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The Metamodern Turn: Toward a Theory of Trump-Era Liberal Culture

“Metamodernism” offers a lens for interpreting the contradictory impulses of liberalism in recent years.

What follows is an a speculative and partial account of the guiding spirit of liberal culture during the Trump years. My focus will be a relatively obscure concept that emerged out of art criticism in the years prior to Trump’s ascent: “metamodernism.” As we shall see, self-proclaimed metamodernists have played a minor but suggestive role in some of the representative cultural production of recent years. More broadly, I will argue, the concept offers a way of understanding the contradictory impulses of liberal politics in the Trump era. I will begin with two episodes from the annals of the early “#Resistance.”

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On Inauguration Day, 2017, actor and artist Shia LaBeouf, along with collaborators Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, unveiled the installation “He Will Not Divide Us” at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The concept was simple: in front of a wall displaying the titular statement, the public was invited to repeat those words into a camera that would livestream onto a website 24/7 throughout the first Trump term. However, the saga that ensued was labyrinthine.

Due to a coordinated campaign of threats and harassment by Trump-supporting 4chan trolls, the project was soon relocated from New York to Albuquerque. The threats continued, and eventually the concept of the livestream was altered: instead of members of the public, a flag emblazoned with the slogan would declare “He Will Not Divide Us” to the webcam, now from an undisclosed remote location.

But within just a day and a half of the flag’s installation, the indefatigable troll battalion had located it in rural Tennessee, apparently by analyzing background elements in the livestream such as the flight paths revealed by contrails. One of the 4chan minions then stole the flag and replaced it with a MAGA hat and a Pepe the frog t-shirt. When “He Will Not Divide Us” resurfaced, with a new flag, it did so first in the UK, then in Nantes, France. A livestream of what’s now a weathered fragment of the flag, the original proclamation long since illegible, can still be viewed on the project’s website.

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Over the course of the 2016 campaign and the early Trump era, University of New Hampshire professor and attorney Seth Abramson went from a little-known experimental writer to a virally famous blogger and social media personality. To give an idea of his meteoric rise: in April 2016, soon after he began blogging about the Bernie Sanders campaign at the Huffington Post, he had just shy of 3,000 Twitter followers. A year later, he had 128,oo0. (He now has 872,000.)

Abramson gained his initial following by arguing that, contrary to media accounts that presented Hillary Clinton’s victory as a foregone conclusion by March 2016, Bernie Sanders could still win the presidential primary. He was ridiculed as a dead-ender by publications like The Atlantic for this stance, but his Huffington Post columns circulated widely among the “Bernie or bust” crowd well into 2016.

After the 2016 election, Abramson shifted focus entirely to detailing an alleged decades-long relationship between Trump and the Russian government. In a series of books, he offered one of the more comprehensive versions of the “Manchurian candidate” narrative that become popular among Democrats in years leading up to the release of the Mueller report. Prior to 2016, Abramson was an obscure poet and academic with a legal background. By 2017, he had rebranded as a journalist spinning out a rococo narrative of geopolitical intrigue.

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The basic linkage between the He Will Not Divide Us installation and the journalistic career of Seth Abramson is that they are both indicative of the type of art and reporting that was in demand among the self-appointed “#Resistance” after the 2016 election. In the face of the supposed threat of “fascism” represented by Trump, artists turned to shrill agitprop; an artwork that consists of inviting people to shout a political slogan into a camera for four years is perhaps the most blatant example of this trend. Meanwhile, many journalists were determined to become the next Woodward and Bernstein, with the explicit aim of ousting the loathed inhabitant of the White House. In this environment, arrivistes like Abramson, whose lack of institutional affiliation allowed him to follow looser standards of fact-checking and sourcing than established reporters might, found a receptive public. (Plenty of established reporters have followed suit, relaxing standards for the sake of generating more effective anti-Trump propaganda.)

But there’s a more specific connection between these representative cultural figures: well before Trump came on the political scene, Abramson and the LaBeouf collective were outspoken adherents of an artistic sensibility called “metamodernism.” Because of this connection, in fact, they had encountered each other back in 2014, well before any of them became involved in liberal activist causes, when Abramson unsuccessfully attempted to include LaBeouf’s tweets in an anthology of experimental writing. (More on this later.)

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One of the earliest systematic accounts of metamodernism appeared in a 2010 article published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture. The authors, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, define this concept as a “structure of feeling” that is “characterized by the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment.” As they explain, “the prefix ‘meta’ refers to such notions as ‘with,’ ‘between,’ and ‘beyond'”; accordingly, they continue, “metamodernism should be situated epistemologically with (post) modernism, ontologically between (post) modernism, and historically beyond (post) modernism.” What exactly does this mean? Roughly, the idea is that “metamodernism” accepts the postmodern account (made famous by Jean-François Lyotard) of the demise of “grand narratives,” but also remains open to the potential for reconstructing just such narratives. As Vermeulen and van den Akker explain this overtly self-contradictory stance: “inspired by a modern naïveté yet informed by postmodern skepticism, the metamodern discourse consciously commits itself to an impossible possibility.”

Vermeulen and van den Akker’s approach is descriptive: they aim not to promote the metamodern sensibility, but to characterize certain trends visible in the arts in the first decade of the new millennium. For his part, prior to his more successful career as an anti-Trump Twitter personality and self-made journalist, Seth Abramson was an evangelist of metamodernism. Before he embraced aggressive partisan politics, this was his main area of professional activity, and it explicitly shaped his earliest political writings. Today, he presents himself as a dead-serious journalist and legal expert, but back in 2016 he defined his coverage of the Sanders campaign as a kind of “experimental journalism” that “deduced from the range of the possible and impossible other metanarratives beyond those presently acceptable to mainstream journalists.” Rather than merely debunking the mainstream media’s metanarratives, as a postmodernist might, Abramson proposed to “imagine what an equally accurate and reasonable and just master narrative sitting alongside the one promoted by the corporate media would look like.” This, he explained, was a metamodernist enterprise, informed by the idea that “multiple master narratives or metanarratives can co-exist in the same space.”

If this sounds not entirely different from Kellyanne Conway’s notorious remark about “alternative facts” and the associated “post-truth” anxieties that emerged after Trump’s victory, that’s because it isn’t. Abramson himself made a version of this point well before Conway made her infamous remark. In another Huffpost piece, he defined Trump’s presidential run as the “first metamodern political campaign.” As he explained, Trump is “a true believer in his own metanarrative, even as he can’t help but notice that most others don’t take it seriously”; but this contradiction does not bother him because “metamodernism allows us to juxtapose ideas without destroying or even diminishing any of them.” Hence, “[a] metamodern reading of Trump’s candidacy is that it’s every bit as earnest as it is insincere — and that this doesn’t, in fact, lead us to a paradox.” Conway’s “alternative facts” remark, which concerned then White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s outlandish claims about the number of attendees at Trump’s inauguration, seems consistent with the “metamodern” worldview Abramson is laying out here. She did not attempt to refute the “master narrative”: she merely suggested that another narrative was possible, much as Abramson claimed to be doing in 2016 when he asserted Bernie Sanders was still winning.

Abramson’s post on “experimental journalism” was, among other things, an acknowledgement that many found his assertion that Sanders was on track to win the Democratic nomination a serious stretch. His description of Trump as “a true believer in his own metanarrative, even as he can’t help but notice that most others don’t take it seriously” appears to have applied equally well to himself. Since Trump’s ascent, however, Abramson has not voiced any metamodern self-awareness about the intricate conspiratorial narratives he has elaborated about the President’s supposed ties to the Kremlin. In 2016, he still prominently cited his background in poetry and experimental literature; today, the credentials he tends to insist on are his Harvard law degree and his record of prestigious publications. Having formerly railed against the establishment’s unwillingness to entertain alternative narratives, he now stakes his credibility in large part on his mainstream institutional legitimation. (He has also sometimes seemed to falsely imply he is a professor of law rather than literature and writing, an interesting shift for someone who not long ago argued passionately for the political value of the imagination.)

The trajectory of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, the artistic collective responsible for “He Will Not Divide Us,” resembles Abramson’s in broad strokes. Prior to entering the political fray in 2016, Luke Turner, one member of the group, was an a prolific proponent of metamodernism in the art world, just as Abramson was taking up the same cause in the literary sphere. In 2011, not long after Vermeulen and van den Akker’s article appeared, Turner published a brief “Metamodernist Manifesto,” the language of which seems to have influenced some of Abramson’s later statements on the subject. Turner defines metamodernism as “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons.” Abramson’s own more verbose and elaborate “metamodernist manifesto,” which appeared three years after Turner’s, does not cite the latter, and the two rival metamodernists came into conflict around the time it appeared. In 2014, the same year he published his manifesto, Abramson attempted to include some of Shia LaBeouf’s tweets in an anthology he was editing, evidently without permision, and used LaBeouf’s well-known name to publicize the book. As a consequence, he received a cease-and-desist letter from LaBeouf’s attorney. (Four years later, Abramson took to Twitter to accuse Turner of lying about this incident to a Daily Beast journalist.)

Turner’s “Metamodernist Manifesto” was the starting point of his collaboration with LaBeouf and Rönkkö. Many of their earlier projects centered on LaBeouf’s celebrity status: in the first, for instance, LaBeouf appeared at various events with a paper bag over his head that stated “I am not famous anymore.” It’s plausible to read the trio’s ultimate confrontation with Donald Trump in 2017 not just as a a weaponization of art for partisan politics but as a contest with a more successful metamodernist conceptual artist (this, let’s recall, was more or less Abramson’s read on Trump in early 2016) whose work also revolved around the dramatization of his own celebrity.

Abramson’s post-2016 journalistic oeuvre and “He Will Not Divide Us” share the tone of fervent conviction and defiant opposition to the man in the White House that has been the hallmark of Trump-era liberalism. Absolute moral certainty combined with perpetual, seething outrage has been the standard posture of everyone from the average bluecheck on Twitter to the majority of legacy media columnists to middle-aged Facebook users to the MSNBC hosts who treat them to a daily dose of what Emmet Penney, in a perceptive early critique of Trump-era liberal culture, dubbed “lectureporn.” This sermonizing spirit would seem to be the opposite number of the deconstructive postmodern irony and cynical distance that metamodernists like Abramson and Turner had once criticized.

However, the latter’s pre-2016 metamodernist writings raise some questions about the nature of their Trump-era engagé stance. Does Abramson sincerely believe that the US government fell under the control of Vladimir Putin in early 2017? Or might his post-2016 crusading journalist persona be another metamodern literary experiment? Suggestively, his 2014 manifesto featured fake citations from what turned out to be a fictional scholar of metamodernism invented by Abramson; in a similar vein, could post-2016 “Seth Abramson” be another fictional mask worn by Seth Abramson, the experimental writer? For their part, did Turner and his collaborators really believe that livestreaming a slogan onto the internet for four years was a crucial contribution to the struggle against fascism? Or was it more of a performance of conviction? The metamodernist writings of both figures suggest that this is, on one level, a false choice. Turner, for instance, wrote that “[t]he metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.” Abramson, in a similar vein, stated with reference to the opposition of irony and sincerity that “the metamodern artwork . . . has no interest in these polar spectra.”

On the other hand, both have sought to make clear that their recent political commitments as fully sincere. Abramson has given no indication that he was anything other than deadly serious about his elaborate Trump-Russia collusion narratives, and tends to respond angrily when his credibility is questioned. (For example, when a journalist asked the University of New Hampshire to confirm that he was not employed as a professor of law, but of English, Abramson emailed the journalist to accuse him of “crossing some lines” and told him “everything you do now . . . is being compiled.”) Turner, for his part, has publicly attacked several other other artists in recent years and accused them of being apologists for Trump and/or the alt-right.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that a certain unseriousness or ironic distance underlies these performances of deep conviction is that both, Abramson in particular, seem to be dedicated above all (like their nemesis Trump) to posting. If they are engaged in a war against fascism, it is fought largely in the virtual domain of Twitter, at least in Abramson’s case; for Turner, it is largely a war on soft targets (others in the art world whom he has come into conflict with) rather than against the presumably more powerful and dangerous enemies.

The spirit of Trump-era liberal culture, this foray into metamodern theory and its proponents suggests, looks a lot like an inversion of its better-known ideological counterpart (and the chief antagonist of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner): the ironic meme culture of the alt-right. The standard account of the latter relies on a distinction between rhetorical style and political commitment. Ludic irony, the standard account of this culture asserts, offered it a means of expanding the bounds of acceptable discourse by presenting extremist beliefs (anti-Semitism, white nationalism, misogyny, and so on) as just “for the lulz.” The bewildering play of meaning within 4-chan-incubated troll culture, in this reading, provided cover for the rise of a genuinely committed movement of true believers. The rhetorical style of metamodern liberalism is a diametrically opposed phenomenon. Its earnest, moralistic self-presentation have made it the constant target of 4chan trolls since 2016 (the “He Will Not Divide Us” saga is perhaps the most remarkable instance of this antagonism). But beneath this fervent moralizing there often seems to be little in the way of a positive political project beyond opposition to the occupant of the White House and anyone who can be accused of sympathizing with him. The postmodern stylings of the alt-right at least sometimes conceal a deeper commitment to a political program. Conversely, the metamodernists’ own writings suggest that all their fervor and sincerity is in tension with a sense that, as Abramson put it in 2016, “master narratives are, of course, nonsense”—their own included.

Metamodernism, as it was originally defined, embodied a search for earnest, even naïve, conviction amidst the fragmented cultural sphere of mediatized hypercapitalism that had incubated postmodern irony. The Trump presidency permitted liberals to imagine themselves as insurgents against fascist totalitarianism and to recast partisan politics as a Cold War spy thriller. Participating in this elaboration of a new “master narrative,” which offered to the bewildered liberal public a satisfying sensation of moral certainty, was irresistible to adherents of metamodernism like Abramson and the LaBeouf collective. Only time will tell whether the metamodernists will persist in this frenzied meaning-making enterprise once Trump has vacated the White House, or retreat back into their lower-stakes pre-2016 activities.