Where are we and where are we going? We’re faced with this question every day and in every moment. This is the eternal question anything living must ask itself, it’s the “map of meaning”; at its most basic it might look like, “I’m hungry (a current state) and I want food (a motivated direction)”. This question in our lives mirrors that which we can ask of the society at large. We’re faced with challenges: a pandemic, political division, climate change and we’re faced with opportunities: the internet, space exploration, a better future. Metamodernism seeks to help us find our place in the present as well as point us towards a meaningful future. In this essay, we will try to understand the Metamodernism movement, and its relationship with truth and value, first by placing it in historical context and then by examining metamodernist productions and current events.
Change is constant and our perception of reality is limited, yet we strive to make sense of the world and condense it into something simple and manageable. Humans have always faced the same core issues, issues such as love, hatred, and meaning. These everyday concerns are fundamental and even archetypal, and they are constant even as their manifestations evolve against the shifts in our environment. Since the dawn of civilization, the changes to the environment have been largely the result of our own actions. As an example, our need to form connections with others is constant, but our invention and adoption of technology has changed how we experience connection. Because of our ability to change our world, there is a cyclical nature between our actions, our response found in culture, and new ideas or consciousness which informs change in the future.
We’ve seen two of these cycles take shape since the 19th century; modernism and post-modernism are two established periods and lead to our present moment. Today, many believe we are in the metamodern world. These three periods are distinct and so to make sense of their similarities and differences, we will analyze how each of them solve one of the most constant issues mankind has contended with, how to make sense out of the world and how to find meaning. In other words how do each of these movements answer the questions, what is, and what’s it all about?
The 19th and early 20th century brought tremendous change both in the everyday and in the cultural domains. Modernity is a broad term describing modern life, that is life during the rapid changes of the late 19th and 20th centuries. During this time, technological advancements, social changes, and global turmoil changed the ways in which people understood the world and their own lives. Modernism then is the result or cultural reaction to modernity. People observed large discontinuity in their world, changes that were unprecedented and scared some. To the pre-modern, Victorian mindset, novelties of this time didn’t fit in anywhere and quickly made the Victorian framework seem old and incomplete. And thus Modernism was an attempt to reckon with this change and to understand it.
Modernity featured bountiful scientific discoveries, growing urban populations, the industrial revolution, increased immigration and new technologies like the automobile. These advances translated into changes in the everyday lives of people. The ability to communicate across long distances is one example. World War I was another important element of this time as was America’s response to the war and its victory. Modernity was shaped by man’s ability to innovate, solve challenges and by incredible scale seen both in the good and the bad.
Modernism found in the cultural landscape, produced many other changes in response. Artists and intellectuals challenged norms, as well as their audience, and developed modernism as a diverse collection of works and approaches. At the core of modernism is a shifting of weight towards Naturalism. While religion was still much more common at this time than it is today, its totalizing grasp on society was beginning to wane. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote, “God is dead” first appeared in 1882. This expression draws its roots from as far back as 1637 when René Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am” establishing the center of reality as our consciousness, rather than the supernatural and God. The Enlightenment which grew from Descartes, focused on what can be observed and what can be rationally deduced. Nietzsche reasoned that the existence of God was incompatible with these modern Enlightenment ideals. This sentiment is the root of Naturalism, which is the belief that reality contains nothing supernatural and that Enlightenment ideals and the scientific method “should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the human spirit” (Krikorian, 1944). Modernists went about creating meaning and understanding reality without God by using rational methods. Modernists believed that mankind could understand the world in all of its depths by exploring it as scientists had explored the physical world.
Whereas those of the Victorian era were sufficed by the meaning given to them through tradition and hierarchy, the modernists wanted to create it from scratch. Artists, architects, and writers had the idea of breaking things apart so that something new could be constructed and the fractured pieces could be dealt with individually. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe rejected the Ancient Greek forms in favor of radically new styles of architecture. They used reason to ask the most fundamental questions from a very naive starting point and attempted to build based on their rational abilities. Painters challenged the forms of the past, giving rise to new forms like Édouard Manet’s Impressionism, Gaudi’s Art Nouveau, and Picasso’s Cubism among many others. While a theme of deconstruction can be observed within modernism, there were, at the same time, efforts to integrate. The Bauhaus brought together all of the art forms in order to create revolutionary new styles. Modernism was varied and encompassed a wide range of techniques, art forms and sentiments, but it was unified by its optimism in its ability to create new things as a response to global challenges proposed by modernity.
These new artistic expressions were an extension of the Naturalist viewpoint on the world. Art was no longer seeking to glorify a higher power or even imitate nature, but was instead focused on the artist and on humankind. The intellectuals and the artists had come to the conclusion that capital-T Truth such as that found in science, could be found in all domains if one followed modernist principles. This in essence, was the modernist answer as to what is, but what was it all about? Henry Luce’s, “The American Century” was written at the beginning of World War II and called for America to “rise to the challenge” posed by not just the war, but of globalization. The world was quite far from perfect and so the answer posed to the question of what’s it all about, was simply to make everything better - radically better. Joshua Boucher summarizes and engages with Luce’s essay and has this to offer; “Luce … sought to develop arguments that would bring American public opinion around to embrace a more activist foreign policy and reject what they regarded as the naïve isolationism that had gripped the country after World War I” (Boucher, 2015). Issues around the world were obvious, and these were problems to be solved. The modernist mentality was one of optimism in mankind’s ability to solve problems and Luce argued strongly for just that type of involvement. Boucher summarizes Luce, “the world of the twentieth century is capable, for the first time in history, of producing all the needs of every human being in existence” (Boucher, 2015). Luce challenged Americans perspective and wanted people to be awoken to the abilities they collectively held. Americans had traditionally been isolationist but Luce wanted to challenge Americans by showing them the severity of the problems they faced while also arguing Americans had a unique ability, and thus responsibility, for engaging with these issues. Luce writes, “Our only chance now to make it work is in terms of a vital international economy and in terms of an international moral order.” (Luce, 1941). Modernists in their desire to improve the world had a tendency towards utopianism and towards order. While modernism pushed away from Victorian era tradition, the tendency towards collective action and unified American ideals remained. Here Luce shows a desire for an “international moral order”, or a global “meta-narrative”. The modernists believed that we could find capital T Truth and whereas lowercase t truth might have been subjective or cultural, a capital T Truth would work anywhere and for anyone. Thus, a global moral order was tenable in the modernist perspective. Luce exemplifies the modernist outlook on the question of what’s it all about. Modernism, rooted in Naturalism and Enlightenment principles extended humankind’s ability to make sense of the physical world to humankind’s ability to understand and improve the world in all ways, creating a utopia.
Modernist artists and intellectuals attempted to push their audiences towards engagement based upon the philosophy that the world could be understood and that humans could, through exploration and understanding, discover or create the capital T Truths which would bring about an eudemonic or ideal world. The results of this movement were revolutionary new styles and important, lasting works, however the 19th and especially 20th centuries also brought harsh lessons. World War II, both the war and the Holocaust, shocked and horrified and made many question whether we were headed in the right direction.
The second half of the 20th century saw a shift in tone away from the modernist philosophy and towards a more cynical and critical theory. Lyotard coined the term ‘post-modernism’ and he believed that we had reached an end to shared meaning making, or what he called meta-narratives. Post-modernists developed their techniques and philosophy, as well as their well known cynicism, in response to the failures of modernism. Post-modern intellectuals asked what had gone wrong and questioned fundamental assumptions of the modernists; what is real and how do we know? Post-modernism developed a methodology and applied practice of questioning what is.
Modernity brought many great advancements, however post-modernists also observed the link between capitalism and exploitation of workers in factories, including children, death by the millions in WWI and WWII, and this led many intellectuals in Europe to shift their perspective on knowledge. Central to post-modernism is their observation of the connections between power, knowledge and control. In the factory, capitalists exploited workers and their power allowed them to manipulate information. Powerful businessmen such as William Randolph Hearst often had large influence and control over publications and thus would be able to manipulate the working class to their benefit - and consumers were complicit in all of this. Consumerism and advertising came about towards the end of the modernist period and was deconstructed in Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans”. With regards to the two world wars, post-modernists again saw the way in which the vast machinery of the state enabled powerful men in government to send countless soldiers to their death and cause incalculable damage around the world. Knowledge it was seen, was a method of control wielded by the powerful and thus post-modernism developed in response as an inquisition on knowledge and rationality.
Where the modernists believed mankind had an ability to rationally discover Truth (with a capital T), the postmodernists believed that was not the case and adopted theories without Truth. Nihilism and Relativism are two post-modern perspectives on truth which invalidate the modernist conception. Relativism is the view that truth, as well as moral right and wrong, are not absolute but instead “only relative to a given framework of assessment” (Baghramian, 2020). While this view erodes Truth, post-modern nihilism rejects the existence of Truth altogether; nothing is true. This informed the cynicism and skepticism of the post-modernists and this philosophy was made popular by the post-modern movement. Joshua Rasmussen evaluates different perspectives of Truth and the modernists could be said to have a ‘coherentist’ or ‘pragmatist’ perspective on Truth which differ from the nihilistic view because these two theories do include capital T Truth, and essentially trust either the ability to rationally evaluate as in Coherentism, or judge the usefulness as in Pragmatism (Rasmussen, 2018). But these theories simply push the real problem back, the critical point in them is that they ‘trust’ in the ability to rationally evaluate and judge, but post-modernists then question why trust those instincts? In a sense, the post-modernists were engaging in the Epistemic Regress Problem. This problem is essentially the problem of the child who keeps asking “why”, until the only answer left is “because I said so”. Post-modernists pointed out this flaw in modernist thinking and also could justifiably point out that these foundational little t truths were relative and cultural. The deepest truths, which we had built so much upon, were in fact the least solid of all of them. The post-modernists cut deep, and their criticism of modernism and of modernity was rooted in skepticism of the relationship we held with Truth.
One work which explores these themes is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, published in 1992, and which explores a future dystopia in which people can leave the “real world” and engage in the “metaverse” which is a fully immersive virtual reality. Core to the novel is the degeneration of society. Whereas the modernists envisioned utopia’s, the postmodernists set their characters in dystopias. This is intentional as post-modern authors wanted to challenge the strong central meta-narratives; “This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them.” (Stephenson). Stephenson articulates nihilism here and points to the fall of the meta-narrative and strong moralizing that was seen in modernism. People are left to do whatever they individually want to do. If morality and truth are subjective and relative, then whatever one wants to do should be fine, right? This would lead to chaos and disaster. This is a critique of post-modernism and of nihilism, but writers such as Stephenson were not as much stating something normatively as good or bad, but simply offering up questions and critique.
Modernists began questioning the role of religion and post-modernists continue this as does Stephenson, focusing on ancient and modern religion. Stephenson presents religion as a memetic tool humans have used in order to gain control and to make sense of the world. Stephenson questions how religion might be a structural force in humanity and that even without deified religion, we may still not be able to leave its grasp, writing, “All people have religions. It’s like we have religion receptors built into our brain cells, or something, and we’ll latch onto anything that’ll fill that niche for us.” (Stephenson). Post-modernists pointed to the ways in which any ideology can become too dogmatic and can lead to chaos and destruction. Stephenson’s novel calls power structures into question. This was destabilizing to the audience, but an important tool in recontextualizing modern life and the root of many issues of inequality and disaster. If a critique of post-modernism is that relativism and nihilism lead to chaos and destruction, it is also true that chaos and destruction are nothing new, the post-modernists blame institutions and power structures and while they don’t offer up any clear solutions, their point was received by many and has been quite influential.
Post-modernism contends with ancient questions and asks new questions, questions about our assumptions, enlightenment and our narratives which drive our culture. They believe what is, is only that which we perceive and everything else is murky, lowercase-t truth disguised by those in power to be seen as capital T Truth. Just as modernists saw religion as passing off lowercase t truth as capital T Truth, post-modernists saw this pattern in everything, everywhere and this lack of any Truth made it difficult or impossible to construct Truth in the way modernists believed was possible.
We have once again grown beyond the abilities of conventional philosophies to make sense of the present. Neither modernism nor post-modernism can truly contend and fully make sense of our present. The internet and social media are now dominant forces in our lives, global climate change and political divisions are troubling challenges and the “meaning-crisis” is leading to increased suicide and depression. In response to all of these factors, a new movement has formed and is being developed which many call meta-modernism. JMU professor, Gregg Henriques writes that meta-modernism is, “a kind of higher-order synthesis that includes and transcends both the modernist thesis about rationality and science and the postmodern antithetical critique” (Henriques, 2020). Many speak of meta-modernism as an “oscillation” between modernism and post-modernism and see meta-modernism as an integration of modernism and post-modernism in the pursuit of transcending them to find some way out of our current challenges. Meta-modernism acknowledges the disparate nature of our present; the current moment is one filled with the acknowledgement of our shortcomings, but fueled by an intuitive drive towards something meaningful.
The development of meta-modernism could be compared to psychological development wherein one typically goes through phases in adolescence with dramatic swings, but then integrates these various aspects when reaching maturity and adulthood. Whereas modernism and post-modernism rejected what came before them, meta-modernism embraces and integrates in order to build towards meaning. Important in understanding meta-modernism is the way in which it’s an ongoing process. Meta-modern intellectuals value “dialogue” over “dialectic”. Post-modernists tended towards dialectic which is the view that, “every situation involves just two primary opposing forces” according to Seth Abramson, meta-modernism favors dialogue in which middle ground and negotiation lead to better results (Abramson, 2017). John Vervaeke, a professor at the University of Toronto and intellectual deeply engaged in meta-modernism, explores the “dialogos” in an ongoing YouTube series where he engages with others in dialog with the idea that honest engagement between people can generate insights and meaning that one would not come to alone. This relationship to engagement allows the meta-modernist thinker to integrate and to take views which may seem opposed and develop a cohesive theory. There are many other issues at the heart of meta-modernism, but this is one important element because it roots the optimism that could have been found in modernism in something which is more resistant to power dynamics, addressing the post-modern critique.
Beyond simply integrating modernism with post-modernism, meta-modernists are interested in integration of all domains. Just as the Bauhaus integrated art forms in order to produce new styles, meta-modernists “emphasizes a kind of integrated pluralism” (Henriques, 2020) wherein multiple views and fields are integrated together to make new discoveries. This interest in integration and collaboration is relevant to the challenges of the time and likely motivated by the division, especially politically, seen in the world. Political extremism in America has led to more and more division and many feel that common ground is being eroded. Henriques lists societal and political role as one of six roles meta-modernism occupies and writes that “meta-modernists tend to emphasize inner development as a political and sociological issue, deliberation and perspective taking as political tools, and focus on the intersection of inner depth and outwards complexity” (Henriques, 2020). This focus on the intersection of the inner depth, or the subjective experience of being, and the outward complexity, or the awe inspiring nature of reality, is seen reflected in many meta-modern works of art. In an article written by Greg Dember he outlines meta-modernist methods, including a focus on “the tiny”, “norm core”, the “quirky” and the “meta-cute” (Dember, 2021). These all tend towards individual experience. That which we all experience in our day-to-day lives which we might be shy to admit to finding meaningful when compared to utopianism or grand narratives, takes center stage in meta-modernist works.
By focusing on the “inner depth and outward complexity” meta-modernists find great potential and this is a central theme of Pixar’s film, “Soul”. The film follows a jazz musician who goes on a journey to a supernatural realm of existence in order to gain some understanding on the meaning of his life. Mark Vernon finds in Soul, a connection to Christian traditions which believed that the self could only be found when one realizes that it “rests in the oneness of the divine” and that in contemporary philosophy we are generating an agnostic parallel to this sort of conception of the self. One which locates the self in a fundamental relationship with everyone and everything. In Soul the main character Joe Gardner has to work alongside “22” an unborn Soul who has yet to find her “spark” in life. This film embodies the meta-modern oscillation and integration between modernism and post-modernism through these two characters. 22 Represents post-modernism with cynicism and nihilistic outlook and Joe Gardner represents modernist outlooks on life, believing his dream gig with Dorothea Williams - a big name Jazz player - will make his life complete. Throughout the film, a collaborative journey takes place between the two characters, each learning from each other and ultimately leading to something meaningful to both. As opposed to the post-modern passive voices such as found in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, Joe Gardner throughout the film is an active force. Right after passing into the “great beyond” (the afterlife), he says “I can’t die now, I have a gig tonight” interacting with other souls on the conveyor belt to death, he’s reminded “I really don't think you have a lot to say about this” to which he responds, “Yes. Yes I do” (this scene begins at 10:13). Joe Gardner is fighting against nature in a similar way the modernists thought they could overcome nature through rationality and invention. 22 Doesn’t want to go to Earth - doesn’t want to live. She engages in irony and makes jokes such as, “You can't crush a soul here, that's what life on Earth is for” (this scene begins at 26:40). The pairing of the embodiments of the two philosophies in a journey, or dialogue, not towards a predetermined outcome, but engaged in a shared process of discovery, is effective and points to the meta-modern conception of the self as something part of a larger whole. It is in this relationship to existence, that meta-modernists can claim that Truth can be found in our experiences and can be found collaboratively through dialogue.
John Vervaeke has claimed that we are experiencing what he calls the meaning-crisis. Increases in suicide, feelings of isolation and depression are all symptoms of this in his opinion and its cause would be the inability to engage in what he calls shared meaning making. The inability to engage socially in structures which provide meaning has real consequences and in some ways invalidates post-modernist philosophies of nihilism because they too cause damage. Many practices have emerged in the meta-modern era which seek to replace the past institutions (mostly religion) which previously provided meaning. Practices such as mindfulness, the rise of martial arts, as well as community focused organizations all intend to give some of the benefits of religious institutions in a way which fits an Enlightenment worldview. Scientific studies of mindfulness have found it to be very effective and it’s one of the most popular “spiritual” practices among atheists. Mindfulness practice seeks to find value in the present moment and to find connection with the cosmos in a way that isn’t supernatural or too new-age. In Soul, the pivotal moment for 22 in her finding meaning or value in life, was the experience of noticing her experiencing of the present. Joe Gardner asks 22 what she thought of Earth and she begins, “I always said it was dumb” … “but” and then proceeds to talk about the experiences she found enjoyable on Earth and the people she had met. She starts talking about her spark or her purpose, which she hadn’t found for hundreds of years in the “U-Seminar” (the supernatural life before life) but she says, “I’ve always worried that maybe there was something wrong with me, you know, maybe I’m not good enough for living. But then you showed me about purpose and passion and - maybe sky watching can be my spark, or walking! I’m really good at walking!” Joe cuts in, “those really aren’t purposes 22, that’s just regular old living (this scene begins at 1:05:28). Later on after playing the gig he’d always dreamed of, he was left deflated as it hadn’t brought about the grand completeness he had attributed to it in his mind. His purpose in life was to be a jazz musicion, but his blind pursuit of that purpose led him to a sense of emptiness. Depressed he begins to play at his piano and remembering his journey with 22. The montage of memories is accompanied by his piano, until he remembers their conversation, which the film repeats. “Those really aren’t purposes 22, that’s just regular old living” - this conversation now sparks a realization in Joe Gardner and points to the central idea of the film as well as of meta-modernism. Meaning in life doesn’t have to be a grand narrative, but can be found in everyday experiences. The meta-modern conception of meaning is based on an individual but collaborative ability to find Truth and a deep connection between the inner self and the outward complexity in order to find meaning in life.
What is? And what’s it all about? These questions are the deep human desire to be connected to reality. Among the modernists, post-modernists and meta-modernists the desire to be connected to reality is constant even as their conceptualization of that relationship differs. The modernists believed in humankind’s rational ability to make sense of the world and the post-modernists questioned the nature of truth and its relationship with power. The meta-modernists, in response to increased influence of the internet, political divisions and polarization, and the meaning-crisis, have begun a process of integrating and building on modernist and post-modernist work. Meta-modernism is ongoing, it is our present and it’s not finished. Artists and intellectuals present our culture with the tools to move forward. A revaluing of the individual experience and connection to something bigger is one of these tools. Another is the process of integration and of dialog as well as dialogos giving us an ability to move forward and build on a disparate past.
While political divisions have only recently been building, there are signs of unification. Efforts online and offline to bring people together have grown strength and many people are adopting meta-modern practices which will make unification possible. The near future will be turbulent as the process of dialog can be, and as the global civilization integrates many views, practices, and narratives, but this process can lead to a far out future which offers meaning to people as well as freedoms sought out for centuries.
Meta-modernism points towards a future, but doesn’t prescribe one morally. Instead, we are all to find meaning in our individual experiences and, more humbly than the modernists, pursue Truth and value within the reaches of our lives, in every moment.