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Meta-Musings

The self-reference craze

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images
A woman photographs inside the Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity room during a preview of the Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum, February 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

“This is the theme to Gary’s show, the opening theme to Gary’s show, this is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.”—Theme song of  It’s the Gary Shandling Show

In the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Roger—a real-life animated rabbit who makes his living acting in 1940s cartoon shorts—is confronted with a detective’s pictures of his wife in compromising positions. He examines the snapshots rapidly, as if thumbing through a deck of cards, and the successive images begin to blend into a moving picture. The audience laughs at the joke: a cartoon character who works as a cartoon character has created his own cartoon character.

The film is only cashing in on America’s latest social and pop-intellectual trend: self-reference. You see it in the humor of television’s Gary Shandling Show, with its highly self-conscious theme song and star (who’s been known to spy on other characters in the sitcom by looking into video monitors). You see it in intensified coverage of the media by the media; last year marked the first time a Pulitzer Prize was awarded to a journalist whose beat is the press. Above all, you see it in the popularity of a once-obscure prefix, “meta,” which has been called in to describe these activities. Hence: “meta-cartoon,” the only word English has for Roger’s brief animation experiment. According to David Justice, editor for pronunciation and etymology at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “meta” currently is “the fashionable prefix.” He predicts that, like “retro”—whose use solely as a prefix, is so, well, retro—“meta” could become independent from other words, as in, “Wow, this sentence is so meta.” If so, you heard it from me first.

But enough about me—let’s talk about my article. “Meta” was first popularized by Aristotle, who, in seeking a name for the sequel to his blockbuster Physics, settled on Metaphysics. All he meant by the prefix—Greek for “after” or “beyond”—was that the second book had come after the first. But since the second book was about what lies beyond physical reality, people mistakenly, though plausibly, gave the word its current meaning: “Beyond physics.” “Meta,” by extension, came to mean “a level beyond.”

During the last hundred years or so, academics realized that this concept could open up fresh terrain for disciplines thought to have run their course. “Meta” rejuvenated subjects like ethics, literary criticism, and mathematics with “meta-ethics,” “meta-criticism,” and “metamathematics.” These specialties study, respectively, the ethics of adhering to an ethical system, the criticism of criticism, and the logic of logical systems. The self-reference industry had been born.


Meta first saw a glimmer of its current faddishness in 1979, when a computer guru, Douglas Hofstadter, published the book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In this cult classic—which hundreds of thousands bought but few finished—Hofstadter explained how self-reference had figured in the works of the three title characters. The artist M.C. Escher, for example, was fond of depicting logically impossible drawings, of, say, a drawn hand sketching a human hand, or of a painting that contains the gallery in which it is hung. The book’s index included 25 words beginning with “meta,” many of them coined by Hofstadter, who has a near-obsession with Russian-doll ideas. Thus, “meta-language” (a language used to describe a language); “meta-intuition” (an intuition about one’s intuition); and “meta-hiccup” (a concept illustrated when one of Hofstadter’s fictitious characters says, “If you are but a hiccup in my brain, I myself am but a hiccup in some higher author’s brain”).

But even with people like Hofstadter applying the prefix to everything they can think of, language is still playing catch-up with reality. For each new “meta” word coined, at least one new meta-thing lies unidentified. Recent research has revealed a number of phenomena still waiting for their “meta” labels.

Meta-polling. “Polling has gotten more self-conscious about polling recently,” says John Benson of the Roper Center, which actually keeps track of such things. In part to counteract bad publicity about influencing elections, the polling industry has surveyed people to demonstrate that an overwhelming majority of the public considers polling important. Since 1980, says Benson, pollsters have circulated about 30 questions a year on polling, asking, among other things, whether polls are too intrusive. Not surprisingly, most people who agreed to spend their time answering these questions said they didn’t find polls intrusive.

Meta-gossip. Upstart Newsday gossip columnist Charles Revson got headlines this spring by revealing that Suzy, the better-known New York Post gossip columnist, had written about events she had not attended. While Suzy vacationed in the Caribbean, the Post printed columns she had written ahead of time with the help of guest lists and an unerring sense for who would be snubbing whom. After being called on her indiscretion and humiliated in public (even the gossip-columnless New York Times wrote a story in borrowed style, complete with names in boldface), Suzy regained her composure, becoming America’s first documented meta-buster. After returning to New York, she penned a column vowing never to cover any function to which Revson had been invited. Though I have no idea whether Suzy now attends all the events she reports on, I have the comfort of knowing I will never be informed otherwise.

Meta-lobbying. The 450-member American League of Lobbyists this fall will promote new legislation that proposes “reasonable standards” for the lobbying profession, says Howard Marlowe, the organization’s president. Marlowe, who will testify on Capitol Hill in support of the legislation, says that the league will not retain a registered lobbyist for the cause, but instead will rely on members who volunteer their time.

Meta-leaking. Presidential hopeful Joseph Biden’s plagiarizing of a British politician’s speech helped usher in this meta-tactic. After John Sasso, Michael Dukakis’s campaign manager, leaked the “killer videos” showing Biden’s unacknowledged source in action, someone leaked news of this leak. Sasso resigned, but the chain of meta-leaks didn’t continue long enough for his accuser to meet the same fate.

Meta-bureaucracy. In 1980 the U.S. government enacted the National Paperwork Reduction Act, which created a bureaucracy of over 70 people to ensure that the government asks as little paperwork from the public as possible. The latest 58-page report from the Office of Internal and Regulatory Affairs, which administers the act, concludes that in 1987 there was nonetheless a 140 million-hour increase in the amount of federally required paper work. It could not be determined how much paperwork was needed to check on this, but in the words of one employee there, “This office is not about saving trees.”


Expect to overhear these and other new “meta” words at your local supermarket soon. According to William Stewart, a professor of linguistics and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, “meta” is catching on because it caters to the growing number of people impressed by pseudo-technical language. He sees this trend in the tendency of people to state their opinions in terms of percentages (“There’s an 80 percent chance this observation is true”) and to mispronounce words in Greek-sounding ways, such as saying processes to rhyme with hypotheses. “People used to express anxiety [about being well-informed] by following standard grammatical usage,” says Stewart. “Now people do it by sounding technical.” Another attraction of meta is that, like most prefixes, it can be tacked onto existing words to create hundreds of new ones; as linguists put it, meta is “productive.”

Meta is productive in another sense too; it keeps people gainfully employed. Simply add “meta” to your profession and you’ll have whole new tasks to perform. If you have nothing to write about, you can write about writing. If you need another line in your story, you can write about needing another line in your story.

Or about needing two.

Or you can write about fellow journalists. As Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales (himself a beneficiary of meta’s make-work properties) notes, the media so thoroughly shape public opinion that reporting on reporting is essential to good reporting. At the end of the Democratic convention. Shales meta-concluded in his daily column that “the reaction of newscasters to the [Dukakis] speech was perhaps as much news as the speech itself.”

In fact, one of the biggest issues of the convention— and the subject of Nightline’s last broadcast from Atlanta—was whether these quadrennial political rites deserve the media attention they receive. It’s a can’t-lose situation: the more questionable the news judgment that journalists exercise, the more weighty issues they have to ponder profitably. Journalism is fast being consumed by meta-journalism.


In entertainment the meta-trend is often a way to capitalize on the audience’s growing irreverence toward stock entertainment formats. Take the Gary Shandling Show, Fox Television’s meta-sitcom. The show is a running commentary on the manners of sitcoms. During one episode a “stagehand” from Guatemala became part of the show when she stepped out from behind the camera and announced she was being deported. First Shandling warned viewers not to expect the expected television solution of having the star marry the deportee to save her. Later he encouraged the studio audience to boo a character as soon as the character suggested that solution. It’s all such perfect viewing for millions of pairs of jaundiced eyes, well-versed in sitcom morality and now wise to the various goings-on behind the scenes. So too is Late Night with David Letterman, whose host refers to NBC executives as “money-grubbing scum” and shoots darts at the camera.

But it would be a mistake to call Shandling and Letterman social critics. The Shandling show’s user-friendly jibes amount to little more than couch-potato criticism—a great way to demonstrate your cynicism about society without having to get up and change the channel. Tune into Gary Shandling, and you can bask in the absurdity of Sitcom Land without leaving the comfort of the laugh track. It’s the best of both worlds: cynitainment.

Lawyers, like Shandling, have found a way to make money through self-reference, and they, too, do it in the guise of casting a critical eye on their profession. In numbers that are growing, lawyers sue each other for malpractice and win large judgments. Like journalists who make money questioning each other’s news judgment or ethics, lawyers have found that bad business is good meta-business.

Sad to say, these new fields represent a logical expansion of the professions. After journalists have examined nearly every social and political topic to death, it makes sense that they would think of a way to get their own profession in the spotlight. And after malpractice suits have sent costs soaring in the medical and other industries, it makes sense that lawyers would find a way to inflate their own fee structure. Lawyers, journalists, TV stars, and other meta-professionals have discovered the one growth area that had been right there under their noses all along: themselves.

But all of this raises the question: Where do we go from here? When people become jaded about being jaded, critical of being critical, what else will be left? We might all be mouthing the concluding, recycled meta-comment in Roger Rabbit: “That’s all, folks.”