Metamodernism: The Basics III

{NB: Below is the third part of a multi-part essay; the first part can be found here, and the second part can be found here. This essay was written in response to a call by Timothy Green, editor of the literary magazine Rattle, for literary metamodernists, and this author in particular, to be clearer about what metamodernism means and intends.}

Reading all of the foregoing, one might wonder, "How can metamodernism claim to enable a vertical layering of ideas and identities in which no idea or identity is privileged over the others, when by all rights that should be both a physical and metaphysical impossibility?"

It's a fair question.

It's one thing to understand that metamodernism allows us to negotiate between things that are opposite in a sort of middle space -- for instance, by mixing elements of modernism and postmodernism, or ideas (like sincerity and irony) that are polar opposites -- but once we start describing this "middle" (or "meta") space as one in which these once-opposed things get layered on top of one another, things do get tricky. It seems like an important principle of the universe that when one thing is put on top of another thing, the thing on the bottom gets harder to see and therefore is "underprivileged" as compared to anything that's on top of it. But let's look at this in more detail.

Metamodernism offers at least three types of responses to the paradox of a "non-privileging" vertical layering in a middle space between poles: one practical, one philosophical, and one scientific.

To discuss the practical response we must first look at an example of poststructuralism run amok, and there's no better example than the writing of Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher who deserves an award for writing the most indecipherable prose of postwar Western literature. Levinas wrote a number of important philosophical tracts -- many on ethics, or, as some have said, "the ethics of ethics" -- between 1930 and 1995, one of the most important being his 1974 work, "Otherwise than Being (or Beyond Essence)". Typical for Levinas, the document is largely opaque to anyone not trained in literary studies at the doctoral level, and even for many who do who study at that level. For our purposes, it's possible to look only at the early section of the text to see why poststructuralist philosophy is often metaphysically sound -- meaning, it makes sense "in theory" -- but not on the more practical level of lived experience.

In discussing "transcendence," a concept that would, just a year after Levinas wrote "Otherwise than Being," become critical to metamodernism, Levinas writes that "transcendence is passing over to being's other, otherwise than being." Levinas defines "otherwise than being" as "a negativity which attempts to repel being." While difficult to render in simple terms, what Levinas is saying here is that, at least in the realm of theory, we can identify a universe of things that exist, and then hypothesize an entirely separate universe of things that don't exist. All the things in that second universe constitute "otherwise than being," and are a "negativity" in the sense that they exist in a "negative" space -- the space of non-existence.

More important for the present conversation, though, is the way in which the poststructuralist Levinas uses "dialectics" (discussed at length in parts one and two of this essay) to ensure that, under his theory of being, there is not -- and cannot be -- any middle space between "being" and "otherwise than being." Here's what Levinas says, and the most important two words in this description of the interaction between "being" and "otherwise than being" are italicized: "Being and not-being illuminate one another, and unfold a speculative dialectic which is a determination of being. Or else the negativity which attempts to repel being is immediately submerged by being. The void that hollows out is immediately filled with the mute and anonymous rustling of the 'there is'..."

Levinas' point here (which, to his credit, he complicates substantially in later chapters and writings) is that either being and non-being are on opposite ends of a polar spectrum, or they're one and the same -- as we can't ever get far away enough from our sense of "being" to experience anything "other" than being. Providing these two options -- one in which two things are diametrically opposed, and one in which they're identical -- is a classic poststructuralist maneuver, and one that's been endlessly repeated in other poststructuralist writings (for instance, Debord on the collapse of reality and unreality into a single "spectacle"). In order to make his statement on "being" true, Levinas has to imagine that when something that seems "other" than being appears in our lives, it immediately gets swallowed up by our experience of the world by way of becoming something we can, do, and now have experienced. Levinas the poststructuralist is able to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to "being" and "otherwise than being": he both positions them as in tension with one another and says that that tension is so great that it can, under the right conditions, "immediately" be dissipated by the two becoming the same thing.

Here's where the "practical" side of metamodernism comes in. Metamodernism asks, "Is it really true that when we encounter something so far outside our realm of experience that it seems to come from the universe of things that don't or can't exist, we immediately process it as something that can exist?" The answer, of course, is no: when humans are confronted by things that seem to them impossible, their minds and their emotions need a good bit of time to process the new information before it's treated as "actual" and "real" and an identifiable aspect of their experiential "being."

To prove this requires no more than to repeat the popular maxim that the first stage of grieving a lost loved one is denial. The mind literally does not accept that a new piece of information (the death of the loved one) is real. Or, we could think more cosmically and consider the possibility that one day human beings will encounter extraterrestrial life; because the physical appearance of such life is currently beyond our conception, it would hardly surprise any of us if we -- suddenly faced with an alien -- experienced a prolonged inability to process what we were seeing. Both of these examples call to mind metamodernist David Foster Wallace's prediction that the next generation's post-postmodernist rebels (as we now know, metamodernists) would treat "plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction," rather than theorizing them out of coherence. Metamodernism is the sort of cultural philosophy that's more likely to look at the lived experience of grieving for a loved one rather render it in abstract terms.

To be fair to Levinas, the inability to process something is by no means the same thing as saying that the thing we can't process doesn't exist at all, but that's why we call this metamodernism's "practical" response to the paradox of vertical layering: when we experience something we can't process (something "sublime") we simultaneously have an awareness of (1) something that seems outside being, (2) our being, and (3) the "sublime" space that lies between non-being and being. In fact, one of the reasons for the mental and emotional confusion we feel in moments of sublimity is that these three awarenesses are coming to us with equal force and power all at once. That is, we simultaneously think to ourselves, "It can't be! Or is it? But how could it be?" Each of those sentences represents a very different awareness: non-being, being, and an awareness of the middle space between the two.

The metamodern description of how we react in these situations -- "It can't be! Or is it? But how could it be?" -- is much more realistic than Levinas' claim that in these situations the "It can't be!" is immediately swallowed whole by a "But it is!" That's just not how the human brain works, even if what Levinas says may seem perfectly sound in the abstract realm of theory.

A more philosophical response to the paradox of "a vertical layering that obscures no layer" would rope another Immanuel into the conversation, that being German philosopher Immanuel Kant. When Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker reinvigorated the term "metamodernism" in their 2010 article "Notes on Metamodernism," they cited Kant for his use of the phrase "as if" in his philosophical writings. In brief, Kant's view is that even when something isn't true, a human being can decide for themselves to nevertheless live "as if" it were true.

For instance, there are many people who now believe we've passed the "tipping point" with respect to climate change, meaning that it's actually too late for us to reverse the environmental damage we've done to the Earth. People who believe this also believe, therefore, that the Earth is now in a tailspin toward its eventual destruction and (somewhere along the way) the degradation and then destruction of all human life as we know it. It's a bleak view, if not an entirely unreasonable one. But the question it leaves us with is, "How should such a person live now, if this is what they believe?" And what Kant would suggest is that such a person can simultaneously accept one reality (the impending end of the Earth) while living in another (the possibility that the Earth, and our species, may somehow survive). A friend once put it to me this way: "try to live in the present as though the future you hope for has already come to pass."

On one level, this sounds like a pretty self-destructive philosophy. Are we saying that those who believe the Earth is finished should just ignore that belief and act like nothing's wrong? And the answer is: no. This is not at all what's being said. Instead, what's being said here is that the objective absence of hope need not lead to a subjective lack of hope. Even if we're actually doomed, we can continue fighting to forestall or even (however illusory this hope might be) avoid our doom altogether.

We can see how Kant's "as if" relates to the cynicism and despair poststructuralism has deeded us. Even if it's true that all truth is relative and unstable, that meaning degrades over time, that society is more easily identified by its points of rupture than its general coherence, we can live "as if" we still have to get up in the morning, raise a family, cheer our friends, realize our ambitions, and broadly make a happy life for ourselves and for those we care about. Because we do. In other words, we can accept what poststructuralism is telling us without also allowing that knowledge to run our lives; we can internalize certain truths while living a life that imagines those truths to sometimes (or even often) be immaterial to the choices we make daily.

This is metamodernism, in a nutshell.

But metamodernism also makes a scientific response to those who believe that only winner-takes-all dialectics make any sense in this world, and that metamodernism's notion of a vertical layering of ideas and identities that obscures none is a fantasy.

As humans, we experience reality as four-dimensional, with the four dimensions we can observe being height, width, depth, and duration. But scientists have no difficulty whatsoever theorizing dimensions beyond those we humans can observe. And just because we can't observe a dimension doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

The fifth dimension offers us a multitude of realities that are linked to our present reality but will never actually come to pass. For instance, every single dinner you could possibly eat tonight resides in the fifth dimension, even though only one of these dinners will actually be eaten, and therefore only one of these dinners will enter the four-dimensional space we all live in.

The sixth dimension is not linked to our reality in the way the fifth dimension is, because the sixth dimension contains all the possible timelines that could have resulted from the Big Bang (and therefore, all the possible timelines that could lead from the Big Bang to the end of the universe).

For instance, a world in which the dinosaurs never died out exists in the sixth dimension. Arguably, even certain aspects of fantasy novels exist in the sixth dimension: by way of example, anything in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy that is even arguably scientifically possible (like giants, or humanoids of exceedingly long life, or Wargs) exists in the sixth dimension.

We can therefore say that when teenagers read dystopian young-adult novels, they are enjoying that form of escapism because it lets them briefly live in the fifth dimension; likewise, when teenagers read fantasy novels, it is, in part, because immersing themselves in those novels lets them feel as though they're living in a higher dimension -- in this case, the sixth.

Those aspects of fantasy that can't exist even in the sixth dimension do nevertheless exist in the seventh dimension, which contains all the different ways a single universe might have started (i.e., all possible general principles of physics that any universe could exhibit), all the difference ways a single universe might have evolved -- and therefore all the different types of beings that might evolve in such hypothetical universes -- and all the different ways a single universe might end.

A video describing the first ten dimensions can be found here (Part 1; Part 2).

As noted in the video series above, many scientists believe in what is called "universal wavefunction." This is the idea that we are surrounded by waves of probabilities at all times -- probabilities that reside in the fifth and higher dimensions -- and that our own actions and observations collapse certain of these probabilities down into the dimension we can observe (the fourth dimension). What this means is that the fifth and sixth dimensions can and do exist, they're simply beyond our present observation, experience, and understanding.

When metamodernists speak of "transcendence," it is this type of transcendence -- scientifically grounded dimensional transcendence -- that they speak of, not the sort of transcendence we find (or may hope to find) in organized religion or in New Age spirituality.

Returning to metamodernism's idea of a "vertical layering that obscures no layer," we can see how such a thing is not only possible but an absolute certainty in the fifth dimension. As you sit here reading this, you can easily imagine dozens of plausible situations in which you eat a given dinner tonight. For instance, when you're hanging out with friends and someone says, "Let's go out to eat!", in that moment there are dozens of possible futures for you and your friends -- e.g., eating Italian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, sushi, ordering any of those cuisines via delivery, or deciding not to eat out at all but cook something instead. In the moment your friend says, "Let's go out to eat!", all of those possible futures are more or less equally possible. Even more than this, those futures remain readily imaginable even when, later on, they're in your past. For instance, tomorrow morning you'll have no difficulty thinking back to all the different decisions you might have made regarding last night's dinner -- and playing out each scenario vividly in your head.

So when metamodernism proposes that we layer different ideas or even identities in ways that give substantial force and effect to all of them, it's merely asking us to put different realities, including those we never experienced and perhaps would never want to experience, in dialogue. Putting realities into dialogue means treating realities, not language-units, as the predominant unit of measure of our times. When we set up different realities to perform this brand of collaboration -- rather than setting realities against one another in a winner-takes-all dialectic -- we enter the realm of the metamodern.

In light of all of the above, we can see why metamodernism is controversial -- and also why it's very easy to make a hash out of it. Let's say, for instance, that you want to write a poem in which you give voice to the thoughts of every person in the waiting room at a dentist's office. To do that requires a degree of foreknowledge and empathy none of us actually have; trying to ventriloquize, say, a white teenage male when you are, yourself, an elderly Latina is not necessarily impossible to do but is exceedingly difficult to do well. It's made even more difficult by poststructuralist dialectics, which convince each of us that we've had (and are still having) such an idiosyncratic experience of the world that for anyone else to say they understand even a sliver of our experience is for a violence to be done upon us.

(In reality, poststructuralists apply this theory only selectively; while certain categories of experience are thought to be unreplicable by those who have not themselves had the experience in question, others -- such as the question of how masculinity interacts with its local and global environments -- are treated as public property, i.e. are presumed to be equally knowable by any person. While no one likes to be told what they're experiencing by someone who hasn't actually experienced it themselves, poststructuralism does allow this loophole in selected instances.)

So how can metamodernism layer ideas and identities vertically without obscuring individual layers and without succumbing to the fallacy of ventriloquism?

The answer, ironically, is found partly in postmodernism, which introduced to the world certain literary forms that allow the transmission of complicated knowledge. Poststructuralism showed us that language can be broken down into units smaller than (say) the paragraph, with each such unit -- the sentence; the phrase; the fragment; the word; the syllable -- eligible to be moved around and rearranged however we like. Because, in poststructuralism, truth is unstable, so is language -- and that means that you can rearrange units of language even if the resulting text forces its reader to "make meaning" in a non-linear or even entirely speculative way.

A key difference between postmodernism and metamodernism is that postmodernism uses these techniques to emphasize the degradation and decay of language and culture; while metamodernism doesn't always use these techniques -- in fact, it uses them less than half the time -- when it does use them it does so to "reconstruct" language and culture.

The "remix," for instance, appears as a metamodern form because it allows a single author to interact honestly and responsibly with the language of another with the aim of creating a new, unique, cohesive, coherent, and entirely "whole" self-expression. A poststructuralist would never remix a pop song into this sort of arrangement of language (that is, "a new, unique, cohesive, coherent, and entirely whole self-expression") because to do so would suggest that once language has been taken apart beyond all recognition it can be put back together again in a way that is meaningful and even aesthetically pleasing for us and large numbers of others. Moreover, the metamodern remix suggests that reconstituting broken language -- even language the author broke herself -- is a fundamentally optimistic and even moral act, as it models for us (and perhaps others) that we can, indeed, live "as if" things that are broken are capable of being mended. That sort of optimism and (self-admittedly naive) humanism is largely foreign to poststructuralism.

Examples of metamodernism in the non-literary genres include these (divided by genre): stand-up comedy; videography; photography; music video; magic; and cinema. These are just a few examples, in only a handful of genres, but what's immediately evident about all of them is that they're not afraid of deliberate (as opposed to merely fortuitous) beauty, or of narrative, or even the concept of cohesion generally. And this is despite the fact that (paradoxically) their modes of construction strongly emphasize that they're comprised of many different pieces, perspectives, and even realities.

In contemporary fiction, we find the metamodern inclination in subgenres like "slipstream" and "bizarro fiction," which are intended to produce a cohesive, generative, and pleasing sense of disorientation in the reader -- and to do so by layering atop one another features of disparate literary genres (for instance, mystery, science fiction, romance, and the realism of literary fiction). But we can also go much further back, if we want to discuss metamodernism in fiction: in 1975, Mas'ud Zavarzadeh identified as "metamodern" the "nonfiction novel" -- an autobiography of a life so fantastical in its contours that it can be marketed and read as fiction. This layering of realities (namely, the dual utility of someone's life story as both nonfiction and fiction) is a classic example of metamodernism because it presents us with a situation in which two opposites -- literality and fictionality -- are equally present and operative within a single text.

But metamodernism's literary methods are legion, and by no means can be summarized with a discussion of the "remix." In fact, one of the more common metamodern literary techniques is one that's completely mimetic -- i.e., it takes language more or less as one finds it in the world, and when it interjects new language it does so in using entirely "normal" self-expressive techniques.

"Metamodern dada," an idea derived by metamodernist poet Jesse Damiani, recreates on the page the experience of being on multiple browser tabs on the Internet at once, and seamlessly switching between tabs; it does think by taking "found" language from the Internet (that is, language exactly as one finds it online). It then interjects original self-expressive language written by the author as a way of showing how we try to interact with our online environments, and are often constrained by their forms and conventions (think of the 140-character limit on Twitter) while doing so.

In metamodern dada, we make the distinction between "pastiche" (a postmodern writing technique) and "intertextuality" (a metamodern emphasis). This distinction was most recently made, and with great clarity, by metamodern theorists Vermeulen and van den Akker in this essay in ArtPulse. A pastiche imitates the work of an existing artist or group of artists by either collaging different works by that artist (or artists), or by writing original material "in the style of" an artist or group of artists. The point of a pastiche is to show that "authentic" material is readily reproducible as "fake" material, and "organically arranged" material is readily reproducible as "artificially arranged" material. In other words, the postmodernist authoring a pastiche is making the same dialectical observation that postmodernism is always making: that either two things are opposites presently in contention with one another or else they are one and the same, and that opposites in contention must always combat one another until one or another is destroyed.

By contrast, "intertextual" texts put different materials into dialogue or collaboration with an aim of creating something larger -- something more august, more authoritative, more functional, and/or more inspiring -- than any of the parts could be on their own. Consider, for instance, the uplifting if inconsistent output of the musical artist known as "Fatboy Slim." In songs like "Praise You" or "Don't Let the Man Get You Down", Fatboy Slim samples from different sources and interjects his own original beats and studio noodlings -- not in an effort to imitate or parody or make an ironic commentary about his source material, but to let his audience feel uplifted by experiencing many different ideas, sounds, and even realities all at once. I may not care much about the theme song to the animated television show Fat Albert, or the animated reality that theme song is intended to call to mind for me, but when that sound and that reality is mixed with other sounds and realities in "Praise You," the result is (for me) quite nearly sublime.

The discussion above helps to explain both why metamodernism requires patience of us, why it requires new scholarly terminologies and even forms of scholarship, and why poststructuralists find it so threatening. Most of the objections made to metamodernism by poststructuralists are grounded in the first principles of postmodernism outlined above, just as most of the basically limitless manifestations of metamodernism we find in every artistic genre -- from architecture to painting, from fiction to poetry, from sculpture to fashion, from social media culture to videogames -- bear some relationship to the terms and ideas discussed here. While this essay is merely a basic introduction to metamodernism, and therefore can't possibly speak directly to every metamodern artifact or theoretical outgrowth of metamodernism, the hope is that understanding some of the first principles of metamodernism will reduce the apprehension and even the misapprehensions that these early years of the Age of Metamodernism have produced.

No artist or critic -- anywhere -- is required to look at art in any way that does not naturally appeal to their aesthetics, ethos, or intellect. But for the many of us disenchanted with postmodernism, and disenchanted with much of the art and literary criticism produced under the sign of postmodernism, metamodernism offers a way out that's unquestionably worth further debate and exploration. While there's always a significant risk, in discussing any emerging cultural philosophy, that one will feel inclined or even compelled to "flatten" preceding cultural philosophies into ideas that are easily moved beyond -- e.g., when postmodernism flattened modernism out of all recognition, such that we can call Ezra Pound a "High Modernist" but only effectively discuss his Cantos through poststructuralism -- the discussion above is merely meant to distinguish some first principles in metamodernism's first few decades as an active literary practice. It wasn't possible here to comprehensively detail nearly seventy years of poststructuralist discourse -- nor could I have if I wanted to. But metamodernist discourse is at present much, much younger than metamodernist literary practice -- only two articles on the subject have ever been presented at the annual MLA conference in the U.S., for instance -- so even if the pratice of metamodernism dates back to the mid-1970s, discussion of its particulars is still emerging.

Seth Abramson is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). Additional collections are forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. He serves as co-editor of the Best American Experimental Writing series (Wesleyan, 2015) and is a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison.