On Sunday I visited Nottingham Contemporary to have another look at Life on the CAPS, an audiovisual exhibition by Meriem Bennani. The premise of the exhibition is that at some time in the future, on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, people will be enhanced by biotechnology that will enable them to travel by teleportation, change their ages and buy new bodies.
Bennani is described as a storyteller, who presents work that is “an amplified version of reality, punctuated by special effects, digital animation and music.” Because we live in a world of reality television, documentary, advertising, social media and video footage shot on phones, it’s possible for Bennani to “explore the saturation of digital technologies and the fracturing f identities within contemporary society.”
Seeing the exhibition helped me to realise that I am closer to being able to articulate a sense of what metamodernity is, and how we can make sense of the metamodern epoch that is feeding into our culture. I’ve been having regular conversations with Ryan Clayton for the Distraction Therapy podcast, and we’ve been inconsistently exploring what metamodernism might be in terms of lived experience and popular – or unpopular – culture.
This comes through in the music and podcasts I’ve been listening to, the books I’ve been reading, the television programmes and films I’ve been watching, and the exhibitions I’ve been visiting. None of which have been remarkable, and tend to fall in fairly safe and well-constructed categories. There’s nothing challenging in the media I tend to consume at the moment, and it all feels rather bland, which I suppose signifies one of the problems of metamodernism, that it’s difficult to know what it is and where to find it.
I’m going to be attempting to piece something together in the coming months that help explain what I understand by metamodernism, and I’ll follow up with more specific explorations and ideas as I encounter them and feed them into my cultural scanner. I’ve got enough information at this point, though, to sketch out some terms and phrases that might be useful for further discussion.
I would say that one of the distinctive principles of metamodern culture is that it isn’t the product of a set of forces, but is instead an emergent and dynamic drive that sets a direction of travel which unfolds and coalesces over time. While its precepts are modernism and postmodernism, metamodernism doesn’t conflict with those cultural modes, but instead transcends them in the way that nature outgrows itself when allowed to act without manipulation or tampering.
This process of development is, to use one of Jung’s key terms, enantiodromatic, which is the movement forward drawn from the synthesis of the opposites. That which is held in tension as encapsulated by modernity and postmodernity, is supplanted, not in response, but as a response to the terms of the earlier modes of enculturation. For example, modern thinking has been accused of limiting consciousness and our understanding of the mind to material and rationalistic impulses and functions of biology. Postmodernity, in contrast, see the mind as a concept formed in discourse, and therefore subject to deconstruction as a floating signifier. All we have is description, and there is no fixed reference point for examination. We have multiple truths that are valid only for each individual, and unless enforced through the exercise of power, only tenaciously collective ideas.
The metamodern view, it seems to me, takes these polar modalities as dynamic and relational, with a return to notions of the ‘spirit’ and an acceptance that meaning is multidimensional, and indicative of depth founded on layers of consciousness. By holding the demands of material rationality in tension with the ironically deconstructive, metamodernism validates an emergent aesthetic of sincerity, which is constitutive of human experience, though founded in the intuitive rather than the conscious.
Jung points out that “art has a way of anticipating future changes in man’s fundamental outlook” (Jung, 1961, p. 237). And that it is only in seeking to understand the psychic processes that are at play in society, through artistic and poetic expression, that we can make sense of the world we inhabit, not merely materially, but symbolically. Metamodernism seeks, therefore, to validate the aesthetic intuition in balance with the material and instrumental.
This is nothing new. It is a return to a frame of reference developed along idealist modalities – the role of nature, intuition, mythology, symbolic mystique. Kant’s focus on the transcendental – which I am rereading and trying to get to grips with again – suggests that there isn’t a clear distinction between aesthetic appreciation, intuitive sensemaking, philosophising and nature, and that we should seek to understand the mediating nature of human consciousness, not just through categories of material delineation, but through interpretive and symbolic flows of energy.
Carl Jung, for me particularly, is the prophet of the metamodern age because he saw and worked on the problem of human consciousness as a field of creative potential, in which only that which is meaningful can set us free (Jung, 1961, p. 259). The human psyche – or spirit – according to Jung is a shared and collective field of potentiality that has the capacity to dynamically compensate for challenges we face in the outer world, and challenges we face in the inner world. These are reciprocal and relativistic. Something I’ve termed socialmeaning. As above, so below. As within, so without.
The expression of metamodernity in our culture, then, will not be informed in our immediate present because we can’t name something that we have not yet drawn into consciousness. We are, however, exercising and facilitating the social capacity for these notions to come forward in and through our experience. They may not fully enter consciousness until future generations have lived with the challenges of applying them and seeing the results. The feeling of postmodern irony and nihilism that many people have recognised as running its course, is replaced with a focus on sincerity, character and purpose.
This is manifest in the new culture of feeling that we have to tune into, and the emergent aesthetic sensibility that it calls to be lived.
Jung, C. G. (1961). Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Routledge and Keegan Paul.