Storytelling — Mediocre Metamodernism

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Narrativium

As I continue my own experiments with fiction, I have been thinking lazily about metamodernism. By which I mostly mean I recently re-read David Foster Wallace’s E. Unibas Pluram, read the Wikipedia page, caught up with Shia Laboeuf’s shenanigans, and have kinda primed myself to notice mentions of the term (it has been trending on Twitter a bit since Everything, Everywhere, All at Once hit theaters). I have also been unsystematically reading some subset of essays on the topic that catch my eye. I haven’t read any of the weighty academic tomes on the topic, and don’t intend to. I haven’t sampled any of the high-culture literary novels that are tagged metamodern on various lists, because they don’t particularly pique my interest.

My main interest is in cultivating a rough feel for what it’s about, and allow it to shape the context of my writing to the extent that seems like an energizing thing to do.

Ironically (is it metamodern gaucherie to notice irony at all?), “feeling into” context is apparently the central concern of metamodernism according to this interesting essay by Jonathan Rowson which just crossed my radar:

We are now obliged to create meaning and fashion agency within the context of  meta-crises of perception and understanding relating to ecological, social and institutional breakdown, where one world seems to be dying, and another is trying to be born. The point of metamodernism is therefore to help us better perceive our historical context by developing theories and practices that allow us to feel into what it means to be in a time between worlds, where meta-crises relating to meaning and perception abound and we struggle to perceive clearly who we are and what we might do; where meta-theories seem friendly because mere theory feels absurdly specific; where nostalgic longing feels like it is as much about the future as the past, and where we sometimes feel like being ridiculously romantic and romantically ridiculous. To be metamodern is to be caught up in the co-arising of hope and despair, credulity and incredulity, progress and peril, agency and apathy, life and death. I had mixed feelings about metamodernism until I realised it is about mixed feelings.

This is a surprisingly accurate description of where I’m trying to go with my fiction experiments (the whole essay is worthwhile), so perhaps I am metamodern after all. But just to avoid annoying arguments over definitions, I’ll call the version I am laying out here mediocre metamodernism, since mediocrity plays a key role for me.

I like Rowson’s characterization better than the usual one that treats metamodernism as a sort of kayfabe sincerity that attempts to trick itself out of irony without retreating into naivete. This has always struck me as a contemporary version of Baron Munchausen’s tall tale of lifting himself up by his bootstraps. An impossible operation if defined that way.

As far as I can tell, the term metamodernism as normally used generally refers to things like elaborate twitter performance-art pieces, such as Seth Abramson’s vast “Trump-Russia nexus” threadthulhu, or whatever the hell Shia Laboeuf has been doing with his life since Transformers. The emphasis in such examples seems to be on performance that convinces itself it is has successfully avoided both irony and naivete… somehow.

In practice the “somehow” seems to be: dive into action that is so frenzied and inchoate, you have no time to ponder whether it is ironic or naive. Action that vaguely seems to add up to something but upon closer examination, doesn’t. Action that nobody, not even the author, can prove is not sincere. Credibly avoiding the charge of insincerity, rather than genuinely feeling or convincingly demonstrating sincerity, seems to be the point. I’m on board with that aim. I just don’t think this particular way of doing it actually works.

Rick’s catchphrase on Rick and Morty, “Don’t think about it!” would be a good motto for this kind of metamodernism-by-inchoate-frenzy.

There is necessarily a kind of frenzied energy in this approach because if you pause to reflect, you might slip into irony or despair, and that would not do. So the trick is to keep running and mixing things up and forcing yourself to face new contextual surprises to react to. The similarity to kayfabe is not an accident — the performance element in pro-wrestling also relies on frenzied action and histrionics to successfully (and stably) occupy the liminal space between irony and naivete, without quite admitting it to yourself.

The prefix meta- is actually rather curious to apply to this posture, if you do think about it, since it tries to avoid going meta with studious aggression. It’s like letting reality drive you into a punch-drunk stupor.

But even if it does sort of work sometimes, this way of thinking about it has its shortcomings. If you can’t actually stop to reflect and think about what you are doing, you can’t do particularly sophisticated things. An alleged new sincerity that is only stable when chaotically on an accelerationist speedrun (from reality? towards reality?) is not really worth much is it? It can only sustain relatively shallow, unchallenging efforts. This is why I share growing concerns about Musk’s recent behavior — that sort of metamodern theater might “win Twitter” or even the White House, but it does not exactly inspire confidence in someone’s ability to lead space programs or innovative car companies where “don’t think about it” is an attitude that can kill.

Rowlson’s characterization of “feeling into” context is useful here, because it suggests that a calmer, deeper metamodern attitude, one that can draw on both contemplative and performative modes of being, and access a wider range of tempos of engagement of reality, is possible.

Let’s unpack that a little bit. Seth Abramson’s way of “feeling into” the context of news around Trump and Russia was frenzied because it reacted to everything. A kind of real-time indiscriminate overfitting of noise and signal. It’s become a common authorial mode on Twitter in the last few years because it is an incredibly effective way to farm engagement. Even if you are not actually on top of a reality of constant meta-crises, you can convey the impression that you’ve gotten inside the OODA loop of reality and are taking others along on your exhilarating ride.

But people are getting better at this on Twitter, and doing more real “feeling into” their contexts.

One of my new favorite masters of this kind of performance is Kamil Galeev, who has been doing one of the best metamodern threadthulhus lately, on the Ukraine war. Another is Sarah Taber, who does this with the agriculture industry. There is still something of a manic quality to their tweeting, but it feels pulled back from the frenzied crazy of earlier examples, and at least somewhat more trustworthy and real.

If it seems like I’m overusing Twitter as a source of examples, that’s because it has turned into the earliest mass medium where a lot of people have figured out how to do metamodernism well. I suspect the mode hasn’t really been figured out in more complex media like television or longform text yet.

But what does it mean to “feel into” context in a more discriminating way? Do we mean separating signal and noise in a modernist sense, where signal is “objective truth” and noise is “lies”?

I don’t think so. Without dwelling on the epistemoligical can of worms there, let’s just set it aside as reactionary nostalgia and consider a second hypothesis.

Perhaps signal is “relevant things” and noise is “irrelevant things?”

Not the obvious, logical kind of relevance. For example, if your goal is to write about Ukraine, news from Ukraine is obviously relevant, and other things are only relevant if you can spot a logical connection. That’s sort of a commodity level relevance for doing anything at all coherent. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about relevance to a way of looking at your goal; relevance to a paradigm. For example, another Trump-era metamodernist project was the Lincoln Project, which had several good threads about how Trump ought to be understood as a sort of cartoon mafioso. So relevance there is paradigm relevance.

A mafia-politics nexus is a paradigmatic view of all politics, a lens you can apply to any part of the the broader political landscape. When you use that paradigm, you act as if that paradigm explains everything of interest. It is a totalizing ontological lens.

You include things that harmonize with the preferred paradigm and exclude things that don’t. The whole thing hangs together at least aesthetically if not logically. You’re improvising a movie plot out of current events. There’s a high concept in there.

Here we have a subtle shift. A paradigm is not a goal. Goals can fit into paradigms, but paradigms themselves are much more expansive things. They are a way of viewing larger swathes of reality beyond the immediate object of interest, and a way of organizing both action and the context of action. The larger swathes are often megalomaniacally larger. Many unfolding metamodernist threadthulhus on twitter have a messianic energy to them that seems to take the whole world as its context (climate change is catnip to metamodern messiahs).

So the metamodern method, I suspect, is to feel your way into a context by way of a totalizing paradigm, and the kind of harmony you become attuned to is a conspiratorially projected ontological harmony. You feel into the context not to sense what is, but who you are.

You “see” and include the sorts of things that might exist in the universe you’re projecting onto the world. A coherent aesthetic is sometimes a useful indicator of the ontological harmony you’re constructing, but is not, in my view, a central feature. You can have ontological harmony without much of a clear aesthetic attached.

Metamodern paradigms shaping a work or a life are not paradigms in a physics sense, though they are related. They are much more like unconscious personal dispositions. Aggressive subjectivities if you will.

There is a strong connection to felt agency here, as in “when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.” Or perhaps a better example is the tendency to notice Volkswagens everywhere once you’ve bought a Volkswagen. A pareidolia shaped by a pattern of identity evolution; the world’s being being shaped by your becoming (in this example, the acquisition of a car, which is typically a possession that is strongly integrated into identity).

So personal metamodern paradigms foster agent-y dispositions as the Rowson quote earlier suggests. They get you viewing the world in a way that does not render you helpless and inactive. You get to do things! You are powerful!

But the cost is that thoughtfully considered relevance can degenerate into unconscious hypersensitivity to mere salience.

This explains the relation to the degenerate frenzied-action view of metamodernism — if you have a hammer in your hand, not only does everything look like a nail, but you can and must hammer at everything incessasntly. If you notice Volkswagens everywhere, the world must be explainable in terms of Volkswagens, and this explanation must be constantly, actively, actually constructed. If you believe in bitcoin, you must believe that bitcoin solves everything, and organize your life around making it so.

Yes, crypto-maximalism is metamodern performance.

Such frenzied grasping for agency (world-shaping agency, no less) usually fails. Real agency compounds and grows in complexity the more you use it, and you can progressively “load” it to do more effortful things. It is painful to acquire, and takes time to master. You can’t thrash about in a frenzy even if you want to.

Fictive agency on the other hand, just sucks you into thrashing about getting nowhere, and doesn’t build any sort of muscle. But it can absorb as much energy as you care to pump into it, in pursuit of trying to feel alive.

But I suspect there is something healthy about a disposition that instinctively reaches for agency by feeling into context through the right paradigm. Why not view the world through a paradigm that stirs you into action? Does it matter that the paradigm is a crazy alt-reality nobody can sincerely believe in if they pause to reflect, if the actions get you to interesting places?

The problem of course, is that most of the time, you don’t get to interesting places.

So is there a calmer way to integrate such a disposition into things you do so that action gets somewhere instead of thrashing about? Where you’re not on a frenzied random run all the time screaming “don’t think about it”?

Note that we’re not asking whether alt-realities can be “grounded” or skeptically scrutinized. We’re merely asking whether they can be made to take you to interesting places that feel meaningful to you. I don’t think solipsism and unreality are the problems metamodernism aims to solve. Neither is it trying to solve the meta-crises it is a response to. It is only trying to get somewhere interesting; a place that makes life worth living despite meta-crises raging all around.

Metamodernism isn’t about trying to stop being crazy. It’s about trying to be crazy in a way that works for you.

One angle I’ve been thinking about is the metaphor of development environments in computing. A development environment — Linux or Windows say — is a very clear case of an ontological scoping paradigm for code. It doesn’t matter how good a bit of tooling is: if it isn’t available in your development environment, it’s useless to you. You can only scope-in things that harmonize well. And the point of a well-tuned dev environment isn’t to get at “truth” or solve “crises” but to make the computer a pleasant device to use.

But any answers to be had here are not easy answers. This meme doing the rounds gets at why:

The thing about development environments is that they can nerdsnipe you badly. There is endless amount of detail you can obsess over getting right. It’s not frenzied action, but it’s a kind of potentially unending displacement activity. It might seem like an entirely justified yak shave, but if all you’re doing is fine-tuning your development environment and never writing any code towards what you want to build, who are you fooling? Are you really having fun, or avoiding finding out that you can’t?

This “I just need to setup my dev environment” pattern of stalling can be found in many other domains. The general syndrome can perhaps be named obsessive-compulsive context curation.

  • For example, a tweet I saw recently made a joke about how people who build productivity systems to find flow end up unable to find flow except when tweaking their productivity systems.
  • Closer to our theme here, the “setup my dev environment” in science fiction is spending all your time on unpublished “world building” notes and never getting any actual completed stories out. The metamodern thing to do there, of course, would be to find a way to publish the world-building itself.
  • DFW’s original E Unibas Pluram argument that prefigured metamodernism as currently understood warned about television as the domain of obsessive-compulsive context curation, where you’re not really writing stories so much as elliptical commentaries trying to configure everybody’s context: television programming.
  • What I have called the Waldenponding tendency — an obsessive curation of non-digitalness of context (“no screen time!” “literally all you have to do is log off and go outside!”) is a way to get stuck setting up your meatspace dev environment.
  • And of course, conspiratorial world views are the perfect example. The type of guy who obsesses endlessly about setting up a dev environment is the same type of guy who wants to explain the whole world in terms of George Soros’ malfeasance, but never actually explains anything.

Each of these is just a kind of “dev environment” over-optimization in lieu of actually living your life. Instead of willing yourself to “not think about it,” you want to get the context so perfect it happens automatically. The hope is, you can somehow automate your personal reality-distortion field so you never see the things you must not think about.

So while the separation between “thing you are trying to do” and “dev environment for the thing” is useful, and an improvement on frenzied metamodern modes, it comes with its own risks.

In trying to think through what can mitigate that risk, it struck me that another of my big current interests, mediocrity, is actually a partial solution here, hence mediocre metamodernism.

An effective sort of metamodern mode is to feel your way into the context, but in a mediocre enough way that you neither get sucked into frenzied action, nor into obsessive-compulsive context curation. Instead of not thinking about it, you give yourself permission to not care about it to the point of perfection. You don’t have to perfectly align your felt context to your operating paradigm. You don’t even need a perfectable operating paradigm.

You just need to organize your context well enough that it energizes your main urges and then gets out of the way. And these “main urges” are rarely obscure or opaque. Me for instance: I want to build a rover, but I don’t care about having a paradigmatically perfect lab/workshop to do it in. I want to write an ambitious science fiction story, but I don’t care about having a paradigmatically perfect built world for it to be in. Ribbonfarm is in some sense my base “dev environment” for everything I do, but it’s rarely set up just right. But so long as projects and ideas are getting out the door or launched from here, I’m happy. Or at least, I’m constantly figuring out whether or not doing specific things makes me happy, which isn’t too shabby. I don’t really bother questioning these urges. I just thank the universe that I have them at all, and yield to them as effectively as possible. Which means arranging the context to get out of the way.

This suggests a third way of looking at the context-feeling posture of metamodernism. It’s neither about scoping in objective truth, nor about scoping in paradigm relevance. It is about iteratively figuring out what you’re able to care about most deeply that can actually take root and grow in the world as it exists. The context is set by things you need to get right enough for that to happen — a dev environment. You “feel into” the context the way roots feel into soil to find nourishment, not the way fingers feel into an unknown substance to figure out its nature. You’re not trying to thread the needle between irony and naivete. You’re trying to thread the needle between caring too much and not caring enough, about things that determine whether or not you can derive nourishment from your environment. That’s the mediocrity ethos: not caring too much about things that don’t matter too much.

Which means, for this to work, you need a seed that can grow roots. And this is not something you can logically deduce from the condition of the world. You cannot start with “what are the biggest problems in the world?” or “how can I be successful?” or “how can I best be of service to the world,” and get there. The seed is something you bring into the world, not something you inherit from it. Your measure of the world, not the world’s measure of you.

If you get this right, you’ll have focused, compounding agency flowing towards something you can make yourself care about in a sustained, stable way, and has a reasonable chance of being more broadly meaningful to the world.

Meta-crises or no meta-crises, you’ll be able to grow into the world.

To bring this back around to storytelling, perhaps metamodernism is about finding a way to care enough about the world to want to tell it stories about itself. The stories don’t have to be true, or make sense, or be useful. You just have to have stories to tell, and want to tell them. If you can do that, you’re already ahead of the game.

And if anyone wants to actually listen, that’s a bonus.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — Narrative Wet Bulb TemperatureStorytelling — Tellability >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. If you throw a word like “metamodernism” at me and I have no idea what it means ( I still don’t have – I haven’t looked it up and your essay is truly awful and the essays you linked to a are even worse ) I would freely associate this: “metamodernism” is postmodernism which has overcome the “post” by adding modernism to the plurality of acceptable world views. It is like LGBTC with “C” standing for “cisnormative” which finally becomes a mode of alternative sexual orientation. Some bio-guy married to a bio-woman is weird – who could deny this? – but can now be proud too. Metamodernism is an acceptable hegemonic discourse.

    “There is one and only one objective reality” is modern, “There is no such thing as objective reality, there are only power structures” is postmodern, “I identify as a believer in objective reality” is metamodern. Subjectivity is queen and she is firm, objectivity is just the strange thing you believe in by accident of historical and environmental determination. You can share your pronouns but asserting a pronoun onto someone else is an intolerable act of violence: you impose a power structure which makes someone else uncomfortable. Not everything goes.

    “I’m into grand narratives like evolution and historical materialism”. Oh that’s creepy, how interesting! Do you have a substack?

  2. But what of actual acceptance? Facing one’s deeper fears? Forget curation or building of dev environment and go inward. Use intuition. Ask God for guidance. It is neither naive nor insincere and, often, provides results outside of what one would intellectually frame out.

  3. Franz Kafka had it right. Metamorphosis.

  4. So mediocre metamodernism as a praxis for doerism philosophy. Seems reasonable enough.

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