October 29, 2021 | LIFE | By Star Goudriaan

I was at a birthday party the other night, sweetly flirting with a girl whose energy I found entirely beautiful, when a friend came up to me and pulled me out of my trance. 

“Do you want to hear this guy explain what metamodernism is?” they asked. 

“Of course,” I said, abruptly switching conversations. A rich intellectual conversation seemed too good to pass up.

 In the next room, I sat intently staring at a person I’d never met before as they talked about something I’d never really heard about. 

“So, it’s like how we think studying meaninglessness is meaningful, the contextualization of postmodernism in history?” I asked, wide-eyed.

 “Yeah, something like that,” he nodded. 

It was a fruitful discussion and it got me thinking about our contemporary moment in a slightly different light than I had been. 

You see, I’m a history major and I mainly do theory, which means I seek context and similarity (sometimes at my peril). Present day academic discussions fascinate me both because I live in the present (of course) but also because history is constructed in and for the present and heavily affected by its values. The connection between the past and the present is in this way a two-way bridge. 

So, I have a vague idea that metamodernism might be relevant to better understand our current relationship to history and to society at large. But what is it, really? 

Well, put simply, it’s a theory developed by two Dutch dudes to explain 21st century trends in culture that swing back and forth from the skepticism characteristic of the late 20th century postmodern to the hope in progress often associated with the early 20th century modern. 

Now, there might be a one second history lesson due. Modernism is a cultural (as in artistic, philosophical, and social) movement which emphasized rationalism, technology, industrialization, urbanization, individualism, utopianism, formalism, and structuralism among other things at the turn of the 20th century. Then, a lot of bad things happened, and we realized maybe we didn’t know which way was progress, or maybe there was no progress at all?

The two World Wars, colonialism, racism, the failures of capitalism, liberalism, and statist forms of communism shocked structures of meaning, and there was a radical shift towards deconstruction of the individual and reason. We were wrong, though. The aforementioned things can’t propel us into a happy future. Nothing can. There is no happy future. There is no future. In other words, big trains go vroom until big bombs go boom. 

Despite claims that it would be otherwise, history kind of did continue unfolding. The seconds kept ticking by and continue to tick by. 

In their 2010 article “Notes on Metamodernism,” Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker proposed that there had been yet another shift in culture after the postmodern disillusion of grand-narratives. “The postmodern years of plenty, pastiche, and parataxis are over,” they proclaimed in the article’s abstract.

They cited the “threefold threat” of the credit crunch (the 2008 financial crisis), a collapsed center (possibly in reference to 9/11), and climate change as historical catalysts for the new shift in perspective.

They wrote that today we “oscillate between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivete and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”

The prefix “meta” is tied to the Greek lexicon, meaning “with,” ‘‘between,” and ‘‘beyond.” This is the aforementioned oscillation.

In their article, the authors cited a number of movements which fall under this larger metamodern concept (among which are performatism and neoromanticism). 

Performatism gives off a “fake it ’till you make it” kind of vibe, the implosion of distinctions between a genuine intent —a maybe modernist genuine intent — and a postmodern ironic execution. 

Neoromanticism is essentially an attempt to turn the finite into the infinite even in the recognition that this can never be achieved (to idealize the unideal). Neoromanticism emphasizes the tragic, the sublime, the uncanny, and regifts deep significance to the mundane. 

Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker wrap up their article, which I aggressively urge you to read if you enjoyed this piece, with a striking commentary on the spacial-temporal logics of metamodernism. 

The authors claim that “if the modern suggests a temporal ordering,” meaning an idea of humans going along a linear trajectory of progress and betterment, and the “postmodern implies a spacial disordering,” a rejection of the aforementioned teleology (a flipping of everything, including time as related to progress, upside-down and sideways), then the metamodern is to be understood as a spacetime that is “both–neither ordered and disordered.” 

They continue on to write that “metamodernism displaces the parameters of the present with those of a future presence that is futureless; and it displaces the boundaries of our place with those of a surreal place that is placeless.” 

That is the destiny of the metamodern human, of us, “to pursue a horizon that is forever receding,” to pursue a future that is forever gone.

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