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.”