Here’s to juxtaposition, paradox, and jubilant incoherence (photo by the author ©1999)

Metamodernism seems to be cropping up everywhere these days. (If you haven’t run into the concept yet, there are a helpful introductory essays herehereherehere, and here.) At its core, and expressed all too briefly, metamodernism is an answer to the question of what comes after postmodernity. Depending on who is doing the talking, it can be described as a philosophical system, an intellectual stance, an artistic sensibility, the current cultural zeitgeist, or the “structure of feeling” of the times in which we live.

Metamodernism typically involves an attempt to make sense of the apparently contradictory postmodern, modern, and premodern epistemes or cultural paradigms. There are at present two major approaches to this question, which can be loosely termed the developmental metamodernist school and the oscillatory metamodernist school. (I am purposefully glossing over other seemingly related groups who describe themselves as being focused on “sensemaking,” “emergence,” “memetic mediation,” and so forth, because they do not explicitly foreground the term “metamodernism.”)

Of the two schools, developmental metamodernism has the larger public profile. It is epitomized by the “Integralism” of Ken Wilber and the “Nordic ideology” of Hanzi Freinacht (a fictional philosopher concocted by Swedish authors Daniel Görtz and Emil Friis). Its characteristic intellectual move is to reconcile the premodern, modern, and postmodern by placing them into a grand unifying theory or model that maps the epistemes onto discrete stages of social, cultural, cognitive, and emotional development. While the specifics of these meta-systems differ, representatives of this school commonly hold that metamodern thought is of a higher order than postmodern thought, which in turn is of a higher complexity than modern thought, and so on down through several lower forms of premodern thought.

I don’t want to say that thinking in terms of developmental sequences is entirely wrong. (I am intrigued, for example, by the possibility that different forms of pedagogy might be able support emergent types of thinking that come online at discrete stages in a person’s educational development; cf. work by Benjamin Bloom and Robert Kegan.) I will return to this idea in the future. However, for the moment, I do want to say that I find the discourse around the developmental form of metamodernism to be personally repellent and politically problematic for a number of reasons, and so I would like to table that topic altogether for the time being.

Instead, I would like to focus on oscillatory metamodernism, because I think that this may indeed be the very idea I have been grappling with in my teaching over the last decade or so, although I was using different names for it. Although the oscillatory form of metamodernism has fewer promoters online, it has had considerably more traction with scholars. It has most influentially been described by the Dutch academics Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen in their seminal 2010 paper, in this follow-up piece, and in their 2017 edited volume. In my view, the most attractive feature of oscillatory metamodernism — sometimes called the “Dutch School” by the self-styled “Nordic School” associated with Freinacht — is that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It presents itself as an attempt to describe the prevailing cultural trends of the twenty-first century, particularly in the arts, rather than as a program for personal or societal transformation.

Also attractive to me is this school’s disinterest in synthesizing premodern, modern, and postmodern epistemes into a larger theory, system, or model of any kind. Instead of searching for coherence or systematization, thinkers in this camp describe metamodernism as the unintegrated “oscillation” between epistemes. To them, metamodernism is a rapid-fire stream of past, present, and futuristic elements; a juxtaposition of biting postmodern irony with sacchrine naive sincerity; a paradoxical appreciation that all understandings of reality are both right and wrong simultaneously. It can be disorienting when these contradictions are left unintegrated, but it also can be artistically or aesthetically captivating. For example, people either loved or hated the 2019 second season of The OA, which juxtaposed near-death experiences, multidimensional travel, high-tech video puzzle design, and a Russian medium channeling the thoughts of a giant octopus to entertain a night club audience. Jubilant incoherence like this is typical of metamodern art.

The reason that I am thinking about this form of metamodernism is that, in retrospect, this sort of oscillation was seemingly exactly what I had in mind when I wrote a blog post earlier this year that called for a pedagogy that went beyond an exclusive focus on critique and that asked humanists to bring into the classroom a fuller range of “tools for empowerment, empathy, and meaning-making.” Likewise, it was a metamodern oscillation between critique and sincerity that was behind my description of storytelling ethnography as a form of engaged pedagogy, my call for more kindness in academia, and my assertion that scholars have a moral obligation to be relevant in the face of political and environmental crisis. Most notably, while I haven’t written about it anywhere publicly yet, for several years now I have taught classes on traditional Asian medicine both for practitioners and university students that have oscillated between critical, scientific, energetic, and demonological (i.e., postmodern, modern, medieval, and archaic) approaches to healing without collapsing one into the other.

I had been talking about “polyperspectival approaches,” “trying on different lenses,” and “merging deconstruction with construction,” but perhaps I should have been using the term “metamodern” all along. On the plus side, using this word would better contextualize the brief disconnected ramblings I periodically post here within a more robust philosophical framework than I have articulated thus far. On the other hand, I do want to make sure that I am not misunderstood as advocating developmentalist form of metamodernism, so perhaps it’s best not to overtly tie myself to the term too strongly. What do you think? Are there better names out there for this epistemological fluidity than “metamodernism”? Should I adopt that terminology here as well? Please leave your comments below.

My Initial Reactions to Metamodernism