Postmodernism is Dead
Leftist video essays are all quite postmodern, aren't they? Full of references and self-reference and they reject grand narratives. A typical trick of the contemporary video essay prologue, developed from documentary, debate, lecture and podcast is a thing called… well actually it doesn’t seem to have a name. At least, I couldn’t find one. It’s a specific type of prologue wherein a seemingly entirely unexpected and different story is being told, briefly, and that story’s conclusion will have a prestige, a surprising turn, that actually draws us right up to the story that the thumbnail and title promised.
Here’s Lindsay Ellis teasing us with the promise of an essay about Phantom of the Opera: Love Never Dies by detailing the production history of Men in Black. Here’s Little Hoot teasing us with flowers in an essay about gun violence. Here’s me, in an essay ostensibly about Right Wing Identities, and I start talking about the Disney film Aladdin. Cynically, reductively, these colorful prologues are like dangling keys, an immediate left-hand turn to trick the viewer into a level of investment in a subject they might only be vaguely interested in. Or worse, intros like this establish a false sense of depth and analysis, giving the appearance of an all-encompassing, god-like view of the subject when in fact it’s just so much wasted breath over a superfluous and needlessly wordy aside.
But naively, optimistically, these prologues show us exactly why we want to be told stories in the first place; that we are quite in love with these tropes. These stories-within-stories can exist for their own sake and remind us that knowledge, as well as story, is not linear. That truth itself is never a straightforward shape.
And at their best, when they roll over and show us their tummies and show us that perhaps, after all, the strange is familiar. That Men in Black is relevant because it, like Phantom of the Opera, had a sequel that was shite. That the flowers are relevant because they are called Columbines. And Aladdin is relevant because that’s how the Proud Boys got their name.
When we see, with a little curating, helping hand, that the truth sometimes has a very pretty shape, then we are primed to want to know more, not just about this subject but about everything. About anything. And maybe, if this specific kind of opener doesn’t have a name, we can decide on one. We can discover what they are and decide how we interact with them. Maybe something like “Prostige”: like a prologue with a prestige.
Or maybe that looks too much like an illness of the prostate when I write it down. Anyway I’m doing one of those right now, and there is a name for when a text comments on itself. It’s called “Metatextuality,” or just, Meta But, like our stories, of flying carpets and pretty flowers and Agents J and K fighting Aliens, there is more to this story than meets the eye. I’m Neil and I’m a Liberal Cook, and let’s talk about metamodernis— (grinding metal and syth music) Felix: I’m here at my alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin where almost 80 years ago, world famous physics guy Erwin Schrodinger delivered his famous lecture series: “What is Life?” The series straddled quantum physics, biology, philosophy; all that big stuff.
Schrodinger was a nobel prize winner, famous for the Schrodinger equation, which described the evolution over time of a wave function in a quantum mechanical system. Schrödinger's work was foundational in our understanding of quantum mechanics. So he not only had the scope to speak with authority on a broad range of subjects but also the gravity to be taken incredibly seriously. So when he said of his equation that it seemed to describe several different histories and that they were "not alternatives, but all really happen simultaneously" we had to decide how to interpret that and how we were going to feel about it. We also had to decide if this was an idea of pure maths, or if it was something more real that can't be described by rhetoric.
Also, he lived simultaneously with two women and fathered children with them, and he wrote a letter to Eamonn Devalera to get a visa for one of them and they all lived happily together to a ripe old age. I’m Felix, I’m a Liberal Cook, let’s talk about the multiverse! (gently powerful synth music) Neil: Metamodernism! But first, in order to understand metamodernism we have to go back and understand the lineage: modernism and postmodernism. Now, throw a rock and you’ll hit someone with an opinion about what postmodernism is. Throw another rock and you’ll hit someone with a completely different opinion. Throw a third rock and you’ll be in trouble with the police. I’m going to try not to get too bogged down in academic language: the truth is you already know what modernism and postmodernism are because, whether you want to be or not, you're all fluent in the language of superheroes.
And you have literally seen modernism and postmodernism beat the shite out of each other. That film is like… I think of Bob Dylan later in life, stuck in a bath, and reaching for a potential masterpiece, but then he just goes "ugh, fuck it.". Anyway. These characters are a good way to understand these lenses, because look, here: Modernism. This guy. He's pretty. He's mythological. He's so colourful!
He's an abstract representation of secular godhood, a bright flash of primary colours against the shining utopian backdrop of metropolis. Backdropolis. He represents big, monolithic concepts like "truth", "justice" and, yes, "the American Way,” but he acts with total impunity, away from the complexity of the structures that organise and enforce those values.
He is, if anything, a “super individual;” a justice artist, if you like, single-mindedly imposing his vision and values upon the world. He is steeped in tradition; in fact his whole origin story, from the Christ-like chosen son to the Moses-like discovered baby, to the parallels with the American experience of Puritans and immigrants, is a wild and varied tradition-fest. Yet, when he was created, way back in 1938, this was something very new. “Costumed Heroes” like the Phantom or the Shadow, well they already existed, and scholars have debated whether the pulp heroes of the Victorian era also count as progenitors to the contemporary superhero genre. But Superman has big powers.
He’s like, way overpowered, right? He fucks different. And that, as a development in the medium, makes sense because this was a world that was considering itself as a whole, under potential threat, kind of for the first time. Or at least, American culture was looking at the world that way. And you, yes you, could rightly point out that Superman was a lot less overpowered when he was first created; he had more humble powers and more humble adventures. But that actually shows that those technological and political changes in the first half of the 20th century were reflected in Superman, and Modernism reflected them too. Global threats, nuclear war, the possibility of revolution, the rise of fascism, and communism, all these things are reflected in the early days of superhero stories.
Now, Superman didn’t always have a strict codified response to those things; structurally superheroes tend to be mongrel creations, with contributions from different writers, artists and editors but even beyond that, if we zoom out on the modernist movement as a whole we see even more obvious disagreement, about technology and politics, and also about art. The modernists were not a monolith. So Superman might be on the whole pretty pro-America and anti-revolution, but let’s not forget Superman was created by two Jewish guys: Siegel and Schuster. He was opposed to fascism not just in the obvious “let’s clobber Hitler with a plank” kind of way, but also Superman was not a fan of the KKK and, by 40s and 50s standards, could occasionally be kinda woke.
And also kind of a… "That's why I think it'd be fair of you were to get the spanking you deserve" Some modernist artists were approaching their work as entirely revolutionary, and very politically motivated. At the same time, Modernism now has become kind of indistinguishable from antiquated attitudes that don’t question structures or the status quo. The modernist idea of a utopian American high-tech future, with lovely buildings and flying cars, as parodied in the Simpsons or in the attitudes of Howard Stark, is now like at best cringe and at worst, propaganda. But the atonal compositions of Schoenberg, which is also considered foundationally modernist, is quite clearly a big fuck you to structure and to music and to our preconceptions and values. So how do we reconcile these opposed forces of modernism? Well, it’s important to understand any of these labels: modernism, postmodernism, pre-modernism as encompassing disparate views and contradictory reactions to the endless march of history. Modernism isn’t, itself, a set of beliefs; that’s honestly not a great way to define a movement.
Instead we should consider Modernism as a way to describe a bunch of stuff that happened. The easiest way to think about what marks Modernism, culturally, is to examine which questions they weren’t asking. The reason I like to think of Modernism for what it isn’t and what it can’t quite do is because that’s a more coherent way to understand where Modernism stops, runs out of track, and we end up needing something new. And that is sort of what these categories are for, I think.
They tell us where we came from and where we’re going; they don’t just exist for us to talk about so we can clever-time. So, we can frame American Modernism as a secular movement with a lot of assumptions about rationality and academic thought; fascinated by technology, frightened of global events, colourful and artistic and abstract and pretentious and fueled by ideas of the Freudian unconscious, and that will get us pretty far. You can say “they” were modifying traditional thought to fit secular and rational ideas, and then we have our Superman and the sort of stories told about him: positioned perfectly, in terms of both time and place, to be the secular God and cultural mascot of Modernist America. There. An essay about how Superman is a Modernism; wouldn’t that be nice if it were that simple? But it’s not. Because modernism is also many other things and it can be kind of incoherent.
It's Frank Lloyd Wright. It's the stream of consciousness novel. It's secular abstraction and freedom of expression. It’s also the precursor to like Dadaism and Cubism, so it’s like an invitation to nonsense. It’s also Virginia Woolfe so there’s this whole feminist analysis you can do and it’s big and weird and not straightforward.
So, for now, maybe it’s helpful if we stick with Superman as we understand him, because he represents a solid foundation. The references, the traditions, and the political climate that make up Superman are all there, and equally they’re sort of obscured by this new thing that was created in this myth. Superman is his own icon. It was a naive and constructive text, and it was inspirational. Because I don't know if you've heard but, um, there are a lot of superheroes now. I find Modernism fascinating.
And beautiful. And neglected as a topic. Because more time has passed, because the mindset and the zeitgeist of that time feels very detached from contemporary culture, but more importantly, because there is a younger brother to modernism and he is such a big deal and so cool and dark and interesting and cynical and fascinating and he challenges and he shapeshifts and he deconstructs and he… he has leather nipples. This fucking guy. You know his name, he's called… Batman is far more nakedly composed of cultural references. He's the dual life and dark cowl of the Shadow.
He's the wealthy vigilante of Zorro. He's the troubled genius and hyper-observation of Sherlock Holmes. He's a knight, a detective, a crusader, a superhero, an antihero. These are stories about redemption, about family, about revenge, about sharks. He's noir too, he's art deco, he's camp, he's gritty realism, he's hyper stylisation.
He is at points parody, pastiche and burlesque; he's also at points straight-up strongman wish fulfilment, but never in the naive way Superman is; always with the sting in the tail of being fucking miserable. Because it's all meaningless in Gotham. Batman's story is sad. His struggle is endless and futile and painful.
The system, however much our hero occupies a ridiculously privileged position within it, does not help him. The wealth doesn’t bring anyone happiness; the police do not keep anyone safe. Batman is stuck in a Hegelian cycle, oh it's a fucking video essay now Only ever learning enough to close a chapter, never enough to end the story. Batman is absolutely his own icon too. But… so is his rogue’s gallery. So is his city.
So are the references, the colour-schemes, the iconography. Where Superman is a statue, Batman is a museum. And you could say, (harsh underground trance music plays) The Editor: Oh so many words to say oh so little. Postmodernism is also just a way to describe a bunch of stuff that happened. You don't need postmodernism explained to you, you're all postmodern agents, living in a postmodern world.
Quite simply, it can be defined as the opposition to meaning. After all, meaning is pretty arbitrary, right? Maybe there's no such thing as meaning. And once you let it go, all that cumbersome meaning, you can surrender to the nonsense And reference after reference, with no direction to go. Just: taking about batman. Oh. Speaking of which. What were they saying?
In contrast, you don’t need to do a “postmodern Batman” because you don’t need a meta-frame to justify a new interpretation, you just do it and people either like it or they don’t. You can’t create a postmodern proxy for Batman because by the time you’ve made sufficient reference to the signifiers of Batman, it has become what some people call a “rip off." We understand that Brightburn isn’t a ripoff of superman but it is a postmodern reference to the icon of Superman. It is subverting the trope. How do you subvert the tropes of Batman, you’d have to make him nice and happy and optimistic and colourful - but that’s already been done and it remained Batman. Why? Because postmodernism contains within it the scope to reference and recreate modernism.
There is a line of thinking that Modernism itself cannot really be defined either because we're looking back at foundationally unrelated things and cherry-picking coherence, or because we are postmodern looking back at phenomena that are remote and foreign and done, and we don't know how to recognise what they are or what's good about them any more. We have postmodern blindness and we’re doubly blind because we also can’t tell if it was ever there in the first place. This ubiquity, and the fractal, endless, distracting nature of postmodernism, has some interesting consequences. Which we’ll get to.
For now, we can say that we have an inability to see outside of postmodernism. What you might call Postmodern Realism: and by that I don't mean "the style of 'realism' in a postmodern text", no I mean it in the same spirit as "Capitalist Realism", where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to capitalism. Similarly, it is easier to imagine all art, all media, all knowledge and attempts at communication descending into meaninglessness, self reference, self-destruction and farce, than it is to imagine something beyond postmodernism; something after it, something constructive. But surely, like Capitalism or "Scientific Racism" or Gender Essentialism, this Postmodern Realism is indicative of a lack of imagination.
Like those other things, It is an inability to contend with the fluid nature of our understanding of reality, and the constructed nature of the world we live in. It is an artistic inconvenience. And postmodernism is a particularly silly thing to be so hung up on, because it's so obviously constructed; clearly not inevitable or innate. Of course it isn't a decision any one person makes to "have society be postmodern” or not postmodernism is a lens, and a series of complimentary phenomena, that we group together. But it could be argued that we actively and passively reify the modes, moods, culture, and aesthetics of postmodernism through everyday acts, patterns and assumptions. We reify its inevitability and its relationship to objective truth, postmodernism's place in the hierarchy of style and of intellectual merit.
We reify that it is inescapable. We seem to have no idea what the questions are that postmodernism fails to ask. But there must be. It is possible to not reify postmodernism.
It must be. We’re not done. It's possible to take a leap of faith into something new.
We need a new hero, the last hero you'd expect. (Miles from Into The Spiderverse singing) (Neil's gentle but powerful synth boom) Felix: What I want to talk about today has to do with science, culture, communication and reality. I’ve chosen multiverse theory, or “the many worlds interpretation” because it seems to have won the hearts of popular culture in ways that it has not necessarily won the hearts of physicists.
And culturally, it’s doing interesting things to us. Now, physics is not my area of expertise; my area of expertise is… But physicists seem to be split into three categories: One, those who believe the laws of physics are a model for reality itself. Two, those who believe that the laws of physi, oh no, that the laws of physics are a model that describes itself and makes various predictions about a maybe unknowable thing called reality. Three, those who just, as Richard Feynman put it, shut up and calculate.
And you know what? They’re all valid! And I love you. German Physicist Werner Heisenberg said: “What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Heisenberg, you may be familiar with. He was a Nobel prize winner and published the Uncertainty Principle.
Now, I can’t be certain that Heisenberg falls into the category of considering reality unknowable per se. My understanding of his position doesn’t extend much beyond that one quote, and the “Uncertainty” part of his Uncertainty Principle refers very specifically to a feature of the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Basically, even if all initial conditions are specified, there is a fundamental limit to the accuracy with which certain pairings of physical qualities can be predicted; like, position and momentum.
The more precisely you predict the position, it must follow – because maths – that your prediction for the momentum will be less accurate. And vice versa. But by discovering that reality, or at least, the language we use to understand it, mathematics, has at least some built-in incompleteness. That must have been an interesting revelation for Heisenberg and his peers.
It’s certainly a brave and counterintuitive avenue of thought. In the realm of quantum physics there are tonnes of counterintuitive observations. Language itself; the combination of reference points and vocabulary, structure, neologisms, grammar; it doesn’t necessarily suit such bizarre phenomena as a sub-atomic quark with a spin of one over two. So instead of relying on words we have mathematics, which is much more honest and self-consistent, but has its own issues when we try to translate mathematical concepts into language that everyone can understand. Without even getting into how our understanding; our senses and consciousness aren’t exactly the same as language either.
All of which is to say: Physics is not a game, it’s a social construct! And that’s not quite as abstract and postmodern an idea as it first seems. In fact it’s not even that revolutionary an idea, not when even Werner fucking Heisenberg felt the need to draw a distinction between “nature in itself” and “nature exposed to our method of questioning”. Niels Bohr, another seminal figure in theoretical physics, said: “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we say about Nature.”
And it’s kinda the same for all sciences? There are impasses at every turn to science communication and to interdisciplinary work. There are innate disagreements between the kind of language or the methods that one field uses, say for example Social Psychology, and the kind of language and methods another field uses, like Neuroscience. There are limits to and innate disagreements between a statement made by the scientific method; “we have ruled out the probability of several explanations,” and the sort of statement a know-nothing know-it-all like me might make “Coffee makes you thin. They prove!” This can be an issue not just for scientific inquiry, but also it leaves a lot of room for bad faith interpretation. In the case of Psychology this happens when Pop Psych books or public figures join up dots that are completely disparate, and the only connection is satisfying a bias, or assuaging an anxiety. In the case of Physics we have religious figures or people like Deepak Chopra cherry-picking random words and concepts from quantum physics and relying on how obscure and poorly understood they are to make wild and outrageous claims.
"You'll find that nature is a discontinuity, even though our conceptual experience of the universe is continuous. In fact it's going on and off at the speed of light." That’d be an essay. Why don’t I just make that essay? Deepak Chopra and Jordan Peterson are wacky dinguses. Why do I make this so hard on myself? The most well-known Multiverse theory – remember that? Remember I was going to talk about the Multiverse? – anyway the most well-known version is called the Many Worlds Interpretation or the Everett Interpretation after it was proposed by a guy called Hugh Everett, who is the Dad of the guy from Eels! Remember Eels? Remember Eels? Many Worlds is a very specific interpretation where every time there's a quantum interaction the Universe splits, so that each outcome of the interaction really does occur, but each in a new Universe.
This would lead to an infinite number of universes stacked on top of each other and is, therefore, absolutely fucking wild. The idea of a Multiverse actually predates Everett's Many Worlds. All the way back to Ancient Greece, with the concept of Atomism, where atoms colliding created whole new universes… Wait, the Ancient Greeks had a concept of atoms? Oh, whatever.
Versions of the multiverse arose somewhat independently at different points in history; from Norse myths, to medieval metaphysics, to the science fiction of the mid 20th Century with people like Michael Moorcook – Morecock. (Laughs): Sorry. But with Everett's Many Worlds we finally had a reason for the multiverse of our imaginations to exist.
What was that reason? Well, it's complicated. You've heard of the double slit experiment? Of course you have. First we wanted to establish if light was made of waves or particles Spoilers, turns out it's both So we fired a coherent light source, a laser beam, through two slits. And then we measure the pattern that that light creates on a wall and ohhh look at that. It's an interference pattern.
That says waves to me. Those bright and dark bands on the screen demonstrate a wave function of where the light is likely to hit. A function, remember from maths, is like a mathematical machine that you feed a number to and you get a related number.
It's a mathematical representation of something. A wave function is a mathematical representation of a wave, and the double slit test, when it was first carried out in 1801, showed that light did indeed move as a wave. But since then we’ve also learned that light is made of particles: photons. It's both.
And in later versions of the double slit test we can get our laser to be so precise it fires just one of these photons at a time. In fact, since it was just one photon, it must be interfering with itself. Okay, well. That's wild.
Just for fun now, let's put a detector on each of the slits so we can see what exactly is passing through them and: oh fuck wow okay it's particles and shit. Wow. Okay.
That's weird. Because when you measure which slit the photons go through the interference pattern disappears. Now we're like just looking at a photon go through a hole and landing exactly where you'd expect a little particle to go. But okay let's do it again and not measure anything. Everyone turn around. Shh.
No, Greg! Turn around. No peeking. Stop it. Okay and fuck! There's the interference pattern. Okay so it's acting like a wave again. The act of observing changed the outcome.
So surely, logically, both events are happening. Like.. the very nature of light doesn't change just because we strap a detector to a slit. There still has to be an objective reality beyond our means of observation. Unless… there's more than one objective reality? A world where the wavefunction collapses at detector one, a world where the wavefunction collapses at detector two.
To help understand wave function collapse, picture a dartboard with a bunch of possibilities for where the dart would go. When the dart hits the board, that's the observation. Whether we're measuring position or momentum or spin or whatever, when we make the observation, the dartboard disappears.
The wave function collapses. And we are left with just the dart. Everett’s bold proposal was that in this reality of ours there were no distinct separate wave functions. There’s no individual collapse of the function when we observe photons going through a slit or entangled particles influencing each other. Everett instead described a single, continuous wave function, which seemed to imply that rather than us influencing reality by making an observation, insted, in some way, reality itself had all of this already encoded into it. In fact, every interaction causes wave functions to combine, such that the entire universe is really a single, infinitely large wave function.
Everett called this "the universal wave function". So, when you make your measurement, it doesn't actually change the universal wave function. It already had every possibility of the particle's measurements encoded within it, just on separate branches: New Universes! Or… other Universes? When exactly, in the sense of, yknow, Spacetime, were those branches formed? During the entanglement? During the measurement? And what exactly does "forming a branch" look like? We don't know, unfortunately. But in this interpretation, "you" occupy only one of those branches, and once you make a measurement, you know which one you're in.
It’s fun! It’s not very… efficient, as a theory. All that endless spontaneous creation. An infinite tree of fractal unstoppable world-generation. A big old beard for Occam's Razor. But it maintains the laws of physics. Which is very important.
Of course Many Worlds isn't the only theory that gets us around these quantum paradoxes and maintains the laws of physics. But it’s fun! Infinite Universes. Infinite Yous, stretching off into forever! From the pretty much identical to the… who knows? The You who didn't fall in love that time? The You who did? The You who dropped out of college? The You who didn't? Sorry I've got an itchy beard.
I need an Occam's Razor. When we look at the less dramatic resolutions of double slit, entanglement and EPR, like the Copenhagen Interpretation, or the Informational Universe, even though we might be closer to the truth of reality, we understand them less well. They’re less well advertised. They’re less immediately inspirational to our artistic efforts. There's no Marvel movie about the Copenhagen interpretation.
There's no Informational Universe Netflix show. In an age where we have such enormous scientific questions yielding such bizarre observations that are so bloody hard to interpret, at a time where science is so accessible but so many people radically overestimate their own understanding; isn't it interesting that the particularly science fictiony theory, the one that kind of tells us what we want to hear; the one that's a continuation of existing myths, is the one we take to heart? I mean, I'm sure we're all aware that the multiverse isn't the only possible explanation for all this quantum weirdness. It's just, maybe the sexiest one. The multiverse presents unique storytelling opportunities. New and compelling flights of fancy.
Novel and compelling questions of ethics, and the human struggle with happiness and meaning. It's no coincidence that we've seen a proliferation of multiversal media lately. The world has become bigger and more complex and so our flights of fancy have to get bigger and more complex too. But we’re misinterpreting it. We’re mostly using it to genre-fuck… To take our collective brains which are so media-saturated; our cartoon and puppet-loving, bright, colorful, black and white, gimme alien worlds and a reference to Saturday Night Live, everything brains, and reflect them back to us, through the multiverse.
We should decide, through a smarter, more hopeful and more intellectually honest relationship with the scientific method, what narratives we want. And what narratives might be most helpful. Okay, who the fuck are you?? (clinking glitch sounds into more ominous and foreboding synth music) (Lightsaber turns on and hums) Felix: Becky, Becky. Becky? Becky!? Becky? Becky? Becky. Becky. It was like the same, it was just like before. They were saying what I was saying but it was different. Like a different version of me.
Like it was, I wanna say like a twinky version but not, like, I mean, a different kind of twink. And it was less good, obviously. Becky: Like “That 80s Show”? Felix: No, I mean, not, not that bad. Look, I gonna send you a screenshot now. Becky: Oh yeah, I see it. I see it now. They look like the lad out of Funkel.
Felix: What are you saying, Funkle? Becky: Funkle. Felix: Funkle? Becky: You know, Funkle. Felix: Fünkle. Becky: Funkle, from the diaphragm. Funkle. Felix: Funnnnnkle.
Becky: No you're not hearing me. You're understanding me, but you're not listening. Felix: Funk-le Becky: Um, you know 'uncle?' Yeah, not like that.
Felix: Fuuun? Becky: You've said Funkle so many times, the word has lost all meaning. No, Funkle. C'mon you know, Funkle. The band, Funkle, you know? I feel like you're winding me up here. You know: "Walking Around With A Giant Women." "Walking around with a giant woman, just me and the other guy from Funkle, I don't know his name" I think I have a record of it here somewhere.
Felix: Becky, I think something very strange is happening. Becky: Hang on a second, yeah, Funkle. Remember? Isn't that, doesn't that look like, that person? That's another one! "Something very strange is happening, in Arizona." Felix? Felix!? Felix!!! (synth music underlying sequence gets more and more ominous) (loud frantic synth drone) (quiet and thin synth music) (music increasing gradually in pace and volume) (INDECIPHERABLE JORDAN PETERSON DRONE) Becky (whisper): Felix? Neil: So there’s a new storytelling trope in recent years. Someone – usually a kid – is living a normal life when suddenly cracks appear in the fabric of reality.
This leads to various worlds colliding, and characters from different versions of reality – across the multiverse – come colliding together. This is a great way to render the various reimaginings and re-branded versions of characters we know and love. It’s a great way to have many versions of Property X onscreen at once, or to slam together disparate properties in a somewhat coherent narrative. Usually there’s a bad guy, who usually wants a family. Often the text itself will be overtly about family because that’s a thing you can do with properties once you’ve brought them together, I guess.
Things usually start to “glitch” because that’s what we assume happens when the multiverse slams together and also we’re all so used to the language of glitching now as an artistic trope. It’s a stylistic fourth wall break because you feel like the piece of cinema itself is literally falling apart. You get some slammed together architecture and some very mixed aesthetics. Bish bash boom. Save the day.
Zombie demons. Big science machine. I see you; you see me. We all have struggles on the inside and would feel better to hug ourselves.
Hotdog fingerssss, the end. And that’s Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, Spiderman: No Way Home, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, it’ll probably be Flashpoint, if they ever release it. It’s also the Lego Movie and, kind of, Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers. And many others.
And is that Metamodernism? Would that it t’were so simple? We can use the multiverse film trope to explain metamodernism, yes. Particularly Spiderverse, which succeeds at metatextualising, with purpose. Meta-text, here, referring to the text commenting on itself. Spiderverse is a comic book adaptation in an era of cinema with more comic book adaptations than there are humans alive on the planet. It’s in a position like all contemporary superhero texts, to comment on the many comics and on the many adaptations.
But where Spiderverse could do this entirely cynically, and still have people crying, like the way Spiderman: No Way Home made me cry just by having Andrew Garfield hug Tobey Maguire for fuck’s sake, instead Spiderverse decolonises the text through metatextuality. It introduces Miles Morales, a Black and Latino character taking up the mantle of Spiderman. And by appropriating old visual styles and literally reconstructing the genre – and subgenres – of superheroism itself, before your very eyes, it rebuilds this white world around Miles, and this time he’s not left out. This time, the music, the home life, the neighbourhood, the experience of being Miles, is centred in what feels like an entirely realised world that includes people like Miles. And they make him so likeable and fully, lovingly realised that we don’t miss Peter Parker.
And then we even get Peter Parker, and we still prefer Miles. Spiderverse also succeeds at “ironic sincerity” where maybe the others don’t, we, quite as succeed. The film oscillates between postmodern cynicism and modernist or new modernist heroic moments. In terms of irony or cynicism, it’s deeply aware that we’ve been here before; "Alright people, let's do this one last time" It’s aware of tropes that it subverts through pratfalls and shenanigans. It undercuts the darkness of noir and makes it kinda silly.
"In my universe it's 1933 and I'm a private eye." But, it also is very sincere in terms of its message of hope; and here’s where it’s tricky because, yknow, what superhero film isn’t embarrassingly sincere? And in terms of how that sincerity is executed, what exactly is it that makes Spiderverse so not cringe? Well, I think it’s because the film has very specific optimism. Miles: "When will I know I'm ready?" Spiderman: "You won't. It's a leap of faith." This is Kirkegaard, amIright? It's Kirkegaard. You know Kirkegaard? The theologian and philosopher.
He basically proposed that in terms of, falling in love, for example, there is no amount of evidence that could sufficiently demonstrate to you that someone is perfect for you. That they are, as it were, a good bet. It’s always a leap of faith. And Kirkegaard went further in saying that many such things – many true things – are leaps of faith. And that it is something of a virtue, to take them.
And then, y’see, later! Later in Spiderverse! This burned out husk of a Peter Parker, which the film has gone to great lengths to show us is having a fucking miserable life. He’s broken up with Mary Jane. He’s lonely. He’s sad. There’s some fat shaming but… no film is perfect and this is fucking Hollywood.
Anyway, he does not like his life. And then he says, to Miles: “How will I know I'm not gonna mess it up again?” Miles: “You won’t.” Spiderman: "Right.
It's a leap of faith." See, they’re not showing us that the leap of faith paid off. What they’re showing us is maturity, hope and action, because of a willingness to take a leap of faith; that in growing up, and getting to know themselves – each other; themselves; in this case literally the same thing – the commitment to the leap is the noblest of all. And you need no 'happily ever after' to justify it.
In “Notes on Metamodernism,” Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker use the example of two artists who develop projects that seem to set them up for failure, that they don’t have the skills or the the tools to execute their vision “Their intention is not to fulfill it, but to attempt to fulfill it in spite of its ‘unfulfillableness’.” Slavoj Zizek: “You know, happiness is for me a very conformist category. It doesn't enter, it doesn't enter the frame.” In this way, Metamodernism can’t be summed up by the tools at one’s disposal, so much as our attitude towards those tools.
If hopelessness is the business of being right; the ultimate gotcha, after all, is to say that everything is meaningless anyway; then metamodernism is the business of being. Here, as both an ontological statement: I exist, so therefore I metabolize, I consume, I strive to continue to exist. And being, also, as a more experiential state of bliss and anguish, and the dirty business of what to do about it. How shall we exist? Meaninglessness does not attend to that question. In the Metamodern Manifesto, a work which I don’t fully agree with or fully like, there’s emphasis on our responsibility to the truth. Artists are charged with the task of doing their bloody research.
Of embracing a relationship with the scientific method. And, equally, we must reject dissolving into meaninglessness as a pursuit in and of itself. “All things are caught within the irrevocable slide towards a state of maximum entropic dissemblance. Artistic creation is contingent upon the origination or revelation of difference therein.
Affect at its zenith is the unmediated experience of difference in itself. It must be art’s role to explore the promise of its own paradoxical ambition by coaxing excess towards presence.” And the real enemy in Spiderverse is entropy. Well, it’s the Kingpin of Crime, but you know, even that was spurred on by entropy because he tragically lost his wife and son, and now he’s making more entropy with his big evil technology, which I’m choosing to read as “billionaires create chaotic and entropic states more than fairly distributed wealth would” but anyway. The real danger is everything falling apart.
It’s the Universes colliding; it’s the text of the film threatening to explode. And the force that fights against that chaos is chosen coherence. Purposeful coherence. Chaotic coherence, in fact.
There’s a talking cartoon pig and an anime girl and a Nicholas Cage noir character; it’s a great film. Watch it. They all come together, despite their differences, because they’re all Spiderman.
I told you this wasn’t a perfect case study for metamodernism. They're all Spiderman, it's great! No, you know what, the “coming together despite their differences,” isn’t a particularly emphasised part of the text. What is emphasised – emfassised,mmm – What is emphasised is shortcoming: the feeling of being surrounded by people who are different than you, and how it makes you feel weird and insecure and like you’re not good enough. There is a heavy collaborative component to metamodernism.
Whether that’s as extreme as “accepting hierarchies” which I personally don’t agree with, or creating cohesion across smaller political and cultural divides, which I do in principle agree with. It takes a leap of faith but it can get shit done. Collaboration through unionisation, organising, political allegience, squats and protests and artistic collaborations and letters of complaint and mutual aid and fundraising and educating and trying. This is where the nihilism, doomerism, sarcasm, and reductionism of postmodernity reifies the atomised, helpless, hopeless individual; and stands in the way of everything good about community. And our inability to see past it; the Postmodern Realism of “this is the end of Art," means we still think of optimism and hope and leaps of faith as somehow less intellectually valid than meaninglessness, stagnation, despair. We still think JD Salinger was smarter than Jim Henson.
And I respectfully disagree. But just because something is metatextual doesn’t mean it’s metamodern. I mean, once again, these aren’t clean distinctions. This new metamodernism thing is happening as a series of phenomena.
And artists and thinkers are simply noticing, borrowing, paying attention, stealing from, and understanding through one another. Do you think I decided to comment on Metamodernism through the medium of Video Essays because I decided on that medium? Well, it is a good medium! But there’s a confounder here: Me. I'm the confounder. Am I a metamodernist because I make video essays or do I make video essays because I’m a metamodernist? What about all the other essayists? What are they? Does it matter? Because I mean, what’s the problem? What does it matter what you call yourself.
Sounds to me like this metamodernism stuff is just going to happen and we can all chill about that whole End of History, End of Art, Post-Truth, Neoliberal, Crypto Fascist world we were plummeting into there for a while. Phew. Thank heavens. Well. Goodnight Except. Fuck.
Just because Metamodernism is opt in, doesn’t mean Postmodernism isn’t opt out. It’s like catholicism. There are several steps involved in escaping it.
Because while we all love Spiderverse and all of the Multiverses, there’s one major contemporary text that I have entirely avoided talking about. Let’s talk about the Postmodern Multiverse. The Editor: It’s all meaningless. All meaningless. Becky: Funkle.
Neil: Want some crisps? Felix: Ah! Uh, yes? Felix: How did this happen? Neil: I’m sure you’ve been through enough episodes now to know maybe it all leads to here. Felix: And what is here? Neil: I’m not sure. The future. The past. Somewhere that isn't meant to be.
Every bad idea. Every poorly thought out plot contrivance. Felix: And, and you’re like me? You’re a Liberal Cook? Neil: Yeah, Felix and Neil: Obviously, it’s a pun. We’re leftists. Felix: How many of us do you think there are? Neil: I’m not sure of that either.
I don’t even really believe in multiverse theory. What I can say is that there's a glitch. And maybe that glitch is the reason we exist.
Or maybe we were never meant to exist in the first place. Maybe this is where you end up when you never meant to exist. Felix: God I wish I had my thermometer. Neil: Your… Felix: Oh, in my Universe we had this whole episode that was like Doctor Who and I had this sugar thermometer, it was a, it was a whole thing. Felix: Doctor! Doctor please wake up! Doctor Who: Right, here we go.
Hmm, new gender, that's weird. Okay, let's hit the breaks. Felix: Doctor, your face! Who are you? What are you doing on the TARDIS? Doctor: Woah, watch what you do with that, Felix! That sugar thermometer is actually a hypo-interstitial time helix manipulator! Felix: A what? Doctor: It shoots lasers. Felix: Why would a sugar thermometer shoot lasers? Doctor: You've never worked in a professional kitchen, have you? Felix: Well I've worked in Front of House but not… Doctor is that really you? What are you, what happened to your face? Doctor: My people have a way of sort of cheating death. A bad bump on the head or some radiation poisoning, our bodies sort of refresh into something new.
Felix: So what would happen if I cut your legs off? Doctor: If I regenerated, I’d grow some new ones. Felix: Okay but what if I cut you down the middle, like, in half. Is it like worms? Are time lords part worm? Doctor: Well, it doesn’t usually happen that way, my deaths are usually a little bit more family friendly, you know, seven pm on a Saturday.
Felix: Is that why they call them worm holes? Felix: If this is a new body, why aren't you bald? Doctor: What!? Felix: And did you, did you regenerate with makeup? You've got wrinkles, why've you got wrinkles? Doctor: Excuse I!? Felix: Ok, so if I, if I was dating a time lord, right? And we were kind of, y'know, we'd been getting along and we were getting along less can I just, like, kill them, you know, put them on like, body shuffle until, until I found someone the was.. Doctor: Can you shut up now, please? Felix: a bit more my taste? Felix: And if I like, ok, what if, ok so if I like killed you by mistake, I'm like, totally morally in the clear, right? Cuz like, you'd just like, you'd just come back. I mean you'd be a little bit different but you'd just come back, and that's fine. But what if, and, um, hypothetically, what if then, I realised, oh, I really like to murder? Doctor: Alright, that’s enough questions.
Felix: That was a particularly traumatising adventure, but yeah I wish I had my therm— Felix: Where did you get that? Neil: In my pocket. I think maybe there’s been some mixing up. Check yours. Felix: It's yours? Neil: uh-uh.
Felix: So we’re not the only ones. Neil: Quick, come on! Peterson: Cancelling procedures initiated. Neil: Postmodernism can be defined as a rejection of metanarratives. This is good. It happens for two reasons: one, metanarratives in themselves ignore the context and are unaware of their origins and limitations in that context. So Superman’s: Truth, Justice, and the American Way are necessarily ignorant of colonialism, hegemony, militarism, systemic racism, patriarchy, and so on.
And two, metanarratives are a tool by which those who are telling them assert power over others. This is very basic Foucault stuff but it’s necessary; it’s good. Where we start to get into trouble is knowing where to draw the line. Early and simplified postmodern theory points us away from these metanarratives, these “grand narratives” towards “local narratives” but if you’ve ever seen anyone argue about what’s bougie and what isn’t, then you’ve witnessed that framework fall apart. Is Bob, from Bob’s Burgers, working class? Well, he owns a business, so he isn’t.
But does he own capital? Well, yes and no. He’s not a landlord. He doesn’t earn capital by having capital, he generates capital through labour. He works, with his family, in the burger place.
He didn’t inherit wealth. And yet the debate continues; so is anyone working class? What's a working class? Who’s working class? Everyone’s problematic eventually, so what’s the fucking point? We could look at this through the lens of feminism. If we consider patriarchy like a caste system with one gender on top and the other below, then surely rejecting the grand narratives of manhood and womanhood themselves will level the playing field of gender.
Well, there’s a problem with that: manhood and womanhood are identities, and people seem to like them. Identities like that are a part of what makes people who they are. And even rejecting those ideas in principle still leaves us with the problem of existing, of being.
What shall I wear today? Who amst my pronouns? Whether you’re a trans woman rejecting the idea that gender is fixed at birth, but accepting the idea that women exist and you are one of them; or you’re a gender critical lesbian separatist saying that gender doesn’t exist but sex does, and rejecting the grand narrative that men and women must coexist but accepting the grand narrative that 'boys will be boys,' well, you’re both disagreeing on what the grand narrative is, and now you’ve become enemies while those on the top of the caste system, cis men, remain quite unaffected. Plenty of rejecting grand narratives; no leveling of the playing field. See I outline all of this, because part of what makes postmodernism so ubiquitous and irresistible is that it drags everything into it.
It eats it all up. And when we change the channel on interdimensional cable and take a look at Rick and Morty, we see the postmodern world reflected back to us. And it makes us sad.
The Season Three episode of Rick and Morty, The Ricklantis Mixup, tells several smaller stories based in the Citadel, a secret interdimensional society populated entirely by various versions of Rick and Morty from across the Multiverse. One of those stories is “Simple Rick’s” and it’s bleak. In the citadel, under the totalitarian rule of the Council of Ricks, resistance, revolution, and change are all impossible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t access a better world! You can, with Simple Rick's Wafers. Which are made with this version of Rick, Simple Rick's, happy memories. "His name is Simple Rick, but he's no dummy.
He realised long ago that the greatest thing he'd ever create was his daughter." "I love you, Daddy!" "We captured that moment, we run it on a loop through Simple Rick's mind" Neil: At the factory where they produce Simple Rick’s wafers, employee Rick Sanchez J-22 is passed over for a promotion. So, he goes on a rampage, destroying the assembly machine, killing his Supervisor, taking Simple Rick hostage and then killing him in an escape attempt. It’s Rick and Morty, there’s a lot of death. Just as the SWAT Team of Ricks are about to apprehend J-22, they are stopped by the factory's owner, Rick D. Sanchez III, who, surprisingly, starts commending J-22 on his courage. And he frees him.
As J-22 is overwhelmed with emotion upon being given a limousine, Sanchez III tasers him and uses his happiness as a replacement for the wafers' flavor. Resistance is swallowed back into the system. Commodified; rebranded. And we recognise this phenomenon in our own lives – and I guess we laugh. In his book, Capitalist Realism, philosopher, writer and political theorist Mark Fisher points to the relationship between capitalism and postmodernism, and the role that that relationship plays in reifying how impossible it is to escape. With reference to tragic musician Kurt Cobain, Fisher outlines how postmodernism and capitalism both cement a sense of futility.
“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.” Nihilism is a tricky word to define. Many of us operate on the assumption that we know it when we see it.
People who identify as nihilists, or who identify with nihilism, have a hard time being heard over the noise of what we already imagine Nihilism to mean. People who’ve read Nietzche, and understand Nietzche, know that he wanted to usher in Nihilism in order to get past Nihilism. That it is an intellectually valid position and stage. Many ideological Nihilists find a moral grounding, motivation and even comfort in Nihilism. And if you've been tempted to mock Nihilim, you might find it harder to mock when you actually understand what it has to offer. So rather than Nihilism I think a better word here is hopelessness.
Hopelessness in the face of climate change, certainly, is a very relatable feeling, right? Hopelessness In the face of regressive and even fascistic political change. Hopelessness in terms of upward mobility, of personal solvency or happiness, or of ever starting a family, or owning a home, of having a job you like, of equality; of being free to be yourself and free from threat of ridicule, abuse, or physical harm. And at the heart of it all, a painfully status-quo reinforcing hopelessness: that no ideology can outsmart the ingenuity of postmodernism coupled with the monomania of capitalism. That any resistance will be swallowed up by that system. That any hope is a fool’s hope, and that any smart ideas can be reframed as stupid, pointless, harmful, or laughable. Any deviations of attitude from that of detached, chill ironic cool, is the domain of the eccentrics, and the children, and those that have not yet realised how fucked they are.
The multiverse of Rick and Morty takes certain grand hopeless assumptions for granted: that life is ultimately meaningless, that knowledge inevitably leads to sadness, that you are insignificant. It even goes as far as saying that the very facts of loving, being loved, falling in love, caring for others, are all illusory constructs built on flimsy social habits and unromantic things like biology and brain chemistry. That me petting Huckleberry right now is a pointless neurochemical illusion.
He just wants food. Physical touch so he can spread his scent and pretend his mother didn’t die. And I'll just pretend my mother never died and I'll embrace the warm mammalian thing and we'll both just pretend there’s such a thing as love. Now, you could argue that Rick represents the postmodern perspective and that Morty represents the post-postmodern or even metamodern hope and naivete and that he maybe embraces the cosier bits of being.
But in order to draw that conclusion you would have to stop watching after season one. Because over the course of the show, Morty discovers that knowledge does make him sad. That suffering is the default state of existing. That his life is entirely meaningless and that he might as well be a sack of shit who doesn’t care about anyone or anything.
Now, I actually quite like this show! I quite like postmodern texts. My issue is with the received wisdom of hopelessness being more smart. My issue is with this baseless intellectual hierarchy; whatever is saddest is correct-est. And I have a real issue with anything that reaffirms this macho assertion. This dick-measuring competition of bleakness.
Dr. Strange is a dickhead. He always assumes he’s the smartest person in the room, he has a hard time caring for others, and he falls into the trope of the troubled genius who knows too much to ever be happy. Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness asks him the question, repeatedly, “are you happy?” And – spoilers, by the way, you can skip to the timestamp below – even though it sends him careening into multiple other timelines where his life went differently, he’s never actually confronted with a version of reality where he might have been happy. Where he got it together with Christine. Where he didn’t drive like a maniac and crash the car.
Why? Why not?? Why didn't they do that? With all our talk of multiversal texts, and how they relate to metamodernism, there’s a certain irony to the fact that the first Dr. Strange film is arguably more metamodern than the sequel. In the first film, Strange is challenged by the Ancient One, and, yeah, cultural appropriation, whitewashing, etc aside, She says to him: “It’s not about you.” And that alone has the potential to silence some of the discontent about meaning. Perhaps Morty’s life is meaningless, perhaps it is not. But if there’s any meaning it is performative.
It is sysiphean. It is in the everyday acts of being, and loving, and being loved, and helping. By rejecting exactly those things, and rejecting them specifically because they’re less intellectually valid, Rick, Picklerick, becomes a shining exemplar of the postmodern human. Alone. And miserable.
But technically correct. And so does Stephen Strange. So there you have it, I think the multiverse is making us sad. And I think Huckleberry makes me happy.
When he doesn’t make me angry or confused or frustrated. Happiness is a very conformist category after all! And it’s not about me, is it? Huckleberry is, after all, also in the Universe. The multiverse presents unique storytelling opportunities. New and compelling flights of fancy. Novel and compelling questions of ethics, and the human struggle and happiness and meaning. It's no coincidence that we've seen a proliferation of multiversal media lately.
Okay. Who the fuck are you?? Neil: He was there, Sarah. Just like before.
Saying the same things as me, at the same time. What do you think it means? Sarah: I don’t know if it means anything. I think – Neil: You think I’m losing it? Sarah: Well I’m not a fan of that phrasing. What does that even mean? If you want my opinion, I think you could be burned out.
Neil: No I’m not! Well, I am. I’m worried… Sarah: You think it’s The Editor? Neil: I didn't make him up! Sarah: Neil, how many 20 hour days in a row did you work editing the last video? Neil: The Editor is real! It’s like he’s haunted me, ever since we made that fucking video with the AI. What follows is the, I guess you could call it a video essay that this AI wrote Good morning you silly sausage Spilljoy! Cells are fascinating Let’s stretch our big legs and open the presents Sarah: It’s just… a malevolent demon who is “the process of editing personified?” Isn’t that a little… Neil: Scary?? Sarah: Well I was gonna say meta… Neil? I think you should get some sleep. Your patrons aren’t going to be mad if you deliver this one a little late… Neil: Shh-shh Sarah: Neil? Peterson: We'll see who cancels who, you sons of bitches.
Rob: Is faisisteach iar-nua-aimsire é! Jordan fucking FUCK! Felix: Is this yours? Rob: Go raibh maith agat. Is cócaire liobráileach mé. Felix: Mise freisin, same. Neil: I am also a Liberal Cook Rob: Stad a caint cac a chur mo Lad óige, a cunt. Ahahaha Dr. Puppet: Okay I think the coast is clear. AHHHHHHHHH! Oh.
Sir Dodo: Doctor? Sarah: Neil… Neil? Neil This isn’t how you structure an outline. I don't know where to go from here. I don't, I… I don't know where to go from here. I remember Neil told me to talk about Russian propaganda and Surcov and Jackson Pollock's leftism and the CIA pushing abstract expressionist at as an extension of its global hegemony. I don't know how to talk about any of that, that's Neil's stuff! Ok. I'm just going to talk a