I had been waiting for something like this.
For several years I had been observing and contemplating a certain shift in culture — something that was rather hard to pinpoint but yet was unmistakably new. Something seemed to have changed in the new millennium that made it cool again to express unabashed feelings — joy, wonder, sadness, vulnerability, triumph — in our art, and in everyday life, unfettered by the ever-present ironic snark that controlled the nineties and earlier… somehow, in such a way that didn’t toss out the fun that could be had in playing with irony. I’d been hoping that someone — a journalist, an art critic or a scholar — would acknowledge this shift I’d been noticing in music, film, art literature and even the way people around us talked and joked with each other.
In 2010, my writing partner Linda Ceriello and I came upon an essay called “Notes on Metamodernism” in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture. The authors — Dutch scholars Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker — explained how they had begun noticing artworks that did not seem to live within the aesthetics of postmodernism, and, heeding the challenge of other writers who also felt that something new was emerging from postmodernism and that it needed some theory and a better name than “postpostmodernism,” they put forth the name “Metamodernism” and summarized their take on it by saying that the new artistic sensibility was one that
… 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.
Reading this, we felt a sense that we were among kindred minds.
“Notes on Metamodernism” made quite an impression, on others as well as on Linda and me, and spawned a number of websites, articles and conferences dedicated to exploring the topic further (including What Is Metamodern?, a blog that we maintain.) Recently an academic volume has been published: Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism (Radical Cultural Studies) edited by Vermeulen and van den Akker, along with Allison Gibbons. Also, a top selling country music album has “metamodern” in the title and (probably because of that) there is a Metamodern Session IPA beer.
In their 2010 essay, Vermeulen and van den Akker cite several other authors who have elaborated on their own theories of what comes after postmodernism. Among these theories, the “Notes on Metamodernism” authors propose wrapping at least two of them, quirky and performatism, into their model of metamodernism as particular metamodern strategies. Since then, as far as I’m aware, most discussions of metamodernism have been rooted simply in the notion that oscillation between the qualities of modernism and postmodernism is what defines a metamodern sensibility. (Some even seem to conceive of metamodernism as being about oscillation, in general, i.e., involving any pair of opposites.) My purpose here is to suggest an expanded list of metamodern strategies/methods, starting with a slightly different premise. For me, oscillation is not the defining, essential characteristic of metamodernism, but is instead merely one of many potential methods employed in metamodern cultural artifacts. In fact, I propose that the essence of metamodernism is a (conscious or unconscious) motivation to protect the solidity of felt experience against the scientific reductionism of the modernist perspective and the ironic detachment of the postmodern sensibility. In this essay I will outline a list of eleven methods that I see appearing in metamodern work; the list includes oscillation, quirky and performatism, each as merely one method, alongside eight others that I am introducing.
Before I dive into the eleven methods in detail, let me first reveal my assumptions about the category of thing that metamodernism is by giving a “nutshell” summary of the epistemes (Tradition, Modernism and Postmodernism) that Metamodernism emerges from. While each episteme emphasizes qualities or motivations that fulfill some sort of human or ontological purpose, each also has inherent limitations that, when exposed, set the stage for the emergence of the next episteme, which arises as people seek ways to untangle themselves from the previous episteme’s confines.
• Tradition (the pre-modern era, perhaps going back to the depths of humanity’s origins) prioritizes the transmission of knowledge and culture from the past. Its limitations are that it reinforces ways of seeing and doing that are not available to optimization, and it does not promote individuation. Traditional types of cultural artifacts include folk songs and nursery rhymes, communal dances and rituals, nature-based medicine and spiritual healing, liturgical music, grand long-lasting architectural projects built over many generations, myth, folk tales, the notion of “canonical literature” — things that reify the unassailable wisdom of the old and the cyclical nature of reality.
• Modernism (circa 1900ish to 1950-ish) attempts to escape Tradition’s limitations by emphasizing invention, intention, seeing below surface layers to (what are perceived as) essential structures, and making clear delineations by ranking, rating or typologizing things. Its own limitation is that it often fails to recognize interrelationships, contexts, and the wisdom of organically evolved knowledge structures and things, perspectives from the margins, etc. Examples: the Bauhaus Movement in architecture, Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone music, novelists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, visual artists such as Picasso and Dali, and the origination of motion pictures as an art form.
• Postmodernism (1950-ish to 2000-ish) seeks to correct Modernism’s hubris through irony, playful juxtaposition, bringing attention to subcultures that are outside the dominant, the re-elevation of traditional patterns rejected by modernism, etc… Its eventual limitation is that it often nullifies a sense of meaningfulness or purpose and deflates the affective dimension and interior subjectivity. Examples: Minimalist Classical composers John Cage and Steve Reich; rock music in general, and then specifically within the arc of rock music, the Punk Rock, New Wave and Alternative Rock genres of the 80s and 90s; novelists such as William S. Boroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Brett Easton Ellis; visual and conceptual artists such as Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Robert Rauschenberg; architects such as Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi who defied modernist austerity and functionalism; film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch.
• Metamodernism (largely beginning in the late 1990s and continuing in the present) reacts to or embraces aspects of all three prior epistemes. In my formulation, the central motivation of metamodernism is to protect interior, subjective Felt Experience from the ironic distance of Postmodernism, the scientific reductionism of Modernism, and the pre-personal inertia of Tradition. Does it have a limitation, in the way that I’ve claimed for the other epistemes? Probably, but we don’t know yet, because we’re not yet at a point in history where this episteme has played itself out! Representative artists/artworks include: the music of Sufjan Stevens and Jenny Lewis; television shows such as Community and Modern Family; the architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre; film-makers such as Wes Anderson and Miranda July; authors such as Dave Eggers, Elif Batuman and Jennifer Egan.
Like Vermuelen and van den Akker, my primary interest is in how these epistemes are expressed through the arts and popular culture, but there are also certainly implications for politics, science, and social organization. The epistemes describe a historical situatedness, and as such they emerge in and dominate rough ranges of years, but they also have an ahistorical aspect — that is, you can find artifacts that exhibit a particular episteme’s aesthetic sensibility during the decades that would generally fall outside of its purview.
Artworks and cultural artifacts that could be considered metamodern may be said to use a variety of strategies or methods, and here I propose a (non-exhaustive) list of eleven such methods that may be seen employed in various combinations. In other words, some cultural products that seem to be metamodern might employ only one of the methods; others might employ several. I’m not saying that the artist necessarily has any of these concepts in mind, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the aforementioned artists were thinking “I’m going to make something metamodern!” A metamodern aesthetic — just like a postmodern or modernist aesthetic — is something we observe in artworks, not something that must be intended by the creator.
Here is my quick list of the methods that I have come up with. This is just a start; others may want to add to the list, or see two strategies that I’ve named as really being part of one thing, etc. I provide some detail on each method, including examples, but it is beyond the scope of this article to go into serious depth on each example. To see full discussions of particular examples of metamodernism, please visit What Is Metamodern? and stay tuned for my forthcoming book, provisionally titled Say Hello to Metamodernism!
1) Meta-reflexivity (“Life as Movie”)
2) The narrative double frame (Eshelman’s Performatism)
3) Oscillation between opposites
5) The Tiny (metamodern minimalism)
6) The Epic (metamodern maximalism)
7) Constructive Pastiche
10) Overprojection (Anthropomorphizing)
1) Meta-Reflexivity / Life-As-Movie
Meta-reflexivity, as I am using it here in a literary way (different uses exist in other fields, such as psychology) indicates an intensified looking back upon the self. The “self” may be the author, the reader/viewer, the work itself, or even the genre or medium that the work is part of. Meta-reflexivity is not unique to metamodernism; it is also an important part of postmodern work but it functions differently in the two epistemes. Allow me to explain.
Briefly, in postmodern work, the role of meta-reflexivity (or I guess I’ll call it “self-reflexivity” when it’s part of postmodernism) is generally to dissolve or to call attention to boundaries — and to raise questions about the unexamined premises that such boundaries point to. Reacting against modernism’s tendency to see individual pieces of art and intellectual efforts as autonomous, self-evident revelations of an objective and universal truth, postmodern work will often draw attention to the way that the author’s own perspectives, flaws or belief systems may distort any meaning that might be drawn from the work, if even by simply keeping attention on the fact that there is an author. Similarly, with attention drawn to a postmodern work’s own form, genre or medium, the reader is reminded that the work is, indeed, a piece of “work” and so not to be entirely “trusted.”
Metamodernism inherits self-reflexivity from postmodernism, but repurposes it in a manner that, generally speaking, serves to affirm felt experience. If the “self” being reflected upon in a metamodern work is the work’s author, the result is a highlighting of the author’s own lived, inner experience. In this case the author’s own self-reflection provides a model for the reader’s self-reflection, and by extension, the reader’s own felt experience. If the “self” being referenced is the work’s own form, genre or medium, the effect is that the reader is reminded that they are engaging in something that has form, genre or medium — in other words, some sort of a work, that therefore has a reader, and of course the reader is the particular one doing the reading! Again, bringing focus on the experience of the individual engaging with the work.
Meta-reflexivity inevitably spawns a sensibility that my thinking partner Linda Ceriello like to refer to as “Life-As-Movie,” wherein people’s identities are constructed quite self-consciously through a narrative lens. In other words, people regard and “make” themselves, as actor, director, lighting designer, etc. (even audience member) in their own 4-D movies. This self-awareness or witnessing mentality is kind of like a breaking of the 4th wall, and is expressed through popular slang and other cultural expressions prevailing during the metamodern era, such as the use of the word “awesome” to point to the poignant, strange, awkward, exceptionally human — and going beyond its earlier meaning that signified the hyped-up “super-great!”
Meta-reflexivity, of course, points to one of the meanings of “meta” in “metamodernism”: A work that is about itself, or even about aboutness.
• I’m Still Here (film starring Joaquin Phoenix, 2010): A sort of “prank” documentary which purports to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s attempt to transform himself in the public eye from actor to rap star, with him seeming to become mentally unstable. In the end it is the tale of a driven, creative person’s fierce fight to defend his own sense of self.
• Community (television series created by Dan Harmon, 2009–2015): Frequent examples of meta-reflexivity including an Aspergers spectrum character who understands and connects with other people via television tropes that he is familiar with; homages to other television shows, internal references to the politics of the production of the show.
2) Double Frame
In his essay “Performatism” (2000) and later in a book with the same title (2008), Raoul Eshelman argued that a new, post-postmodern aesthetic was emerging in the arts. He called this movement Performatism in order to suggest a sensibility that escaped from postmodern ennui by performing belief in ideas such as truth, beauty, innocence and moral certainty, even while understanding the postmodern doubt about such notions. Eshelman proposed one artistic strategy that performatist works employed: the double frame. I feel that with his theory about Performatism, Eshelman is identifying the same general shift in sensibilities that metamodernism identifies, and I see his double-frame method as only one among many possible metamodern methods. So what is the double frame?
Eshelman’s double frame conceives of an outer frame and an inner frame locked together. The outer frame is a world story imbued with enough fantasy elements that the reader is forced to make a choice to buy into all of it, if they are going to commit to engaging the work. Now, temporarily trapped inside the outer frame, they are free to unironically engage the emotional content of the inner frame, which is the story of a particular set of characters and events. In other words, the fantastic nature of the outer frame draws a clear boundary between the narrative and the “real world” and the reader is left free to connect to the felt experience of the characters and through extension, to her own inner life.
• The Lovely Bones by (novel by Alice Sebold, 2002 and then a film adapation directed by Peter Jackson, 2009): A teenage girl who has been raped and murdered watches her family from heaven, narrating their experiences coping with her death
• Beasts of the Southern Wild (film directed by Benn Zeitlin, 2012): A young African-American girl and her dying father struggle with their relationship as rising waters flood their bayou community, and ancient giant “aurochs” emerge from the melting Arctic and travel ominously towards them.
Conceptualizations of metamodernism such as by Vermeulen and van den Akker, that seem to put oscillation as central to metamodernism, address in particular the oscillation between postmodern and modern polarities. Oscillation is a way of engaging two oppositional factors without them cancelling each other out, nor landing in the average zone between them. Overall, metamodernism can be understood to revive the positivistic aspects of modernism while retaining postmodernism’s awareness of context and irony, via oscillation. On a more detailed level, metamodern work will often feature an oscillating engagement between any two items in an oppositional pair in order to protect the felt experience available by not prioritizing one over the other, nor the sum of the pair at the expense of either individual.
• The Ben Folds Five (rock band), whose music is, by their own self-description “punk rock for sissies.”
• LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner (performance/conceptual art team): They’ve created a series of public projects that involve oscillations between such dualities as superficial/deep, internet-bound/real-life, fabrication/truth.
The term, “quirky” emerged within film criticism (see James McDowell), but it is applied to work with similar characteristics in other areas, such as music, television, literature, etc. Nutshelling it, quirky offers an alternative to the Irony vs. Earnestness schism by presenting characters who are, we might say, heroically weird. Who, through their own eccentricity, reveal something simultaneously outside of the norm and universal that gives access to the kind of vulnerability that everybody experiences. In a sense, as we see it, quirky can be thought of as a particular sort of double frame that encloses a single character instead of an entire narrative. The eccentricity is the outer frame, which, with its adamant irreducibility, prevents irony from dissolving the inner frame, which is the character’s emotional truth, or felt experience.
• New Girl (television series, starring Zoey Deschanel, (2011–2018): A group of young adults share an apartment, coping with and at times reveling in each others’ eccentricities.
• The Royal Tenenbaums (film directed by Wes Anderson, 2001): A self-absorbed, irresponsible father seeks reconciliation with his estranged wife and adult children, each of whom has their own remarkable personality defects.
5) The Tiny (metamodern minimalism)
I’m coining the term “The Tiny” to distinguish a special metamodern kind of minimalism as distinct from other senses of the word. “Minimalism” was the name of movements in both visual art and classical music that emerged after World War II, during the beginning of the Postmodern period. As a general aesthetic term, minimalism indicates things being smaller and/or simpler than what is normally expected, things that are stripped of excess ornateness or clutter. Metamodernism inherits minimalism as a possible method from both Modernism and Postmodernism, but puts it towards a somewhat different purpose. Where modernist work employs minimalism in order to reveal the underlying structures of things, and postmodern work employs minimalism to undercut Modernism’s penchant for grand narratives and its tendency to preach more/newer/better/faster/bigger in all things, metamodern artworks use what I’m calling The Tiny in order to create vulnerability and intimacy, bringing the reader of a work closer to the felt experience expressed in the work.
• Mumble Core (as a film genre, in general): writers and directors such as Lynn Shelton, Andrew Bujalski, and brothers Mark and Jay Duplass create films characterized by low-budget production, low-key plots, improvised dialog and often using non-professional actors.
• Men’s fashion trends favoring jackets, shirts and pants that purposely look too small.
6) The Epic (metamodern maximalism)
The Epic is a rebellion against Postmodernism’s tendency to shame ebullient, unabashed self expression. I’m talking about extravagant performances, lush musical arrangements, cautionless embrace of technology, over-the-top sexuality, excesses that don’t stop at just being provocative, but engage grandiose, hero-filled storytelling. Metamodernism gives us permission for all of these things, but again, not toward a randomness or anarchic or destructive impulse. The Epic is Metamodernism’s version of maximalism. Of course, metamodern work will often include The Epic and The Tiny, side-by-side in the same work, and that is, itself, an example of oscillation.
• Flaming Lips (rock band): Their concerts involve huge bombastic set designs and amusement-park-like special effects.
• Epic wedding proposals (social phenomenon): People are staging ever more elaborately “produced” and self-expressive wedding proposals, involving their communities, and posting the videos on YouTube. (This almost seems normal, but recall that there was a time not so long ago when our most intimate moments were not posted online for public consumption!) For a great example, see this link.
7) Constructive Pastiche
Another method that originated in the Postmodern episteme but takes a different tack in metamodernism is pastiche. Pastiche is the juxtaposing of seemingly disparate elements, from historically separated genres and/or cultures. As one way to frame it, in the context of metamodernism, pastiche is potentially constructive, whereas under postmodernism it was dissociative. Dissociative pastiche pitted elements against each other, with results that were usually amusingly absurd, in order to call into question the unexamined premises of each. Constructive (metamodern) pastiche, on the other hand, combines disparate elements in order to build a space inhabited by a felt experience that is not at home in either element on its own. And/or maybe this: constructive pastiche allows a work of art to bring into it the kinds of cultural combinations that people experience in real life, in spite of conventional divisions between them.
Examples: the post-genre music of acts such as Wilco, Jenny Lewis and Connor Oberst
This one is my neologism, as far as I know, referring to the braiding together of earnestness and irony. It’s basically the same idea as Jesse Thorn’s New Sincerity, though not temporally bound. (“New Sincerity” implies that it comes at a certain point in history, and also that it’s a sort of a movement, which it is, in the literary world.) Ironesty is irony/sarcasm/sardonicness/snark employed in the service of making an earnest point, or expressing a heart-felt emotion. It’s kind of a way of saying “Hey I get that what I’m about to say is kind of corny, but…” and then truly caring about the thing that comes after the “but.” Or it’s a way of delivering a humorous, clever ironic message, but softening it with a “Don’t worry … we’re not too cool for you, we have sincere feelings just like you.”
• Jonathan Richman (rock singer-songwriter): He writes songs that are so emotionally earnest that you think, at first, that he’s joking around. But he’s not. Or is he? He got started in the 70s, so you’d have to call hime proto-metamodern.
• J.P. Sears (YouTube spiritual wisdom presenter/comedian): Half of his videos are parodies of New Age hippie stuff, and the other half are totally legit New Age Hippie stuff.
A term made well-known in 2013 by trend-watching marketing/consulting outfit, K-Hole, normcore is a deliberate effort by people who have a non-mainstream identity to adopt the fashion sensibilities of “normal” people. What’s so noteworthy about wearing basic clothing? It is quietly, radically metamodern in that it emphasizes relationality, the ability to connect to one’s own and other people’s inner experience, over externally focused preoccupations with cultural groups and with categorical identities that seek to differentiate one from others.
Examples: This one is hard to give examples for, because the point of Normcore is to not stand out, but I’ll say Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres, both comedians and television talk-show hosts. DeGeneres sort of dresses norm core, and Fallon has stated that he decided to wear suits when he took over The Tonight Show because that would be the normal thing to do.
10) Overprojection (Anthropomorphizing)
The projection of human personality onto non-human creatures or inanimate objects can be seen as metamodern in that it is an unabashed, unapologetic showcasing of inner, felt experience. In effect, the author/work/reader is filled up with felt experience to the point where it spills over and imbues itself in non-human entities. Examples of this can include characters who are talking animals, cars or other objects that are designed to look like they have faces (e.g. The 1997 redesign of the Volkswagen Beetle, the original Apple iMacs), Wes Anderson’s films The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, inanimate objects being given consideration for their “feelings.”
This element has overlap with both overprojection and quirky. It has to do with things that evoke childlike innocence and simplicity, but for usage by adult-age people. In a sense, it’s a way of puncturing modernist over-seriousness, but in a way that is kind, not (postmodernly) biting. In addition to quirky characters and plot lines, and anthropomorphized characters, meta-cute includes spare/clean/flat design (such as the obsession with the font Helvetica that prevailed during the 2000s, incorporation of child-like instruments (such as the glockenspiel) in indie rock music, children being featured in lead roles in plot-lines not meant for children, adults who show childlike qualities in films e.g., having motivations not based in sexuality, career, or power-seeking, etc.
Thoughts and Disclaimer
It’s kind of a leap to put forward this list of methods used in metamodern work. It should be thought of as a proposal, a theory in progress. Maybe there are fourteen metamodern methods, or nine and a half. In fact, as I’ve alluded to, not everybody who has an opinion even agrees on exactly how to define metamodernism in the first place. One position that I insist on, however, is this: Those of us who discuss metamodernism do not have the job of bringing it into being, nor the capacity to do so. There is something happening out there — art and film and music and culture are being produced that share a certain sensibillty. Some of us are interested in naming that sensibility metamodernism. But the sensibility would exist regardless of what name we gave it, and regardless of whether or not we even named it at all.
If you’ve enjoyed this essay or found it useful in some way, you can support me by clapping (clap early, clap much), sharing, and/or following me. Also visit the blog I’ve mentioned: What Is Metamodern? Questions, observations and challenges are welcome in the discussion below.