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A quick peak under the mask of the will to oscillate

Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York is possibly the quintessential postmodern film. It makes use of all the stuff we intuitively associate with postmodernism: irony, deconstruction, pastiche, relativism, and, of course, the rejection of big stories as interpretive and explanatory frameworks.

The story of the film follows a supposedly great playwright and theatre director, Caden Cotard, who receives a MacArthur Fellowship out of the blue. This astonishing financial support allows him to pursue his own artistic interests and he commits to doing so with magnificent fervour. He wants to create a theatre piece of absolutely brutal realism and unflinching honesty. He wants to pour his whole self into his work.

“Here’s what I think theatre is,” he explains at one point, “it’s the beginning of thought. The truth not yet spoken. It’s a blackbird in winter. The moment before death. It’s what a man feels when he’s been clocked in the jaw. It’s love … in all its messiness.” It sounds very poetic but it reveals a savage irony: Caden hasn’t got any idea what he’s doing. What he’s saying here is meaningless. The words are uttered less to explain than to evoke. Feeling is the goal, not meaning, and not truth. He does not even know how to be honest. And yet, this complete imbecile, who hides behind big words and grand gestures, must now create a masterwork, all while his life disintegrates.

So Caden does what any postmodernist would do. He rejects any story bigger than his own puny, sad life. In the absence of any sense of what is true and in the absence of any larger scheme the best he can do is set up a world that emulates his own, only he must do this on a much larger scale. He makes a theatrical copy of his own life and even has a copy of the City of New York built inside a massive aircraft hangar. He hires an actor to play himself and other actors to play the people in his life. Soon, the actors playing the real people start to hire other actors to play the actors playing real people and, well, it gets messy quickly. Rehearsals go on for decades without any performance taking place because, in deconstructionist style, no true performance is actually possible. Maybe a true life isn’t possible either.

As the size of Caden’s project—I almost said ego—grows, the meaning of it all continues to disintegrate. The constant metastasising of meta-levels produces no explanatory power. Copies of copies devalue the very idea of an original. In the end, everything becomes interchangeable. Fiction and reality become indistinguishable. One of the lines towards the end of the movie, as it slumps into a deep melancholy is, “everything is everything,” and also, “everyone is everyone.” Caden stops being Caden and becomes Millicent. And the real Millicent becomes Caden, narrating the life that once belonged to her to him, asking him to act out what she lived but has now become detached from. Was there any Caden to begin with at all? Suddenly, as Caden comes back to himself, he has an epiphany about how to really complete the project. But at that very moment, he dies.

The idea of the interchangeability of people in Synecdoche is echoed in Kaufman’s 2015 film Anomalisa, which is the perfect depiction of what Baudrillard calls the “hell of the same.” The definitive end-point of postmodernism, once everything has been ironised and deconstructed to death, is a sense that everything has been turned into just more stuff; more content; just endless rehashing and repetitiousness. So many signs without any real referents. Everything is everything. Everyone is everyone.

This whirlwind of semiotic overload is still with us now. However, it has taken on a new flavour, one that is hinted at in Anomalisa. I say new but this has been going on for a while now. Already in the early 2000s, when I was an undergraduate, I heard people talking about being sick of postmodernism and yearning for something else, as if the best answer to a new thing grown old must always be yet another new thing. That something else was already on the horizon back then but it took a while to see it. Still, now it’s clear enough to define. It is perhaps nowhere more noticeable than in the 2022 film, Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Welcome to peak metamodernism.

As you know, that film won a number of Oscars. This basic fact carries no real real weight but it does make it plain that we are dealing with a film and a phenomenon that is very much fitted to the tastes of the mainstream. Yes, the film has postmodern elements. But it’s got something else too.

There are complicated ways to understand the notion of metamodernism. At its simplest, metamodernism attempts to let sincerity and irony “hug it out,” as a headline from The New Yorker put it on the 27th of May 2010. It is often found in films that oscillate between modernist sincerity and postmodern irony. The idea is captured in Joss Whedon’s trick of adding bathos to any overly serious moment: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough,” he has famously said. “But then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” The same applies in reverse. If you’ve spent all your energies on making light of everything, excessive cultural references included, then you might as well pull a Bo Burnham and make it grim and tough with barely any light at the end of a distressingly dark tunnel, as he has done in both Make Happy (2016) and Inside (2021). I like Burnham’s work a lot but I wouldn’t want to be like him. He seems miserable.

Metamodernism is not supposed to be ideological, claim metamodern theorists. It’s not trying to offer a utopian vision. That, after all, would be too much modernism and not enough postmodernism. It’s futile to aim for utopia, for instance, but, to get away from that postmodern statement, metamodernism would also acknowledge that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we actually do want utopias. And so the aim of metamodern discourse is to describe, not prescribe. It’s telling us what we might expect in creative works, not telling us how to create.

There’s a bit of a metamodern twist to this, though. Metamodernism is not a programme (how very postmodern) but it still has a manifesto (how very modern). The first point of said manifesto is: “We recognise oscillation to be the natural order of the world.” Wait, is it? That seems like a silly principle, like making cyclothymia ontological. The second: “We must liberate ourselves from the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child [that would be postmodernism].” Gosh, must we? And are those the only two options? The third point: “Movement shall henceforth be enabled by way of an oscillation between positions, with diametrically opposed ideas operating like the pulsating polarities of a colossal electric machine, propelling the world into action.” To cut a lot out, the whole thing concludes with, “Go forth and oscillate!” Look, hold on for a moment, I’m getting nauseous. Is my saying this metamodern? Why all this oscillation? Isn’t that just repackaged postmodern indecision?

Metamodern theorists would say that it’s vital to see the meta in metamodernism differently than the postmodern meta in metareferentiality. Meta means both between, more appropriate in the case of the former, and beyond, more appropriate in the case of the latter. This is not to say that postmodern reflection isn’t part of it. But this reflection shows up now not in postmodern copies of copies of copies but in the current obsession with the metaverse—in, for example, Everything Everywhere All At Once or Rick and Morty or Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse or Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. In these metamodern amusements, the copy does not appear as a mere copy—that is, as a denigration of authenticity—but as confirmation. Yes, everything is arbitrary but, wow, look, somehow some things still align!

As with the postmodern copy, the metamodern copy has no aura. Only, we are now free, in the metamodern era, to allow all of our warm fuzzy feelings to compensate for that fact. In the meeting of copies, meaning can somehow be manufactured. The guiding assumption remains, therefore, that there is no meaning. But the metamodern twist on this postmodern realisation is that whatever accidental sense we do make of things matters more than any real meaning ever could.

Just add more subjectivity and you’re ready to go!

This brings me at last to a refrain I’ve encountered in various metamodern permutations. This is the essential metamodern oscillation: “Nothing matters and everything matters.” I’ve even heard someone express the idea in this way: “Nothing matters, therefore, everything matters.” If the sheer lack of reasonableness and logic in that statement doesn’t make you want to bash your head against a wall, I’m not sure what will. “I know we’re all nihilists,” say the metamodern artists, “but at least we care.” The idea, more or less, is that sincerity is sufficient to make up for the lack of truth.

Yes, metamodernism is supposed to be descriptive. And, sure, I think the idea captures a lot that we see in our time. But it happens to be descriptive of a worldview that is an already well-established and fully operative nihilism with a smile. You can find it all over the place. Liberal theologians, for example, are classic metamodernists. I think of a gifted but ultimately vacuous pop theologian, Peter Rollins, who hurls Derrida and Lacan at theology like Jackson Pollock hurled paint at a canvas, as if to say, “It’s all pointless, but I care deeply about it. Let sincerity and irony hug it out!” He follows every liberal theologian who has ever reduced everything in the Christian tradition to a mere metaphor. Well, that’s just nihilism with Christian language. If you hold that everything is metaphorical and nothing is true, that’s still nihilism. It’s just got metamodern favouring.

I get that metamodernism is sincere. It is also, by clingingly to sincerity alone, sincerely wrong. Why we must always be playing dialectical games and sublating a bad thesis and a bad antithesis to create a new and equally awful—and I’d say dishonest—synthesis? This is just reactivity. No self-awareness at all. And yes, I mean that. That, in fact, is one of the points of Kaufman’s Synecdoche. Just adding a meta-level to something, whether postmodern or metamodern, doesn’t help anyone to reach the truth. It may be smart but it’s not clever; or clever but not wise. It may, in fact, do precisely the opposite of helping people to reach the truth. Building a house out of mirrors just means you’re hiding more of the world and showing more of yourself.

The metamodern mindset almost seems to operate on Yogi Berra’s quip, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” It structures a worldview that cannot tell you what a woman is (how very postmodern) but sincerely believes that it is possible to become one if you are a man (how very modern). That oscillation is perfectly captured in the queer theory to medical-industrial complex pipeline. The former is postmodern, and the latter, modern. It cannot tell you what being happy is but it’ll sincerely offer you all the affluenza you can stomach. A lack of philosophy (postmodern) gives way to entire nations addicted to painkillers (modern). It has no principles (postmodern) but it’ll put it in writing and make sure to get all the bureaucratic boxes ticked (modern). Metamodernism cannot tell you what education is but it’ll certainly and sincerely get you educated. And it’ll fail at every level to identify what justice looks like but it’ll fight like hell, also very sincerely, for social justice.

No one knows what’s right but everyone has rights!

I may have quoted it before here but I’ll risk quoting it again because it is something that I think captures the silliness of all of this rather well. It also reveals the essential continuity beneath the modern, postmodern, and metamodern modes of thinking, which is nihilism. It comes from Chesterton’s 1908 book Orthodoxy, and it says this:

“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

Well, we are in the age of pity, it seems. We live in a time of immense sincerity. It is all, to context-collapse a Jane-Austenian line, “Very agreeable.” But being nice and wrong does not seem to me to be ideal. To be sincere in beliefs that might land you or a few others in hell is a disturbing and not comforting thought. Is sincerity used as a defence against the task of actually figuring out what is true?

Metamodernism is not merely a way to describe certain developments in the creative arena. It describes very well what is happening beyond that. What it describes is a mask, under which hides a very dark and ultimately mistaken worldview. It is still nihilism. In this, Bo Burnham’s depressive metamodernism gets closer to reality than Whedon’s bathetic metamodernism, although he is unlikely to dig beyond his therapeutic paradigm to find something more robust. Mere ontologised cyclothymia is not enough of a foundation. Merely oscillating from irony to sincerity when it feels emotionally uncomfortable to linger too long on one or the other is pure cope. It is much, much easier to believe that you get to manufacture and confirm the meaning you can sincerely care about than to consider that you may be answerable to Someone Else for the way that you have wasted your life and led yourself and others away from the truth, all while simply looking for ways to amuse yourself.