To Be Meta, or Not to Be Meta

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter wrote a book entitled Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, popularizing the term “meta” in its most common modern usage, i.e., self-referential. People, on television and in high schools and colleges everywhere, often talk about “being meta” or “going meta.”

To “go meta” is to take an argument, discussion, conversation, or debate to a deeper (i.e., self-referential) level, such as, “This ‘blog post is such a bore.” To “be meta” is to approach all aspects of life with a view to stepping back and examining them as integral parts in a larger whole. One might enjoy a particular episode of a particular television series, for example, but if one were being meta, one would then examine that episode as merely one small piece of the much larger whole, that is, the entire series.

Going meta is largely irrelevant to me. I want to discuss being meta, because it is an increasingly popular mental style in today’s American culture. People enjoy having their minds twisted in knots at the pleasure of the twister. The film “Inception” is the perfect example of this. In fairness, it’s not a new activity – see the original “Total Recall,” for example – and it’s not worthless. It is, in fact, quite fun to take a mental joyride through someone else’s playground.

But the question is, is “being meta” as philosophical and transcendent as many people make it seem? Does it improve the human condition? Are we better off for it?

Let’s face it: what does being meta actually accomplish? At the end of the day, being meta is simply looking at a complex system and declaring it to be complex. And I’ll grant that it’s a relatively uncommon position in the history of philosophy – most fiction, non-fiction, philosophy, psychology, medicine, invention, and industry seek to simplify the system, so that they can provide solutions to particular problems. It’s a side effect of the scientific method – ceteris paribus, Latin for “with other things being equal.” You have to control and eliminate as many variables as possible, so that you can test, analyze, and correct single variables at a time. And so that approach has been applied to any activity which endeavors to describe the human condition and to indicate a preferential method of surviving it.

So being meta takes a step back from the idea of ceteris paribus, and wants us to recognize and remember that the other things are not equal, and may in fact never have been so. Every single variable is part of an equation so large that it cannot be simplified. Being meta, in short, (and to reference a brief discussion I had earlier on this blog) directly opposes the hypothesis of Asimov’s Foundation series. That is, Hari Seldon (the champion of psychohistory) creates a simpler model which approximates the behavior of human civilization; in Prelude to Foundation, he wonders whether this is even possible, because it might be that the universe, or even just human civilization, cannot be simplified any further than it already is. While, for the sake of science fiction, Asimov embraced the “what if?” of success, being meta declares that human civilization/the universe/the human condition cannot be so simplified.

And in general, I’m inclined to agree. I don’t think psychohistory could be possible, even with the best psychological and mathematical minds from all time working on the problem. The universe already is the simplest model for its own behavior.

At the same time, there are strong benefits from addressing particular problems individually. The holistic medicines of the far east have some measures of success, but when it comes to efficiency and reliability at eliminating an infection, it’s hard to beat broad-spectrum antibiotics. Considering the human condition as a whole, especially in light of our sinful plight and God’s divine intervention, can be extremely useful – but describing the habitual differences between effective, wise, happy, successful people and their ineffective, foolish, sad, failure-ridden counterparts can help someone with self-control and motivation to become more effective, wise, happy, and successful.

That’s not to say that Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People will take someone from the pits of depression to the contented plateau of healthy joy. But neither will pointing out, say, that the pits of depression are simply a small part of the human condition, or that one’s presence in them is due primarily to a misunderstanding of the complexity of the system. In fact, I’d argue that being meta to depressed persons is more likely to make them more depressed than it is to heal whatever darkens their souls.

Let me be clear: I enjoy when things are self-referential. I enjoy intertextualism. I enjoy “Easter eggs” and references to the fourth wall. I do not, however, enjoy when an author takes a wrecking ball to the fourth wall, then picks up the pieces and beats the audience over the head with them. That’s simply a case of an author believing himself to be so superior to his readership that he must berate them into acquiescence. It doesn’t help him or his case, and it certainly does not help his readers.

It has been suggested that there are two kinds of books – those designed to divert, and those designed to support. Entertainment and “self-help.” Books, apparently, attempt to provide escapism, either in the form of a story (true or not) or in the form of suggested behavior. I would argue vehemently that this is a very short-sighted view of books in general, but I’ll come back to that. More importantly, some suggest that the solution is to be meta – that is, to step back and realize the situation, the desired escapism, and the cause of it all, and to address the system in its complexity, instead of trying to simplify it.

And with that, I disagree.

In part, it’s because I think there is more to books than mere escapism. There is Truth in books (or at least, in some books). They address the human condition, not by pointing out how complex it is (because everyone who has lived already knows that), but by showing us who we are and how we act, and questioning whether we should act the way we do. All without being “meta.”

Really, I think I object to this because being meta is no different. If your mindset/belief system is that all books are escapism of some sort, some kind of diversion or entertainment, then so is being meta. Stepping back and examining the complexity of the system does not, in and of itself, make it more feasible to operate within the system. It simply diverts your attention from the hardship of your situation by letting you say, “Look how complex this whole system is! No wonder I have so much trouble.” Given enough time, it will fail as completely as any other diversion, any entertainment, any behavioral pattern, in an attempt to better yourself.

People tend to enjoy being meta because they think it expands their minds. They think it makes them wise to acknowledge how small they are. They think that acting like Socrates is somehow original or productive. They watch a movie like “Inception” and they walk out thinking that they’re smarter than they were going into it, that they gained something by being confused, tricked, and manipulated.

There is an inherent assumption that looking at the universe reveals the face of God. That may or may not be true. But looking at the “big picture” is not the only way to look at the universe. There is at least as much to be learned by examining a single cog as by examining the whole clock – and verily, I doubt that examining the clock would serve you at all to understand it if you knew nothing of its cogs.

Is it possible to look at a complex system and address it as such? Yes. Is it helpful to step back and examine it as a whole, instead of cutting out variables that aren’t really staying equal? Yes. Is there a deeper solution to the human condition than a set of behavioral patterns and delightful diversions? Yes.

Does doing those things, and then saying that you’ve done them, make you superior to those who do them implicitly, subtly, and without comment? No.

I don’t like being meta because people who are meta tend to spend all their time focusing on being meta without providing any actual solutions to actual problems. So, paraphrasing Jeff Winger, “Stop taking everything we do and shoving it up its own ass.” Sometimes, attempting to improve the human condition is more important than pointing out that the human condition is in a bad way.

2 Responses to “To Be Meta, or Not to Be Meta”

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  1. D.C. says:

    Now I feel as though I played a role in creating this finely-crafted and well-written beast.

    I can’t speak for Hofstader (who sounds insufferable),but I can speak for Walker Percy.

    I would recommend “Lost in the Cosmos” to anyone and everyone. It’s life-altering (in a good way). Percy, unlike Hofstader, sees the world as being too wrapped up in systems. He thinks that too many so-called social scientists have made themselves “experts” in what really ails us (sexual dissatisfaction, parenting, brain chemicals, inefficient lives, lack of positive thinking, etc.) without really being able to admit that they can no more sum up a man as a monkey or a worker or a slave of economic forces as he can anything else. Percy believes that people are fundamentally souls, in quite a bit of trouble at that. If it reminds me of anyone, it’s Chesterton who spends a whole chapter in “Orthodoxy” criticizing the system of thought without having any room for magic or the unexplained. Percy adds to that category the soul, lost in the cosmos.

    His critique of modern books is that the best-sellers are there to entertain or therapize. So there if there ever was an American Homer or Shakespeare, would we even know about him? No one would buy his book because it doesn’t have enough vampires or mommy porn or six highly efficient habits. Percy isn’t saying that all books fit into two categories (most of his corpus was fiction); his point is that the good ones don’t sell because they’re hard and they make us feel things and maybe even make us question what we’re doing and why we’re here and if maybe that boredom and angst doesn’t need a pill to dull it away but needs to be explored so that it may eventually lead us to ask for help.

    What is help? For Percy, this is crying out into the void of worry and uncertainty for God. His argument for the necessity of incarnational salvation is extremely subtle, but if you realize what he’s doing you’re stunned by its profundity. Have you reached the end of the experts and the diversions to realize that you are a lonely individual in a world without words for you? You can’t figure yourself out on your own because you need help from outside. He’s basically pleading for us to see through the distractions and the hubristic explanations to realize that we are so far beyond categorization as persons with souls and unmet desires that we must cry out into the madness for help. And in the end, which is more absurd? The neuroscientist who sees the mass of mankind as mechanistic androids but still can’t get a date? The motivational speaker who seeks a shrink regularly? The liberated feminist who still melts in the arms of a man who truly loves her and the sight of her newborn baby? Or the idea that God saw how much trouble we were in and decided to take on flesh and come into our crisis and tell us who we are?

  2. Versor says:

    This is why I did not address Percy’s book directly. Not having read it, I couldn’t quite speak to its content. So I went on a bit of a rant against popular culture. But it worked out, I think.

    From what you describe, Percy’s work falls closer to my preferential use of “meta.” Subtlety and cleverness are key. I suspect I will now have to put his book on my list of books I will eventually read when the rest of the world is destroyed and I’m locked in a bank vault while I eat lunch.

    That’s a reference to “The Twilight Zone,” by the way. You should have known that.

    (On an unrelated note, I apologize about the awfulness of the comment form in the past. I had no idea the text was so similar a color to the form. It is remedied now.)

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