What meta means and does not mean

Over the last few months, there has been much discussion online as well as at parties, galleries and conferences, about the meaning of the prefix meta- in metamodernism. Now, of course, each and everyone is free to define, re-appropriate and use it in any one fashion. Metamodernism as a term – but not as a concept – is or has been associated with altermodernism, reflective modernism, reflexive modernism, and a counterstrategy within modernism. And it has been applied to developments and disciplines as diverse as economics, politics, architecture, data analysis, and the arts. But (or So) we feel compelled to once more establish what WE mean with the prefix meta – and, perhaps even more important, what we do not intend by it. In a previous post we described it as follows:

The prefix ‘meta’ has acquired something of a bad rep over the last few years. It has come to be understood primarily in terms of self-reflection – i.e. a text about a text, a picture about a picture, etc. But ‘meta’ originally intends something rather more colloquial. According to the Greek-English Lexicon the preposition and prefix ‘meta’(μετά) has several meanings and connotations. Most commonly it translates as ‘after’. But it can also be used to denote qualitative ‘changes’ or to designate positions such as ‘with’ and ‘between’. In Plato’s Symposium, for example, the term metaxy designates an ontological betweenness (we will return to this in more detail in a later post). The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following description:

prefix meaning 1. “after, behind,” 2. “changed, altered,” 3. “higher, beyond,” from Gk. meta (prep.) “in the midst of, in common with, by means of, in pursuit or quest of,” from PIE *me- “in the middle” (cf. Goth.miþ, O.E. mið “with, together with, among;” see mid). Notion of “changing places with” probably led to senses “change of place, order, or nature,”

When we use the term ‘meta’, we use it in similar yet not indiscriminate fashion. For the prefix ‘meta-’ allows us to situate metamodernism historically beyond; epistemologically with; and ontologically between the modern and the postmodern. It indicates a dynamic or movement between as well as a movement beyond. More generally, however, it points towards a changing cultural sensibility – or cultural metamorphosis, if you will – within western societies.

Thus, although meta has come to be associated with a particular reflective stance, a repeated rumination about what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, it once intimated the movement with and between what we are doing and what we might be doing and what we might have been doing. When we use the prefix meta- we do NOT refer to the former meaning. Meta- for us, does NOT refer solely to reflectivity, although, inevitably, it does (and, since it passes through and surpasses the postmodern, cannot but) invoke it.

When we use the prefix meta- we refer to the latter intent. Meta, for us, signifies an oscillation, a swinging or swaying with and between future, present and past, here and there and somewhere; with and between ideals, mindsets, and positions. It is influenced by estimations of the past, imbued by experiences of the present, yet also inspired by expectations of the future. It takes into account and affect the here, but also the there, and what might or might not happen elsewhere. It is convinced it believes in one system or structure or sensibility, but also cannot persuade itself not to believe in its opposite. Indeed, if anything, meta intimates a constant repositioning. It repositions itself with and between neoliberalism and, well, keynesianism, the “right” and the “left”, idealism and “pragmatism”, the discursive and the material, the visible and the sayable. It repositions itself among and in the deconstructed isms and desolate ruins that rest from the postmodern and the modern, and reconstructs them in spite of their un-reconstructableness in order to create another modernity: then one, then the other, one again, and yet another. Bas Jan Ader’s quest for the miraculous, Charles Avery’s quest for an imaginative elsewhere, Mona Hatoum’s search for another socio-personal identity, Sejla Kameric longing for another ethnic-personal epistemology, Mariechen Danz’s longing for the pre-discursive, Ragnar Kjartansson’s desire for what is always just beyond his reach…

Meta- does not refer to one particular system of thought or specific structure of feeling. It infers a plurality of them, and repositions itself with and between them. It is many, but also one. Encompassing, yet fragmented. Now, yet then. Here, but also there.

Image: Bas Jan Ader, In search of the miraculous.

There are 9 comments

  1. G.Croes

    Looking, searching for where we are (in the West) in the history of evolution I try to fathom what metamodernism can mean. What kind of bric we can use for building the next layer of culture. We cannot build on substance that has not dried out completely. And this last is the case. In my view the development of many things went so fast that most people lived too superficially and therefor are unstable. What we need is rehumanizing, tell each other our personal stories and thus become human again in our togetherness, our society. And yes, pick up pieces from the past, here and there, choosing the most positive but also most relyable ones and solidate them in our memory. Then a new philosophy and culture can go forward to the unknown with faith. Is that what metamodernism can mean?

  2. Alex Dee

    Your definition of metamodernism captures the latest developments of postmodernism, with its complexity and vacillation, with its acknowledgement that longings and desires cannot be ever fulfilled, with its reluctance to take stands and its oscillation between possible options, with the hesitations between truths, and a fear of commitment.

    Your metamodernism provides an umbrella term for more recent developments in art that typify the postmodern consciousness. Isn’t this just another bric-a-brac, another layer in the postmodern multi-layered cake?

  3. John Gallaher

    Or maybe that should be Modernism’s multi-layered cake. Or Romanticism’s. Or maybe it should be going back and forth between both cakes, and getting to eat them too.

    Either way there’s cake.

  4. Damien Meade

    Interesting pitch, but I sense something worrying here… this reads much like corporate brand guidelines or a mission statement. Metamodernism™. Is this not just a powergrab? Is ‘Metamodernism’ not an attempt to take ownership of everything with, essentially, nothing? As with ‘Post-Autonomy’ etc., is it not just one last-ditch attempt at charging the paddles and reviving the corpse of an outmoded (and ultimately unhealthy) western 20th century obsession with a succession of linear ‘-isms’?; Anglo-Saxon Calvinist notions of progress; the relentless ‘one-up-manship’ of construction and destruction of successive hierarchies of understanding, in search of an ultimate Puritanism?

    What is described here attempts to quench our desire for understanding, and to unite us in a collective moment (something instinctive to humanity). But, crucially, what is proposed here is without substance… it is “neoliberalism and ‘keynesianism’, the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, idealism and pragmatism”. This attempt to negate paradox and to cover all possible positions of any given polemic, ultimately neutralises any potential for real substance. Having pulled the teeth out of the argument, what remains has no bite. Much like when Zizek’s ‘caffeine-free diet Coke’ model:

    “It is the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption…its nutritional value is suspended and the caffeine as the key ingredient of its taste is also taken away. All that remains is pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized… we drink nothing in the guise of something”.

    Perhaps, to stretch the Coca-cola analogy, brand guidelines are the way to go??

  5. Dennis Große-Plankermann

    Obviously this explanation or rather description of what metamodernism means has the potential to include everything and so – in the end – nothing, as Damien suggests. But I think we should try to focus on the movement and -let’s say- liveliness between these poles rather than on the poles themselves. And so we can see that metamodernism does NOT include everything and is not just an empty, pseudo intellectual frame but a term / principle / structure of feeling that gets its power THROUGH its vagueness and indefinability. Also for me even this description is a metamodern piece – it can hardly be understood in a rational way but must be felt.

  6. Mirela Vijulie

    somehow what Damien said seems to be logical, underlining the precarious position the term metamodernism has currently.I also agree with Dennis- we need some time to think of, and some perspective,both spatial and temporal, in order to have a stable image of this moving trend

  7. Matt Humphries

    Damien’s observation that this feels a bit like “Metamodernism™” is accurate. However, I also feel this is a necessary step in establishing our contemporary climate. Slapping another -ism on our culture may be unhealthy, but I think it’s a necessary first step in what I personally see as overcoming postmodernism’s deeply-felt constrictions. “Metamodernism” might seem like a phrase resulting from trigger-happy intellectuals who are ready to declare a new artistic era at the slightest sign in order to alter our direction, but I think that this only further reflects the descriptions of it given so far. The term alludes to artists beginning to explore again with a somewhat renewed confidence, yet still needing reassurance that their explorations are not futile; giving it an official umbrella term of sensibility helps in accomplishing this, of encouraging us to keep moving in the direction we’re headed.

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