Modern, Postmodern, Metamodern

Metamodern? Huh? Yeah, it’s jargony, and it might not even stick as a descriptor, but it beats post-postmodern, its best-known synonym.

If you look at the news, you would deduce that the world’s going to hell. If you look at the medium-term, you might describe the US as having a limping economy with improving but weak employment growth. These short- and medium-term pictures are deceiving and describe our times very inadequately. How about the hundreds of millions out of poverty? Increasing intelligence scores across the planet? Incredible improvements in health and longevity on every continent? These are bigger stories than Dow highs or the dalliances of the French President.

I use metamodern as a term for a worldview that succeeds modern and postmodern. I believe that modern and postmodern perspectives have very helpful explanatory power. Yes, there is progress in many areas because of a scientific worldview (modern). Yes, we need to deconstruct our ideas because the nature and impact of them is complex (postmodern). But to my view modern and postmodern perspectives have basic flaws. Modern (and I mean a faith in scientific progress) thought has the flaw of arrogant inevitability. Think of the “Best and Brightest” of the JFK-LBJ administrations and their conduct of the Vietnam War. Postmodern thought is nihilistic. Where’s the construction in deconstruction? Can you bravely face problems if there is no truth and no right? Metamodern–as I use it, and it’s a very new term subject to evolution at this early stage–is a perspective that incorporates both and goes beyond.

Take development. One archetype of “modern” development is Akosombo Dam in Ghana. It was a grandiose 1960s development scheme that sprung from the minds of scientists. However, there was inadequate concern for the negative impacts and the unintended consequences of the dam, which are still debated today. One postmodern view of development is William Easterley’s book White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2006). Easterley claimed that Western aid to developing countries did more harm than good, and his arguments rang true to me when I read the book eight years ago. I consider the Gates Foundation development strategy a metamodern one: use science, use local resources and networks, shoot for project sustainability, be skeptical, identify exemplars and do what they’re doing. This more pragmatic approach has led, I think, to much of the success we have seen in so many areas in recent decades.

Lists and contrasts:

Modern:  rational, scientific, industrial, top-down, bureaucratic, JFK, Alfred P. Sloan, eugenics, fascism, communism, Marxism, philanthropy of Carnegie

Postmodern: deconstruction, relativism, oppression, social democrats, political correctness, Jimmy Carter, speak my truth, inner child, philanthropy of Newman’s Own and Ben & Jerry, don’t trust anyone…

Metamodern: pragmatic, best practices, positive psychology, public-private ventures, truth and reconciliation, Mandela, Apple, Google, Facebook, philanthropy of Bill & Melinda Gates

In this blog I aspire to see things through a metamodern lens as I describe it above.

Definitions from Wikipedia:

Modernism:  includes the activities and creations of those who felt the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and activities of daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social, and political environment of an emerging fully industrialized world.

Postmodernism: is a late-20th-century movement in the arts, architecture, and criticism that was a departure from modernism. Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosopy, history economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction….

Metamodernism: a recent reaction to postmodernism that combines elements of modernism and postmodernism…. (T)he 2000s are characterized by the return of typically modern positions without altogether forfeiting the postmodern mindsets of the 1990s and 1980s. The prefix ‘meta’ here refers not to some reflective stance or repeated rumination, but to Plato’s metaxy, which intends a movement between opposite poles as well as beyond.

One thought on “Modern, Postmodern, Metamodern

  1. While I like your term “metamodern”, some of the things you listed as examples run counter to your definition of it. Google? Yeah, I remember their “do no evil” mantra. Those days are long gone. Facebook? What social good does it provide other than a way to mindlessly spout nonsense to your friends all the while every bit of your identity, preferences, and opinions are bundled and sold to the highest bidder?

    How about the quaint concepts such as inalienable human rights, the rule of law, representative government, free markets, and property rights? Those three things have done more to improve the human condition than anything I can think of. Certainly, you don’t see anything “metamodern” in societies that don’t recognize and organize themselves along these lines.

    Name a single contribution to high technology that has come out of Cuba.
    Give me the names of the life-saving medicines that have come from the Middle East.
    Name an author of any important literary work who lives in North Korea.

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