Part V: Metamodernism

Tribespeople are defined, in part, by sharing the same culture.  I argue that #TribeLRT shares the culture of metamodernism.  What is metamodernism?  Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker describe metamodernism as a specific structure of feeling, or sensibility, that many people in Western culture currently express.  The metamodern sensibility has a specific sort of character, which Vermeulen and van den Akker describe like this:

Metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivety and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.

The best way to understand this quote is to consider films and works of art that theorists have called “metamodern.”  Vermeulen and van den Akker suggest that the metamodern sensibility might best be understood by engaging with the films and works of art that most clearly express it.

Consider, for instance, the films of Wes Anderson, who has directed Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), among other films.  Also consider the American crime drama Breaking Bad, which ran on television from 2008 to 2013.  These films and shows, and others like them, seem to oscillate between – move back and forth between – different feelings and attitudes.  They oscillate between irony on the one hand and sincerity on the other, empathy on the one hand and apathy on the other, hope on the one hand and melancholy on the other.  These films and shows sometimes almost regain the innocence and naivety of childhood but this naivety is always contrasted with harsh experience and life knowledge.

Foucault’s Pendulum at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris

Vermeulen and van den Akker suggest that we can – strictly metaphorically – visualize the metamodern sensibility expressed by these films and shows as a pendulum swinging back and forth between countless poles.  Each time the pendulum swings toward sincerity, gravity eventually pulls it in the opposite direction, toward irony.  Each time it reaches toward empathy, gravity pulls it back toward apathy.  Sincerity and irony are both present in these films and shows and do not diminish each other. They are simply different poles between which the films and shows swing.  This, then, gives a sense – though only a partial one – of the surprisingly complex notion of the metamodern sensibility.  I contend that this is also the sensibility shared by all of the members of the common tribe engaged with #TAKEMEANYWHERE.

LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner describe #TAKEMEANYWHERE in the same romantic language that Vermeulen and van den Akker use when they discuss metamodernism. Recall, from above, that both Luke and Shia have spoken about the “naivety” involved in #TAKEMEANYWHERE.  Luke explicitly used the phrase “informed naivety” to describe the project.  Vermeulen and van den Akker use exactly the same phrase in their description of metamodernism.  They claim that the metamodern mindset “can be conceived as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.”  They suggest that people like me, who have a metamodern sensibility, tend to naively strive forward toward idealistic goals.  We act as if achieving our grand goals is possible, despite the fact that – if we really paid attention to the world – we would be aware of the great likelihood of failure.  In one work of art, titled Broken Fall (1971), artist Bas Jan Ader films himself climbing a tree until he falls.  He aims to fulfill the task of climbing to the end of the branches despite – if he paid attention – the impossibility of success.

Below, I will discuss a number of other similarities in the language used by Vermeulen and van den Akker and the language used by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. The three artists intentionally appealed to these scholars’ language and theory when they described #TAKEMEANYWHERE.  LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner meant for #TAKEMEANYWHERE to be viewed as metamodern art.  So too, we can view the tribe associated with the project – #TribeLRT – as a tribe defined, in part, by metamodern culture.

Luke’s own philosophy of art was heavily influenced by Vermuelan and van den Akker.  He writes about them and cites their work in an article he, himself, wrote titled, “Metamodernism:  A Brief Introduction.”  Luke is also co-editor the online journal Notes on Metamodernism with Robin van den Akker.

Nastja and Shia, too, are clearly aware of the work of Vermeulen and van den Akker, both indirectly through talking with Luke, and also more directly, through meeting and working with the two scholars.  LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner performed their project titled “#METAMARATHON” outside of a museum in Amsterdam while a symposium on metamodernism, which Vermeulen and van den Akker helped to organize, was taking place inside the building.  During #METAMARATHON, all three artists, dressed in silly outfits, ran laps around the museum.  Random strangers, who watched #METAMARATHON, could choose to run laps with Shia, or to run laps “for” him, while he rested.  During part of #METAMARATHON, Vermeulen and van den Akker, who helped to organize the symposium, were giving an academic presentation inside the museum.  In essence, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner literally ran laps around the two scholars.

Screencap of Shia’s Performance for Vermeulen’s Class

Shia also participated in a university class taught by Timotheus Vermeulen.  Shia Skyped in to the class, and gave a performative reading of a paper Vermeulen co-wrote with van den Akker, in which they define metamodernism and use phrases such as “informed naivety.”

So, when LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner use language that is similar to that employed by Vermeulen and van den Akker, it is no accident.  They mean for their audience to be able to view #TAKEMEANYWHERE through a metamodern lens, if their audience so chooses.  Consider, for example, the artists’ brief description of #TAKEMEANYWHERE, which they published at the beginning of their journey.  The artists write:

The American road trip has long been symbolic of a collective yearning to seek out beauty and truth within a corrupt nation. As part of MediaLive 2016’s theme on corruption, #TAKEMEANYWHERE asks, can we find such truths within the corrupted networks of society, and preserve something of the utopian naivety of the Internet age?

In this quote the artists use the phrase “utopian naivety.”  It is clear that the three artists, during #TAKEMEANYWHERE, embraced metamodern informed naivety.  In the quote, the artists contrast the phrase “utopian naivety” with the phrase “corrupt nation.”  No doubt, the three artists know that the world is corrupt.  We live in a world in which Pippa Bacca was raped and killed while hitchhiking.  We cannot get in cars with strangers.  While the three artists hitchhiked across the country, a shooter killed forty-nine people in a nightclub in Orlando.  But, nonetheless, like Pippa Bacca and Silvia Moro in “Brides on Tour,” the three artists continue to strive for truth, beauty, trust, hope and human connection.  They naively embrace the idea of utopia and making the world a better place.  At the very least, they openly question if preserving utopia is possible.  Is it possible to grasp hold of some part of a utopia of trust and beauty?

The three artists were appealing to the theories of metamodernism when they used the term “informed naivety” to describe #TAKEMEANYWHERE.  Arguably, they also appealed to metamodernism when they wrote about “utopia.”  Vermeulen and van den Akker contend that the notion of utopia appears in many metamodern artworks.  Luke Turner himself claims that metamodernism “does describe a climate in which yearning for utopias, despite their futile nature, has come to the fore.”  The metamodernist artist, he writes, can “attempt to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.”  The metamodern artist might, on some deep level, know that true utopia cannot be realized, and that we lack the conceptual tools to imagine it, but the artist chooses to naively pursue it nonetheless, as if it is possible.  In the case of #TAKEMEANYWHERE, utopia would undoubtedly include beauty, truth, trust, and warming human conception.

On board the S.S. Badger, in the middle of Lake Michigan, Jacky was cold.  She was enjoying herself, and loved the people she was with.  Still, she had not expected to follow LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner onto a boat in the middle of the night.  She had not brought a jacket.  She was shivering.  At that point, everyone was out on the deck, sitting on chairs or on the floor, or leaning against the railings.  Waves lapped against the boat.  Jacky kept her arms crossed in front of her, trying to stay warm.

One of the girls from the group noticed how cold she was, and offered Jacky her coat.  But the coat was too small, so Jacky gave it back.  Meanwhile, Shia had been talking to some other people, and had overheard part of Jacky’s conversation.  He had figured out that someone was cold, but, having missed most of the conversation, he did not know who.

“Who’s cold?” Shia asked.   Before anyone could give an answer, he approached a different girl, thinking that she was the one who was cold.  The girl said, “No,” and gestured toward Jacky.

“Here, take my jacket,” Shia said.  He immediately started to drape his coat over Jacky’s shoulders, and assisted her until her arms were through.  He bundled her in to make sure she was warm.  “All of my shit is in the pockets,” Shia said, “Just so you know.”  Shia trusted Jacky enough to wear his jacket with his phone, wallet, cigarettes, and whatever other miscellaneous things were in there.  “We weren’t always together,” Jacky writes.  “Sometimes he’d go off with a couple of the guys or I would go to the bathroom.  So his trust was incredible to receive.”

Jacky describes herself as someone who “dreams about things that seem impossible.”  She writes, “I think about things that will most likely never be.  And most importantly, I never stop.”  Sitting on the boat in the middle of the night, talking with Shia and Luke and Nastja, Jacky thought about her greatest dreams for the future, some of which she had come, over time, to think were outside her grasp.  “But if I rode a boat with Shia LaBeouf while wearing his jacket, then surely nothing is out of my reach.  So now, I will still dream.”

Part VI: Speaking the Same Language

Consider communities of people with similar interests who regularly communicate with each other on the Internet.  Some theorists suggest that we should rightly call some of these communities “tribes,” because they appear to be their own unique societies with distinct customs and cultures.  When we use the word “tribe” this way, it becomes just as open and inclusive – and just as free of hierarchical structure – as we typically think of the term “community.”

On Twitter, we might define a community as a group of people who are connected by mutual messages.  Suppose that Elijah and Sarah each address tweets to each other, and suppose Sarah and Adela also address tweets to each other.  The way many theorists describe communities, Elijah, Sarah, and Adela might possibly all be in the same community, even though Elijah and Adela don’t know each other at all.  There are many Twitter communities like this – people who are all connected to each other by mutual messages, but who are not strongly connected to members of other communities.

Are authors right to refer to some of these communities as “tribes”?  Earlier, I noted that some theorists distinguish one tribe from another on the basis of their language, with each tribe speaking a distinct language or dialect.  Even if two tribes technically speak the same language, there are often noticeable differences in their grammar or vocabulary, and so the two tribes are said to speak different dialects.  Theorists have demonstrated that while distinct Twitter communities may not speak different languages – or even have different dialects – they nonetheless do show marked differences in their use of language.  This gives us some reason to think that it might be reasonable to think of them as “tribes.”

Members of some Twitter communities use certain words more often than members of other communities.  Researchers found that a Twitter community that was largely made up of fans of Justin Bieber frequently used the words “Bieber, “pleasee,” and “<33”.  In contrast, consider a group of people who love animals and advocate for their rights.  This second group far more frequently used words such as “anipals,” “pawsome,” and “furever.”

Researchers then considered individual people, without knowing to which Twitter community they belonged.  Just by considering the words a person used, and how often the person used them, the researchers were often able to accurately predict that individual’s Twitter community.

The researchers also discovered that members of the same Twitter community are, in general, more likely to use words that include certain letter-pairs and 3-letter word-endings than members from different communities.  That is, communities don’t only more often use certain words; they also more often use certain letter-pairs and words that end certain ways.

Suppose you gather all the tweets written by all of the members of one Twitter community.  Suppose you divide all of their words up into a set of letter pairs, such as “al,” “id,” and “ts.”  Imagine that you write each letter pair on a card, so that “al” is on one card, “id” is on another, and so on.  If the letter pair “id” appears five hundred times in the community’s tweets, there would be five hundred cards with “id” written on them.  Now imagine that you shuffle those cards thoroughly and stack them in a deck.  Follow the same process with other Twitter communities, so that each deck of cards corresponds to a distinct community.  Researchers’ analysis suggests that there would be large and noticeable differences in how often various letter pairs appear in each of the decks.  The differences would be so large that it almost impossible that they are the result of chance.  What does this mean?  Looking just at letter pairs, taken completely out of context, there are big differences between different communities.  There are also, as suggested above, big differences in 3-letter word-endings.  Different communities don’t just use different words; they also use different language patterns.  Their tweets look and sound noticeably different.  These differences in language make it seem more reasonable to refer to these different communities as distinct “tribes.”

What if researchers looked at the Twitter community composed of people who are actively engaged with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner?  This is my community, so I would be curious what the researchers would discover.  No doubt, there are certain words and hashtags that our community uses more often than other communities do.  For example, just like Bieber fans use the word “Bieber” more often, I have little doubt that we more often use the words “LaBeouf,” “Rönkkö,” and “Turner.”  We also more frequently use hashtags such as “#TAKEMEANYWHERE” and “#INTRODUCTIONS.”  Do we, as a community, also more frequently use certain words that are not proper nouns?  Do we, like many Twitter tribes, also have distinct language patternsDo we sound different?  I have no way to answer these questions, but the work of the researchers discussed above does suggest that the answer to all of these questions might well be “yes.”

Still, suppose our word choices and language patterns do not straightforwardly distinguish us as a tribe that is distinct from other tribes.  Nevertheless, I would still suspect that there are a number of ways in which it is metaphorically true that those who are engaged with the artists’ work “speak the same language.”  Likewise, I suspect it is metaphorically true that the language of people who either are sincerely engaged with the artists’ work – or who one could easily imagine becoming sincerely engaged – is different from the language used by other people.

Linguists note that people sometimes change how they talk or write based on their audience.  For example, scholars might send text messages to friends in which, for the sake of speed, they omit vowels from words or use number and letter homophones.  But when those same scholars write to people they don’t know, they might commit themselves to traditional grammar.  Similarly, people who are engaged with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner might, at least metaphorically, speak the same language when they are together, and speak very differently when apart.  Likewise, those who engage with the artists’ work might never consciously think of themselves as part of a common group or tribe until they meet and start sharing the same language.

Rachel has remarked that she felt that #TAKEMEANYWHERE, while in progress, had a certain rhythm or vibe that all of its participants picked up as they engaged with it. She writes that participating in the project “sort of felt like jamming with very accomplished musicians.”  Rachel writes, “I feel that those three are so good at what they do that it allows for nearly anyone who’s willing to play with them to make some beautiful music.”  So in what sense do all the participants and artists in #TribeLRT speak the same language?   They speak the same language in the same way that good jazz musicians speak the same language.  Even if they haven’t read the same books or don’t share the same ideas or worldviews, they can all jam together, regardless.

There is another sense in which everyone in #TribeLRT speaks the same language.  They all – strictly metaphorically – speak what I’ll call the “metamodern dialect.”  Vermeulen and van den Akker are clear that metamodernism is neither a philosophy nor a movement.  These two scholars mean to describe the current sensibility expressed by many contemporary artworks, but they do not intend to make any claims about how art should be done or about how life should be lived.  They are not claiming that art ought to be metamodern.  They also suggest that, in metamodernism, there are no hard and fast rules, like one might imagine in a philosophical system.   Rather, Vermeulen has suggested that we might – at least metaphorically – better think of metamodernism as a kind of dialect.  We might think of metamodernism as a way that many artists “talk.”  We might imagine that metamodernism has a broad-ranging sort of grammar and vocabulary which artists employ in their work, and which can’t be set down in a hard-and-fast set of rules.  If imagined this way, we might think that many people in our society – not just artists – share this common dialect.  We might also say that a great many artists also speak this dialect, even if some artists’ work expresses it more clearly than others.

Further, some people who speak with this dialect might be particularly drawn to certain artists whose art expresses it particularly well. Just like people who speak with a specific dialect might prefer some poets with that dialect over others, so too some people who “speak” the “metamodern dialect” prefer the work of some artists over others.  I’d like to think of #TribeLRT as metaphorically composed of tribespeople who speak the metamodern dialect, and who are particularly drawn to the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner.