Friday, May 26, 2023

Modernism, Post and Meta

When I'm not ranting about Covid and climate change, I'm biking, reading, writing, and watching shows and movies. Tons of movies. Right now Monday mornings start with Yellowjackets as an appetizer, then Succession is the main course, followed by Barry for dessert (all on Crave). Next Monday will be the season finale for the latter two, and I'm on tenterhooks!! 

I also love YouTube videos about shows and films, and Thomas Flight is one of my favourites. He recently posted about the change in movies over the decades, and it's staying with me. 

He explains the difference between modernist, post-modernist, and "meta-modernist" films, and how they align with the periods. I've taught the first two concepts before in philosophy, but explaining it through film helps clarify the differences. 

Modernism (1890 to the 1940s or so, depends who you ask) 

This is the time of Levy-Bruhl who classified people and places into two categories somewhat offensively: primitive (mystical, communal, "pre-logical") and modern (objective, scientific, individual). He convinced important people that modern is best, which lent some credibility for taking over inferior areas of the world. Durkheim disagreed with him--cultures have differences but not superiority--but that didn't fit the dominant narrative as well. 

Philosophically, it's an era focused on science, pragmatism, and secularism (James, Peirce) with a focus on the individual (Nietzsche, Freud, Dewey, and Russell to an extent). This was a pivotal time when we, as a society, turned inward to find answers, and psychology was born out of philosophy (James, Freud, Sartre). Psychology was seen as a science of the mind, and it's come into that more and more now with brain imaging and neuroscience. At the time... not so much. Freud was scientific in that he looked for cause and effects within an individual based on real events and memories (as real as they can be), instead of looking to the stars or humors or lumps on the skull. That was a good start. Some of them argued that through this science of the self we can deduce right and wrong objectively. Or at the very least we can determine the right ethics for us to follow, individually. Determining right from wrong was paramount, and it was an notable shift from universals of ancient philosophy to particulars.  

Flight calls these categories "structural of feelings" or a "cultural vibe," which is a great way of describing it. The realism of the new film technology makes it a perfect fit with modernism. He looks at the old westerns, like High Noon, to demonstrate the criteria of modernism: no twists or turns, a clear good guy meets up with a bad guy, and the good guy always wins. It's clear and precise and righteous. What's right is just right. I love the classics for that sense of security through their predictability. They're nice to watch when the world feels like it's falling apart. The movies tell us what's important in life and show us how to react to adversity. He also discusses Top Gun: Maverick, to illustrate this older type of storytelling and how much it stands out compared to current films: there's a complete lack of irony, no big twists, and no anti-hero. The film "displays specific values unapologetically," overtly advocating for them as the right values, including honour, duty, and having some kind of impressive skill (sharp-shooter/flying ace). 

But we all know the problem with being told what's right, particularly as marginalized groups are often left out of this conversation.

Charles Taylor explains how we got to this point in a large part through the inductive science of the Enlightenment mixed with Luther's reverence of ordinary life in the Reformation. And he raises concerns about our collective "spiritual lobotomy" from our narrow focus on science that rejects all other forms of knowledge, coupled with, in our turn inward, a loss of sight of the value of fostering community: 

"Adopting a stripped-down secular outlook, without any religious dimension or radical hope in history, is not a way of avoiding the dilemma, although it may be a good way to live with it. It doesn't avoid it because this too involves its 'mutilation.' It involves stifling the response in us to some of the deepest and most powerful spiritual aspirations that humans have conceived. This, too, is a heavy price to pay" (p. 520). 

That's a crazy-long but brilliant book that I'll summarize one day, but there and elsewhere Taylor advocates for a return to some semblance of community values. We've gone too far in our quest for individual freedoms without any sense of collective responsibility.

Postmodernism (1940s to a few decades ago)

During and after the world wars, absurdity reigned in some factions of the arts. A type of skepticism of science and objective Truth crept in through existentialism, deconstructionism, and post-structuralism. This is Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Lyotard, Rorty, Foucault, Derrida, Butler... They reacted against the certainty of modernism, and the tide turned, ever so slowly, to aim at pluralism and levelling of classes and the questioning of all things particularly the motivations of governments and institutions. The grand narratives (American Dream, etc.) became suspect and history was re-explored to weed out colonialist biases through a deconstruction of narratives. History isn't straightforward or clear in any way. So much is unknowable and impossible to really grasp or understand. Memory is fallible so nothing can be certain, and we don't need narratives. We can make our own meaning for ourselves.

Postmodernism is experimental and fits with a television in each home - and later a computer. Flight uses Monty Python's Holy Grail to illustrate. There's a loose structure that becomes self-referential, bringing in the real world of police to the action in a medieval setting, and nothing is resolved. The plot falls apart. There is no moral to the story, no good guys and bad guys. Movies are more self-referential, opening up the fourth wall or referencing other media. This includes some of my favourite films because characters are so much more three-dimensional and complex that older films: Nope, The Banshees of Inisherin, The Fabelmans, The Menu, Babylon, No Country for Old Men, Synecdoche, New Yorkand Pulp Fiction. There's no straightforward motive for the villain, no overt morality. The hero is often world-weary, laments the state of things, and sometimes wonders if it's worth it to try to help at all. "Things unspool as if decided by the flip of a coin." They are films that deconstruct storytelling, often with fragmented time, irony, pastiche (reference to other times), surrealism, and self-reflexivity. They remind the viewer that they're in an audience watching a film, which is all a constructed story not to be trusted.

But, as Flight points out, we can only deconstruct for so long before chaos results. It doesn't solve the problems of modernism and causes some new problems in the process leaving us cynical and without meaning or making us long for those simpler days when everything was clear and optimistic. 

We're hit the wall with respect to relativist positions. It's clearly a problem when we don't have some  values or ethics in common, collectively. Taylor says we've focused on the self to the point that we can't challenge another's values because that's just the way they see things! We're not allowed to criticize felt experiences -- like the pain caused by reading a poem such that it should be banned in any school. This raises a loss of meaning in the culture. We've made a cost-benefit analysis and put reason ahead of all else - at the expense of all else. In our quest for freedom, we've lost any political liberty since we're ruled by multinationals and CEOs in our journey from work to home and back again. We should be wary of belief systems, but that's not to say we shouldn't have any. Pomo went too far. Chomsky explains, 

"Even if subjective ethics isn't what postmodernists had in mind, the effect of their writing is clear. It allows people to take a radical stance without being associated with reality - no responsibility. People are beginning to believe that truth is naïve and 'old fashioned' as if there's an objectivity to history. It's convenient to have no history or reality because it allows people to ignore real struggles and dichotomies between rich and poor as if that's just one perspective. It insulates people from actual activism, which is why it's so readily accepted in universities."

History books were written by the winners, and postmodernists aimed to correct that skewed view, but some took it to an extreme to say there's no possibility of objective history, which does more harm than good when it leaves us with nothing to believe, no ground beneath our feet. This extreme shift to the subjective is detrimental to the collective. 

Metamodernism (90s-ish and onward)

In Metamodernism, a term coined in 1975 by Mas'ud Zavarzade, everything's meaningless and absurdity is still around, but we're about to find  meaning. I've been out of the loop long enough to know which philosophers fit here. People who write about it include Timotheus Vermeulen, Robin van der Akker, Daniel Görtz, Hanzi Freinacht, Lene Rachel Anderson, Tomas Björkman, Jonathan Rowson, and Tom Amarque, but I haven't read any of their work or know if they write from this perspective. 

It's a synthesis of the modernist thesis and postmodernist anti-thesis. Some things are true, and these films leave us with a message about which values to hold dear. Flight discusses the brilliant film, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. Also mentioned are FargoInside, Swarm, Better Call Saul, Succession, Atlanta, Barry, Beef, Jury Duty, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and anything by Wes Anderson. These are films and shows that I really love. There's still a fragmentation of time or place, a multi-verse, tons of twists, a deconstruction of common tropes, sometimes a silliness or nihilist bent, but also with a sincere depiction of sentiment, optimism, and an overt value system that's discovered over the course of the film. Flight says,

"Viewers and artists feel self-conscious about art that's just passive entertainment. There's lots of concern with the news, and they want to do something about it. If they create art for entertainment, they feel they should be doing more. This self-consciousness invites the viewer to recognize it's flawed and subjective."

Metamodernism wants to construct an effective argument for their message instead of just saying something is right or wrong. They want to prove it and have the audience scrutinize the information before believing them. Within their fiction is Truth. 

Metamodernism has become ubiquitous and perhaps requisite in this age of social media, now that we have a "schism of selves," an awareness of a multitude of points of view of everyone around the world and a need to make sense of it all and also develop have some integrity of our beliefs. We've tried forgoing morality with an anything goes mentality and found it wanting. I see this in my youngest who can't stand many of the shows I watch that don't have a single honourable character or a sense that bad people should lose. Pomo is Gen X; Metamodernism (metmo?) is Gen Z.

In an interview with Daniel Kwan, one of the Daniels who wrote EEAAO, describes it like this:

"I think that's the version of post-postmodernism that we're hunting for--that metamodernism, if I'm going to be obnoxious. . . . It's us trying to grapple with the fact that we are all film lovers, who've grown up watching so many movies, so much so that we can guess everything that's going to happen. Everyone is so savvy. We're so film-literate that it's really hard to surprise the audience. And this film is basically trying to acknowledge that weird thing that's happening right now, where we are at peak media saturation, peak story saturation. And we didn't want to ignore the fact that we know this audience doesn't exist in a historic vacuum. Yeah, it's not about references. It's more about what is honest and what is personal."

Flight explains, if we catch a reference, it's not just a nod or chuckle, but a connection with the filmmaker. Absolutely. This is a sign of change in our culture, a much needed change that acknowledges a desire for connection and integrity and honourable people.

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