Once upon a time people believed in things like the Divine Right of Kings, or that Empires Were Inevitable, or that God had an objective perspective on all things, or that Matter Existed In Some Meaningful Way.
refers to these grounding concepts, these Foucault’s Pendula, as a sort of species of newly dead Titans in his amazing history of the 20th century
Something happened, kind of all at once at the beginning of the 20th century. In retrospect we call this tectonic shift “Modernism”, and basically everyone realized suddenly that these structures we’d been relying on were maybe not as solid and self-evident as maybe we thought. There were a lot of reasons for this, but I think the best way to think about it is to understand that as technology allowed us to better connect all over the planet we found that there were irreconcilable differences in the “self-evident” truths that our various societies depended on. How can I trust that my God protects me when you are just as sure that yours protects you? How can I believe in the inevitability of my empire when you have your own?
Modernism is perhaps best characterized as a reaction to the realization that certain foundational truths weren’t as reliable as they appeared.
Modernist art loves to play with form and structure. Joyce and Woolf and company wrote in ways that defied categorization, subverted their own formalisms and questioned the meaning of writing itself. “What happens,” the modernists were always asking, “If we break THIS assumed rule?”
Modernism is an attempt to answer the question “What is real?” when everything keeps turning out not to be.
To create a reductive summary of this period of history: World War I happened and suddenly the tremendous web of illusions was torn away — humans were savage animals constrained by a few important stories that were cracking under the weight of irreconcilability. If God wasn’t universal, if the Empire wasn’t universal, what was, science?
But science too was giving way — concepts like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics meant that we couldn’t even reliably know that matter existed in some objective way. Worse, advances in information theory were proving that certainty and objectivity were simply not properties of complex systems.
So modernism gave rise, ultimately, to individualism — the idea that, well, we can’t agree on what matters so everyone sort of gets to come up with their own values. And friends, this was toxic as fuck because it means that suddenly there was no common identity, no universal “us” to defend and protect. Higgs argues that the 20th century is largely about the failure of individualism to replace the guiding principles of old, and looks towards a 21st century where we discard Individualism as another dead titan to be replaced by collective action and mutual support.
As the modernist perspective spread some people pushed it to its logical conclusions and discovered that in fact you can deconstruct almost anything. Not just core truths like Objectivity or God, but notions like Color or Meaning or Deconstruction itself.
Postmodernism is perhaps best characterized as a reaction to the realization that reality itself is malleable and that we exist in a semi-virtual environment where constructed concepts appear as real to us as material objects, but can in fact be taken apart.
Postmodernism is modernism taken to its logical extreme - if Modernism says “some things break when we push on them”, Postmodernism says “everything breaks if you push hard enough!”
Where modernist art was obsessed with form and structure, postmodern art abolished even those constraints to get at questions like “what does it mean to mean something” and “how does our collective attention make this thing real?” and “how is it different to be materially real and to be conceptually real, or is it?”
Postmodern ideology tends to be obsessed with deconstructing systems of oppression. It’s less about the individuality of modernist ideology and more about identifying the ways that we as a society create realities that harm people, and how we can maybe stop doing that.
But ultimately when your only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail. Postmodernism is about deconstruction, and while it can apply that tool in semi-productive ways it struggles to create its own meaning. Enter the next step.
If Modernism is reacting to “some things can be deconstructed” and Postmodernism is reacting to “actually anything can be deconstructed”, Metamodernism takes a step back and instead of reacting responds to the implications of Postmodernist thought.
Metamodernism is perhaps best understood as a constructivist response to Postmodernism, one that is eager to ask the question “If we can construct our own realities, how ought we go about doing that?” Deconstructability isn’t some indicator of irreality — rather, if anything can be deconstructed it just means that that’s a property of the systems we live in. Okay, great. Let’s use that!
So metamodernism is less interested in asking “What’s real?” and more interested in asking “What do we, collectively, agree to treat as if it were real?” This is a fundamentally different question than the one the modernists were struggling with — but to a Postmodernist, one who hasn’t made the conceptual leap to metamodernism, the questions seem identical. The reason it’s different, though, is that it takes for granted the inverse of the the principle of deconstruction; if we can deconstruct, we can also construct. Let’s use that faculty as best we can to build a world that works for all of us.
Reality, as it turns out, is an ethical choice.
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