Brendan Graham Dempsey


Toward a Synthesis

culture theory

IN THIS PIECE I'D LIKE TO USE A CLIP from Bo Burnham’s critically acclaimed 2021 comedy Inside to identify some essential aspects of the metamodern turn in culture. 

What is “metamodernism,” you ask?

Curiously, in the short span of just four years (between 2017 and 2021) no less than four (4) different books were published by different authors of different backgrounds attempting to answer just that. These included:

1) 2017’s Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, an anthology of essays edited by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen, Robin van den Akker, and Alison Gibbons
2) 2017’s The Listening Society, Volume 1 of the Metamodern Guide to Politics Series by “Hanzi Freinacht”
3) 2019’s Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World by Lene Rachel Andersen, and
4) 2021’s Metamodernism: The Future of Theory by Jason Ananda Josephson Storm.

So, you may ask, Do all these authors answer the question the same way?  That depends on who you ask. Some say no, that these represent considerably different theories and frameworks. I disagree. I see profound complementarity between these different articulations of the emerging cultural-intellectual paradigm.

Like Leibnitz and Newton independently working out the basics of calculus, or Wallace and Darwin independently realizing the theory of evolution, I believe some ideas have their time because, well, their time has come. Multiple independent convergences towards similar theories (and, indeed, identical terms) are not an accident but speak to the fact that people are genuinely speaking of something real happening in culture.

To appreciate how all these theories of metamodernism are actually expressions of one very deep structure, though, we’ll need to go through each in turn. The case I’d like to make here is that there is a sequence of increasing theoretical depth: As we move from the dipolar oscillation posited of the arts, to the dialectical movement of philosophy, to the notion of increasing complexity of cultural codes, to mapping this complexification in terms of hierarchical complexity models from human learning, we move deeper down the stack of structural explanation. Once we see this progression, we can acknowledge the profound consonance of all the theories of the metamodern.

In short, all are speaking to the same phenomenon emerging in post-postmodernism, just from different levels of analysis.

Let’s start where this started: in the arts.

Cultural Studies Names “Metamodernism”

In the first decade of the new millennium, cultural theorists were taking note of the fact that more and more works were not conforming to the (by now) established rubric of postmodern forms and approaches. Postmodern cynicism and apathy were beginning to yield to a novel kind of qualified sincerity and enthusiasm. Depth and meaning were returning to art in a new register after the late-20th century dominance of postmodern “problematization” and deconstruction. Modern and even premodern sensibilities seemed to be making a comeback, even as these were filtered or translated through a postmodern lens that signaled a self-awareness that was holding all of these modalities in check.

A new style of “quirky” films, for instance, by the likes of Wes Andersen, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Yorgos Lanthimos, and others were employing typically postmodern strategies (e.g., ironic distance, emphasized self-awareness, metafictional remove) towards very un-postmodern ends: namely, not in cynical efforts to expose and disillusion but rather to showcase earnest and sincere feeling and connection. The deconstructive act used to highlight artificiality and the constructed nature of perceived givens was being adopted towards a reconstructive aim beyond relativism and value nihilism.

Whereas in postmodern works, the “orthogonal” move of higher level reflection leads to self-conscious critique, skepticism, and pessimism, in metamodern ones the same move, when iterated even further, moves beyond cynicism and actually winds up leading to a transcendence of reflection, greater epistemic humility, and a more optimistic orientation towards reality.

In this way, metamodern art began to gesture towards a sensibility beyond the postmodern.

Bo Burnham’s Inside offers a vivid example of this. The comedy features a sketch in which a song of his gets its own “reaction video” (an internet genre in which people respond in real-time to a video with reactions and reflections). Here, Burnham adopts this reflective genre to offer an even more hyper-reflexive satire.

The sketch opens with the original music video of his song (let’s call it Level 1). Here, Burnham humorizes the plight of the contemporary “unpaid intern,” subjected to getting coffee for people in an economic scheme that seems “barely legel,” etc.  After the music ends, Burnham begins his reflection, matching the usual “reaction video” genre (what we can call Level 2). Here he offers some rather trivial reflections about his song: that it is written in the style of older working-class labor rights music, that his beard was shorter when it was recorded, etc.  When the reaction ends, however, he then reacts … to his reaction. From this even more self-conscious remove (Level 3), his responses now become more critical and caustic. He reflects on his first reflection as being “pretentious,” saying the song is actually “stupid” and “doesn’t really mean anything” after all; indeed, talking about its meaning just reflects a “desperate need to be seen as intelligent.”  Then, when the reaction to the reaction ends, Burnham reacts to his reaction to the reaction (Level 4). At this even further layer of remove now, he is able to be critical of his own criticisms. He says that calling it all pretentious is actually just “a defense mechanism.” He admits:

And I think that, “Oh, if I’m self-aware about being a douchebag it will somehow make me less of a douchebag.” But it doesn’t. Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.

He eventually determines that this endless overthinking needs to stop and the sketch ends.

The sketch is a vivid representation of the way recursive reflective awareness shifts the sort of sensibility and evaluative measures of meaning-making with each deeper iteration.  In the deconstruction of deconstruction, Burnham thus moves past cynicism and nihilism to something else.

That “something else” is the metamodern sensibility that infuses Inside as a whole, as well as an increasing corpus of metamodern art and cultural production. This is what the cultural theorists identified and named. In all cases, though, this “deconstruction of deconstruction” is a defining aspect of metamodernism, wherein it always serves a reconstructive end.

Burnham’s Inside is recognized as exemplary of the metamodern sensibility by cultural theorists. Historically, the cultural studies framing of metamodernism appeared first and was the first to successfully heed Linda Hutcheon’s 1992 call to name the cohering expression of post-postmodernism for the 21st century.

The multiple meanings Vermeulen and van den Akker offered of the Greek prefix “meta” here were meant to speak simultaneously to metamodernism’s tendency to “oscillate” between (“meta”) modern sincerity and postmodern irony while also recognizing that the product of this oscillation lies somewhere beyond (“meta”) them. As Vermeulen and van den Akker put it in their seminal 2010 article on the topic:

Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro or back and forth, the metamodern negotiates between the modern and the postmodern. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather, it is a pendulum swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm.

This ability to temper modern optimism with postmodern skepticism is what allows for the recrudescence of things like meaning, depth—even myth and metanarratives—without succumbing to the pitfalls of what Terry Eagleton called modernity’s “fetish of the totality.” By toggling between perspectives, even totalities are held loosely in the light of plurality—but not so loosely as to succumb to postmodernity’s cynicism and radical relativism.

This allows the metamodern episteme to move beyond postmodern deconstruction, by means of such deconstruction, towards new, reconstructive efforts. Irmtraud Huber and Wolfgang Funk’s essay “Reconstructing Depth: Authentic Fiction and Responsibility” in Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism captures the aesthetic strategy by means of which such reconstructive efforts are attempted. They name a literature of reconstruction in which

recent narratives take their cue from postmodernist insights and deconstructive impulses, but explore the ways in which fictionality and meta-referentiality may serve in the endeavor to reconstruct some kind of meaning that allows for intersubjective communication, for human connection and for a paradoxical authenticity."

Such are the hallmarks, I would argue, of metamodern art more broadly, which, can be seen more holistically as an “art of reconstruction.” We see this clearly in Inside, where increasing ironic distance (which grows more absurd with each iteration of “reaction” in Burnham’s video) actually leads to a newfound sense of paradoxical authenticity through sincerity, vulnerability, and responsibility. Going “meta” on the “post” leads to a new sensibility: a metamodern sensibility.

Metamodernism: A New Philosophical Paradigm

Since its identification in the arts, more aspects of the metamodern have continued to emerge, adding greater depth and further nuance to its theorization. So, in 2021, historian and philosopher Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm published his systematic philosophy Metamodernism: The Future of Theory.

Though Storm’s point of entry is quite different from the cultural studies theorists, his articulation of a metamodern philosophical paradigm turns out to be profoundly consonant with the cultural studies framing. “Metamodernism is what we get,” he writes,

when we take the strategies associated with postmodernism and productively reduplicate and turn them in on themselves. This will entail disturbing the symbolic system of poststructuralism, producing a genealogy of genealogies, deconstructing deconstruction, and providing a therapy for therapeutic philosophy."

In this sense, for Storm, “the ‘meta-’ prefix here is primarily meant to suggest a higher- or second-order position beyond (post)modernism.”  To do so requires a “dialectical move”: what in Hegelian terms is called “the negation of the negation.” As Storm says,

In sum, I aim to move beyond deconstruction by radicalizing it or turning it inside out. While it may sound paradoxical, negating negativity is actually the beginning of a positive gesture that authorizes the new accumulation of knowledge."

This makes sense, since surely modalities like earnestness, naivete, idealism, and sincerity are by no means the hallmarks of modernism alone. Indeed, compared to traditionalism, modernism is itself skeptical, cynical, and reflective. Perhaps metamodernism isn’t just relating the postmodern and the modern, then, but also more naive forms of premodern sensibilities, too.

We can use Storm’s dialectical framing of metamodernism to better understand Burnham’s “reaction video.” Here, each new level represents another advancement of the dialectic, as Burnham comes into “conversation” with more and more levels of reflection. As he does, the sensibility shifts, as the material he is engaging with becomes increasingly laid bare to awareness.

Understanding metamodernism dialectically, then, we can see that the “oscillation” named by Vermeulen and van den Akker is actually a form of synthesis. However, it is, as Storm notes, necessarily a synthesis of “all that preceded it,” not just the modern and the postmodern.

Such a view gets us closer to theorizing the metamodern in terms of an integration of all the previous cultural codes, meaning metamodernism is itself “complex.”

Metamodernity as a Complexifying Cultural Code

This brings us to the “complexification” models of metamodernism, which are the sort I emphasize in my own work, and which represent, I believe, the most thorough framework for understanding the term. Lene Rachel Andersen’s 2019 Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World reflects a version of this strand. There, Andersen maps multiple “cultural codes,” adding to the modern and postmodern of metamodernism also the premodern and indigenous.

For Andersen, then, “metamodernism” is the incipient appearance in the arts of “metamodernity,” which represents “a cultural code integrating all four previous cultural codes: indigenous, premodern, modern, and postmodern,” not just the oscillation between modern and postmodern. She suggests that “we need to move beyond postmodernism, where we can both deconstruct our value hierarchies, imagined communities, collective imaginaries, and epistemologies and keep them and strengthen them at the same time.” In this way, we retain the insights of the postmodern code from a more complex vantage that is able to integrate it, as well as the others, in a multilayered perspective.

In his own 2019 book The World We Create: From God to Market (not even one of the four mentioned above), Tomas Björkman, one-time co-author with Andersen, takes a similar approach, seeing metamodern reconstruction precisely as the integration of multiple perspectives into a more complex, higher-order whole. Whereas postmodernity brought epistemes themselves to the fore, thereby relativizing all to one another, metamodernity sees the complexifying map in which these perspectives unfold, allowing us to integrate the insights of each as contextually appropriate. “Instead of choosing,” he writes,

between modernism’s totalisation of creation and postmodernism’s deconstruction, we could aspire towards reconstruction, i.e. putting together the many criticised and deconstructed parts of reality into new entireties. And instead of choosing between the dubious claims of modernity’s, largely mythological, grand narratives and postmodernism’s emphasis on different interpretations, smaller narratives and thereby fractured historical consciousness, the new perspective could attempt to coordinate the many interpretations and smaller narratives into an overarching narrative, a so-called ‘metanarrative’: the conscious creation of overarching, partially fictive narratives."

Such is the aspiration of the “metamodern perspective,” says Bjorkman, which represents the next stage in social complexification after the earlier cultural codes: indigenous/animist, premodern, modern, and postmodern.

Using the language of complexity science, Bjorkman sees the evolution of these codes as following the pattern of other complex adaptive systems, which undergo “phase transitions” at certain “bifurcation points” that either cause a breakthrough to a new level of complexity or a breakdown. His framing of the emerging metamodern movement as representative of just such a social “tipping point” has been influential, with complexity science serving as the chief paradigm informing this framing.

We can see that complexification, though, is just a more detailed way to talk about dialectics. In the dialectic, two things are synthesized to form a third thing that somehow contains them both while also being something greater than either. “The whole is more than the sum of its parts,” as complexity theorists put it. The integral philosopher Ken Wilber used the phrase “transcend and include” to express this essentially Hegelian notion. But that is precisely what complexifying entities do: they include the prior stages while also transcending them. Complexity theory, then, simply offers us a more theoretically and empirically robust language for speaking of dialectical advance.

In thinking about Burnham’s reaction video, we can thus say that each new reaction becomes more complex than the last, as more and more information is being responded to. We get a nice visualization of this in the way the video literally becomes increasingly nested within itself: a whole with more and more parts.

Complexification, like dialectic, is an iterative, recursive process. Level 1 is included in Level 2, which transcends it; Level 2 is included in Level 3, which transcends it; and so on.

As this happens, sensibility shifts. Metamodernism thus refers to a specific stage in this complexification process, as art and cultural production more broadly come to reflect on the reflection of the reflection…

Metamodernism as a Stage of Hierarchical Complexity

The work of “Hanzi Freinacht” represents the most complete theorization of the “complexity” take on metamodernism, as it brings to bear some of the best constructivist models of informational hierarchical complexity to articulate why and how cultural codes indeed complexify. Freinacht uses the post-Piagetian Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC) to interpret the various cultural codes, seeing in them symbolic networks linked together according to its various stages.

Like Storm, Freinacht’s approach is explicitly dialectical, with metamodernism offering the next stage of intellectual history by means of attaining a higher vantage from which to reflect upon and critique postmodernism—i.e., to reconstructively deconstruct deconstruction. So Freinacht hails as “the metamodern dictum: after deconstruction must follow reconstruction.”

In a literal dialectic (dialogue) he writes between the metamodern perspective and the postmodern one, the metamodernist assails:

If you want to be progressive, you have to admit that progress is at least provisionally possible—which then necessitates that you define, at least for the time being, in what direction such progress can and should unfold. And if you want to include the excluded voices, don’t you need to show at least some solidarity with all perspectives, even the ones you don’t like or that you feel superior to?

In short, if postmodernism gained a higher vantage on the various perspectives or epistemes, it also acquired a blind spot to all the ways its own perspective engaged in performative contradictions or did not carry through its own logic far enough. The dialogue concludes:

Dear [Postmodernist], you have been monolithic in your embrace of multiplicity, narrow-minded in your attempts at open-mindedness, judgmental in your non-judgment, hierarchical in your anti-hierarchy. In a few words, your problem is not that you have been too critical, postmodern and mulitiplistic—you have not been nearly critical, postmodern and multiplistic enough."

Thus, metamodernism constitutes the application to postmodernism its own postmodern logic.

As this recursion occurs, we get complexification of metamemes. According to Freinacht, ideas at similar levels of complexity logically connect into coherent conceptual complexes: cultural “memes” coming together into “meta-memes,” which are logically tied together due to their shared complexity level. In this sense, the code has ‘a life of its own’ we might say, in the sense that ideas at a given complexity level will tend to operate in conjunction with other ideas at their same level.

Freinacht writes: 

Each of these metamemes operates as a set of thousands of propositions and assumptions about the world which interlock into a self-supporting whole, a kind of ecosystem or equilibrium. Each of them is a kind of underlying structure of the symbolic universes that constitute our lived and shared realities. So each one of them roughly have an ontology (theory of reality and what is “really real”), an ideology (“theory of what is right and good”) and an identity, an idea of who or what the self is."

If that sounds complicated, it is. But no one ever said cultural analysis must be easy. Anyone who has not grappled with the logic of cultural code complexification in depth should not be so quick to dismiss such ideas, or write them off as “not real metamodernism.” To my mind, they offer the most thorough explanation of all that we have been considering here, with profound implications for how we think about metamodernism and culture more broadly.


So, what can we say about the metamodern cultural code in general terms?  Well, all seem to agree that it moves beyond postmodern relativism, cynicism, and nihilism towards a sensibility that returns to sincerity through/by means of irony, acquires a new naivete even after being hyper-informed/reflective, and affirms idealistic aspirations out of a cautious pragmatism.

It turns skepticism on itself and deconstructs deconstruction, whereby it reconstructs a more generative, affirmational modality and set of ideas.  It progresses by means of a dialectic movement, creating a unique “third thing” from a prior polarity

Whether you choose to speak of all this as oscillation, dialectic, complexity, or MHC stage is up to you. My point is only to show that all of these framings are speaking about the same phenomenon: namely, the metamodern turn in culture.

That, anyway, is my reflection on the reflection on the reflection…


Listen (to the complete essay) as audio-video version here.  
Words by Brendan Graham Dempsey