David Byrne, Choir! Choir! Choir!, David Bowie, “Heroes”: Metamodern?


Here’s one that we want to call metamodern, and yet are challenged to explain why it is metamodern. David Byrne  is a guest participant in this Choir! Choir! Choir! performance of David Bowie’s ““Heroes”.” What Choir! Choir! Choir! does is teach audiences – with no required background in music – to sing fairly complex choral arrangements of popular songs, usually within the space of a couple hours. The performances are professionally recorded and video’d to be shared on the web.

While this video/project is, we feel, sweet, moving and uplifting, that alone is not enough to qualify something as metamodern. Here’s what might be pushing us to put in that category, however:  The structure is postmodernly disruptive of the expected artist-audience relationship, while delivering a feeling of unity through its – in a sense – modernist message. And then there’s the fact that this powerfully earnest delivery (of a song whose original version many hear as ironic) is provided by David Byrne, who for at least part of the hey day of his band Talking Heads could well have been described as an avatar of postmodern ironic distance*. The braiding of these seemingly opposed sensibilities is a hallmark of metamodern work, in this case serving to give expression to the interior felt experience of both audience and performer. Metamodern? Probably? Beautiful and boldly cathartic? Definitely.

*And yet, of course, certain Talking Heads songs like “Creatures of Love” and “And She Was” – well, just about all of Little Creatures (1985) or True Stories (1986) seem so dang proto-metamodern but we’re not going to deal with that right now, except to say that Talking Heads were always ahead of the curve.

Lady Bird: A Metamodern Coming-of-Age Tale

Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird won the 2017 Golden Globe Awards for Best Comedy/Musical and Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan). This may be the first film that treats the transition from Postmodernism to Metamodernism during the dawn of The Aughts as history, with a main character in effect struggling to invent her own metamodern sensibility before the rest of her world has quite gotten on board.

Set in 2002, it tells the story of Christine, a suburban Sacramento high school senior (semi-autobiographically modeled after Gerwig) doing the quirky thing in a dreary world. She insists on being called Lady Bird. She runs for Class President every year knowing full-well she’ll lose. Her hair is dyed pink but this doesn’t mean she’s a countercultural punk, and it doesn’t mean she is not. She’s the kind of person who will throw the door open and jump out of a moving car when she feels misunderstood by her mom. Because that’s how intense life is. Everybody around her thinks she’s kind of weird, but due largely to Lady Bird’s efforts to bridge the gap, and her earnest, internal search for what’s real, and in site of her occasional screw-ups, they find ways to connect with her.

In its approach to story-telling, the film itself has a metamodern flavor. Similar to a lot of television typical of the Metamodern period (think Six Feet UnderBreaking BadMr. Robot), it treats its population of characters fractally, with those who enter the narrative initially as peripheral figures ending up revealing greater depth and detail, making them seem like they too deserve a primary role in a show of their own.

The broad success and off-the-charts glowing reviews – 99% on Rotten Tomatoes is unheard of – garnered by this quiet, honest film, with a quirky female protagonist who is not merely a flattened, manic-pixie-dream-girl stereotype, but reveals reasons for those quirks, may be indicative of a more general acceptance of metamodern tropes and sensibilities in the culture at large.

A Song For Tonya

A note from Sufjan Stevens


I wrote a song for Tonya Harding. It’s not at all related to the new biopic (I sent it to the music supervisors but they couldn’t find a way to use it). This song has been years in the making. I’ve been trying to write a Tonya Harding song since I was 15. I wrote a short piece about it here. There are two versions of the song and we are releasing them on tape cassette (available now) and on 7-inch (available soonish). All digital versions are available now:


Please enjoy. If you don’t know who Tonya Harding is, go see the movie, or read her Wikipedia page. She’s amazing. My prayer is peace on earth. Lord help us.

I love you Tonya.


Sufjan’s song and his ability to look around the difficult corners with love and curiosity epitomizes an aspect of metamodernism we have particular affinity for. Thanks, Sufjan, for making us work a little and stretch and wonder.

Source: s-u-f-j-a-n-s-t-e-v-e-n-s

“Metamodernism is not a program…”

Excerpt of interview of Timotheus Vermeulen about Metamodernism from Tank Magazine:

Cher Potter: You and Robin [van den Akker] never took to the idea of a manifesto. However, the artist Luke Turner has put one together for you, consisting of eight principles with the ambitious and heart-warming final call: “We must go forth and oscillate”. Do you feel it does the theory justice?
Timoteus Vermeulen: I feel Luke’s manifesto summarises well some of the developments we would say characterise metamodernism. However, for Robin and myself, metamodernism is not a program, is not a call for whatever kind of protest. On the contrary. Although we are personally quite excited by some of the trends and tendencies in the arts and literature, we are far less thrilled about certain recent events in politics – such as the rise of right-wing populism, or the disintegration of the political centre, to name just a few. Again, I should emphasise: metamodernism is an attempt to come to terms with what is happening all around us, not a blueprint for how to achieve it.

Full interview, here.

Why Beasts of the Southern Wild is Metamodern

Beasts of the Southern Wild (co-written by Ben Zeitlinand Lucy Alibar, directed by Ben Zeitlin), came out of nowhere and was nominated in several categories in the 2012 Academy Awards, including the youngest-ever nominee for Best Actress (6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis). The film – we’ll get to why we think it is a great example of metamodernism shortly – depicts the plight of a ramshackle community eking out an apparently difficult but often joyous life in an area in Louisiana known as “The Bathtub” because of its location on the Gulf-facing side of a levee meant to protect “the real world” from storms. It’s not clear, but it seems that the folks on the “civilization” side of the levee may not even know that there are people living in The Bathtub. They have chickens and goats and plenty of seafood all around them. Somehow they are getting their hands on fuel to power their motorboats and light their stoves, and things like that, even though they may be cut off from the outside economy. Shortly after all of this is established, The Big Storm hits, and the story is about how the people who live in The Bathtub cope.

This world is presented from the vantage point of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (played by Wallis), who is being raised alone by her father Wink (Dwight Henry), and whose mother has either died or left the family. As a father, Wink is at times belligerent and irresponsible, but also loving, proud, playful, inspired, and fiercely protective. He disappears occasionally, and it becomes apparent that the reason for his absences is that he is grappling with a serious medical issue, and leaving The Bathtub to go to a clinic for examinations and treatment, something he wants to hide from his daughter. The Big Storm arrives as he is returning from one of these journeys, leaving him just enough time to find Hushpuppy, bring her back to their home, and prepare for the two of them and their dog to ride out the storm.

Meanwhile, woven around and through the story there is a fantasy element: Aurochs – ancient, giant buffalo-like creatures, in the reality of the film –  have been frozen in the Polar ice until now when, with the melting of glaciers, they are being released, alive and presenting some sort of looming threat to humans. By the end of the film the aurochs reach The Bathtub, and engage in a crucial standoff with Hushpuppy.

What’s Metamodern about it?

1) Well, first of all, the whole “aurochs” thing is a great example of Performatism.

Performatism, as used by Raoul Eshelman, is a theory proposing that some literary/filmic works have escaped the confines of postmodern irony/skepticism by creating narratives built on nested “double frames.” The outer frame of a performatist double-frame is some sort of a fantasy reality with its own rules about how the world works. The performatist inner frame is the actual story of the characters and their emotions. Eshelman’s idea is that the outer frame of fantasy creates a sort of anti-irony wall protecting the inner frame’s earnest emotional truth. Whereas postmodernism normally works by dissolving the boundaries of a narrative from the real world, this sort of performatist work forces the reader/viewer to first commit to a narrative that is indisputably separated from the world the reader sits in, and having done that, the reader is in a position to relate to the subjective experiences of the characters on their own terms. In other words, the reader is prevented from – and freed from the obligation of – taking an ironic or skeptical stance towards the characters’ felt experiences.

Although Eshelman’s theory stands on its own as an examination of double frames and as a particular literary technique, we feel that double framing can be considered one among several techniques employed by metamodern cultural artifacts, works of art that foreground the validity of subjectivity and felt experience.

2) The kid thing. 

The film presents complex, very “grown-up” issues through the eyes of a child. Although Hushpuppy is clearly precocious, she is still a kid and she’s kid-cute. The cuteness factor simultaneously keeps the film from getting too dark and morose, AND puts it, in a sense, off-limits from external sarcasm/irony. A not-uncommon trait found in metamodern work is children being used as key figures in stories that are intended for adults. (For example: Miranda July’s film Me and You and Everyone We Know, Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom.)

3) The film’s depiction of the web of life and the place of humans in it. 

Some of the most beautiful photography in Beasts of the Southern Wild involves swarms of animal life that are also potentially food for humans, just as humans are potential food for the aurochs. As Hushpuppy’s teacher, Miss Bathsheba, explains:

“Meat. Meat meat meat. Every animal is made out of meat.
I’m meat. Your ass is meat.
Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.”

This sort of blending of categories, with everything being a context for something else, has a postmodern tone to it, and yet, embedded within it, we see Hushpuppy repeatedly honoring the personhood of the animals she encounters. Because even though we’re all meat, Miss Bathsheba also explains:

“The most important thing I can teach you?? You gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are.”

Metamodern work embraces, or at least acknowledges, postmodern contextualism, but not for the purpose of dissolving the sense of self, but instead to emphasize the cruciality of self-hood at each node in the web of life and in meaning-making.

4) How the film handles race.

The film’s treatment of race is complex, and a couple paragraphs cannot fully do it justice, but here are just a couple key points:

The residents of The Bathtub are about an equal mixture of black and white. Not only do they all get along pretty well and take care of each other, but it almost seems like skin color is not a thing, for them, at all. There is no sense that the white people are making an effort to extend themselves to the black people, or vice versa. They just deal with each other as people. So, idealistically, it depicts a kind of post-racial community.

And yet the film is not in denial about the challenges imposed on people of color. The inhabitants of The Bathbub may have a color-blind attitude with respect to each other, but the film itself is aware that the Bathtub community’s collective plight is indicative of conditions faced systemically by marginalized people in the United States, and the film does not hide that reality. Indeed, the film oscillates between a postmodernforegrounding of difficulties faced by marginalized Americans, a sympathetic depiction of the modernist urban authorities seeking to help them, and a metamodern honoring of the subjective values that give The Bathtub residents meaning and dignity in their lives.

5) And then we’ll end with this exemplary quote from Hushpuppy, which would stand on its own in any context as metamodern GOLD:

“All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting and talking to each other in ways I can’t understand. Most of the time they probably be saying, ‘I’m hungry or I gotta poop’ or sometimes they be talking in codes.”

End of an Era?

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.

Arthur Miller