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The Metamodern Shift in the Culture Wars

Metamodernism conveys the experience of living in a world in which we feel comfortable oscillating between different perspectives.

· 6 min read
The Metamodern Shift in the Culture Wars
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The concept of metamodernism isn’t particularly well-known, but once you learn about it, you will recognize it everywhere—in pop music, in movies, in social media posts, in podcast conversations. Here’s Eric Weinstein inadvertently articulating the spirit of metamodernism in a recent interview:

You need to keep the scarcity mentality; it’s not a mistake. The problem is, you also need an abundance mentality, and then you need to selectively access them in different circumstances. … We keep trying to find [exact] settings. Like, “Just let me set the air conditioner at 68 and then I’ll be happy forever.” In reality, more or less you need contradictory facilities and you need to know when to pull one in and let the other out.

Metamodernism is characterized by oscillating between different perspectives—in particular, between postmodern irony and modern sincerity. To apply Eric Weinstein’s terminology, it’s the view that you need to “selectively access [contradictory perspectives] in different circumstances.”

Weinstein didn’t set out to present a metamodern perspective—no more than Sufjan Stevens and Conor Oberst set out to write metamodern songs. The fact that Weinstein stumbled into these musings is simply indicative of the age we live in. To understand major shifts in culture today, it’s necessary to look beyond postmodernism and start discussing issues—including hot-button culture-war issues—in metamodern terms.

Postmodernism arose in the mid-twentieth century: after World War II, but before the floppy disk and the first computer games, like Pong. So, while postmodernism may give off a vague impression of being radical, hip, and visionary, in fact, it’s quite an old thing. In technology terms, it arose in the Stone Age. It has been around the block and is showing its rust and wrinkles. As early as the 1980s, writers and thinkers foresaw the death of postmodernism. And just consider how much culture has changed and technology has advanced since the 80s.

The current conception of metamodernism emerged in 2010 with the publication of the paper “Notes on Metamodernism” by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker. The paper describes the experience of living in a world in which we feel comfortable oscillating between different perspectives and examines this new way of looking at things by discussing developments in architecture, art, and film.

For example, Vermeulen and Akker see the films of Wes Anderson as evidence of “a recent trend in Indie cinema characterized by the attempt to restore, to the cynical reality of adults, a childlike naivety—as opposed to the postmodern ‘smart’ cinema of the 1990s, which was typified by sarcasm and indifference.”

Just as a metamodern analysis can help elucidate cultural shifts, it can also help make sense of recent developments in the culture wars. One example of metamodernism is the rise of the Satanic Temple as a legitimate player in culture war issues. On the one hand, the Satanic Temple is a cheesy social club that LARPs as a religion and ironically embraces stereotypical satanic imagery; on the other hand, it issues serious legal challenges to religious organizations that seek to effectively impose Christianity as the state religion in the US.

The Impasse Between Modernism and Postmodernism
The battlefield is indeed the university. How, then, does he characterize these two opponents?

If Christians can put up a monument to the Ten Commandments on government property, then Satanists can erect a statue of Baphomet next to it. If Christians can pass laws restricting abortions, then Satanists can open a “religious” abortion clinic. And if Christians can have after-school clubs, Satanists can too.

So, is the Satanic Temple a religious parody or a legitimate religion? Well, it’s both. It’s simultaneously both a religious spoof and an organization that courts take seriously. Only the metamodern viewpoint makes sense of this.

Our culture has reached an odd juncture with regard to religion in general. Fewer and fewer people consider themselves to be religious, and, of those who maintain a faith, ever fewer regularly show up to a place of worship. And yet, religion is suddenly fashionable again. For example, in 2022, New York Times contributor Julia Yost described how, in a trendy neighbourhood in New York City, “Catholicism is the new hip thing, partly as a rejection of progressive morality, partly as an aesthetic posture among the fashionable New Right.”

This phenomenon goes beyond a single neighbourhood in New York. It’s a vibe in the zeitgeist. For example, in January 2024, Gen Z writer Suzy Weiss was asked to predict cultural trends for the new year. On the topic of religion, she put it succinctly: “Religion in. God is so in. Spirituality out.” Bari Weiss, Suzy’s sister, clarified, “Crystals are out, Catholic church is in.”

How do you ironically embrace religion, a thing that claims to be so serious as to determine the fate of your soul in the afterlife? You do so by situating yourself within the metamodern framework.

The so-called “trad” movement is a similar phenomenon, in which highly educated urbanites are choosing to (semi-ironically) adopt traditional gender roles. As I have written previously, the “bleeding edge” of metamodernism might be “a tradwife with a master’s degree from UC Berkeley and a squealing baby throwing Cheerios across the room. A short skirt and a long jacket. A camgirl side-hustle and a cross necklace. A feminist who rejects Nth-wave feminism.”

It’s clear that the metamodern perspective has spread throughout the culture, but it hasn’t yet been taken up by the commentariat. Unless you go looking for it, you’ll almost never hear about it. Although there are plenty of culture-war figures who seem primed to give voice to metamodernism, they’re all stuck in a never-ending cycle of critiquing postmodernism.

Consider a recent clip from a discussion between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, “The Issue with Postmodernism.” The clip centres on a familiar gripe by Harris about the moral confusion of cultural relativism. Harris argues that it’s objectively wrong for Muslim countries to deprive women of basic rights.

It’s hard to disagree with Harris’s basic claim. Yet, it’s also true that all cultures (even those that are morally backwards) are incredibly complex, rich, and beautiful in their own rights. It’s possible to relinquish the role of a moral judge for a moment and appreciate the culture of, say, Victorian England, or the Aztec Empire, or modern-day Iran, even though each of these cultures has plenty of elements that are not optimized for the flourishing of all citizens. In fact, most of us do this. We read about the Aztecs, for instance, with a strong sense of wonder and respect before it even crosses our minds to scrutinize the morality of any given social practice or religious tradition they upheld.

There are two contradictory views at play here: 1) cultural relativism offers a lens through which to value and appreciate all the rich and diverse array of cultures, across time; 2) a modern conception of human rights offers a foolproof argument for condemning governments that subjugate women. Metamodernism allows us to entertain both ideas at once and selectively apply them in different circumstances.

The subtext of the metamodern view is that postmodernism, while compelling, is incomplete. In a world in which there are no ground truths and no grand narratives, there can be no moral progress. And yet we all live our lives in accordance with strict moral truths and grand narratives. This is especially true of educated elites who are most sympathetic to postmodernism. As Harris observed to Peterson, the same people who can’t condemn a Muslim nation for subjugating women will be morally outraged over a college student wearing an “inappropriate” Halloween costume.

So, yes, beat postmodernism over the head with “modern” moral indignation, but don’t throw it out entirely. Embrace the muddiness of being a storytelling ape in a digital age in which God is dead but old-world religious practices are—at least for the moment—“in.”

“And this is the hard thing,” says Eric Weinstein, referring to the requirement to oscillate between contradictory perspectives. “Anybody with multiple children knows that, with one kid you’re saying, ‘You cannot afford to take these risks; if you jump off something like that, think what you could do!’ While the other kid needs, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained, come on!’”

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