Metamodern Times: Going Beyond Nihilism

Lidia Zuin
12 min readJan 9, 2021

Disclaimer: This essay was originally published on Tab UOL, in Portuguese.

In 2010, researchers Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker published the essay Notes on metamodernism, later translated to Portuguese and published in 2017 on the magazine Arte & Ensaios published by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. At that time, the researchers aimed to put in words this feeling that we were experiencing as a society in the turn of a new century. What they diagnosed and what seems to make sense, in a general sense, is that we are no longer living in times that could be classified as post-modern, but rather in a period with other characteristics that still hold some important elements of post-modernity as well as modernity.

In chronological terms, modernity starts with the First Industrial Revolution and it’s often related to the development of capitalism. This period can be traced back between 1760 and 1840. Post-modernity, by its turn, becomes the norm after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and, with the arrival of the new century, or more specifically, with the beginning of the 2010 decade, we are now confronted by a new mindset or a new generalized feeling about our world and our contemporaneity.

As argued by Vermeulen and den Akker, we are not modern anymore because we no longer have this idea of utopia or linear progress; we don’t even believe in big narratives or in reason in its pure form. On the other hand, we are not post-modern anymore because we no longer are completely ironic and nihilistic; we don’t hold pure disbelief and we aren’t able to completely dismantle our big narratives or the whole notion of truth. With metamodernism, we fit “epistemologically with (post) modernism, ontologically between (post) modernism, and historically beyond (post) modernism,” which means that metamodernism is not inscribed in the extremes of the previous philosophical currents, but rather a merge that never reaches a balance.

In order to understand this unnamed movement, authors such as Gilles Lipovetsky argued that a so-called hypermodernity could be taking the place previously held by post-modernity, in the sense that “ today’s cultural practices and social relations have become so intrinsically meaningless (i.e. pertaining to past or future, there or elsewhere, or whatever frame of reference) that they evoke hedonistic ecstasy as much as existential anguish.”

On the other hand, Alan Kirby proposed that we might be living in digimodernist and/or pseudomodernist times, which “owes its emergence and pre-eminence to the computerization of text, which yields a new form of textuality characterized in its purest instances by onwardness, haphazardness, evanescence, and anonymous, social and multiple-authorship”. In addition, for Robert Samuels, our times could be described after the concept of automodernism, meaning that there is a correlation between “technological automation and human autonomy.”

However, Vermeulen and den Akker believe that these takes on contemporaneity are ultimately an attempt to “radicalize the postmodern rather than restructure it. They pick out and unpick what are effectively excesses of late capitalism, liberal democracy, and information and communication technologies rather than deviations from the postmodern condition: cultural and (inter) textual hybridity, ‘coincidentality’, consumer (enabled) identities, hedonism, and generally speaking a focus on spatiality rather than temporality.” For the authors, metamodernism is inserted in another context that is inevitable in face of the reality of the 2000s. In their words:

For one, financial crises, geopolitical instabilities, and climatological uncertainties have necessitated a reform of the economic system (“un nouveau monde, un nouveau capitalisme”, but also the transition from a white collar to a green collar economy). For another, the disintegration of the political center on both a geopolitical level (as a result of the rise to prominence of the Eastern economies) and a national level (due to the failure of the “third way”, the polarization of localities, ethnicities, classes, and the influence of the Internet blogosphere) has required a restructuration of the political discourse. (…) Most significantly perhaps, the cultural industry has responded in kind, increasingly abandoning tactics such as pastiche and parataxis for strategies like myth and metaxis, melancholy for hope, and exhibitionism for engagement. (…) Indeed, if, simplistically put, the modern outlook vis-à-vis idealism and ideals could be characterized as fanatic and/or naive, and the postmodern mindset as apathetic and/or skeptic, the current generation’s attitude — for it is, and very much so, an attitude tied to a generation — can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.

In other words, this modernist optimism is no longer useful for us after the fall of the Berlin Wall, same goes for the post-modernist nihilism that is no longer valid after 9/11. As the researchers argue, “terrorism neither infused doubt about the supposed superiority of neoliberalism, nor did it inspire reflection about the basic assumptions of Western economics, politics, and culture — quite the contrary.” For Vermeulen and den Akker, the result of that was a conservative reaction expressed through the “war on terror,” which, in fact, could rather serve as a reinforcement of post-modern and pessimistic values, but in face of the upcoming financial crises, climate change and even the appropriation of the post-modernist critic/ironic discourse by capitalism, we don’t see the end of history as it was suggested by post-modern authors — after all, history definitely didn’t reach its end. What actually ended was the idea that history could emerge from a “positive” Hegelian idealism in which we would achieve some kind of “Telos”, that is, the ultimate closure or our final purpose which, on the other hand, was interpreted by some societies as the ultimate achievement of the “universalization of Western liberal democracy.”

In face of such diagnosis, it was possible to think that history would be reaching its end, but other authors still suggested that we felt like we reached the end because, finally, we understood that, there is no end. In the metamodern discourse, it is acknowledged that the purpose of history will never be achieved because it doesn’t even exist. However, critically speaking, we keep believing that it does: “Inspired by a modern naïveté yet informed by postmodern skepticism, the metamodern discourse consciously commits itself to an impossible possibility.”

A possible metaphor to illustrate this situation is the anecdote of the donkey and the carrot stick, in which the donkey is always running after a carrot that it will never be able to eat because it’s always beyond its reach. But it’s precisely the impossibility that keeps the donkey running towards its goal. Metamodernism therefore deeply incorporates the definition of utopia proposed by Eduardo Galeano: “Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.”

In other words, the metamodern donkey sets foot “in moral realms the modern donkey (having eaten its carrot elsewhere) will never encounter, entering political domains the postmodern donkey (having abandoned the chase) will never come across.” The reason lies on the fact that metamodernism is always oscillating between the domains of modernism and post-modernism while exerting an enthusiastic irony, a hopeful melancholy, a knowledgeable naïveté, an apathetic empathy, a plural unity, and an ambiguous purity. The metamodern caricature is an irony to the myth of a self-aware Sisyphus that is nevertheless enthusiastic, or a dark humor version of the lamp lighter from The Little Prince: we tirelessly keep searching for an end that we know to be inexistent, but regardless of that, we still carry on.

It is in this sense that Vermeulen and den Akker describe metamodernism after the metaphor of metaxis, that is, that which occurs “in between.” With Plato and later with Eric Voegelin, this metaphor was used to address the experience of existence and consciousness. In Voegelin’s words:

Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of the Platonic metaxy, and if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfection and imperfection, time and timelessness, between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui, l’âme ouverte and l’ame close;

Semioticist Ivan Bystrina has already diagnosed that back in 2005 during a lecture at Pontifícia Universidade de São Paulo, and his views were consolidated as topics of Semiotics of Culture, that is, the way culture (or at least in the West) is organized after dualisms: life and death, black and white, Heaven and Earth. But this opposition is not always proportional, quite the contrary — especially in the case of the binomial life and death, in which you can find one of origins (or triggers) of culture according to his theory. It’s in the effort to turn these binomial pairs into triads that we find metamodernism, although it never really finds balance, but rather a constant movement that is rather fed by ourselves.

On the left, “I’ve brought you a friend II” (2008) by Glen Rubsamen. On the right, “In the search of the miraculous” (1975), by Bas Jan Ader.

Vermeulen and den Akker mention artists such as Bas Jan Ader and Glen Rubsamen because, in their work, they commit themselves “to an impossible possibility.” When Ader tries to unite the binomial life and death, reason and miracle in works such as “In the search of the miraculous” (1975), the artist could have been more successful in case he used a stronger ship — after all, this is about a long or rather infinite journey. While Rubsamen could have edited his photos or work on a post-production to make these electricity poles from “I’ve brought you a friend” (2007) look more like magic trees, he rather avoids that in order to show his intention was never to accomplish that, but actually just try. According to the researchers, “the point of Ader’s journey is precisely that he might not return from it (…) Similarly, the point of Rubsamen’s pursuit also is exactly that it cannot be fulfilled: culture and nature cannot be one and the same, nor can any one of them ever entirely overtake the other.”

For the authors, the irony found in metamodernism confronts the modern aspiration instead of trying to cancel it as seen in post-modernism. And, unlike post-modernism with its apathetic irony, metamodernism uses irony to express a desire that consequently puts it in the context of a new romanticism in the sense proposed by the poet Novalis:

The world must be romanticized. In this way its original meaning will be rediscovered. To romanticize is nothing but a qualitative heightening [Potenzierung]. In this process the lower self is identified with a better self. […] Insofar as I present the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar and the finite with the semblance of the infinite, I romanticize it.

Therefore, metamodernism finds in the “neoromantic sensibility” an idealism that is better described after the concept of romanticism argued by Isaiah Berlin: romanticism is, therefore, “unity and multiplicity. It is fidelity to the particular…and also mysterious tantalising vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.”

In the metamodern context, the pastiche of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst or even the ironic deconstruction of Cindy Sherman and Sarah Lucas make no sense any more: these are ironies that, even when displaced from their time, don’t translate what metamodernism aims to address either. It is through paintings and photographs, often times figurative, featuring twilights and full moons, ethereal scenery with fantasy and nostalgia being inserted into our raw present — something that film directors such as Spike Jonze (Her), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Wes Anderson (Hotel Budapest) try to achieve by “[rekindling] the naivety and innocence of their childhood.” This feeling becomes even more striking in the creations of David Lynch, for instance, when he intensified the portrayal of American suburbian rituals which, on the other hand, are still permeated either by nostalgia or by absurdity — something that became even more latent in the third season of Twin Peaks.

The third season of Twin Peaks was released 25 years after the last episode of season two. In this new phase, Lynch oscillates between the nostalgia of the series and the mystic absurdity of the Black Lodge.

However, Vermeulen and den Akker also believe that these artists choose nostalgia and romanticism not as a means to mock or lament for the past, but rather “to perceive anew a future that was lost from sight.” In previous essays, I mentioned the idea that the future envisioned in Blade Runner didn’t come, besides the concept of hauntology; likewise, I also address the controversy between Grimes and Zola Jesus in the sense that perhaps the Canadian singer brings some kind of metamodern irony in her music, but until what point is she making an utopian modernist apology or she is refuting these ideas with a post-modernist nihilism? In this sense, both researches argue that “metamodern neoromanticism should not merely be understood as re-appropriation; it should be interpreted as re-signification: it is the re-signification of “the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar, and the finite with the semblance of the infinite”. Indeed, it should be interpreted as Novalis, as the opening up of new lands in situ of the old one.”

Similarly, a new generation of memes that mix humor to tragedy are also capable of express this metamodern feeling mapped by Vermeulen and den Akker. In the video “The Philosophy of SHIA LABEOUF”, available at YouTube channel Wisecrack, there is this attempt to decode some behaviors or even the meaning behind the actor Shia LaBeouf’s performance “I am Sorry,” here considered the first metamodern artwork. Using super heroes as a metaphor, the authors mention the legitimate modern sense of justice found in Spider Man and his postmodern counterpart Deadpool that rather mocks super hero clichés, but metamodernism lies in the in between of these examples, in this gap perhaps fulfilled by movies such as Spring Breakers, where orgies and debauchery are used as a means to address the protagonists’ self knowledge process. In other words, the behavior of LaBeouf in social media and even his assimilation as a meme show this blurred relation between joke and lament, conciliation and rupture.

But, on the hand, Vermeulen and den Akker still regret that another strategy used in metamodernism to create works that German theorist Raoul Eshelman classify as “performatist,” that is, works that “willful self-deceit to believe in — or identify with, or solve — something in spite of itself.” These works are thus planned with the objective to make their readers or audience feel cornered, to the point of opting for “a single, compulsory solution to the problems raised within the work at hand.” This means that the author rather imposes to the audience a certain solution to the problem raised in narratives in “coercive, dogmatic, ritualistic” means that have immediate effect.

Tourists started to take pictures in homage to the iconic Joker (2019) scene in the stairs of Bronx, New York.

According to the researchers, this coercive scheme “ cuts us off, at least temporarily, from the context around it and forces us back into the inner side of the work. Once we are inside, we are made to identify with some person, act or situation in a way that is plausible only within the confines of the work as a whole.” In face of these performatist works, the audience is “practically forced to identify with something implausible or unbelievable within the frame — to believe in spite of yourself — but on the other, you still feel the coercive force causing this identification to take place, and intellectually you remain aware of the particularity of the argument at hand. Metaphysical skepticism and irony aren’t eliminated, but are held in check by the frame.”

Would that be the case of contemporary characters like Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the Joker or maybe the representation of Thanos in the last Avenger movies (which made some people agree that the villain’s decision to anihilate half of all life in the universe was correct)? Or maybe in the contexts created by Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier in their movies? In other words, at what extent are we convinced and manipulated to agree to these attitudes and solutions fictionally posed, whereas in the real world, this kind of opinion could be consideres unethical or even illegal?

Even nine years after the publication of the article that proposed the concept of metamodernism, the authors don’t have a final conclusion besides that metamodernism has more to do with a feeling shared in the present time rather than a movement of a philosophy — even though there is even a manifesto for it. Working as a description of the present, this feeling can’t avoid on being ambiguous and fluid, to the point that the researchers decided to create a website in which they post articles about different topics (visual arts, music, politics etc.), so readers can identify “branches” of metamodernism after the analysis of more than thirty authors.

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Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.