Metamodernism 101

How David Foster Wallace Started a Cultural Revolution

by Seth Abramson

Metamodernism, the cultural philosophy with which David Foster Wallace is most often associated, is usually summarized as a romantic response to crisis. But the “romantic response” metamodernism has in mind isn’t merely a philosophical one; rather, it’s an entirely practical reply to looming tragedies like the sinking of the nation of Bangladesh, the continued payment of royalties to the inventor of the Selfie Stick, and the next novel from Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James. The answer to these and other crises? Hope.

If, as many of us believe, metamodernism is quickly becoming the dominant philosophy in the United States, it’s because we’re increasingly acknowledging both the crises we collectively face — and the obstacles that lie before us in facing them, like the American media’s ongoing love affair with “Kimye” — as well as the importance of moving forward with optimism. Our domestic political sphere may be more partisan than at any other time in U.S. history; our global climate may be nearing the tipping point, making a mass extinction event within the next few centuries a real possibility; economic polarization may be worse now than ever before; and in fact all of these challenges may in some sense be insurmountable — but the metamodernist view is that we can still choose to live, work, make art, and creatively problem-solve as though they’re not.

It’s difficult to summarize the fundamental crisis we face in the Internet Age, as in fact there are many crises simultaneously unfolding in different parts of American culture. But what all of these crises have in common is this: they feature the erosion of distinctions we’ve long relied upon. Scientists may broadly agree that climate change is manmade and has reached catastrophic levels, but as long as a large segment of America equates science with personal opinion there’ll be no consensus as to how to react. We can say that our culture is economically polarized, but as long as there are daily lottery winners and politicians arguing the definition of “the middle class” it will appear as though the American dream is alive and well. More broadly, while confusing, contradictory, ambiguous, and unreliable data — often, anonymously authored — may now race through virtual spaces at unthinkable speeds, these data nevertheless make up the bulk of our collective environment, whether we like it or not.

The optimism favored by metamodernists is of a brand that celebrates the erasing of boundaries and treats the indistinguishability of reality and unreality —
or other supposed opposites, like irony and sincerity — as a creative rather than destructive force.

The result is that it’s gotten more difficult than ever to draw bright lines between, say, the real and the unreal, or sincerity and irony, or optimism and cynicism. We open a browser tab and try to figure out whether Donald Trump is earnestly seeking the presidency or just promoting his “brand”; whether the music video for Donald Glover’s “Sober” is depicting a touching courtship or the terrifying harassment of a woman by a stranger; whether multi-genre performers Reggie Watts, Sarah Silverman, and Bo Burnham are trying to confuse, deceive, critique, entertain, or enlighten us; even whether to laugh at or be inspired by the movement to create an “International Flag for Planet Earth.” Metamodernism is a philosophy that helps us navigate these and similar online data by proposing an optimistic response to the collapse of order the Internet often seems to represent: a “both/and” approach that insists Donald Trump is both earnest and cynical, Reggie Watts imaginative and analytical, and so on.

The optimism favored by metamodernists is of a brand that celebrates the erasing of boundaries and treats the indistinguishability of reality and unreality — or other supposed opposites, like irony and sincerity — as a creative rather than destructive force. If postmodernism urged us to “deconstruct” reality by dividing thought and experience into so many subcategories that we all felt more distant from one another and “truth” than ever before, metamodernism self-consciously reconstructs those scattered pieces to form new and inspiring wholes. When one is, for instance, both sincere and ironic, one creates an entirely new state of action and reaction; new possibilities emerge, too, from new juxtapositions.

After decades of postmodern irony, cynicism, and the sort of despair that comes from thinking that everything is coming apart and that our collective problems are insolvable, metamodernism advocates hope, dialogue, collaboration, sincerity, and optimism by showing that these latter practices and attitudes need not ignore history to survive. That is, we can be mindful of the complexities of the past and the present without feeling incapable of meeting the challenges they pose; we can create new guiding narratives for ourselves and our communities without falsely pretending that any narrative is altogether “true” or universal. Today, we find metamodernism everywhere along the spectrum of American culture, from “remixing” in music and literature to the half-serious whimsical nature of Wes Anderson films, from the performance art of Marina Abramovic — which challenges us to consider where life ends and art begins — to the dizzying but still coherent “meta-” narratives of TV shows like Community and Rick and Morty.

The term “metamodernism” has been regularly used by academics since it was coined by American professor Mas’ud Zavarzadeh in 1975 (in “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives”, published by The Journal of American Studies). But it took many years for the first literary artwork universally acknowledged as “metamodern” to be written. That work is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a massive novel which the late author began writing in the mid-1980s and finally published in 1996. In writing his most celebrated work, Wallace was influenced by “proto-metamodern” authors like Thomas Pynchon. Nevertheless, he offered readers an unmistakably unique take on the human condition, a bewildering combination of optimism and cynicism.

Wallace broke the rules of the postmodern novel by being at once comic and serious, ironic and sincere, obtuse and straight-forward, conscious of narrative and dismissive of the need for narrative. Wallace’s stated aim was not to show how structures (or even meaning itself) deteriorates, but rather to write a book that would be so gripping and entertaining and human that it’d be impossible to put down. And he succeeded. Wallace showed readers that the confusion of contemporary living still leaves plenty of room for originality, pleasure, self-knowledge, and hard-nosed problem-solving. For instance, a chapter in Infinite Jest in which Wallace lists everything one might learn in a 12-step recovery program is simultaneously a hilarious takedown of recovery schemes like AA and an endorsement of such groups’ ability to dramatically improve or even save a human life.

Scholars and artists continue to debate whether metamodernism is a movement, a philosophy, a system of logic, an artistic practice, a political strategy, a “structure of feeling,” or some combination of all of these. What’s generally agreed upon by metamodernists, however, is that metamodernism is a “post-postmodernism” inasmuch as it, not postmodernism, is now the best descriptor for contemporary culture. There’s also broad agreement that metamodernism encourages the reconstruction of pieces into wholes that can’t be readily deconstructed — which means that metamodern artworks are made up of pieces or ideas taken from multiple sources (some created by the artist, some taken from our increasingly expansive social and intellectual networks) but also hang together as objects that are difficult to describe but clearly original.

Sometimes metamodernists speak of the metamodern “sublime,” or the metamodern “awesome,” as a way of discussing events, artworks, and other phenomena that capture our imagination and our sense of hopefulness even as we find ourselves unable to easily “deconstruct” them. For instance, much like the very different output of Donald Trump, Donald Glover, and Marina Abramovic, Wallace’s Infinite Jest provoked anger or confusion among many simply by refusing to be readily categorized; in a world in which our inclination is to deconstruct everything into a series of neatly opposing principles, metamodern artifacts continue to thwart our sense that data can be so quickly and easily processed. Likewise, metamodern dialogues and collaborations tend to cross so many lines of affiliation, interest, convention, and (in the arts) genre that they frustrate readers trained in Modernism’s interpretive “close readings” and/or postmodernism’s deconstructive critiques. In this way, metamodernism offers us new avenues for making meaning, reading meaning, and even discussing possible solutions to old problems.

Seth Abramson is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and the series co-editor of the Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be released by Wesleyan University Press in late 2015. His most recent book is Metamericana (Blaze Vox, 2015).