Or, Ten Things You Need to Know About "Metamodernism" Right Now
If you've ever been in a high school English classroom or a college English course, you've probably read one or more of the early twentieth-century Modernists. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore: These are some of the names that likely haunted you in your high school and college years, as their complex and highly allusive texts played havoc with your busy social schedule come term-paper and exam time.
If you've ever been in an advanced college English course, or any English classroom at the graduate level, you've probably been exposed, with an equal measure of frustration, to the postmodernists: Those who contend, generally speaking, that there is no stable self, no stable Truth, no stable language, no notable structure for us to hang onto whatsoever as we move through a series of performances and collapsing institutions in contemporary America. It's dreary stuff, and it's taken decades for anyone to find a way to make it at all fun, and even then it was only a small group of contemporary poets known as "flarfists" who did so. Working poets find them semi-consistently amusing, true, but almost no one else has heard of them.
Metamodernism is a different beast altogether, and it's expansive enough that even those who talk about it can't agree on whether it comes "between" Modernism and postmodernism or supercedes both and thereby effectively declares both dead.
Three things are for certain, however: Metamodernism is a hell of a lot more fun than its predecessors; metamodernism is far better than either Modernism or postmodernism at synthesizing youth culture in contemporary America; and metamodernism is now the primary compositional mode we see the most innovative young artists embracing. We could probably add a fourth item here--that metamodernism is more likely than either Modernism or postmodernism to teach us, in real time, how to make our own lives more bearable--but as this thesis is still unproven, it needn't be considered a fundamental tenet of metamodernism's many incarnations.
Proof that metamodernism can be distinguished from any preceding concept in art can be found in the person of Reggie Watts, a multi-genre performer who's primarily either a musician or a comedian or a slam poet, depending upon whom you ask and at what point you are in Watts's bizarre and disorienting stage routine.
In 2012, Watts gave a TED talk like none you've ever seen, and if you want to start understanding metamodernism better than you (or I) likely ever understood Modernism or postmodernism, one step is to watch the ten-minute video above and then read the blow-by-blow analysis of the video offered below. What Watts does in the ten minutes of his TED talk is put on a veritable clinic of metamodernism. Those who watch and/or read the content of this article are encouraged to check out, also, Watts's "Why $#!+ So Crazy?" (2010), which is now available as a streaming download on Netflix. It takes the brief metamodernist survey course Watts offered at TED and turns it into a full-blown metamodernist masterpiece.
Below you'll find ten things you need to know about metamodernism right now, with the time at which Watts performs them in the above video clip in parentheses. So please check out the video above, and then, if you like what you've seen, continue reading the article from this point.
1. Code-switching (0:16 to 0:53). Watts switches seamlessly between languages (Russian, Italian, Spanish, French, accented English), but it's likely that most of his code-switching goes right over the heads of his audience, given that most of the codes he's using are unknown to them. This is an important metamodernist technique; whereas a postmodernist would switch between codes her audience understands, the better to emphasize how much content gets lost in translation, the metamodernist switches between indecipherable codes to underscore that it falls to us to make millions of communicative threads cohere. By starting his performance in a language other than English, Watts telegraphs to his audience that communication in the conventional sense is not his primary aim, nor is deconstructing language. Instead, he aims to embody the twenty-first century information consumer, within whom countless unbreakable codes that are obscure to all listeners are crafted into an authentic and "whole" identity nonetheless. Watts also deliberately maintains the wall between performer and audience that most artists spend the first few minutes of their stage performance tearing down.
Yet with Watts, code-switching is never quite so simple as what's been described above. He maintains, throughout all the languages he speaks in, the same tone and rhythm, as if to suggest that the codes he's using may be changing, but the dialogue he's orchestrating is consistent. This calls to mind the way we construct our self-identities in the Internet Age; we're constantly switching between codes, many of which are indecipherable to or misunderstood by others, but we feel like (or at least we want to feel like) "ourselves" throughout.
Not so fast, though, the longtime Watts-watcher will say. How do we know Watts is speaking "authentically" in the codes he seems to be using? How do we know if he's speaking in "actual" Russian, Spanish, French, et al.? And the answer is: We don't. Even the integrity and fidelity of the codes Watts is using are in doubt, meaning that even if his audience understood a number of those codes, and even if they looked beneath the patina of coherence Watts has layered atop his monologue, they'd still feel the anxiety of uncertainty--which is exactly how Watts wants it. That's why, even when he "exits" his string of linguistic code-switches to speak authoritatively in a false British accent, we find him addressing a topic entirely inconsistent with the occasion: He speaks of having just discussed a cultural "convention" in detail, though as that's impossible to confirm, and indeed seems highly unlikely, it casts doubt on the possibility that anything he said previously was relevant or coherent. And the truth is, the audience will never find out one way or another. Welcome to the Internet Age, writ large.
2. Ordered Nonsense (0:53 to 1:34). One of Watts's most common techniques is to speak vacuously--that is, incomprehensibly--in such a reasonable, deliberate, and confident way that the listener begins to question her judgment that nothing of consequence has just been said. Hearing Watts's "ordered nonsense" forces the audience to acknowledge that, in the Internet Age, we often give the benefit of the doubt to someone only to find later that that trust was undeserved. More generally, we habitually presume that people know what they're talking about--for instance, politicians, academics, doctors, or prominent political and cultural pundits--when all evidence points to the contrary.
But Watts isn't being unintelligible in the usual way. For instance, what he offers his audience at this point in the performance isn't psychobabble or some other recognizable form of contemporary nonsense. Instead, he deliberately chooses his words for their portentousness--that is, based on how commonly we find them in monologues (academic or demotic) that actually do intend to make "sense"--and then combines them randomly to remind us how easily such maneuvers can fool us. In the clip above, we hear the words "self-interest," "topography," "future," "memory," "sensation," and "mirror," all of which are calibrated to sound as though they carry communicative content when in fact, in this context, they lay claim to none whatsoever. Watts also elevates the formality of his diction by saying "unto ourselves," yet another example of how sometimes the gravitas behind a speech is as convincing as the words of which it's comprised. Elsewhere, Watts slips in a made up word ("collapsation") and rhymes it with "sensation," as if to say that even words that mean nothing can feel right (because they interact nicely with other words) or mean something to us when they shouldn't (as the ear hears "collapse" for "collapsation," and therefore doesn't balk at the new coinage as it should).
But Watts is also repeating entire phrases that people use to sound important or intelligent, for instance in the following string of words: "It's not so much as to so little as to do with what everything is..." Instead of this linguistic throat-clearing being the preface to some important announcement, it constitutes the entirety of a remark. Watts thereby "re-frames" speech that is normally secondary or tertiary to communication by making it primary. Nonsense thus becomes content, and we as audience members must try to make sense out of nonsense, having no other material with which to work. We may also find ourselves chagrined at just how convincing-sounding nonsensical phrasings can be--particularly those that Americans use regularly in everyday speech.
3. Enforced Reality (1:34 to 1:40). The key to reality-shifting is to not acknowledge you're doing it. Watts is known for telling stories that include hard data and then changing a datum the second time it's referenced, forcing the listener to decide whether the first number provided, the second, or neither is true. Here, he appends the phrase "Common knowledge, but important nonetheless" to a string of words in varying codes that make no sense whatsoever. The result is that the audience becomes complicit in a "new reality" in which the string of nonsense Watts just invented is "common knowledge." Because Watts has the microphone, because he's speaking in the accent of a highly-educated Brit, because it's a TED talk, and because Watts is relatively famous, him saying something is "common knowledge" creates a touch of "dramatic irony" for us--as we know that the reality we're living in, in which what Watts has said is nonsense, is not the reality Watts is living in in the moment he claims otherwise.
And yet, the dramatic irony, we realize suddenly, isn't quite as strong as it should be. The gap between how wrong what Watts has said should sound and how wrong it actually does sound is one measurement of the power of language to "bump" reality just slightly, even if it ultimately doesn't dislodge it permanently. It's a masterful power play: Watts is showing his audience that he has the power to manipulate reality, but is only making a brief feint in that direction.
4. Disguised Sense (1:40 to 1:57). The other side of the coin to Watts's use of "ordered nonsense" is "disguised sense." Essentially, Watts sets the table for one reality--in which what he's saying is nonsense and his audience knows it--and then pulls out the rug from beneath us all by cleverly encoding actual sense into his monologue. That's what Watts appears to be doing in speaking of the role of "fear" in contemporary culture: "As we face fear in these times, and fear is all around us, we also have anti-fear. It's hard to imagine or measure..." This, Lord help us, actually makes a lot of sense. Fear is all around us, and presumably there are, in fact, mechanisms within contemporary culture to help us combat fear, but because these mechanisms are largely invisible, they're hard to imagine (let alone locate) and impossible to measure, in any case.
Watts's brief digression on the subject of fear qualifies as the very first sensible thing he's said in the first two minutes of his lecture--which is why he undercuts it, or at least appears to, in the very next sentence.
5. Revealed Presumption (1:58 to 2:10). That Watts follows the first sensible thing he's said to his audience with a code-switch into pseudo-ebonics is perhaps his most daring move yet, because it has three parts to it and all are incredibly courageous.
First, Watts is forcing his audience to feel surprise--and to feel shame at that surprise--when he code-switches from the accent of an Oxford don to the accent of (an outrageous stereotype of) an urban-dwelling African-American male. What's certain is that Watts changes his diction level to make that transformation; what's unclear is what it should mean to his audience that that shift has occurred. Does the largely-white TED audience suddenly take him less seriously when he code-switches in this way? Do they give the substance of his words less weight? Do they retrospectively apply the new accent to the old content, so that they can almost "hear," now, Watts speaking in pseudo-ebonics of "spectral analyses" and "background radiation"? Or do they use Watts's code-switching to justify ignoring both the old and the new content?
The second thing Watts does is introduce here, for the first time, the specter of a stable self: the "real" Reggie Watts. In saying "I wrote this song" in pseudo-ebonics, Watts gives his audience implicit permission, because of what they know about his background as a songwriter, to believe that he's now ceased code-switching and is speaking in his "real" voice. As it happens--as anyone who's ever seen an interview with Watts will know, or his work on Comedy Bang Bang--what the audience hears at this point in the performance is not Watts's "real" voice. But what does it say about the audience's presumption that it might have been? Were they judging Watts based on the color of his skin, his clothing, his hair, something else? Watts is consequently revealing, here, that what we might think of as "reality" is often just a presumption that's never been challenged.
The audience is clearly titillated at this point in the performance; we can hear a lot of crowd noise when Watts shifts to pseudo-ebonics. What they perhaps don't notice, then, is that Watts has continued speaking nonsense--so that even if certain audience members decide (unjustly) that this accent sounds the most "correct" given of the person in front of them, it turns out that they're mistaken on two fronts. First, because that's not how Watts "normally" speaks; second, because what may sound more "authentic" to them is actually just more of the same, that is to say, more nonsense. What Watts says in this new accent is this: "But we feel as though there are times when, a lot of us, you know what I'm saying, but like, you know what I'm saying, 'cause like, as a hip-hop thing, you know what I'm saying, like, TED be rockin', you know what I'm saying, so..." Of course no one could possibly know what Watts is saying, because TED is not "a hip-hop thing," it's not at all clear who "we" is, and so on. This, once again, is ordered nonsense, but if it feels more "real" than what preceded, even for a second, it reveals the presumptions of the largely-white TED audience.
6. Erroneous Self-Correction (2:10 to 2:27). We've all been erroneously corrected by others in our lives, and it's certainly annoying, but what does it mean to be erroneously corrected by oneself? (Precisely the sort of thing we do when we edit our own blog-posts or Facebook statuses in a way that makes them even more inaccurate, grating, or tone-deaf.) Does it suggest that one doesn't really know oneself, or that one has ceased to distinguish between false and actual reality?
When Watts refers to "Sasquatch" as "fringe science," he's absolutely correct; when he then "corrects" himself and says "that's French science," he's using the similar sound of two words to put several new metamodernistic concepts in play. Did his audience hear what he said the first time, or did they only hear the correction, and therefore received as "nonsense" what was actually erroneously self-corrected sense? Does Watts himself (one might loosely wonder) realize the error of the correction, given that he's deliberately couched the correction in the sort of tone and body language that sincerely communicates, "Oh, I messed up there..."? And why undercut the first "sincere" and indisputably accurate comment in the whole performance--"I wrote a song..."--by misinforming the listener as to what that song is about? Watts reveals to us here how we often accidentally or even deliberately self-sabotage, but do so in a way so authoritative that others can't or won't see it.
7. Layered Realities (2:27 to 3:07). Of course, in classic Wattsian fashion, even the comment "I wrote a song"--which would appear indisputable--turns out to be false, as Watts actually improvises the song he sings at this point in the performance.
What's interesting about the "frame" Watts puts on the song, however (namely, the fiction that it was penned on some previous date), is that it's so reasonable-seeming and convincing that it splits realities. In the song Watts sings here, many of the lyrics are merely sounds instead of words--though they're sung as though they were words--and he shifts timbre and pitch so frequently that, had the song actually been written beforehand rather than merely improvised, it would have been written for multiple individuals to sing. So at this point we have two competing options for how to think about Reggie Watts: One, that he's an improvisational performer who composes his material in the same instant and the same second he performs it, or two, that he's a highly deliberate performer who knows his skill-set prior to either the creative instant or the performative instant and therefore composes his "nonsense" quite intentionally. If he's the second, he's a postmodernist; if he's the first, he's merely an entertainer. If one can't know which reality is the correct one, he's a metamodernist. In short, we don't know whether Watts is operating pursuant to a plan or no plan at all--if his performance merely "conforms" to some shape he's already made for it, or if it takes shape in real time--and that's as good a circumscription of what Internet-Age reality is like as we're going to get. It's essentially a redux of the eternal debate between the theory of free will and the theory of predestination.
8. Juxtapositive Spaces (3:07 to 3:53). Americans, particularly younger Americans, often find themselves creating self-identities in the very same moment they're performing them. Under this rubric, one's self-identity is "sincere" in the sense that it's created by oneself, and "insincere" in the sense that it's unstable. If postmodernists have been asking, particularly in poetry but also in other fields, how we can use the first-person pronoun "I" in a world in which self-identity is unstable, this is one plausible answer. Juxtaposition--that is, engaging in two different and seemingly conflicting behaviors or discussions at the same time--is the way younger American artists remain "true" to themselves while acknowledging that there is, in fact, no Truth. Metamodernism seeks to resolve the yearning for Truth seen in Modernism with the acceptance that there is no Truth seen in postmodernism, which is why the proto-metamodernists of the aughts often said that they were "between" Modernism and postmodernism rather than "beyond" or "above" one or the other.
Juxtaposition of creative and performative spaces is a classically metamodernist maneuver (to use an anachronistic phrasing) because it emphasizes the fluidity of realities. If I perform something in the same space and in roughly the same timespan that I've created it, you can never know to what extent I took into account the fact of a composition's incipient performance at the moment I authored it, just as one can't know for certain whether creation and performance are ever distinct processes in the first instance. In poetry and fiction, we see this kind of juxtaposition most starkly in the nation's several hundred graduate creative writing programs, where young or youngish poets and writers expose their creative process to the real-time critique of peers--sometimes to the detriment of their confidence or sense of individuality--and thereby commingle creation and performance inextricably.
This is a dramatically different means of art creation than any we've seen before, which is one reason we need the term "metamodernism" to circumscribe it. For centuries, the creative act in literature and music and various forms of stage performance was a private one; an isolated and eccentric genius, working alone or perhaps in collaboration with one or two others geographically in the same space, produces a "pure" artifact that is subsequently performed, in a scheduled way, for an audience. That sort of thinking, and that sort of art creation, in no way mirrors the way younger Americans live in the Internet Age. Today, we are constantly caught in the act of creating and performing simultaneously, which means that "reality"--the point at which these processes of creation and performance result in a cognizable work of art--is constantly shifting.
The above reading of metamodernism offers one reason metamodernist texts seem to avoid temporality, avoid description, avoid a stable tone (or any evident tone at all), avoid emotional or psychological setpieces (that is, clear points of inflection or confirmation of any fact or sequence of facts), avoid linear narrative, and sound convincing rhythmically even when they're incoherent substantively. These texts do this because they aim to make synchronous the way people live and the way people make art, and to therefore have art look and feel and read and sound the same way contemporary living does.
One hope of the metamodernistic mode is that people will return to certain artforms they've largely come to ignore--such as poetry--if they discover that, in a certain light, it sometimes looks and feels and reads and sounds the way they themselves sometimes look and feel and read and sound when they're interacting with others online or otherwise constructing a coherent self-identity using contemporary technologies. This is why we can say that, unlike much Modernism and postmodernism, the metamodernistic impulse is fundamentally optimistic and "sincere"; if it acknowledges the confusion, futility, or incapacities of everyday living, it is not to wallow in them but to use them as a generative instrument. The end result: A sense of wholeness that's terribly difficult to find by other means.
9. Juxtaposition of Man and Machine (3:53 to 4:35). When we watch Reggie Watts "playing" his sound board, it's easy to think he's using a machine as a tool. In fact, he's using himself: His own vocal talents as filtered through a machine. He is, then, in effect playing (or re-playing) himself. In this way, he turns himself into an instrument, but not the same sort of "instrument" we could accurately say one is using when one sings. Instead, in a perfect exemplar of the layered realities of metamodernism, Watts becomes a human instrument that the human who's playing it (again Watts) can step outside of and manipulate as though it were a separate medium. A single man is thus split into two different media. (In his "Why $#!+ So Crazy?", Watts takes this remarkable feat one step further, manipulating the video of his own performances post-production such that he becomes, in essence, a man playing a man playing a man.) Watts emphasizes this highly cerebral juxtaposition of man and machine by sometimes using his natural voice to mimic machine sounds. So we could accurately say that Watts sometimes becomes the machine, and the machine sometimes becomes him: Another perfect summary of how we use media to create identities in the Internet Age.
10. Looping (4:35 to 5:25). Metamodernism would be pretty frustrating if every jump between realities took us to a new reality we'd never seen before. Pretty soon, we'd get tired of ending up thirty-five planes of reality from where we started, with no end to the journey in sight. While metamodernism doesn't go in for conclusions or endings--after all, if all realities are happening all the time, how can we say where any one reality begins or ends?--it often does use "looping" to show us that it is possible to return to realities we've visited previously, thereby creating a "frame" for all the realities we traveled to in the meantime.
In the case of Reggie Watts, at 4:35 in the above video he "loops back" to a reality he earlier visited at 0:53 in the video. Specifically, he returns to his "Oxford don" persona as though he'd never really left it--as though everything between 0:53 to 4:35 was part of the lecture this persona was giving. And who's to say it wasn't? Looping forces a reframing of everything that precedes it, meaning that it sends us back through (by way of forcing us to recontextualize) all the prior realities we've experienced.
For Watts, looping isn't just a parlor trick. When he returns to his Oxford don "code" he begins making observations that, once again, actually make a lot of sense and seem relevant to everything we've seen thus far. So when Watts says, "And the computer models, no matter how many that you have, and how many people that you use, are never going to be able to arrive at the same conclusions," he's making a coherent statement--the sort you might actually expect to hear in a "real" lecture--that tells us much about his view of art and life. What he's saying is that when human inclinations are fed through a computer (as almost all are, in the Internet Age), you're never going to achieve a place of stability for either individual humans or humans collectively. Consequently, Watts's "conclusion" from all of this, as he says at 5:06 in the video, is necessarily disappointingly tautological: "Tomorrow is another day." It's true, of course, but it's also redundant; we know tomorrow is another day because the word "tomorrow" tells us so, as if it weren't another day it wouldn't be "tomorrow."
We can take from this tautology the view that the Internet Age produces truths, but only self-confirming ones, ones that don't necessarily move us "forward" in any measurable way. This too is a metamodernistic approach to both art and life, as metamodernism focuses not on tracing how the ego moves forward through time, but on how what metamodernists call "hyperconsciousness" or "superconsciousness" allows us to move upward through overlapping or interstitial "higher" ("meta") layers of reality.
For a metamodernist to concede forward motion, she must first concede that there's only one reality that "matters" when it comes to measuring distances and relative location, which as a metamodernist (and perhaps a neo-Pluralist) she will refuse to do. In fact, for metamodernists time is a palimpsest, not a progression. In other words, we see it, when and as we do, only in layers. This is quite different from what we get with postmodernism, which, despite its dismissive contentions regarding absolute Truth, nevertheless has to posit "time" as a sort of Truth to engage in measurably "deconstructive" processes. After all, in a world in which there's no time, you couldn't "deconstruct" a building--or anything--as how would you measure when you'd begun, how much progress you'd made, or when you'd finished? It's this principle, as much as any other, that makes the argument that metamodernism is, in certain respects at least, "beyond" postmodernism, as its tendency to "loop" confirms that it's suspicious of the fourth dimension (time) in a more abiding way than previous experimental philosophies and modes of composition were.
Watts also uses looping in more obvious ways, such as when he introduces his final piece, performs that piece, and then (a second time) introduces his final piece, and then performs that piece, as though the first performance (and the attendant claim of its finality) had never happened. By explanation, he offers his audience a string of sentences which to most will sound like gibberish--what Watts undoubtedly intends--but are actually a reasonable enough summary of the compositional philosophies of the late musical theorist and experimental musician John Cage. Per usual, Watts is training us not to take him seriously, primarily so that he can show us just how much of his seriousness comes in under our radar.
Conclusion. Towards the end of the clip above, Watts does what he is so often inclined to do: Incorporate into his routine statements about the state of the world that are consummately metamodernistic. In "Why $#!+ So Crazy", the best example of this tendency was this gem: "We need to think inside the trapezoid."
In playing off the cliche "thinking outside the box," Watts constructs an aphorism that militates for us changing our frames of reference, not merely our intentions. To Watts--a performer whose primary unit of measure is a boundless reality or realities--there is no "outside the box," as there isn't even a box.
In the clip above, Watts's best summation is this one:
The important thing to remember is that this simulation is a good one. It's believable, it's tactile, you can reach out, things are solid, you can move objects from one area to another, you can feel your body, you can say I'd like to go over to this location, you can move this mass of molecules through the air over to another location. At will. That's something you live inside of every day.
He's speaking, of course, about the more or less "stable" reality we feel we inhabit every day. That is, he's comforting his disoriented audience with the knowledge that, however many realities there may be, the one we foolishly believe is the most important does, indeed, have its benefits. Of course, most of these benefits have to do with the body rather than the mind, but they're benefits even so. In case this isn't clear enough, he adds: "Feel not as though it is a sphere we live on; rather, an infinite plane which has the illusion of leading yourself back to a point of origin. Once we understand that all the spheres in the skies [sic] are just large infinite planes, it will be plain to see." These are words few postmodernists would be caught dead saying, one reason that most young people wouldn't be caught dead with a postmodernist. For the metamodernist, this sort of mind-expanding exercise is not just important but, in fact, the final destination of this new brand of art.
A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008) and a regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, Fence, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.