I began studying metamodernsim after I saw the exhibition No More Modern: Notes on Metamodernism at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in December 2011. I’d never been to MAD, but I was browsing their website because I’d heard about the Korean Eye exhibition and wanted to see what else was going on. When I saw the word “metamodernism” I said, “What the heck is that.”
At the time, I was thinking a lot about online communities and virtual worlds and how they would develop in the future. Part of the program description for No More Modern: Notes on Metamodernsim caught my attention. It read, “…the metamodern attitude longs for another future… while simultaneously acknowledging that this future might not exist.” It reminded me of how virtual communities don’t function in the real world, but they are developing so rapidly that in the future they may become the real world, or at least be indistinguishable from reality. More specifically, it made me think of the new wave of Korean media, a phenomenon based on visuals, not information. As our societies move further away from an information based world, I thought the world of visuals may be the “future” that metamodernism was hinting at. So I went to check it out.
The museum was running a few metamodernist short films downstairs, all very interesting, and giving away nifty little pamphlets with the title Notes on Metamodernism, an essay written by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in 2009. To be honest, it was kind of a tough read for me. I’m not a cultural theorist. But I have managed to gather a few things from my ongoing investigation of metamodernism, using the pamphlet as well as Vermeulen and Van den Akker’s blog, www.metamodernism.com. So here’s my attempt to define metamodernism according to Vermeulen and Van den Akker, in somewhat simpler terms.
Basically, metamodernism is the -ism that comes after postmodernism, but is a hybrid of postmodernism and modernism, hence the prefix “meta,” meaning “with,” “between,” or “beyond.” Metamodernism is something between postmodern and modern, creating a concept that goes beyond both of them. Therefore metamodernism has aspects of postmodern irony, nihilism, sarcasm, distrust, and deconstruction, mixed with modern enthusiasm, optimism, sincerity, and the belief in reason. Vermeulen and Van den Akker describe metamodernism as a constant “repositioning” of ideas, concepts, and discourses. They explain, “‘meta’ does not refer to a particular system of thought or specific structure of feeling.”
I like to think of metamodernism as a movement or flow. For example, in art, metamodernism is at work when a piece encompasses seemingly opposite aspects, such as feelings of sincerity and irony, at one time. Realistically, and for the sake of all our sanities, the piece cannot be sincere and ironic at the same time. So, it is forced to be moving constantly between the sincerity and irony that it posses. In this way it can display both aspects while not fully committing to either one.
At the same time that the piece is flowing between irony and sincerity, it is striving as hard as it can to be both. But, as previously stated, that is impossible. The artwork also knows that it is impossible to become both. Knowing a goal is impossible to achieve but choosing to pursue it anyway is another main part of metamodernism. Like trying to explain metamodernism. It’s about the quest, the struggle, and the oscillation.
Oscillation seems to be a keyword for metamodernism according to Vermeulen. As previously stated, the metamodern is categorized by the continuous oscillation between the characteristics of the postmodern and of the modern. Vermeulen and Van den Akker explain that the oscillation should not be thought of as a balance between the two, but a pendulum swinging between them. They say metamodernism should be conceived as a “both-neither dynamic.” This makes sense when applied to the aforementioned sincerely ironic art piece.
The important thing to remember here is that by swinging between postmodernism and modernism, metamodernism actually goes beyond both, and creates something new, supposedly. Like how dirt and water make mud. The mud contains both dirt and water but is neither. It is mud.
This definition given to the world by Vermeulen and Van den Akker seems to be the most widely used explanation of metamodernism as far as I can tell, at least for now. Other people have also tried to define the -ism that comes after the decline of postmodernism with words like “altermodernism,” ”hypermodernism,” “digimodernism,” or even “post-postmodernism.” I like their explanation, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see other people trying to define it also.
In the end, “metamodernism” is just a buzzword, much like “postmodernism,” “modernism,” and “buzzword.” But, the ideas behind it are worth exploring. I personally like to apply the concepts of metamodernism to our advancing digital age, mainly the Internet and virtual worlds. The oscillation of metamodernism is often useful for describing the movement between the real and the virtual that is becoming essential to the modern world.