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Metamodernism II: Existential Saturation

A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Brandon Shalansky


Figure 1. Pale Blue Dot, NASA/JPL-Caltech, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

No object or force has impacted the rapidly changing social landscape of the twenty-first century as powerfully as the internet, which has brought the world’s population closer together than was ever imagined possible. Yet the internet is also pervaded with an all-too-common sensation of loneliness. Why, when the world seems so remarkably connected, do so many people report feeling disconnected? The answer lies in our conception of “everything.”

The “overview effect” is the phenomenon described by astronauts where the view of Earth as a whole “in the vastness of space simultaneously amazes and frightens” (“Overview Effect”), triggering a cognitive shift in the realization of the scale and interconnectedness of all life. This perhaps best described by astronomer Carl Sagan in his reflection upon the photograph of Earth taken from 6 billion kilometres away by the the Voyager 1 space probe, which he dubbed the Pale Blue Dot (Figure 1): Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Mayur Jadhav, CC0, via Pixahive

The “digital overview effect” is a term coined by film and media essayist Thomas Flight to describe a sensation similar to the “overview effect” that we might feel as we engage with the infinitely growing digital world. Unlike the astronaut’s phenomenon, which is instantaneous, Flight characterizes the digital overview effect as a “a more gradual and pervasive accumulation, slowly building up as we swim through a world of thoughts, ideas, concepts and emotions, all projected at us through images, text, and video, one after another in an endless parade.” The internet is constantly seducing us, as noted by comedian Bo Burnham in his special Bo Burnham: Inside, with “a little bit of everything / all of the time.” With seemingly endless information always accessible at our fingertips, humans are suddenly faced with the overwhelming concept of “everything.”

Various other overview effects can be posited as we extend this kind of thinking to concerns of climate change, racial conflict, political turmoil, etc., all of which force a crisis of existence in the face of a particular brand of “everything.” The summative description of these phenomena, or perhaps the convergence of them upon the individual, could be called existential saturation. Concerning metamodern art — and certainly, metamodern theatre — one of the most common strategies is confronting existential saturation with artistic saturation, a technique acutely applied to our production of Ubu Roi.


References

Burnham, Bo, writer, director, performer, and editor. Bo Burnham: Inside. Netflix, 2021.


Drayton, Tom. “The Listening Theatre: A Metamodern Politics of Performance”. Performance Philosophy, vol. 4, no. 1, 2018, pp. 170-87.


Flight, Thomas. “What is Everything Everywhere All At Once? The Rise of Metamodern Art.” Field Notes, 13 April 2022, thomasflight.substack.com/p/what-is-everything-everywhere-all. Accessed 5 November 2022.


“Overview Effect: An Empathic, Collective and Universal Experience.” Neosperience, 5 October 2022, neosperience.com/blog/overview-effect-an-empathic-collective-and-universal-experience/. Accessed 11 October 2022.


Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Random House, 1994.


Stepanova, Ekaterina R. et al. “Understanding AWE: Can a Virtual Journey, Inspired by the Overview Effect, Lead to an Increased Sense of Interconnectedness?” Frontiers in Digital Humanities, vol. 6, 2019, pp. 1-21.


Storm, Jason Ānanda Josephson. Metamodernism: The Future of Theory. U of Chicago P, 2021.

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