Berenice Abbott — Interference Pattern Cambridge, Massachusetts (1961)

The original title of this post was Against Oscillation. In a sense this would be more accurate — my goal is certainly not to take aim at everything which has ever called itself metamodernism, which would be silly, but to offer a few criticisms of its central motif. By this I mean the oscillation between modernism and postmodernism which is said to define the metamodern sensibility¹.

However, to put it like this would be a little disingenuous. As I hope will become clear in what follows, my own view is that the oscillation is essential to metamodernism. Without it metamodernism fades into something too amorphous to be useful, a bag of fragments with no unifying glue. In some sense it stands or falls with the value of the oscillatory model as a critical and/or strategic device. Some metamodernists will no doubt agree with that; others may not.

I am coming from a perspective which is sympathetic to the concerns that motivate metamodernism. I think metamodernists have been right to identify a state of inertia in Western democracies, to diagnose it as inherently bound up with postmodern culture, and to understand shifting the inertia as more or less synonymous with transcending postmodernism. I appreciate the emphasis metamodernists have placed on things like complexity science, game theory, and consensus process. I find little to quibble in either their observations or their goals.

I am less convinced by their strategies. Many of these tie in with the oscillatory motif, in more and less direct ways. Metamodernists have been perceptive in identifying the oscillation in contemporary cultural trends; they have been less perceptive in their celebration of it, in my opinion. I’ll approach this by considering how the oscillatory model is applied in four different domains: epistemology, political action, cultural criticism, and artistic strategy.

The motif at the heart of metamodernism is that of oscillating between perspectives or attitudes. This refers primarily to an oscillation between modernist sincerity and postmodernist irony, but also takes on a broader sense captured by the notion of “both-and” reasoning, or the hopping between and simultaneous occupancy of multiple conflicting perspectives.

Oscillatory movement across perspectives is imagined as a technique for producing a synthesis between them. Here is Brent Cooper, summarising the overarching position of Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van der Akker, Luke Turner, Hanzi Freinacht, and Seth Abramson, some of metamodernism’s most familiar protagonists²:

According to them, metamodernism is basically defined as the oscillation between modern and postmodern modes, the rapid dialectic of which creates a new synthetic discourse, and its manifestation is then largely tracked through art and culture.

Against a background of media polarisation, financially incentivised antagonism, and general breakdown in the capacity of the public sphere to support meaningful dialogue, it’s not difficult to empathise with the driving forces behind this. However, if we take the idea of oscillation at face value I think we will quickly encounter some problems.

Consensus seeking dialogue can fail in two ways. If it is so intolerant that it does not permit the presence of conflicting perspectives, then it cannot sustain the productive tensions required to drive the formation of a new synthesis. But if it is too permissive, in the sense of admitting multiple perspectives but without actually recognising their conflicts and incompatibilities, then it will also fail to sustain productive tensions.

Successful consensus seeking dialogue therefore depends on two things:

  1. It must support the presence of multiple conflicting perspectives.
  2. It must be able to meaningfully recognise tensions between them.

The risk of the oscillatory model is that it achieves the first only by throwing away the second. It is easy to create a space that harbours conflicting perspectives by systematically weakening the way that conflict presents within it. But this does nothing to assist the dialectical process, and in fact undermines it. You can oscillate between conflicting models only by suspending commitment to any one of them — but if what we’re aiming at is an action-guiding synthesis then this is something we must ultimately be committed to, and this is only possible once the conflicts have been actively resolved, not just bounced across as if they weren’t there. The contention here is that oscillating between beliefs is indistinguishable from believing nothing.

Taking media polarisation as an example, we can note that there are actually two things happening which undermine dialogue. One is the exclusion of difference — the kind of knee-jerk “I’m not even going to talk to these facists” reaction which metamodernists are rightly sceptical of. But there is also the flattening of difference, such as occurs when deeply conflicting viewpoints get artificially clustered together on the basis of superficial aesthetic similarities or for strategic publicity reasons, as if their conflicts were non-existent. Shallow alliances are as much a threat to meaningful dialogue as shallow antagonisms. Metamodernism is at risk of this kind of shallowness — it appears to be licensed directly by its oscillatory motif.

There is a peculiar sub-genre of metamodernist writing which consists mainly in making huge lists and charts of other metamodernists. This is ostensibly about movement building, which is fair enough. But in the absence of any attempt to systematically analyse and integrate the differences between them their unity often feels more aesthetic than rational, a good marketing gimmick but useless for action coordination. I won’t pick out particular examples of this, because that is not the point. There are many areas of metamodernism’s discourse which are not like this. Brent Cooper is a good example of someone who avoids these traps, and seems just as intent on making disconnections as making connections. The point I am making is just that difference-flattening practices are consistent with and effectively encouraged by the logic of oscillation. And this is why ultimately, someone like Cooper feels like an exception that proves the rule³. Making connections is easy — it is like chucking a load of body parts together in a heap; making disconnections is what is needed to actually get the monster twitching on the slab. Disconnection is where synthesis begins, but also where oscillation ends. The continuation of oscillation is just the failure of synthesis.

It could be objected that I’m taking oscillation way too literally here, and that I’m consequently appraising the idea at its worst rather than at its best. It might be argued, for instance, that oscillation is a handy metaphorical device but nothing important hinges on it. What the shift to postmodernism really represented was a breakdown in transcendent truth — the modernist myth of a view-from-nowhere in which all situated perspectives can be weighed with an even hand. Postmodern critique exposed this framework as a structure of domination: turns out the view-from-nowhere was really just the bourgeois European perspective masquerading as a transcendent authority all along. Against this background, the metamodern project can be reframed as moving toward an immanent conception of truth. A metamodernist epistemology attempts to develop consensus processes that traverse and integrate diverse, sometimes incommensurable perspectives without appealing to the transcendent authority of some privileged perspective. Oscillation is a figurative device intended only to convey the necessity of immanence.

Fine. But the thing about this is that it is lots of people’s project. If this is what defines metamodernism, then it will turn out that very many different people have been metamodernists all along. Richard Rorty’s liberal ironism would certainly fall under this heading. Jürgen Habermas’ communicative action too, no doubt. You could probably corral Donna Haraway into this framework if you really insisted. Come to think of it, what about capitalism? Isn’t this kind of immanent mediation exactly the kind of thing markets are supposed to be good at? Hasn’t a solution to this problem already been implemented in “the marketplace of ideas”?

And indeed there is a tendency within metamodernism to do just this, sifting through history to retroactively identify various characters as proto-metamodernists. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad idea in itself, but the risk worth highlighting is that the more metamodernism abstracts itself to encompass various other positions, the less concrete it becomes in its guidance for navigating contemporary problems. While there are many projects seeking immanent truth practices, they differ significantly on implementation details, often in ways that imply radically different courses of action. What distinguishes metamodernism among this crowd is its own implementation: the oscillation — without it it risk sliding into something extremely generic. This is the danger of greedy abstraction. If metamodernism wants to retain enough specificity to be relevant, it should be cautious about claiming other thinkers unless they can be convincingly interpreted as committed to a specifically oscillatory model of immanent truth. But if it does embrace an explicitly oscillatory epistemology, then it faces the task of explaining how this does not amount to a kind of trivialism in which everything is true and therefore nothing is meaningful.

Nam June Paik — Reclining Buddha (1994/2002)

So far I’ve glossed over the difference between descriptive and normative metamodernism. This is mainly because I think the difference is somewhat artificial: descriptive metamodernism is nearly always celebratory, and this makes it implicitly normative⁴. This is in marked contrast with postmodernism, whose usage has historically often been critical or neutral.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be some differences between the orientation of the descriptive and normative camps. In this conversation, for example, Greg Dember and Jonathon Rowson wonder whether the thing that Hanzi Freinacht’s normative metamodernism prescribes is really the same thing that descriptive metamodernism describes.

I think this points to a real tension, but that it has nothing to do with descriptive vs normative understandings of what metamodernism is. I think it derives from the fact that oscillation is literally incoherent as a principle of action. Clearly you cannot act on two contradictory maxims at the same time — at the point of action, oscillation must resolve to one pole or another. Oscillation can only ever be a descriptive category, and insofar as action is concerned the only thing it can describe is a state of paralysis.

Perhaps I could be accused of over-literalisation again here, but I believe this points to a deep issue. From the perspective of action, the problem with modernism was that in its naïve commitment to grand narratives it often replicated systems of oppression under the guise of universal inclusion, kind of like when Christians thought they were bringing salvation to the Americas but actually just brought smallpox. Postmodern deconstruction unmasks this complicity as complicity, but since it provides no alternatives to the systems it still inhabits it is reduced to a kind of passive cynicism, left with no option but continued complicity in the very systems it recognises as oppressive. And this is ultimately useless, because reluctant complicity is still complicity.

How does metamodernism resolve this dilemma? It’s supposed to go something like this: you keep the postmodernist critical self-reflexivity, but rather than letting it ossify as cynical detachment you just kind of merge it with some modernist earnest, and that leaves you with…. well with what, exactly? The answer to this question is nearly always something that looks suspiciously like playful complicity. Indeed, what else could it be? If modernism is the medieval physician who’s kicking you in the balls because he genuinely believes it will cure you, and postmodernism is also kicking you in the balls, but is extremely embarrassed about it and is apologising profusely on behalf of the structural forces that are making her do it, then metamodernism is also kicking you in the balls, is also aware that structural forces are making them do it, but instead of apologising they have put on some glittery leggings and are being all present and mindful and really feeling into the swirling flows of ch’i as their foot arcs gracefully into your groin. Perhaps they were even kind enough to sell you a mindfulness workshop beforehand, so you can receive the pain with gratitude. Playful complicity is still complicity.

For sure this is an exaggeration, but how much of an exaggeration? Take an article like Hanzi Freinacht’s How to Outcompete Capitalism. The practical advice here boils down to: don’t try to fight capitalism as such, just channel your energies into the production of cultural capital rather than traditional capital. Don’t compete for cash; compete for clout. Don’t be a banker, go be an artist instead — just do it within existing market structures. What’s important is that you produce the right kind of commodities. Without getting into Freinacht’s theory of how this is supposed to alleviate the excesses of industrial capitalism, for the present purposes what is significant is the way this advice is contextualised within a framework that claims to be offering some kind of new synthesis (a metamodern one, no less). But in fact, this recommendation is just garden variety liberalism. It is a call for responsible capitalism, with some small caveats on what ‘responsible’ means⁵. How is this not just modernism?

Or take Seth Abramson’s Twitter strategy, which responded to Trump’s hazing of factual integrity by firing out an impressively persistent deluge of truths, exposés, and political minutiae in threads sometimes racking up over a hundred tweets. The postmodernist perspective on this might be something like: Trump’s ability to haze the truth depended on exploiting a structural feature of the platform — Twitter is fundamentally incapable of supporting meaningful dialogue because its horizon’s are dictated by commercial interests, and it is in these interests to design the platform in ways that systematically maximise polarisation and reward empty, performative conflict. Engaging with it is worse than useless, because it means channelling political energy into a sinkhole. What makes Abramson’s strategy a metamodern strategy is presumably that he’s aware of these kind of critiques, but goes for it anyway⁶. But this still leaves us wondering whether or not he actually thinks the postmodern critique is a good one. If he does, what exactly is it that he thinks he’s achieving? Perhaps he doesn’t think these critiques are good. Fair enough, but then how are we not just back at modernism?

If we were to try to summarise the imperative common to these strategies, it might be this: use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house! But hang on — what the hell has happened to postmodern critique? What we were supposed to be doing was holding onto the useful aspects of postmodern deconstruction while jettisoning its more inhibiting affects, yet we seem to have done the exact opposite. We have combined the modernist capacity for cheerful complicity with the postmodernist capacity to laugh off the consequences. In the end, is a metamodernist not simply a smirking modernist? Where is this new synthesis we’ve heard so much about? I am not seeing one.

It is difficult to think of a TV show that more perfectly demonstrates the oscillatory co-existence of cynicism and sincerity than BoJack Horseman. In its brightly coloured portrayal of depression and addiction in the life of a minor celebrity rattling around Hollywood’s vacuous social scene, a kind of persistent despairing amoralism coincides with genuine affection and moments of reckoning and repair, often reversing their polarities in alarming ways. Turner’s claiming it as a metamodern cultural artefact makes a huge amount of prima facie sense.

But to describe it as metamodern is to do more than identify the oscillation within it — it is to position it within a trajectory that supposedly escapes the inertial clutches of postmodernism. The contrast with South Park is telling here. The metamodern criticism of South Park is that by criticising everything it puts no commitments of its own on the line, and this is why it is ultimately impotent. Where there is no risk, there is no opportunity. By reintroducing a dimension of sincerity without reverting to modernist naïveté, in effect BoJack Horseman recovers the stakes of the game. Turner does not say any of this explicitly; it is a subtext I am reading in. But it is consistent with the way metamodernism has tended to positively position the so-called New Sincerity within its framework of cultural criticism.

The problem with this positioning is that it completely fails to do justice to the tragic dimension of BoJack Horseman, which far surpasses that of something like South Park. Does the oscillation really serve an emancipatory function within the show’s logic, optimistically charting a trajectory beyond inertia? I do not think so: its function is clearly cathartic. Some of the most dramatic polarity reversals occur at moments of reckoning, when a series of bad decisions and spiralling consequences finally catch up with BoJack. There is always a moment of cynical submission to fate, bringing with it a dark kind of peace — fuck it, let it all burn. But there is always also something to destabilise this: a beautiful sunset, or another character finds something redeeming in the situation. But these intrusions of sincerity are never substantial enough to provide real liberation. Their function is rather to provide the bare minimum of transitory hope needed to draw BoJack back into the cycle of despair. They serve only to undermine the cathartic function of cynicism.

BoJack Horseman does not merely portray the postmodern deprivation of meaning that took hold in the 1990’s. It goes beyond this to portray the extra dimension that has been added by the 21st Century: the culture of obligatory enthusiasm, positive reframing and feigned optimism, and the way these have undermined our collective ability to process the meaninglessness (in the 90’s it was at least still possible to be meaningless together). Its depth lies in the fact that by successfully representing the metabolic dynamics of contemporary alienation, it reestablishes the cathartic function that used to be performed by irony. To try to position this as a datapoint within metamodernism’s emancipatory mythology is to do something worse than miss the point — it is to replicate the dynamics portrayed within the show at the level of its critique, undermining once again the cathartic space it fights so hard to recover.

I’ll say whatever you want me to

I’m so sorry to do this, but I’m going to talk about the Shia LaBeouf thing. I appreciate LaBeouf is probably not at the top of anyone’s dinner list right now, and that there is a whole universe of metamodern art out there. There is a simplicity to it, however, which very clearly demonstrates its metamodern credentials. This makes it a useful test case for thinking about how this is supposed to work as an artistic strategy:

Just Do It is a collaboration between LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner

Taken on its own terms I think this is actually quite clever. The postmodern dimension is materialised in LaBeouf’s awareness of himself as speaking from a screen. Both the generic green room background and the frustrated shouting give the deliberate impression of someone addressing you from a tiny box in a virtual world. LaBeouf does not address us as one person to another, but as content to an indifferent audience. His celebrity status amplifies this effect; so does the fact that the whole thing is kind of silly and cringe. This is a neat acknowledgement of the atomised quality of postmodern social texture. The postmodern subject relates to others foremost as a consumer of their content, and to themselves foremost as content producer. Nothing symbolises the separation produced by the mediation of the social by content better than the Screen.

But the Screen does not just separate; it is also transparent. And this is where the modernist sincerity comes in — it is as if it is saying, “we may be separated and atomised, but we are still connected in some way, we can still see each other, still hear each other, and even though these lines of connection may be ephemeral and narrow we can still forge real solidarity across them if only we just shout loud enough.”

This strategy (which is distinctively metamodern) involves a dialectic between separation and transparency that tacitly assumes a model of atomisation. This model sees separation as the primary effect and transparency as a contingent secondary effect — their logical independence is why transparency can be turned against separation. The reason I think the strategy fails is that this model is ass-backwards. Transparency is not something that contingently accompanies separation; separation is a necessary effect of transparency. We are separated by the Screen in order to become transparent to one another, not despite it.

To say that separation is an effect of transparency is just another way of noting that an aesthetic attitude requires a suspension of participation. You can’t admire a rattlesnake’s scales when you’re in the tank with it — to do so you have to get out, then look in through the protective glass. The atomised quality of postmodern subjectivity is, on this model, an effect of the suspension of participation in one another’s space of involvement required by a general aesthetisisation, by the imperative to become visible to one another. But if this is the true apparatus of atomisation, then it is useless to try to leverage transparency against separation — all this will do is double-down on the separation. And this is why LaBeouf’s metamodern prank ultimately fails to break through the Screen. Rather than recover a lost space of mutual involvement beyond the apathy of content, all its self-reflexive mechanism achieves is to enable us to consume our own apathy as content. And since this creates a spark of feeling where previously there was only a vacuum, it almost feels like the same thing. But it isn’t — it’s just a simulation. This spark does not split the atom, it is merely implanted inside it; alone it quickly fades out.

Peter Sloterdijk has described the social texture of late modernity as a foam⁷, an image aptly capturing the combination of separation, transparency, and proximity. Atomisation is accompanied by hypervisibility; the metamodern artist seeks opportunities in the latter. We may be confined to our bubbles materially but we can travel aesthetically, traversing the membranes with our gaze at the speed of electricity (a motion that parallels the familiar perspective hopping of metamodern epistemology). The metamodern artist as traveller can leverage these new gazing possibilities to weave new spaces of involvement. Their tools are the natural gaze, the self-reflexive gaze, the vulnerable gaze, the critical gaze, the intimate gaze.

But this is misguided, and misinterprets the relationship between hypervisibility and atomisation. Atomisation is the effect of hypervisibility, an absence of participation produced by the reduction of the social relation to the gaze. It does not matter which gaze. That it may be polyvalent in its affect is neither here nor there — it separates merely by virtue of being a gaze. The intimate gaze is still the gaze of the tourist, a perpetual gazer. There is no real intimacy to be found here, only a suspension of intimacy accompanied by the demand for its performance. Intimate content is not intimacy — it is just content⁸.

Frei Otto was a German architect who experimented extensively with soap bubbles.

I’ve criticised metamodernism’s appeal to oscillation in four different but related domains. In the case of epistemology and political action, I’ve considered the role of oscillation as a general logic. In the case of cultural criticism and artistic strategy, I’ve pulled out two particular examples. I’ve tried to head off cherry-picking criticisms by considering how these examples are positioned by metamodernism at the same time as questioning these positionings.

Another possible objection to this post is that it criticises without suggesting alternatives. Surely the last thing anyone needs is another episode of South Park? I am sensitive to objections of this kind. My response is that the aim has been to make substantial criticisms, to engage in good faith and take metamodernism on its own terms. While I do not think a useful criticism is necessarily a constructive criticism — sometimes it can’t not be destructive — it can at least always be contentful.

When substantial, criticism always implicitly points the way to alternatives. If atomisation is a function of transparency, visibility, and appearance, then a strategy of de-atomisation should leverage translucency, ambivalence, and disappearance. If the oscillation between sincerity and irony present in contemporary culture testifies to a diminishment rather than an increase of agency then it should be critiqued, not celebrated. If we have good deconstructive reasons to believe that a certain practice is futile or worse, then we should refrain from participating in it. If we can see no alternatives, then we should either keep thinking or build one. It is true that the clock is ticking — but futile action saves no time.

If oscillation is failed synthesis, then we should stop oscillating. Rather than trying to bounce across multiple perspectives, we should be creating new perspectives by actively grappling with and resolving the tensions between existing ones. This does mean allowing conflicting perspectives into the same conversation, but not at the price of eliding their conflicts. It means getting better at making disconnections. Ultimately, the important line is not the one between connection and disconnection (between construction and deconstruction), but the one between the contentful and the contentless, the concrete and the formal, the substantial and the performative. Shallow disconnection and shallow connection amount to the same thing — they both halt dialectical motion. But by the same token, substantial disconnections can’t fail to be the basis of new connections.

  1. For the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with metamodernism, it’s worth mentioning that “modernism” is being used in an idiosyncratic way here. Within the broader landscape of cultural theory, modernism refers to the late 19th/early 20th Century movement which included cubism, minimalism, surrealism, brutalism, various figures from the literary avant-garde of the time, etc. It was defined by values such as a belief in the revolutionary potential of formal innovation in the arts, and its attitude toward the Enlightenment tended to be critical. In contrast, “modernism” has been used by metamodernists to refer to something basically synonymous with Enlightment values, defined by things like liberal humanism, a belief in the progressive power of free markets, and an uncritical belief in science as the privileged domain of knowledge production. I will use it in this second sense, to be consistent with metamodernists.
  2. As linked by Cooper in the piece, Vermeulen and van der Akker’s material can be found at http://www.metamodernism.com/, Turner wrote the Metamodernist Manifesto, excerpts of Freinacht’s can be found at Metamoderna, and Abramson has several articles on metamodernism online, including Ten Basic Principles of Metamodernism.
  3. You get a small sense of this right at the beginning of this conversation between Cooper and Daniel Gortz (one half of the fictional Freinacht). Gortz remarks that Cooper has a reputation among their wider circles as a bit of a trouble-maker. Cooper objects that he’s actually a muck-raker: he doesn’t find trouble, he just detects it. Gortz laughs and says some of the muck might disagree. It’s an off-hand exchange and it would be unfair to read too much into it. But I can’t help but wonder to what extent it signals a deeper disagreement. Detecting and eliminating trouble is presumably, from Cooper’s perspective, a crucial part of the work that needs to be done to make metamodernism hang together. I would agree. But it also seems to me that Gortz’ inclination to be suspicious of this activity is more authentically metamodern, and that a proclivity for muck-raking is in tension with the spirit of oscillation.
  4. The insistence of e.g. Luke Turner that metamodernism is a purely descriptive enterprise, simply a way to analyse an emerging “structure of feeling” which postmodern categories are no longer adequate to, is unconvincing. If it were we might expect something like a “critical metamodernism” (in the same sense that there is a critical posthumanism) but such a thing is nowhere in sight. The collapse of the normative and the descriptive becomes vivid when metamodernists are confronted with an instance of the oscillation that they don’t like, as with the hazing of sincerity that helped propel Trump to the US Presidency. For example, Seth Abramson attempts to deal with this by making a distinction between Trump’s “pop metamodernism” (“nothing makes sense; follow me”) and an authentic metamodernism which uses “non-binary” ideas to “juxtapose many different and even contradictory positions”. But a juxtaposition of contradiction is identical to an absence of sense. The difference between pop metamodernism and authentic metamodernism is purely cosmetic, similar to the difference between sincere-not-sincere and ironic-not-ironic. They express an identical underlying logic. That metamodernism itself comes in two flavours with opposing polarities is just the oscillation working at a deeper level — that metamodernists have missed this indicates only that they are not taking their own descriptive categories seriously enough.
  5. I’ve made a few comments elsewhere about how Freinacht’s argument and its identification of a new bourgeoisie contrasts with some parallel analyses.
  6. This is developed quite explicitly as a guiding philosophy in Abramson’s On Metamodernism.
  7. Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres III: Foams.
  8. This point has been made briefly, but it is based on a reading of postmodernism consistent with Frederic Jameson’s claim that it is “the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.” (see Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) If postmodernism is the consumption of commodification qua commodification, and inertia is a product of this social practice, then there can be no way to leverage commodification as process to puncture the inertia. These tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. If the content relation itself is the problem, then the problem cannot be fixed by finding the right content.

I’m a London based writer interested in technology, subculture, and philosophy. I blog at divinecuration.github.io

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store