definition, is championing changes that they feel will make for a better world. So they are subject to your critique in a way that cultural metamodernism fundamentally is not, even though there is a lot of room for cultural metamodernism researchers to ‘do better’ at branching out into covering subjects that the writers are not enthusiastic about.
I want to address the question of whether Hanzi-style ‘metamodernism’ can at least be understood as one example of cultural metamodernism, but first I want to address ‘oscillation.’
It has occurred to me in thinking about all of this that the notion of oscillation originally put forth by Vermeulen and van den Akker in 2010 had a more specific meaning than it has often come to be given. (I’ve been guilty of some such looseness myself).
So I would argue that the truest sense of oscillation is a dynamic happening in the interpretive experience of an object’s *audience*, not simply in the object itself. It’s not the object that switches back and forth between irony and earnestness, or between, say, unity and fracture. Rather it’s the nature of the object that elicits an oscillating interpretation in the viewer/reader, in a metamodern cultural product. So, for example, when you first encounter a Jonathan Richman performance, you’re likely to think ‘this music is so earnest that it is childish.’ Then you think ‘he’s taking it so far that he must be mocking it.’ Then you think ‘And yet he’s never breaking character, and if he *were* serious about it, it would indeed be touching. In fact, I *am* touched!’ Then: ‘Oh, so he is simple and innocent. Maybe he’s sort of an idiot savant.’ Then you notice actually how intricate his rhyme schemes are and how nuanced his understanding of human nature seems to be, so he’s probably not simply an idiot savant. Then his refusal to break character begins to seem alienating, because he won’t let you take a break. Maybe the joke *is* on you, after all. Ah, but there is a palpable warm vibe shared by the audience. Etc… The art does not have distinct earnest and ironic pieces; rather the earnest reaction in the listener gives way to an ironic reaction, and vice-versa, repeatedly. Some variation of this dynamic is at play in much work that people have called metamodern.
Another kind of relationship present in metamodern works is one that I would prefer to call braiding. Here, you do have distinct components present within the object itself that have opposing qualities, and yet the components lean upon each other such that taking one away would cause the whole to unravel. So there are discernable polarized components, but they are in an important dynamic or constructive relationship with each other.
Finally you have simple juxtaposition, which I think is more weakly metamodern than braiding or oscillation, and often not really metamodern at all. Sometimes you’ll find a combination of traditional, modernist, and/or postmodern elements in a thing, but they’re not dynamically related, they’re simply co-present because that’s how life often is: things are complicated and have multiple elements in them. For example, if a museum has a floor that features modernist paintings and another floor that features postmodern paintings, I wouldn’t, on the basis of that reason alone, call it a ‘metamodern museum.’
I would argue that Hanzi-style metamodernism’s incorporation of both (pomo) multi-perspectivalism and (mod) hierarchical models of adult development is only on the stronger end of what I’ve called simple juxtaposition. I would not discount it entirely as a metamodern dynamic, but if I were trying to explain metamodernism to someone, I wouldn’t choose it as a clear and shining example. I think that ultimately, Gortz & Friis do recognize the internal validity of varying perspectives, but primarily only for the purpose of establishing their hierarchical approach, in which they assert that different perspectives can be ordered on the basis of cognitive complexity. They don’t really oscillate between multi-perspectivalism and hierarchical thinking; they move through multi-perpectivalism to arrive at hierarchical thinking, and they priviledge it. I think their main mission is not to encourage people to accept viewpoint diversity, but rather to encourage adult models of human (and societal) development to be a factor in the policy formation of government and other institutions. When they do return to focusing on mutli-perspectivalism, it’s mainly to humble people who cling to levels beneath the one that is supposed to be the highest (what they call ‘metamodernism’), suggesting that people don’t be dismissive of those ‘below’ them because they themselves are at a level ‘below’ others.
In any case, regardless of where you put this in the range between ‘weak juxtaposition’ and ‘strong oscillation’ my main point is that, in my view, the main *content* of Hanzi-style metamodernism is this interest in advanced adult development. Whereas the main content identified by theorists of cultural metamodernism is a sensibility or structure of feeling that oscillates between such polarities as earnestness/irony, unification/fragmentation, hope/resignation, desire/apathy, yearning/tragedy, etc… This is not simply an abstract theory but is the result of *observing* many examples in the arts and culture that seem to exhibit this tendency. The data preceded the theory and the data have a certain subjective aesthetic vibe, and models of advanced adult development don’t have that vibe to me.
Finally, putting aside everything I just said, even if I accept that the body of ideas advocated by Gortz and Friis is in some part an *exemplar* of metamodernism, it’s not metamodernism *per se*. Goofy analogy, but let’s say you had a model of car called ‘The Blue’ and all of those cars were always painted blue as part of the brand. Now compare the car, ‘The Blue’ to actually the color blue, in general. The qualitative definition of the color blue includes some particular electromagnetic frequency range, the neurons it stimulates in animals’ brains, the subjective associations people have with that color, etc, across many kinds of thing that have the color blue. Whereas for this hypothetical model of car, the fact of them being colored blue is one detail that matters, but so do its engine characteristics, fuel efficiency, numbers of doors, and a bunch of other car-oriented aspects. To say that the actual color blue, and this model of car called The Blue are the same kind of thing would be non-sensical. Instead, you would say that the car is an example of things that are blue, that someone also chose to name ‘The Blue.’
So, at best, I think the body of ideas promoted by the Hanzi authors might be considered, as you suggested, an example of cultural metamodernism, but even if it is, it’s only *kind of* an example of cultural metamodernism.
Since I’ve already violated norms by writing such a long comment, I’m going to keep going and mention a few spots in your article where I feel you make observations that I would argue apply differently to cultural metamodernism than they do to transformational metamodernism.
I really appreciate you reading through all of this. I realize that I may not at all have convinced you of my position, but if nothing else, it’s been very helpful to me in clarifying my own thoughts about a lot of this which has come up before in other contexts and sure will come up again. Thank you for giving me impetus.
Hi, thanks for the expansion! I’ll try to keep this *reasonably* brief, partly because Medium is a truly horrible discussion platform but also because I think we’re largely converging on agreement—certainly I have no beef with cultural MM as you describe it. We seem to be on the same page about what a good cultural theory should be able to do, and it’s been cool for me to discover that there’s a load of stuff going on that does just that, or at least creates the space for it to happen. (Also I should have read your Sideview article more carefully—sorry about that). I also agree that if cultural MM is delimited this way then it does seem to have some fundamental disagreements with transformational MM (I’ll say a few more words about this below).
And yes I’m aware that the specific quotes you point to do not necessarily apply to what you’re talking about—most of those are quite context dependent, and even where they are not I have deliberately used the word ‘metamodernism’ in an amorphous way to try to reflect the broader discourse in all its amorphousness. This piece is a polemic, and there is nothing in this world more pointless than a really long and pedantic polemic! I appreciate the usage may not reflect any area which has thought carefully about what it is doing, as yours clearly has. If its only effect is to (in some tiny way) help foreground the kind of work that you are involved in, then I would be very happy with that! But there is also the overarching fact that—for whatever reason—these potentially quite different discourses have become clustered around the same signifier, bleeding into and feeding back on each other in various complicated ways. This whole tangle is governed by its own structural dynamics, and these dynamics are partly what I’m taking aim at in this piece. Part of its rhetorical gamble is to try say something out loud which I suspect many people might already be familiar with, at least in vibe.
Like, my complaint with Hanzi is primarily that once you boil it down to its residue what you are left with is weaksauce liberalism in a shiny hat. I don’t think there’s any internal inconsistencies in Hanzi—the much more interesting question for me concerns the wider structural dynamics in play that have allowed it to become established as a significant reference point in a discourse that (in many if not all areas) thinks of itself as working against the status quo. There is something very weird going there! Just to back up to try to say something constructive—I think one of the factors that can create a lot of confusion is that there’s really three things sometimes labelled as ‘metamodern’: cultural products, political/transformational prescriptions, and something more nebulous which we could tentatively call ‘the metamodern condition’.
Irrespective of how cultural MM delimits its scope, there is this wider thing going on in contemporary life which has the form of an oscillatory indeterminacy both at the level of communication (which is encapsulated in phrases like sorry-not-sorry, and lies behind the post-truth phenomenon) and the level of action (like in attitudes to environmentalism where one is bounced back and forth between a kind of catastrophic universalism—waking up sweating at night dreaming about ice caps melting—and a kind of complacent self-interest—fuck it I’ll just make the Amazon order, nothing I do is significant anyway—which very often co-exist in individuals*). All of this displays metamodern characteristics (in that these could be conveyed as oscillatory indeterminacies between sincerity/irony, earnest/cynicism, etc), and there are interesting questions to be asked about whether they point to a *new* condition that is distinct from the postmodern condition, or whether it is simply a deepening of it (for example Baudrillard was thematising this kind of oscillatory paralysis as early as the mid-70’s, and explicitly predicted it as a mechanism of decentralised social control that would emerge directly from the commodification of the symbolic economy).
Someone like Seth Abramson sees this condition, points at it and says ‘people like Trump are using this for bad, let’s use it for good!’—but this tacitly mobilises a diagnosis which attributes a neutral status to the primary oscillation itself—and it is *this* impulse I take issue with. Hanzi may not make any explicit reference to oscillation in content, but the performative aspects of the project are very obvious attempts to leverage this state of play. Etc etc. A cultural MM is orthogonal to this *in theory* in the sense that it can support different diagnoses of the metamodern condition, but in practice it has to make SOME diagnosis in order to have an analytic frame for making value judgements about particular cultural phenomena (otherwise it is reduced to a purely taxonomical enterprise). E.g. if we think this condition is bad—i.e. it signals a diminishment of human agency—then a good MM cultural product would be something that resists it, or carves out interiority despite it; if we think it’s good then a good MM cultural product would be one that potentiates or amplifies it.
Where e.g. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner seem to respond to irony with irony-not-irony (which is a bit like responding to Kurt Cobain with Kanye West), something like BoJack Horseman seems to me to respond to irony-not-irony by representing the way it doubles down on meaninglessness to create an even deeper level of alienation, and thereby resists it. Certainly a MM cultural theory could support an analysis which identified the first as bad (or a failed attempt at) MM and the second as an authentic or good MM, but the point I’d make is that supporting such a judgement requires taking a stance on the metamodern condition. And this is the point at which the cultural theorist reveals their political hand! Anyway I won’t go on—very grateful for the discussion, and if it’s been helpful for you to articulate your own thoughts that’s wonderful! Sam Campbell Jones has a wonderful essay about this called The Subject Supposed to Recycle.
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