The New York Times on Meta
November 16, 2002 9:20 PM   Subscribe

This Is a Headline For an Essay About Meta (NY Times Magazine). A multi-aspect discussion of our favorite prefix, with a few appropriately cheeky observations. "The more high-minded it is, apparently, the easier it is for meta to annoy."
posted by werty (26 comments total)
A disappointing article on a fascinating topic.

Meta, as the author only vaguely alludes to and then ignores, is not a new concept either in art (Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe") or in mathematics (Russell's early theory of classes.)

Meta should also be separated from simple recursion. The idea of Meta is to untangle the knot of recursion or self-reference. In this case, a Meta level allows us to discuss the base level. Discussions about Meta properly belong at the level of MetaMeta.

The role of Meta and recursion and how it is inimately tied in with human intelligence and creativity is one of the main themes of Hofstadter's GEB, a book which I did not find annoying at all.
posted by Winterfell at 9:43 PM on November 16, 2002

Everywhere I turn I find people connecting this or that idea to GEB. I may have to actually read the damn thing. But the essay understandably describes artistic meta as annoying because it can be condescending, pointing out the obvious. I doubt if GEB discusses itself as a work of nonfiction, so while it may discuss meta, it is not itself an example of meta. Which is why no one finds it annoying in the way the essay describes.
posted by gsteff at 10:18 PM on November 16, 2002

Hrm, I'm pretty sure GEB discusses itself. But anyway, self discussion isn't meta. discussion is meta. If I wrote a book "nonfiction today" it would be meta, wether or not it discussed itself.
posted by delmoi at 10:24 PM on November 16, 2002

*pipes in again*

I do think you could make an argument that Meta's arrival as a common element in pop culture is a new thing. Situation comedies never stepped out and referred to themselves as situation comedies. Discussion of the work within the work itself seems to have been only in avant-garde or high art.

The only counter-example I can think of is that of comedians who have always, for example, gotten laughs out of making fun of their own un-funniness.
posted by Winterfell at 10:35 PM on November 16, 2002

Another text for consideration is Metapop: Self-referentiality in American Popular Culture by Michael Dunne. He explores, gracefully and often with wit, self-referentiality in comic strips, music videos, television, film and music (country music is ripe with it). Highly recommended.
posted by brittney at 11:10 PM on November 16, 2002

Winterfell: Green Acres was frequently self-referential. It also featured commentary on credits. Arnold Ziffel, the pig, even once started talking in nothing but Japanese subtitles, which everyone on the show recognized, if I remember correctly. Lisa (played by Eva Gabor) also comments on subtitles in an episode when her parents from Hungary pay a visit to Hooterville.
posted by raysmj at 11:29 PM on November 16, 2002

Advertisements have talked about advertising for a long time. Not sure this quite qualifies as meta, but I'm reminded of an old television commercial -- 1950s or 60s -- in which the housewife suddenly throws off her apron revealing a torch dress, and the home around her splits apart to become an elaborate music hall stage with dancers in white tie and tails, and they do this big musical number about whatever product the commercial is advertising. Then the walls close in becoming an ordinary home again, and everything's back to normal. Her husband takes his pipe out of his mouth and says "Helen, do you have to make a big production out of everything?"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:32 PM on November 16, 2002

5 pages?? are you kidding me? Somebody give me teh meta on this article.

</bad attempt>
posted by Space Coyote at 12:13 AM on November 17, 2002

GEB is well worth the effort. Repeatedly.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:38 AM on November 17, 2002

raysmj, thanks for those fun Green Acres links. Something enjoyable within this otherwise snoozey naval gazing about naval gazing.
posted by HTuttle at 3:48 AM on November 17, 2002

I'm writing a screenplay at the moment, and have gone a bit meta mad - its about 2 guys (played by me and my friend) who are trying to think of an idea for a film. The screenplay is a combination of ideas from two other screenplays we wrote and rejected - one of which is about 2 guys making a film.

In the new script, the 2 guys refer to films made by the 2 guys in the old script, plus films made by us, plus films we were going to make and rejected. It all a bit silly sum up, its a film about two guys like us who can't think of an idea for a film, so write a film about two guys like them...
posted by Orange Goblin at 5:34 AM on November 17, 2002

as winterfell said, recursion isn't meta. in fact, meta is used to break recursion - it's the difference between commenting about a thread within metafilter (recursion, assuming you're commenting on the same thread) or metatalk (meta, assuming you're commenting about a thread in metafilter).

recursion is dangerous because it leads to paradoxes and logical inconsistency (and unreliability). hence the introduction of meta, which lets you reason about the inconsistency in a separate system that hasn't been "polluted" by the recursion.

people might be interested in readnig about tarski.

orange goblin - isn't that rather passé? incidentally, you could resort to meta, rather than recursion: "imagine the old self-referential idea about 2 people making a film about 2 people making a film about... - well, we're going to extrapolate that to the limit where the reference repeats an infinite number of times".

but i did think the point in the article about old-school (literary self-styled) meta being condescending bang on-target.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:00 AM on November 17, 2002

Detective fiction has always been "meta." Sherlock Holmes gripes about Watson's writing style (The Sign of Four) or complains about being compared to C. Auguste Dupin, the character who inspired his own creation (A Study in Scarlet). In the 20s, 30s, and 40s, detective fiction took meta to new heights, long before postmodernism kicked in--characters discuss the fact that they're in a mystery novel, or the narrator breaks frame to discuss questions of plot/character analysis with the reader (see, for example, Nine Wrong Answers). Among contemporary writers, Reginald Hill likes to remind his readers that they're reading a story, especially in Pictures of Perfection, Dialogues of the Dead, and a very funny short story in which "the author of the Dalziel and Pascoe stories" himself crops up as a character.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:27 AM on November 17, 2002

I always used to call meta "breaking the fourth wall." There any difference between the two terms?
posted by Veritron at 8:01 AM on November 17, 2002

One of my favorite literary examples of self-referentiality is from the conclusion of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day"), "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
posted by brittney at 9:07 AM on November 17, 2002

Seems like a good time to ask, since it's been bugging me forever, who was it said, "Things keep getting meta and meta all the time?" I thought it was J. L. Austin, but have been told it was unlikely he would have cracked such a joke.
posted by minnesotaj at 9:44 AM on November 17, 2002

There any difference between the two terms?

I think they're closely related phenomena. A distinction could be made, I suppose, between "breaking the fourth wall" as a way of incorporating the audience into the play/film/novel and "breaking the fourth wall" as a way of reflecting on the fictionality or artificiality of the play/film/novel. The latter would be meta, the former wouldn't.

(Oh, yes, another example of meta-before-"meta": George Eliot's narrators often call attention to their manipulations of the plot or to the possible distortions inherent in representation itself, as in the famous chapter on realism in Adam Bede or the narrator's allusions to the plot "web" of Middlemarch.)
posted by thomas j wise at 10:16 AM on November 17, 2002

That's why I like Edmund Crispin's writing.

There's a scene in one of his books in which the detective thinks up better titles for the books and says something like "I could do better than Crispin." The characters also crack jokes about the books' publisher.

If you want to read more, I'd recommend The Moving Toyshop. Have fun.
posted by Vidiot at 10:36 AM on November 17, 2002

I always used to call meta "breaking the fourth wall."

In GEB it's referred to as "jumping out of the system."
posted by kindall at 11:31 AM on November 17, 2002

Sheesh, can we please take this to MetaTalk?

posted by Succa at 11:50 AM on November 17, 2002

Orange Goblin -- a friend of mine was writing a similar screenplay last year; a deliberately, self-consciously quirky thing Based On A True story about us hanging out in a video store talking about how our conversation felt like something from an independent movie. Let me see if I can find an excerpt...

So, a comedy drama, maybe?


Could be. But to me it feels more like one of those quaint little indie films about nothing in particular. Your know, like, neither of us is clearly the main character or anything?


Well, if this is a movie, I think the dialogue's getting a bit overly self-referential.


Oh, don't worry about that. I'll tone it down in the screenplay.
Anyway, on the subject of the article, I thought its efforts to distinguish between gradations of Meta were a bit disapointing. It never really discusses how movies like Scream, where the story's realistic and self-supporting, without any overt references to itself (just subtle jibes at the audience from the screenwriter), are qualitatively different from those like Nightmare on Elm Street, where logic evaporates completely as the characters consult the Nightmare On Elm Street screenplay.
posted by Tlogmer at 2:12 PM on November 17, 2002

Hmm, one of the characters in one of the rejected screenplays is called Ben...maybe its all just one big reference :p
posted by Orange Goblin at 2:42 PM on November 17, 2002

I am also sure that GEB (Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid) refers to itself many times. Just browsing through the book I recalled just how funny the whole thing is. From a dialogue at the end of the book:

CRAB: ... In his absence, I'd like to tell you a statement in a Dialogue at the end of a book I came across recently.

ACHILLES: Not Copper, Silver, Gold: an Indestructible Metal Alloy?

CRAB: No, as I recall, it was entitled Giraffes, Elephants, Baboons: an Equatorial Grasslands Bestiary - or something like that. In any case towards the end of the aforementioned Dialogue, a certain exceedingly droll character ...
posted by Winterfell at 3:11 PM on November 17, 2002

Nice link, mstillwell
posted by Orange Goblin at 3:51 PM on November 17, 2002

You are absolutely right about GEB self-reference, winterfell. You and starvos have convinced me to take it up, and the first 100 pages have enthralled but humiliated me soundly. Reminds me of Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, oddly.
posted by gsteff at 1:15 AM on November 18, 2002

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