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Metamodernisms: A Cheat Sheet

“Metamodernism” articulated by Tim Vermeulen and Robin van dan Akker, and later joined by Alison Gibbons

A very useful theory for understanding the new cultural sensibility that has arisen after postmodernism and is now informing the generation of a lot of new art (visual art, films, television, music, etc.). According to this view, a distinct "structure of feeling" has emerged that is characterized by an "oscillation" between typically modernist attitudes and typically postmodern ones. This sensibility, as a consequence, is defined by its “ironic sincerity,” “pragmatic idealism,” and “informed naivete.” Metamodernism in this framing attempts to provide a new “rubric” for analyzing contemporary cultural production. It is purely descriptive and non-normative, and comes out of cultural studies, framing its argument with reference to other cultural theorists like Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson.


KEY IDEAS

Structure of feeling: a rather undertheorized term coined by Raymond Williams; this is what “metamodernism” is for them.

Cultural logic: a term borrowed from the Marxian theorist Fredric Jameson, who had described postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” The other framing they give for what metamodernism is.

Oscillation: the unique metamodern sensibility is theorized as arising from a continual oscillation back and forth between typically modern attitudes and typically postmodern attitudes—and hence is not a “synthesis” of them, but a shifting between (“meta”) them

Return of history: whereas postmodernism supposedly signalled a "sense of the end" (of art, history, etc.), the metamodern world is one ridden by crisis and polarization, signalling the return of dialectical momentum and tectonic change.


SOURCES

Seminal 2010 article “Notes on Metamodernism” in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Webzine ‘Notes on Metamodernism’ that ran for some years

2017 book Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism


PRO: Gave name to post-postmodernism. Identified genuine cultural trends. Useful for thinking about new art and culture. Is debated but uncontroversial in the academy, as its theoretical framing is still essentially postmodern even if it is describing a sensibility that is not postmodern.


CON: Undertheorized. What is a "structure of feeling"? Why do they change? Considers metamodernism only in relation to modernism and postmodernism. Cannot account satisfactorily for recessive and emerging trends, but problematically says metamodernism is the new “cultural dominant.” Minimal applicability outside art theory and political theory.




“Metamodernity” as articulated by Lene Rachel Andersen

Extends the analysis beyond modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism by identifying these as but the avant-garde artistic spearheads of broader “cultural codes”: modernity, postmodernity, and metamodernity. Moreover, extends the number of relevant cultural codes to include also indigeneity and premodernity, such that “metamodernity” is not simply an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, but the integration of all the cultural codes into one multi-layered code that takes the best of each and avoids their pitfalls. The distinct cultural codes are the product of complexifying human culture, and arise to optimally navigate the unique level of complexity of their associated “technological epoch.” They also relate to distinct phases of individual development, such that we can structure our educational environments for children according to developmentally appropriate materials (Bildung) that correspond to the cultural codes. Such a pedagogical approach can help raise citizens who can successfully navigate the complexity of the metamodern world. Understood this way, metamodernity is both descriptive and prescriptive: a “vision and a possibility” and presents us with a “series of…choices” for the future.


KEY IDEAS

Cultural code: connected value systems or collective imaginaries tied to specific levels of social complexity; includes the initial “premonition” in the arts (“ism”) and the mainstream cultural code proper (“ity”).

Complexity: never explicitly defined; it relates to the rise in population, the nature of social organizations required to manage this, and the different kinds of problems needing to be solved; the cultural codes exhibit growing complexity, ranging from the indigenous to the metamodern.

Bildung: developmentally appropriate education and enculturation; relates to the cultural codes.


SOURCES

2019 Metamodernity: Hope and Meaning in a Complex World


PRO: Does not ignore the premodern and indigenous cultural codes in an analysis of metamodernism. Helps explain the existence of recessive and emerging cultural trends. Offers an explanation for the change and nature of distinct cultural codes as relating to complexification. Offers a prescriptive solution to global challenges through the advocation of developmentally appropriate education and enculturation (Bildung) that can help people integrate the various insights of the different cultural codes and thereby better navigate today’s complex, multi-layered world.


CON: Undertheorized. Does not explain what complexity is and how and why it operates. Identifies the need for developmentally appropriate education, but does not suggest how we can posit what is developmentally appropriate with any clarity or precision. Makes questionable distinction between "ism" and "ity" that leads to potentially problematic conclusions (e.g., "modernism" as an art movement before modernity?).





“Political Metamodernism” as articulated by Hanzi Freinacht (Daniel Gortz and Emil Ejner Friis)

Agrees with Vermeulen/van den Akker’s description of the cultural sensibility of metamodernism, as well as Andersen’s framing of complexifying cultural codes and the need for developmentally-informed education, while considerably deepening the cultural analysis by extensively theorizing the idea of “development.” Freinacht offers a rich developmental theory that covers four domains: stage, code, state, and depth. The idea of “stage” is based on the neo-Piagetian ‘Model of Hierarchical Complexity’ (MHC), which identifies the relative complexity of tasks a person can perform. The Model has strong empirical and theoretical grounding, and can be used as a proxy for assessing individual cognitive development. The complexification of the cultural codes identified by Andersen can be assessed using the abstract logic of the MHC, giving us “code” (also called the “symbol set” or “symbolic toolkit”). Thus, by bringing the MHC to bear on the question of both individual and cultural development, Freinacht offers a bold thesis that can account for the complexification of cultural codes through a developmental logic. “State” and “depth” round out the developmental theory for the individual, which consider the typical level on a spectrum of relative valence a person experiences and the degree of insightful integration their habitus in such states has yielded, respectively. This developmental framework then serves as the basis for considering how complex social problems might be ameliorated and general welfare improved through the establishment of developmentally-informed policies and institutions (e.g., Bildung).


KEY IDEAS

Realdialektik: the idea that a logical pattern of increasing complexity exists, identified by the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, that can help explain the cognitive development of individuals as well as the overall complexification of society’s linguistic cultural codes.

Metamemes: the cohering of linguistic concepts of associated complexity into abstract patterns that inform both individual and cultural development.

Symbol set/Cultural code: nearly the same as Andersen’s taxonomy, Freinacht’s codes diverge only in parsing the indigenous and premodern codes in slightly different ways. Freinacht’s parsing relates each cultural code to a correlated stage in the MHC, offering a more explicit logic for why and how the codes are distinguished as they are.


SOURCES

2017 The Listening Society

2019 Nordic Ideology

2021 "Metamodern Sociology: An ironically sincere invitation to future scholars" in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds (see below)


PRO: Fills out certain theoretical gaps for understanding what is meant by “cultural code,” where they come from, why they develop, how they relate to “complexity,” how they relate to individuals but are not the same as individual development, etc. Also provides a robust developmental theory which can help frame aspirational Bildung efforts, as well as systemic changes for increasing general welfare. Clarifies nature of "modern art" as actually a movement within postmodernity.


CON: Problematic formulations plague aspects of the theory. Possible false reification of “stages” as too fixed and linear. Not enough consideration for the messy distribution of stages for any given task, let alone any given person at any given time—something that would demand a more dynamic model. Also not enough appreciation for the contextual nature of stage. All of which compounds when applied to macro realities like cultural codes or societies. “State” and “depth” remain undertheorized. Tone and style turn some audiences off.



Another treatment of metamodernism in this vein, though aimed perhaps at a more general audience and therefore less technical/theoretical, is Tomas Bjorkman’s The World We Create: From God to Market, which presents a version of metamodernism very much akin to Freinacht’s. More recently, Bjorkman has championed a program called 'Inner Development Goals,' which is based on its own developmental theory, and is found problematic by some other metamodern thinkers.




A valuable work that helped bring together some of the above strands was Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and Emergence in Metamodernity, an anthology edited by Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal, with contributions from both Freinacht and Andersen, a preface by Rowson that acknowledged the lineages of the term through Vermeulen/van den Akker and others, as well as other thinkers with backgrounds in developmental theory and/or integral theory (Bonnitta Roy, Jeremy Johnson, Tom Murray, Zak Stein, Layman Pascal). Brent Cooper is also represented (an early writer on metamodernism who engaged both the "Dutch School" [i.e., Vermeulen and van den Akker] and the "Nordic School" [i.e., Hanzi Freinacht]) as well as John Vervaeke, who rarely speaks of metamodernism explicitly, but engages many metamodern thinkers and is generally associated with the metamodern "ecosystem."




“Metamodernism” articulated by Jason Ananda Josephson Storm

An attempt to articulate a post-postmodern philosophy and academic research program for the social sciences, this formulation is a theoretically rich paradigm with deep connections to other metamodernisms despite coming from an adjacent sector with rather different concerns. Storm is not trying to describe a cultural sensibility/zeitgeist, nor is he trying to periodize history, nor analyze the shift in cultural codes or logics, but rather offer a productive set of methods and approaches for social scientists and academics now that the postmodern program has revealed its limitations and diminishing returns. How do we move past deconstruction, skepticism, and the collapse of objects of study in the humanities to reframe concepts like art, religion, and science for productive insight? To this end, Storm advocates for a “metarealism” against very confused “anti-realisms” (such as some say characterize postmodernism), articulates a turn to a process ontology that incorporates history and development into our “objects” of study, plots a new semiotics that critiques the false disconnection between person and world caused by postmodern semiotics, frames a more humble epistemology that emphasizes provisional knowledge and ignorance reduction, and suggests a new way to consider values after postmodern relativism. Not only does Storm share the broadest overall goal of moving beyond postmodernism with "metamodernism", the specific directions he advocates have strong parallels with other metamodern paradigms. The turn to process ontology, for example, fits very comfortably with the developmental/Bildung emphasis of Andersen and Freinacht, the semiotic shift tying person to world accords very well with both the complexification narratives articulated by metamodern thinkers such as Bobby Azarian and Gregg Henriques as well as the metamodern sociology of Freinacht, his epistemology ties in very well with Piagetian genetic epistemology and broader complexity framings of information and knowledge, and Storm himself suggests that his effort to revision values finds common cause with Freinacht’s program.


KEY IDEAS

Process social kinds: a better formulation for the humanities’ “objects” of study, positing such "things" are better understood as processes that can be delimited by specific clusters of causal mechanisms while still evolving through time, and need not be “mind-independent” to be “real”.

Hylosemiotics: a framing of language that is inherently tied to the world it would describe, and not simply lost adrift to the infinite deferral of meaning as many postmodernists argued.

Zetetic knowledge: a “seeking” epistemology that values provisional truth despite being incomplete, and casts doubt on skepticism itself.


SOURCES

2021 Metamodernism: The Future of Theory


PRO: Intricately argued and well defended philosophy. Offers detailed analysis and critique of old postmodern approaches and posits a way forward. At home and respected in academic circles. Compatible with but not explicitly related to more controversial ideas about “development.” Can be seen as a stellar example of philosophical thought at the metamodern stage of complexity.


CON: Dense and technical; not for mass consumption, but aimed at the academy. Doesn’t go as far as it could with many of its ideas. Critiques the very ideas of “modernity” and “postmodernity” as well as “worldview”. A great bridge to metamodern philosophy for the postmodern critical theory student, but not as widely applicable or accessible as other metamodern works.




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