In 2010, Dutch cultural philosophers and art theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker published an article called “Notes on Metamodernism,” after publishing a blog of the same name on the subject. In the article, they propose that a paradigm shift from postmodernism to metamodernism is currently taking place within the fields of art, economy and politics. In their definition, the term “meta” does not refer to taking a reflective meta–stand, like Lady Gaga, but to “metaxis,” a term coined by the Greek philosopher Plato. For Plato, the word “meta” had several meanings: with, between and after. As a result, the term “metaxis” refers to an oscillating movement, between and beyond two opposite poles. In other words: metamodernism continuously oscillates between the two “opposite poles” of modernism and postmodernism, and simultaneously surpasses both movements in search of new ground.
To be more precise, metamodernism is not a new art movement replacing the old but rather a new “structure of feeling” that “reveals” itself in different everyday and artistic practices. With the term “structure of feeling,” the authors refer to British philosopher Raymond Williams, who invented this concept in his 1977 text Marxism and Literature as an alternative to very general terms such as “worldview” or “Zeitgeist.” To Williams, a “structure of feeling,” very broadly speaking, refers to a shared set of values, notions and meanings of a culture, subculture or generation, which mainly reveals itself in the artistic practices of that culture, subculture or generation.
Taking this into account, “metamodernism” could be considered the dominant structure of feeling of a generation born in the peak of “postmodernism,” roughly between 1960 and 1990. A generation that grew up in economic prosperity, but which, because of the financial crisis, witnessed the collapse of the neo–capitalist dream and, as a result, the evaporation of the political essence of the 1990s. A generation, moreover, that experienced abundance, but is confronted with an ecological crisis and the necessity of limitation. A generation that experienced years of irony and skepticism, and because of that suffers from what American writer David Foster Wallace once called “analysis paralysis” — the inability to make a choice or decision while needing to make choices and decisions in order not to perish. In short: a one–hand–other–hand generation that has a lot to choose from and faces important choices, but has difficulty making them because there is no comfortable lead — no universal Grand Narrative — to base a choice on, and that is, moreover, quite skeptical toward the universal power of Grand Narratives.
For this reason, metamodern humankind experiments and improvises, for instance by urban farming, sustainability, fair–trade clothing, setting up pop–up stores and by founding cooperations for bartering goods and services. According to Vermeulen and Van den Akker, these are forms of “constructive engagement,” by which individuals in present–day Western society, unblinded by ideological dogmas, try to realize their engagement within society. So no more political actions against the state or against society, but Doing Things Together in a small–scale setting — the city, the neighborhood, the network — for the simple reason that there is no longer one big society that you can encounter as a group or individual. Due to globalization and technologization, society has become complex and indefinite and, due to the absence of prescriptive Grand Narratives, it is also without direction. A society that, in the words of Dutch professor Hans Boutellier, gradually takes the shape of an improvising jazz orchestra, in which individuals aim to provide direction to complexity by establishing networks based around likeminded ideas or ideals. Subsequent numerous small worlds — “jazzy structures” as Boutellier calls them — have come into being rather than large, hierarchical institutions. Structures that sometimes lead to harmonious singing and playing but, as with all forms of improvisation, often lead to chaos and disharmony. As Vermeulen and Van den Akker remind us, mankind in metamodern times continuously sways back and forth between engagement and pragmatic indifference. As they aptly describe: “Fair Trade? Many of your T–shirts are still produced in sweat shops. Climate change? You may install solar panels on your roof, but your car still runs on gas. During Occupy Amsterdam someone was carrying a sign with the slogan: ‘I am a hypocrite. But I keep trying.’ ”