Metamodern Sensemaking

Originally published at:

In the evolving landscape of culture and media, metamodernism emerges as a significant phenomenon, marking a return to romantic cultural sensibilities in literature, arts, and music, with an emphasis on community, sincerity, and simplicity. This cultural shift, which has been slowly taking root following significant global events, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire, then later with the financial crisis of 2008, and now the climate emergency, is characterised by a sense of ending and a quest for new beginnings. However, it also brings to light the potential dangers of what Timotheus Vermeulen calls “absolutist relativism”. Vermeulen suggests that there is a need for caution when using arguments and descriptions of emerging cultural phenomena to develop new political and economic systems, given our lack of knowledge about how they operate and in whose interests they are being formulated. As we navigate this “neo-romantic turn”, Vermeulen suggests, we need to be conscious that the search for alternatives to supposedly discredited metaphysical ideas, that emerged in different epochs and periods of human development, such as neoliberalism and postmodernity, may themselves be leading us back towards a new kind of misaligned inferiority and mediocrity.

Metamodernism represents, to put it simply, an expansion of possibilities and capacity that paves the way for the advancement of alternative social sense-making models in our interconnected world. Metamodernism is an opportunity for a transcendence beyond the fixed and established inherited experiences of the past. Metamodernism seeks to unite both the established and the imminent in an oscillation of becoming. Metamodernism, to put things plainly, is a cultural shift that involves a return of history, though history understood as both an ouroboros, and as a dialectical model of becoming. Metamodernism is a blending of diverging discourses and narrative frameworks, that have the potential for new political and economic systems to interlock and thereby redefine a consensus that moves human development forward.

Metamodernism, therefore, cannot be used to resolve tensions between the opposites, to steal Carl Jung’s phrase. We cannot resolve our understanding of these polarised discourses by totalising them, or by integrating them within an artificial homoeostatic system. Instead, metamodernism explores the world as an uncertain place that requires awareness of developmental and emergent processes within a flow of natural forces and processes that do achieve homeostasis, and which are both autocatalytic and able to absorb and manage change.

Once thing that we know for certain, is that the future is uncertain. With this in mind, metamodernists have to be conscious of the dangers of political and cultural one-sidedness, which at its worst can manifest as a risky turn towards fascism. This one-sidedness is present where any kind of common ground is rejected. If your default position is to automatically reject the assertions, arguments, and expressions of other people, who may take a different position on any issue to yourself, and that you then assume that these people must be ‘crazies’, ‘bigots’, or propagators of ‘hate’, then we’ve stepped into a dangerous terrain of absolutism that is fascistic. Metamodern thinking, then, seeks to explore how this rigidity of thought and expression can be averted. Metamodernism, by focussing on the process of deliberation, seeks to place the process of deliberation and discussion itself at the centre of the epistemological project.

Social sense making, and the way we go about making things collectively meaningful, must be developed based on establishing functional optimal processes of engagement. This includes understanding both what a conversation is about, and how the conversation will shape the process of sense making. Wittgenstein’s notion of language games is useful in this regard. Metamodernism, moreover, is reflexive, and can therefore be thought of as an effort to develop deep and meaningful solutions to social, philosophical, cognitive and other challenges. Metamodernism does this by grounding our concerns in a process of social sense-making, that explores the collective ‘structure of feeling’ of the times, and does so in a way that integrates more in-depth understanding, such as spirituality, aesthetic interpretation and mythology, without rejecting empiricism and sensory categorisation, but while repelling ironic surface plays which lead to alienation and nihilism.

Much of this ground is covered in an excellent YouTube conversation, in which Timotheus Vermeulen talks with Brendan Graham Dempsey about the development of metamodernism. Dempsy has dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to explaining how metamodernism functions as a paradigm for understanding art and culture after postmodernism. In this conversation, Dempsy and Vermeulen discuss how the original impetus and formation of the idea of metamodernism came about. They reflect on the continued relevance of the metamodern concept today, more than a decade after Vermeulen and his colleague Robin van den Akker first proposed it in their seminal 2010 article Notes on Metamodernism. Dempsy and Vermeulen go on to talk about more recent applications and deployments of the term ‘metamodernism’, particularly those outside cultural studies proper (e.g., by Hanzi Freinacht, Lene Rachel Andersen, Tomas Björkman, Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal). The conversation concludes with a look at the future of metamodernism, and a consideration of how it is playing out in the realm of contemporary spirituality.

It’s worth outlining some common terms and ideas that are associated with metamodernism. So, as well as being a set of ideas and theories, metamodernism is also a cultural phenomenon that is manifested in different forms of cultural expression and communication. Pinning-down these forms of expression are often difficult because they are defined by motive, while still using mediation techniques developed with postmodernism – the collage, the remix, the ironic performance, and so on. However, metamodernism is also a social practice which, in the terms of John Vervaeke, is a process of social sensemaking that is concerned with establishing a developmental and meaningful engagement with the world and one another. Vervaeke talks about using techniques of wisdom-making to overcome the problems of meaninglessness that pervade contemporary Western culture. As Vervaeke explains:

“Human beings face perennial problems of self-deception. They’re continually threatened by anxiety, absurdity, alienation, and you need sets of practices [to help with this]. There’s no panacea of practice; every practice has strengths and weaknesses, and you have to find complementary relations between them. You should always complement a meditative practice with a contemplative practice. You should always complement a seated practice with a moving practice. You should complement an awareness practice with an inferential practice. You have to address the dynamic complexity of your cognition.”

Metamodernism, as defined in Timotheus Vermeulen and Brendan Graham Dempsey conversation. emerged as a new paradigm of understanding in relation to cultural changes seen from the late 1990s onward. Including the return of manifestos in art, a renewed sense of optimism, and a romantic sensibility. Metamodern comprehension and understanding, we should note, depends on the articulation of a perspectival view, which is demonstrated in the way a speaker can express their views in relation to their reflexive understanding of their specific cultural context. As the postmodern cultural mode became more fully realised, and the fun of pastiche and simulation became tiresome, it was felt by some cultural commentators, artists, writers and so on, that there was a need for a new vocabulary to understand and make sense of these changes.

Metamodernism, then, is an attempt to name and find a cohesive framework for various developments in literature, arts, and music. Observations made in 2008 about changes in the arts, and their connection to political changes, still hold true today. The only difference, according to Vermeulen and Dempsey, is that they reflect a new sense of urgency, hope, sincerity, and desperation, all at the same time, and moment to moment.

Metamodernists are hopeful that meaningful change can occur in response to social problems, and that there are periods where humanity does seem to be able to come together to address seemingly insurmountable difficulties before the pendulum swings back and hope of collective actions is lost. This oscillation in the structure of feeling, a term coined by Raymond Williams and developed in metamodern thinking, is the dominant mode of existential sensibility. We are shifting constantly between fixed and moving positions. We live in a state of permanent oscillation, and we are shifting between seemingly immutable and seemingly always dissolving characteristics. What was previously dominant becomes subservient. What was previously progressive becomes regressive, and vice versa. As Hanzi Freinacht argues, ‘after the deconstruction, must come the reconstruction.”

To get to grips with this, metamodernists argue that we first need to acknowledge our specific perspective, as situated humans discussing a distinct sensibility in a particular cultural context. However, the metamodern sense of spirituality and/or deep meaning as a defined structure of feeling, is not yet dominant. We live in an age where because we are open to change, we are also highly susceptible to malicious influence by external factors and agents. This is manifested in the simultaneous occurrence of forms of protest and social resistance that are at the same time apocryphal, while at the same time they are hopeful and optimistic.  While our times call for a return of history, we ourselves are unable to comprehend this historical process because we are situated within the confines of our ‘intersectional’ being. We are both the object who has a sense of history, but also the subject who is carried forward, powerlessly, into an increasing dystopian future.

The structure of feeling, a concept derived from Raymond Williams and co-opted by Frederick Jameson, has been used to discuss post-modernism. The dominant structure of feeling is that of European and American sensibilities, but its prevalence in other regions such as the Arab world and China is uncertain. A structure of feeling differs from that of ideology because it is fleeting and intangible. It is a residual feeling that has not yet achieved the status of a hegemony or an ideology. The metamodern sensibility, then, is a structure of feeling that is similar to a mood and is not influenced by external factors. The structure of feeling is a residue that all products of a certain time share, and it can be analysed through various lenses such as art, literature, and cultural context. What is common currently, is the sense that we are stuck with no alternative to call upon, and no future to hope for.

Metamodernism, then, is the attempt to understand this residual feeling and shared sentiment. This feeling is present in various cultural and political movements, regardless of their different aims, and it involves a return of choices that can be made. It is the end of TINA – there is no alternative. Of course, there are alternatives, the question is how we identify them and enact them. In the face of the great disruption, with events such as 9/11 and the financial and ecological crises, metamodernism explores the idea that what people are experiencing is the projection of dystopian conditions, that are in danger of becoming a reality for the West. The combination of globalisation, social media, and generational polarisation has led to a cultural shift. However, Fukuyama’s claim that nothing has changed, reflects a misunderstanding of people’s discomfort and destabilisation.

Metamodern sensemaking, then, involves avoiding taking sides and embracing diverging discourses, but it can have negative consequences, such as with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. The combination of the globalisation and the increasing sense of uncertain realities driven by the introduction of social media and web 2.0, has given rise to a generational desire for change that itself has led to a shift in cultural and technological dynamics. As Marshal McLuhan has taught us, when we change the technology of communication, we change the symbolic framework of society. Elsewhere, I’ve framed this as socialmeaning as a relativistic term that demonstrates that is we change the structure of society by using new forms of communication and sensemaking, then we change the meanings that make sense to us, and with we change the meanings, we change society.

The difficulty in answering the questions that metamodernism raises, lies in the lack of parameters and clear terms. We don’t as yet know what we are dealing with or talking about. Metamodernism can pertain to various topics, but if we are to fully understand these topics, then we need to learn to navigate between different truths and different values, without imposing one’s own terms, and without losing a sense of critical objectivity. In the face of crises and injustices, for example, the metamodern sensibility requires that we give a commitment to ideals that are specific – truth, justice, equity, freedom, and so on. But in doing so, we cannot abandon a critical approach that can allow for diverging discourses to coexist.

Metamodernism, therefore, involves the function of a particular form of sensemaking, or epistemology, that allows individuals to avoid taking sides, but this sensemaking is not a grand narrative like those seen in modernity because it involves a constant movement between opposite poles. As Vermeulen notes, populists exhibit a contradictory and incongruent way of making sense, in which they express views founded on ‘absolutist relativism’. For example, they disregard the importance of taxes in funding better schools. They want one, but not the other. This is the ‘having-your-cake-and-eating-it’ paradox that enabled Brexit.

The tension between seemingly incompatible ideas, itself represents the emergence of informed naivety on the left and absolutist relativism on the right, with post-modernism being misused for oppressive ends, while simultaneously exploiting the liberating potential of relativism. The return to inconsistent narratives that cannot work may lead to tragedy for all of us, Vermeulen warns. Post-modernism has finally reached into the conservative mindset, and is now being used for oppressive ends because post-modernism and post-structuralism have taught us that truth is relative. The fact that political populists misuse this understanding, and assert absolute and false truths, means that they can get away with exploiting the liberating potential of relativism.

While post-modern politics rejects grand narratives and instead seeks input from individuals to create policies, as Herman and Chomsky argued in relation to the public relations industry, metamodernism suggests a shift towards a belief in hidden truths and a sense of not having access to them. Metamodernism is not just a tool to describe cultural and political shifts, but is itself open to using a different set of terms if they better capture these developments. Metamodernism, then, is a vocabulary and set of observations of existing tendencies, that allows for the naming and application of the different structures of feeling that coexist in our globalised society. Questions of identity, for example, rest on the incorporation of different factors, such as race, nationality, class, but now also interest and social preferences.  

These constellations of identity, Vermeulen and Dempsey suggest, may potentially lead to new political and economic systems, but it is not necessary for metamodernism itself to bring about those changes. Metamodernism, then, is not a new philosophy or program, but rather a vocabulary and observation of existing tendencies. If someone uses this vocabulary to create a new progressive politics, notes Timotheus Vermeulen, that’s great, but it is not necessary for metamodernism itself to bring about those changes.

Metamodernism, nevertheless, is an attempt to understand the terms of the structure of feeling in which we reside. Terms like ‘sincere irony’ and ‘pragmatic idealism’ are working their way in into our culture, and they are allowing people to name and apply this ‘elusive structure of feeling’ associated with metamodernism, in a way that realises and provides a framework for their sensibility, and the self-conscious enactment of these ideas in various forms of political programs. This is what is being played out in the ‘trans’ debate at the moment. A critical sense of sex-defined identity, versus a fluid sense of gender-defined identity. Both are articulating a strengthened form of representation and identification, one that is locked into the empirical and biologically real, with the other open to the expression of performance and becoming. One seeks meaning in the innate, and the other seeks meaning in the potential to manifest something about oneself. The phrase that captures this best, is ‘be the best version of yourself’, which seeming innocuousness, disguises a pernicious and cynical form of neoliberal ideological manipulation.

Metamodernism, nonetheless, should not be viewed separately from political and economic systems, as it is connected to late capitalism and carries a utopian spirit. Metamodernism does, however, involve a process whereby it’s possible to redirect our existing social energies into cultural phenomena that have the potential to develop new political and economic systems. While cautioning against applying one sensibility directly to a political program. Engaging critically with metamodernism, Vermeulen and Dempsey remind us, can help create a route through to meaningfulness and growth based on a sense, as Vermeulen describes it, of “depthiness”.  This focus on depth rather than surface is seen in the way we are increasingly using the language of spirituality, pedagogy, and the way we incorporate indigenous and traditional wisdom into our discussions, despite a sense of reticence and lack of familiarity.

The concept of “depthiness” in metamodernism, which involves the opening up of metaphysical possibilities without actually articulating them, suggests that it is possible to explore how cultural phenomena are often defined by hidden depths of meaning, despite the prevalence of surface-level thinking in post-modernism. Different types of sensemaking and spirituality are becoming popular across society as people search for new models of meaning-making in a world. The conventional frames of meaning have been abandoned, while the new and emerging concepts of metamodernism, such as the neo-romantic turn, are yet to be fully explored as ways to unite the transcendent and the imminent in a non-dualistic way. The resurgence of ancient mystical ideas in metamodern sensemaking is potentially a compelling and experiential project. A project that might be able to combine the transcendent and the imminent. The shift from relying on religious authorities for truth, to the need for personal experience and engagement with belief, and how this is reflected in contemporary society and art, is the fertile ground for examination in metamodern thinking.

Metamodernism, then, explores the ideas of ‘ironic sincerity’ and ‘grounded’ political programs, but its future is uncertain due to the potential for a dangerous turn towards authoritarianism. However, and despite its limitations, metamodernism does provide a helpful framework for interpreting the world and finding clarity amidst uncertainty. Once ideas are put into the world, Vermeulen suggests, they no longer belong to the author and can be used by others. This means that we need to rethink how we are able to continue to engage with them, but this process then becomes the purpose of cultural production. The future of metamodernism as a paradigm and cultural lens is uncertain, as the tension between its oscillation and the hardening fault lines may lead to a dangerous turn as they move towards solidification.  Metamodernism, ultimately, might act as nothing more than a placeholder while we transition between different worlds. However, what is being constructed, and however temporary this turns out to be as a process of sensemaking, does provide a helpful framework for interpreting the world as it presently is, which gives us a chance to seek and find clarity amidst the uncertainty.