Alexandra Dumitrescu is much too modest in this blog’s opening bio. She has worked hard, and virtually alone in New Zealand, over the past decade to create an understanding of this new paradigm – why it is needed, and what it will mean. Her thoughts have been picked up by thinkers, theorists, and artists in Europe, America, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. It is very rewarding for a small country like New Zealand to have paved the way, through Alexandra’s work, in a debate that has positive implications for the world in the first half of the twenty-first century.
To understand metamodernism, you have to have some understanding of its predecessors, modernism and postmodernism. These words are just labels that someone decides to use for charting the thinking and artistic styles of a particular era.
Modernist thinking in the first half of the twentieth century was predominantly focused on the search for knowledge, as the gateway to meaning and values. Modernism was largely “epistemological” – exploring the nature and origins of knowledge. The modernist era, like every other era, was shaped by its surrounding events – in its case, the industrial revolution, the migration of rural people into cities and factories, the atrocities of world wars, the depression, the holocaust. In such circumstances, people were searching for answers, for common bonds.
Postmodernism prospered in the relative comfort and well-being of Western societies beginning in the 1960s (and then in the 1980s, in the countries of the Eastern Bloc, as a reaction to authoritarian systems and their impositions). At the same time, the old modernist reality became fragmented with social upheaval and the expansion of television, advertising, computerisation, air travel, space exploration, and other technological advances. Our grand institutions no longer seemed to have all the answers, or even the best answers. There was no longer a set of central truths, no single objective in our search for knowledge. In fact, it was cool to regard traditional truths and methods with suspicion, and to express disdain by way of sarcasm, irony, and detachment. Truths depended on your situation – your culture, gender, ethnicity, wealth, class. Unlike modernism, postmodernism was essentially ontological (the philosophical study of the nature of being). To its great and lasting credit, postmodernist art and thought gave voice to people from all countries and walks of life, many of whom had been closed out or marginalised during the modernist era.
Nearly everyone has known for years that postmodernism is no longer adequate to describe the artistic and cultural inclinations that have emerged since the 1990s. Artists and thinkers have grown weary of irony, sarcasm, detachment, and cool. Many names have been proposed for new ways of thinking and feeling: the New Sincerity; aftermodernism; post-postmodernism; Stuckism.
But metamodernism is more comprehensive, and is preferred for many reasons. The prefix “meta” comes from the Greek, meaning “after” or “later in time,” sometimes enhanced by the notion of obtaining a higher stage of development. For example, the meta in “metamorphosis” describes an animal’s changes progressively in structure or habits during its normal growth. (For example, the tadpole or the caterpillar.)
“Metaphysics,” philosophy’s study of first principles and ultimate reality, is named after Aristotle’s Ta meta ta phusika – “the things after the physics” – because it followed and built upon his work on physics.
Alexandra Dumitrescu’s metamodernist theory proposes to fill the postmodernist void with a rough synthesis of the two predecessors from the twentieth century. In the new paradigm, metaphysics, epistemology, and ontology all have their places, but the overriding concern is with ethics. A key objective is to openly consider and explore values and meaning, to look for synthesis and common bonds, even as we accept the inescapable skepticism of postmodernism.
Alexandra Dumitrescu wasn’t the first person to use the word “metamodern.” But she was the first to provide a comprehensive theory of the need for paradigmatic change, and to attach the label “metamodern” to what she was describing.
To their credit, the Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeleun and Robin van den Akker have developed Alexandra’s thinking in Europe with encouraging success. Others in Europe, America, Australia, and elsewhere have jumped on board. Like all cultural paradigms and labels, metamodernism will be enriched by a strong debate about the nature of works and thought that come within a common understanding. There is much more that unites us than divides us.
Searching for metaphors, Vermeleun and van den Akker have in 2010 described metamodernism as a “perpetual oscillation” between the existential poles of modern and postmodern;
Alexandra Dumitrescu has described her metamodern space as a continuum of revision and interconnectedness: “a boat being built or repaired as it sails, or a palace under continuous construction.” Such metaphors have much in common, and obviously there is room in the tent for first-rate thinkers and artists from anywhere and everywhere, as there always has been in the past and always will be.
So … there’s not much more to do except welcome anyone who is reading this to join the conversation. Welcome to all.