Critical Backlash: On the Use of "Meta"

A sample of Erik Spikermann’s legendary and ubiquitous typeface, FF Meta.

Welcome to Ancient Civ 101: “Meta” is a Latin-rooted prefix meaning “beyond” or “about.” In English, it is ordinarily affixed to other concepts; for instance, a discussion of metaphysics is a discussion of the things beyond or about the physical world which seem to govern or pertain to it. (Statements about metaphysics include “all effects must have causes” or “something cannot be created from nothing.“)

However, the language of arts critics seems to have perverted this benign prefix, and it seems similar to the way it has perverted the word “literate.” (“The Decemberists are a literate band?” What band can’t read and write?) To some critics, saying that something is “meta” is vaguely tantamount to saying it is self-referential or self-aware, a work of art apparently knowing of its genre or status.

Of course, I don’t have a problem per se with shifting word uses and definitions, but when something is so ill-defined as this newfangled use of “meta,” we quickly see things spiral out of control. Take, for instance, this wretched Pitchfork news article, “Art Brut Meets Harry Potter” (17 July 07):

Daniel Radcliffe must know a little something about “meta”; he is, after all, Harry Potter (far moreso than those trippy drawings on the front of the books). So it’s fitting that Art Brut — the most meta of the bands– count Mr. PotterRadcliffe as a fan.

I think even someone with a comprehensive understanding of both uses of “meta” should scratch her head at this stupid statement. After all, what is “meta” about Daniel Radcliffe? Surely he is not “beyond,” and just as certainly he is not self-referencing in his role as Harry Potter – he’s just acting. And what’s “meta” about Art Brut? They aren’t “beyond” anything and they aren’t particularly self-referencing either.

Of course, it’s debatable whether this apparently meaningless news report is the result of an ill-defined new term or simply Pitchfork’s editorial laziness.

(An aside: For all the attention it gets, self-reference actually seems quite unremarkable to me in popular music; after all, it seems that we usually and rightly take “I” in the lyrics to a rock song to refer to the singer. In “Rock and Roll All Nite,” we take it that Gene Simmons is proclaiming something about his own nocturnal and diurnal preferences, thus explicitly self-referencing. The fact that he does this, though, is hardly worthy of note.)

Philip Glass – “Metamorphosis One”: mp3
Ghostface – “Meta Lungies”: mp3
Wilco – “Heavy Meta Drummer”: mp3


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