I only recently ran into metamodernism, the new kid on the block ready to sweep postmodernism into the dust bin of intellectual movements. This isn’t my usual bailiwick, so it took me by surprise that I was pulled into this obscure corner of cultural criticism. What’s brought me here is the paucity of reasonable discussion these days on just about any common sense political or cultural topic and the intense polarization that results with any discussion from opposing view points. It wasn’t always this way.
The postmodern deconstruction of text and cultural artifact into opposing tensions may provide insight, but it also tends to produce simplistic two-sided arguments, often devolves into solipsistic nihilism, and seems to fuel polarization. Modernism, in contrast, lays out an optimistic path with a faith in science and progress that is also a little hard to take without at least a second look at its naively optimistic underpinnings.
Metamodernism steps in with a “both-and” directive, accepting the postmodern critique as well as the modern faith in progress and acceptance of reality at face value. The metamodernist see the world as complex, evolving, ultimately understandable, with postmodern tools as one of the ways to better see truth, but not the only way. The metamodernist is born to the internet age where Google and Wikipedia allow us to live wonder-free, social media connects us across the globe instantly, and viewpoints coalesce into tribal cyber enclaves.
What made me convinced that metamodernism had something for me was Seth Abramson’s summation of one metamodern principle; “Informed naiveté is knowing your optimism is naive — but plowing on anyway”. This really sums up my view of the world today and my interaction with it. Seth also pioneers with curatorial journalism, searching the world’s main-stream media outlets, via the internet the world over, for bits of information missed and forgotten that are needed to tell a story.
So why bother with all this? I see much of today’s polarized discourse not so much as a rise of fascism, but as a reaction against postmodernism. If we look at our political parties, the Republicans can be seen as a reservoir of modern values. The individual can get ahead through a meritocracy defined by hard work. Human endeavor is part of inevitable progress over the natural world where the powerful naturally provide the leading way. The myth of the individual man, getting ahead through hard work, putting his mark on the landscape, these are core values of rural Republican America. (The party elites may know better than this, but they know where their bread is buttered.) In contrast, the Democrats are the epitome of postmodern discord. The commonly fractured Democratic party reflects the general postmodern suspicion of any grand narrative about society’s order and progress. There are equivalent anti-establishment views on gender, race, power, religion, and social hierarchy. Injustice is everywhere and is revealed in our language, historical artifact, and art. Political correctness seeks to mitigate these errors. Meritocracy is a myth. Process is more important than progress.
Modern process is top-down. Postmodern process is endless dialogue. College educated Urban America, obsessed with a postmodern critique, rejects modernism as naive and insensitive. Less well educated Rural America, stuck with the modern outlook, doesn’t understand and rejects postmodernism.
When these basic critical viewpoints are identified with the two major political parties, one quickly sees the parallels. Now add in identity politics post-Trump, and these characteristics harden into cartoon-like opposites. Modernism’s hierarchical view turns to racism, the postmodern critique into a ridiculed political correctness where there are new arbitrarily banned words popping up every day.
So this is where metamodernism steps in. It demands a “both-and” view of society. Despite the cultural relativism of the postmodern critique, society and nature are evolving into something new which is “progress” of some sort. It also asks for the informed naiveté, that will allow transgressions of political correctness without recrimination. Despite the plethora of postmodern dialectics, somehow we can find some moral principles that inform society, there is objective truth, we can build upon the work of others and create something new and good.
A great example of a metamodern construction is Wikipedia. The project itself is a testament to the codification of knowledge and progress – as modern as the encyclopedia. But the wiki process is an exercise generating an authoritative public consensus from many, often anonymous, authors who contribute articles. Underlying the success of Wikipedia is the goal of verifiable accuracy. Assertions need to be backed up with references to authoritative sources. A lot of sausage making goes on behind the scenes on the article’s talk and edit pages, especially with controversial topics, very much a postmodern dialectic.
Science lives somewhat paradoxically outside the modern/postmodern debate as defined by current politics. Belief in the message of science is part and parcel of the modern outlook, but it is rejected by the Republican Party elites. On the other side, with the relativism of postmodern criticism, science no longer holds any special significance. Yet in many ways, the scientific method embodies the goals of verifiable truth and transparency that are part of a metamodern mind set. It is only in hindsight I realize that my last scientific paper was a metamodern exercise. My lab-less internet research, a meta-view of other’s work on pesticide toxicity by this beekeeper, became a blog post that attracted the attention of international experts which morphed into a collaboration that produced an open on-line peer-reviewed paper. Such a process would have been unthinkable 15 years ago.
As with most artistic or intellectual movements, the naming comes after the fact. The process of becoming a metamodern society is well underway. The internet has been around for two decades, social media and cell phones for a little more than one. The social, cultural and intellectual changes associated with this disruptive technology are only now getting a name – and it’s still early. Just ask your friends if they have ever heard about metamodernism.