Over at io9.com, Annalee Newitz recently wrote a short piece on how “meta” has become central concept in fan commentary. Shows such as Buffy and 30 Rock or films such as Scott Pilgrim, Tropic Thunder, and Hugo are deemed “meta,” and with good reason. There is an playful or damning “extratextual” dimension to these works. And, as Netwitz rightly points out, this particular meaning of “meta” is worlds apart from its more traditional philosophical garb. But it doesn’t stray too far. For Newitz, the term means a particular kind of relationship between “audience” and “artist”. Those are my terms, and Newitz says it this way:
[…M]any shows have meta episodes that are basically fan service. So meta has become a popular trope, and fans have responded by using the term meta to describe these kinds of episodes.
But more importantly, fans have transformed the word meta yet again, turning it from an adjective that describes a kind of story into a noun that refers to a form of fan commentary.
These days, “meta” is often associated with other terms like “postmodern” (Lyotard’s critique of “meta-narratives”), going beyond Aristotle, into other forms of discussion. The “meta” relationship between fan/creator will not surprise most people, and there is an obvious Marxist commentary here, which I’ll resist.
But there is the other “pink elephant” in the room. Any student of philosophy has an opinion on the mudslinging between so-called “analytic” and “continental” forms of philosophy. While I find most of that mug to resemble bullshit, the word “meta” was at the heart of this “division.”
This was mostly over the status of “metaphysics” as a viable branch of philosophy in modern times. (In many ways, fan commentary is the “meta/physics” of shows and films with attentive teams. There are also those today who think that instantaneous online critical commentary is “ruining” tv and movies. I can’t say I agree, but I’ll sling no mud over it.)
The logical positivists of the early-twentieth century worked tirelessly to exercise “meta”physics from philosophical thinking by rebuilding philosophical thinking from the ground-up, beginning with atomic logical building blocks. Why this grand project? To transform philosophy into a science. Hegel had promised to do this long before, but the later positivists were deathly allegoric to his proposals, which involved speculative thinking and other big no-nos. For them, philosophy must reconstructed without the “beyond” speculative thinking aims to understand.
The living opponent of the positivist project was, of course, the controversial Martin Heidegger, who chided the positivists with an apocryphal conclusion: The positivist project was impossible because getting beyond metaphysics was impossible. Questions like “what is beyond?” would always be taunting us, mostly because asking this question is what makes us human.
Broadly speaking, “analysis” describes how you pay attention to all those little bits of knowledge and how they fit together. For Heidegger, there are many ways of thinking outside the “analytical”. But here’s the weird thing. Our loving analysis of our favorite shows, and their responses, would never have been “meta” for the positivists anyway. The media where encoded messages pass between fans and creators are more like “second-order discourses” or a second-level to the systems we already know. Nothing “beyond” the known is required for this kind of analysis, but fans do require something beyond the usual to keep things fresh. We can’t kick our speculative habit. And as they say, “today’s second-order is tomorrow’s first-order.” Am I right? This is why fans of Community hate season 4: it assumed the second-order would always be “meta.” But it isn’t. Once Abed says “this part is like a tv show”, it is.
Thus, the relationship between fans and their beloved shares a lot with Heidegger’s own thinking, insofar as our interest our shows is “hermeneutical”. Please bear with a passage from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which outlines the hermeneutical aesthetics of Heidegger’s student Hans-Georg Gadamer:
Hermeneutical aesthetics is dialogical in character. It recognises that practitioner and theoretician share in bringing a subject matter to light and plays down any theory/ practice division in the arts. Interpretation is a means to a work’s realisation.
Hermeneutical aesthetics is not a theory of art per se, more a set of practical contemplative notes for enhancing one’s encounter with art. The end of hermeneutical aesthetics is not to arrive at a concept of art but to deepen our experience of art. In hermeneutical aesthetics, theory is deployed to deepen contemplation of artworks rather than to categorise their nature.
Gadamer’s aesthetics is deeply respectful of art’s ability to disrupt and challenge customary expectations. It attributes an ethical significance to art as being able to reveal the limitations of fixed cultural expectancy and to open the spectator towards the other and the different.
I think there is a lot on resonance here with our interest in “meta”commentary and technology makes this “dialogical” aspect of hermeneutics real for us in way that was never open to the postivists, Heidegger or Gadamer.
I admit that this way of approaching the topic of “meta” will be too academic for most folks. For me, viewing the media I love through the ideas I love is like drinking beer in the bathtub. The best. Unfortunately, the Internet, as a medium, also has aspects which can suck the fun out of such play: Lines are quickly drawn and shit slung. But I guess that’s what happens when you show philosophers your favourite shows.