An introduction to metamodernism: the cultural philosophy of the digital age

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The term metamodernism was coined in 1975 by Mas’ud Zavarzade, a writer and researcher, to describe an emerging cultural trend in American literature. Since then, the term has become popular and is frequently discussed in every corner of the Internet. If you are active on Twitter, blogging, using filters and stickers to edit photos before posting them online, creating memes, you may be applying metamodernist principles without realising it.

When I ran a poll asking people if they knew what metamodernism was, 75% said they had no idea at all, and 20% said they had only a vague idea. Bear in mind this was an online poll on one of the most postmodernist places on the Internet: Twitter. So let’s fix this together. I promise no jargon, and no assumption of prior knowledge.

Grandeur and desillusion: the origins of metamodernism

To understand metamodernism, you need to understand modernism and postmodernism. Modernism is a philosophical movement in America and Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. It’s often associated with the Age of Radio. The injunction “Make it new!” by poet Ezra Pound in 1934 captures the essence of modernism, which encouraged creators to leave behind the obsolete culture of the past and to re-examine every aspect of existence. It’s considered a maximalist philosophy, with creators thriving to transcend their own mortality by making History.

After World War II, postmodernism—approximately from 1945 to 2005—emerged in rejection of the grand narratives of modernism. Associated with the Age of Television, it’s usually defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, and moral relativism. You could see the postmodernist generation as disillusioned: they rejected the possibility of reliable knowledge, denied the existence of a universal reality, and framed aesthetics as arbitrary and subjective.

Many people criticised postmodernism for its negativity, the fact that it promoted obscurantism—why conduct any scientific research if nothing’s real?—and the fact that it was simply impossible for human beings to believe in nothing. “The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unliveable” said philosopher William Lane Craig. (who was Christian, so probably biased on the matter of postmodernism, but still making an interesting point)

Bear with me, but these conversations have come to be known as the post-postmodernism debate. Post-postmodernism is not the cultural philosophy that followed modernism and postmodernism. Instead, it’s the collective search for what should come next; a quest for a more balanced world-view which would take into account the optimism of modernism and the pluralism of postmodernism.

Out of the many answers to that big question, metamodernism has been the prevalent cultural philosophy since the mid 2000s. It’s associated with the Age of the Internet, and it’s about embracing the polarising nature of human beings. Doubt cannot exist without hope. Failure cannot exist without experience. Life can bring emotion and apathy, sincerity and irony, excitement and melancholy. According to cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, metamodernism “can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.” For the metamodern generation, “grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed” explains Vermeulen.

Metamodernism: the three ages of metamodernism

To summarise, we went from modernism—”Make it new!” Let’s shape History!—to postmodernism—everything sucks! Nothing really matters!—to metamodernism: maybe things are not this black-and-white? Maybe there’s a middle ground?

How to define metamodernism

A common image used to describe metamodernism is that of a pendulum, constantly oscillating between creation and destruction, hope and doubt, optimism and realism. When talking about metamodernism in comparison with modernism and postmodernism, Fabio Vittorini described it as “a pendulum-like motion between the naive and/or fanatic idealism of the former and the skeptical and/or apathetic pragmatism of the latter.”

Metamodernism stresses engagement, emotion, and storytelling. Yes, the planet is dying, but maybe we can do something about it. Yes, we will all disappear and ultimately nobody will remember us, but isn’t that freeing?

With metamodernism, you don’t need to make History for your story to matter. And making History doesn’t mean your story matters either. Metamodernism is about exploring the in-between.

As Pieter Levels said: “You can approach the nihilism of that in a positive or negative way. Negatively that means whatever you do, it doesn’t matter, so you can just as well do nothing. Positively it means whatever you do, it doesn’t matter, so you can now just enjoy the thing you do intrinsically. Not for the end purpose.”

“Metamodernism oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”

Timotheus Vermeulen, Cultural Theorist.

Metamodernism and the Internet

As I mentioned, modernism is associated with the Age of Radio, postmodernism with the Age of Television, and metamodernism with the Age of the Internet. But I find the simple association of metamodernism with the Age of the Internet quite limited. Instead, I think metamodernism would be better associated with the Age of the Online Creator.

While most of the Internet population is passive, metamodernism is not to be confused with pseudo-modernism. British scholar Alan Kirby stated: “In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads.”

Instead, metamodernism is about genuine connection, empathy, and community. While modernism is about creating something completely new (which you could argue is an illusion); postmodernism is about deconstructing the past and rejecting the future; pseudo-modernism is about mindless online consumerism—metamodernism is about creating something new with what was created before, while acknowledging the inherent ephemerality of the human condition.

Here are some examples of metamodernist creations you will commonly find on the Internet:

  • Fanfiction. People writing fanfiction know they will never make History (which would be a modernist vision), but they believe in the intrinsic meaning of creating something new, even if based on existing material (which goes against the postmodernist vision rejecting progress).
  • Remixes. Many of the most popular songs these past fifteen years are actually covers. Lana Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time” is a cover of the 1996 Sublime hit. “Moon River” by Frank Ocean first appeared in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, you name it—everyone has released at least one cover song or a remix of someone else’s track. The transparent balance between the old and the contemporary to create a brand new whole is profoundly metamodernist.
  • Memes. Yes, memes are metamodernist! At least the process of creating your own memes. Taking a screenshot from a movie and adding captions that create a whole new meaning is a metamodernist approach to the creation process.
  • Vlogging. This shared self-reflection method mixes the personal and the plural, the mundane and the artistic. It’s not trying to make History per se, but it can end up reaching and influencing millions of people, giving birth to communities in the process. Vlogging is stuck between nonchalance and caring, superficiality and affect. Will it end up in History classes? Probably not. Does it mean you should not do it?

Metamodern trends

In an essay he published on Medium, Greg Dember goes through a list of eleven metamodern methods. I’ll only cover three examples that I find the most interesting, and also the easiest to grasp.

  • Normcore. You may have heard about the term before, which trended in 2013. Normcore is a deliberate effort by people with non-mainstream styles to adopt the fashion style of what they deem “normal” people, mainly in the form of wearing basic closing. So what’s metamodern about this trend? Well, normcore is all about overcoming external differences to better connect on a deeper level. When Jimmy Fallon stated that he decided to wear suits when he took over The Tonight Show because that would be the normal thing to do, it was a deeply metamodern thing to do. Not modern (“wear something new!”), nor postmodern (“who cares!”) but metamodern (“mainstream fashion is a fashion statement”).
  • Ironesty. The term was coined by Gred Dember. As you probably guessed, it’s a mix of irony and honesty. He defines it as “the braiding together of irony and sincerity (honesty) in a unified aesthetic expression.” He gives the example of shows such as Modern Family and Community. I’m a huge fan of Modern Family, and I can tell what he means by ironesty, basically irony or sarcasm used in the service of expressing a sincere emotion or making an earnest point. This show is a great example of the pendulum we mentioned before, oscillating between love and harshness, deep caring and selfishness—just as most of us humans do.
  • Constructive pastiche. During the postmodernist era, pastiche (“an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period”) was mostly about mocking someone else’s work. With metamodernist, pastiche can actually be constructive. Constructive pastiche is about bringing the concerns of a previous era into the modern era, creating a new work of art in the process. While Tarantino—who is considered a postmodernist—famously said that he steals from everyone and didn’t have any consideration for “high art” (please note that I’m actually a Tarantino fan), metamodern movies such as Interstellar and Arrival recycle classic sci-fi tropes to explore a plurality of realities, subjectivities, and boundaries.

EDIT: Since publishing this article, I’ve been having wonderful conversations with Greg Dember, the author of the list of metamodern methods. One thing I got wrong is my interpretation of his concept of constructive pastiche. As always, in the spirit of public learning, I will leave my interpretation and add his correction which he gave me permission to publish: “One specific thing in terms of my work that I think you sort of misrepresented is constructive pastiche. I use pastiche to mean artworks that combine stylistic elements from differing genres. Like, say, combining country music and hip-hop in the same song. In postmodern work, that sort of pastiche serves to poke fun at each genre, by pitting the two genres against each other. I use the term destructive pastiche for that. In metamodern / constructive pastiche, it serves to sort of create a “bigger space” where the two (or more) genres kind of lean against each other like tent poles, holding up a structure that allows a kind of feeling that wouldn’t otherwise be expressible.”

As you can see, metamodernism spans many creative areas. You can also see it in deliberately bad advertising such as this one by attorney Bryan Wilson. You don’t need to watch it all to understand why it works: it challenges the convention of hiring an attorney who is acting like a professional—may I say like a boring but effective professional. It remixes memes to create something new. It’s surprising and it’s not taking itself seriously.

At its core, metamodernism is about ambiguity, reconstruction, dialogue, collaboration, and creative paradox. It’s about allowing yourself to be many different people at once. It’s about speaking through the work of everyone who you are sampling from in order to amplify their voice. It’s about being a curator with a unique creative vision.

Inside the mind of a metamodernist

I thought I would conclude this article with a short interview with someone I consider one of the best embodiments of metamodernism on the Internet, Visakan Veerasamy. When I asked Visa if I could feature some of his ideas, he made it clear he never really thought about the label per se, but was happy to share some thoughts nonetheless.

“If I had to characterise metamodernism, it would be something like everything, everywhere all at once. I grew up as a minority consuming many different kinds of media all at once so I have always been context-switching, code-switching. For me then it just seemed normal or natural given my context. I have since come to learn that it’s not natural for lots of people, but the whole world is colliding faster and harder than ever, so this is becoming the norm for everyone.”

“Rather than having one frame, or trying to reject frames, just experiment as much as possible. That’s related to how and why I write so much, do threads, etc. There is an element of choosing to be an independent sensemaker as much as possible. Keep your own notes, write your own history. My Twitter threads and 1,000 word vomits and everything else really are all sort of like… Sensors, actually. A distributed system of utterances—like a spider’s web.”

Many thanks to Visa for sharing his thoughts on metamodernism. He’s a living example that you don’t need complex mediums to express yourself in a metamodern way. If you have a computer and the Internet, you have everything you need. See yourself as a work in progress. Explore, combine, collaborate.

I find it funny that I went through all three phases on a personal level—modernism, postmodernism, metamodernism—throughout my life. As a kid, I was all about building what I thought was new stuff (“let’s make History!”). As a teenager, I rejected everything (“nothing matters, everything sucks, is this world even real?”). Today, as an adult, I have a much more nuanced view of the world (“hope is scary but necessary” but also “I’m going to remix this meme”).

What’s very interesting is that cultural philosophies—whether you look at romanticism, victorianism, modernism, or postmodernism—tend to have a lifespan of half a century. It begs the question: what’s next?

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