“That’s So Postmodern!”
While this phrase sounds like the tacky impeachment levied by one clichéd artist against the stock work of another only marginally more successful, it’s also an endorsement to a complex art form characterized by a rejection of the modernist’s objective reality and an appeal to the consumer’s subjective view of truth in the world.
Exemplars in art include René Magritte, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein, whose postmodern pieces explore conflict between subjective realities while providing critical commentary on consumerism and society.
"It gets interesting, although, when instead the opposite occurs: life imitates art."
Postmodern literature embodies parody, irony, and a deconstruction of language—and by extension popular narratives about people and society—to exploit the disconnect between words and their meaning. The goal is to say one thing and mean something else—usually critical—about the world.
Popular postmodern titles include Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller, The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick, Cat's Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut, or the more contemporary American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis and Fight Club (1996) by Chuck Palahniuk.
As art, these pieces are an important reflection of life, and a commentator of it.
American Psycho is a critique of capitalism and consumerism in a superficial world, driving people mad with irrational consumption. Fight Club explores the internal struggle of manliness in a society dominated by masculinity. Physical battles are all at once a metaphorical deconstruction of corporate competition, the equalization of power in a stratified world, and the primal, yet effectively cathartic release of tension.
It gets interesting, although, when instead the opposite occurs: life imitates art. When the artist bends the perception of reality so much, people start living as if the new reality is true, thereby making it true.
There is a hypothetical engine behind this:
Art and culture shift reality and norms
Norms shift values and people
People shift politics
Seth Abramson—poet, attorney, and Assistant Professor at the University of New Hampshire—explores how art and cultural theory can permeate political discourse. He demonstrates how postmodernism fails to generate social progress, and how a newer cultural theory—metamodernism—is needed to realign social norms about how we govern ourselves effectively.
In his writing, Abramson hints at the archetype of a politician that embodies metamodern principles. Considered here is an expansion upon Abramson’s concept that describes more fully the characteristics of the metamodern leader and how one could change the direction of American politics and policy-making.
Bipolar Postmodern Zombies
If postmodern art and literature are about the juxtaposition of bipolar themes—such as sincerity and irony, truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance—postmodern politics requires a similar deconstruction and distillation of problems until they are characterized as fundamentally bipolar.
Personal and political identity are compartmentalized into dichotomies, the subtext of which are “right or wrong”:
Gender is man or woman.
Race is black or white.
Nationality is American or un-American.
Religion is Christian or anti-Christian.
Sexuality is gay or straight.
Government is big or small.
Science is consensus or uncertain.
Socio-economic status is wealthy or working class.
Party is Democrat or Republican.
Political discourse therefore devolves into zero-sum debates between these poles. Personal stances must align wholly with one side or the other, elsewise one betrays themselves and their cause. The expected outcome of these debates is the ultimate victory by one side, thereby making it the widely accepted truth.
"Social progress is impossible when individuals move forward alone"
The literalized result is the standard formula of a “fair and balanced”, “news” segment that presents a proponent and skeptic of an issue to debate for two minutes using merely cliché rhetoric about what people “feel” to be true, not what is. Debate becomes “for” or “against” solving a problem, or whether the problem actually exists, regardless of the measurable likelihoods that it does exist or what the right approach is to solve it.
If one percent of the population holds an unsubstantiated view, a postmodern approach borrows the forty-nine percent from the other side in order to host a lively discussion.
This not only distorts reality, such a model cannot produce any real “winner”. The other side, if not physically killed in the rhetorical battle, continues championing the opposing view. The two acquired no common ground, and the debate lingers like a zombie, erect only by a bony structure of staunch principles, dragging the entrails of facts behind it.
Consider, for example, the Marxist (postmodern) conflict between economic classes: the aristocracy, the middle class, and the working proletariat. How can there possibly be a winner? People will always occupy each stratum, regardless if the distribution of the income curve is wide (high inequality) or narrow (low inequality). There will always be delineations of “haves”, “have-nots”, and “have-mores”.
The only state of “winning” in a class war is pure wealth equality and income distribution—in other words, socialism or communism. These concepts have always been untenable, because they deny the realities of resource allocation, particularly in large economies.
As Abramson notes throughout his writing, postmodern political debate feeds off the distance between people. It validates our idiosyncratic subjective perceptions of reality, but magnifies our differences to a size greater than reality, ultimately alienating us from one another and our communities.
Social progress is impossible when individuals move forward alone.
The Metamodern Model
Therefore, social progress requires that we move forward together. Yet such a thing can only happen in a stratified, diverse world if we focus on areas of agreement rather than conflict. This is not to say that it is easy to empathize, stomach, or ignore even the most detestable positions of fellow citizens and politicians. It is only to say that progress requires that we do.
A dedicated resolve to seek progress through agreement is a honed skill personified in the metamodern leader. A truly metamodern political leader holds a deliberate commitment to the following principles and behaviors:
1. Create Dialogues
The metamodern leader understands that problems, and the range of options available to solve them, are not inherently dichotomous—existing in one of two states: right or wrong. The metamodern pursues dialogues through an acceptance that a middle ground between positions not only exists, but the goal is to engender a collaborative approach to seek out this overlap.
Negotiation is not some capitulation to an enemy or sign of weakness. In fact, it is debate that reveals ignorance, whereby one side assumes the other no longer exists. Dialogue acknowledges the reality of adversarial opinions and engages, rather than ignores, them.
The behavior of dialogue is demonstrably different as well. Debate often seems like a irrationally pedantic, plaid-garbed word battle, where the goal is to blurt out as many words as possible at ever increasing volume. On the other hand, dialogue requires active listening, even if the indiscernible noise emitted from the counterpart is about as tolerable as a clowder of screeching cats sliding across a chalkboard to the syncopated rhythm of a vuvuzela band.
Needless to say, it’s a learned skill.
But the goal of listening is not to understand the other’s position in order to attack it with your own, but in fact to validate its existence. To acknowledge that their position is as entirely real to them as your position is to you. Once a dialogue is formed, new ideas can be entertained.
2. Collapse Distances
Postmodernism promotes a lifestyle residing within one’s own Twittersphere echo chamber surrounded by the regurgitation of conspiracies and complaints about establishment malfeasance in the back of pizza shops, which has the result of amplifying a person’s feeling of isolation swaddled in their convictions, and feeling of powerlessness to alter their circumstances.
Compartmentalizing political and personal identity—across gender, race, nationality, and orientation—places people into convex glass boxes in which they focus upon one another’s differences in great detail. This state of quarantine incites anger, resentment, and mistrust.
The metamodern seeks instead to build a company of political allies by collapsing that feeling of distance to the point where agreement is possible. Differences between individuals are loci of multi-faceted collaboration instead of consternation. The combined perspectives, skills, and knowledge generate an entirely new construct of the problems and a framework for solving them.
The gerrymandering of legislative districts is a great example of driving political distance and partisanship. When districts are drawn more homogeneous, candidates appeal to the political extremes, inflating the distance between neighbors and their platforms. Districts drawn by independent, nonpartisan commissions are more politically heterogeneous, forcing candidates to appeal to the middle, pulling neighbors and their ideas closer together.
The metamodern leader appeals to this middle space.
3. Seek Collaboration
"The only way to get people to overcome their biases and differences is to get them to work together."
If you want to talk about the juxtaposition of sincerity and irony, the Republican-led Congresses during the Obama Administration voted at least 62 times to repeal The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, while at the same time being the least productive series of Congressional sessions in American history. This “never compromise” stance of Congress typifies how a stanch resistance to collaboration results in a stagnant legislature, throttling progress and harming citizens.
In a postmodern world, adversarial forces will always oppose collaboration.
Abramson describes metamodern collaboration best:
The metamodernist would support first collaboratively determining the frequency with which a given problem arises, and the nature of the problem in the first instance, and then forming a coalition of individuals who, having fully understood the scope of the problem, decide that they want to solve it—even if some of them still don’t see eye-to-eye on a host of other issues.
There are (at least) three ways to set an agenda, whether for a meeting or political organization:
One party sets the agenda and allows no input from other parties;
All parties contribute to the agenda, but then require consensus to the entire agenda, or else nothing will be discussed; or
Each party drafts their own agenda, and the group moves forward on areas of overlap among them.
Political parties, associations, interest groups, think tanks, or businesses will never agree on every position for every issue. That should not, however, interfere with progressive collaboration on those few areas of mutual interest and agreement.
And the spirit of collaboration will improve social attitudes about governance. Psychologists of prejudice and discrimination understand that the only way to get people to overcome their biases and differences is to get them to work together.
4. Conduct an Optimistic Survey of Different Futures
"We have to allow ourselves to imagine and evaluate the range of possible futures we want, and then identify the choices and decisions we must make each day to realize that future."
Modernism subscribes to a universal truth and reality, where postmodernism dismisses reality as contingent upon the subjectivity of each of us. Metamodernism rejects the possibility of a single reality, accepts the possibility of a collective objective reality, and promotes the survey of several future realities that could come to pass.
If the first 3 dimensions of spacetime constitute the physical space we know, and the 4th dimension represents our sensation of time, the metamodern leader enjoys thinking in the 5th and 6th dimensions. The 5th represents all the possible choices or chance events we have from a particular point in time that could put us on slightly different paths—such as deciding to take the long way home, stopping for a drink, or instituting a new law. The 6th dimension represents all the possible futures from the same starting point—for example, how might have a person’s life have been different if a parent hadn’t died, if they were born in a different country, or if there had been a different President.
Like Matthew McConaughey’s bewildered character meddling with his daughter from the disorienting upper-dimensional funhouse in the film Interstellar, it’s important to spend time in these two higher dimensions. We have to allow ourselves to imagine and evaluate the range of possible futures we want, and then identify the choices and decisions we must make each day to realize that future, all in a state of collaborative dialogue.
In the words of Abramson,
We have to envision different realities that could be possible in order to move into them. [We choose] to live “as if” positive change is possible even when we are daily given reminders that human culture is in fact in a state of disarray and likely even decline.
Postmodernism is cynical about the future, because it requires the reconstitution of the dismantled, bipolar viewpoints considered incapable of coexisting. The metamodern leader, however, is ever optimistic about these possible futures, otherwise why would society choose to move into them. Coalitions, however imperfect, can achieve progress, even if incremental.
Even if the world and society seem lost, life must continue; so will the metamodern.
5. Take an Inter-disciplined Approach
In order to understand complex social problems and respond to crises, one must strip them down and probe the various drivers and motors that incite and exacerbate them. Resolution, then, requires new frameworks and models for looking at them.
This requires the acumen of an expert-generalist: one who draws from a broad, yet not too deep, pool of knowledge; and innovates new ideas and approaches by borrowing from a variety of fields and disciplines. A wide knowledge base supports the creativity required to respond to the novel, sticky problems faced by people and governments.
It is also an acknowledgement that one does not have all the solutions, and must engage with an inter-disciplined coalition to maximize perspectives. This implies a humility to one’s own understanding and ability to solve everything. It implies a denial of self-promotion, and a willingness to have one’s ideas challenged in order to make them better.
A practical example, as described by Abramson, is a metamodern candidate with a platform unlike the stereotypical Democrat or Republican:
A person without party affiliation, whose political views on a range of topics fall at various points on the vast conservative-to-progressive spectrum, whose means of achieving his or her desired ends (or the ends desired by his or her very heterogeneous constituency) avoid exhibitions like the filibuster or the post-vote press conference in favor of coalition-oriented engagements. [They are a] member of very different coalitions on different issues, but what will remain a constant in such an individual’s policy practice will be an emphasis on progress over preening.
While society judges nonconformists with labels like “Blue Dog Democrat” or “RINOs” (Republican in Name Only), the metamodern leader would relish the inability to be labeled; a member of all communities, rather than none.
6. Move Ultimately “Between” and “Beyond”
"Our choices must be judged by their effectiveness of actually solving problems and strengthening our faith in society’s ability to do so."
Depending on the application, the prefix “meta” can mean either “between” or “beyond”. In metamodernism, it conveys a pursuit of both simultaneously.
When faced by bipolar viewpoints on an important social or political issue, the metamodern leader rejects the fabricated necessity of standing in one corner or the other. Instead of seeking out the controversy in the space between poles, the metamodern seeks out opportunity to find solutions that move beyond that space altogether in a direction toward progress.
“Moving beyond” imparts many themes. It means physical movement and changes to the status quo. It means resolving the problem rather than debating it. It means actualizing the envisioned, optimistic realities, so that society feels that it has transcended into a state beyond the problem. It also means creating the conditions in which postmodern ideology and cynicism cannot operate.
The Metamodern Test
There is a simple, yet not deterministic, test to assess if you or a burgeoning leader may be a metamodern.
Ask yourself or others:
Are you trying to hold a debate or open a dialogue?
Are you trying to win or understand?
Are you trying to create distance or collapse it?
Are you focused on areas of sensational controversy or collaborative agreement?
Are you cynical about the future, or do believe in plethora of positive futures?
Do you engage with people who think like you or think differently than you?
Are you open to learning and incorporating ideas from new and unfamiliar fields of study?
Do you pick one side of an issue, or sit between the sides?
Do you dwell on issues, or try to move beyond them?
If you find you are not metamodern, try to become so.
If you find your leaders and politicians are not metamodern, tell them why it’s important that they become so.
If you discover an inspiring, metamodern leader, support them.
This is so much more than “can’t we all just get along”. The choices we make in how we discuss and approach problems and solutions are active choices. Our choices must be judged by their effectiveness of actually solving problems and strengthening our faith in society’s ability to do so.
The postmodern zombie must die. The future belongs to the metamodern.