Sometimes these days when we talk about “going meta” about a topic, we mean what we used to call “being reflective” about it. Both ways of talking imply the value of interrupting the normal course of thought and taking a step back.
To be sure, “going meta” often refers to a form of expression becoming aware of itself as a form, and making that awareness apparent within the expression—which is a convoluted way of saying that going meta can mean giving a knowing wink to the audience. For example, the TV series Arrested Development did going meta great: An anonymous voice-over that’s in fact done by the director Ron Howard referred to Ron Howard movies, and a plot about trying to keep the family business afloat mirrored precisely the attempt by fans to keep the series afloat. When you notice it, you’re pulled out of the show, but who cares? It’s funny. In fact, the romantic comedy They Came Together is nothing but a set of meta-jokes about romantic comedies, the whole point of which is to keep pulling you out of its own narrative.
But “going meta” can also mean making explicit the conditions for the thing we were just focused on. For example, if you’re in a class and someone says, “The discussion we’re having right now is an example of what we’ve been talking about … ” you are headed town the meta path. Or if on a news show someone raises the question of the effect of news coverage on the event being covered, it’s now a meta-news show.
Going meta in that second sense can feel like stepping back from your involvement in something. That metaphor—“stepping back”—seems natural because to go meta you have to stop what you’re doing so you can consider what you were doing as a new object of attention. That’s why going meta about something is so closely connected to reflecting on it.
Ellen Rose in her book On Reflection says that the term “reflection” was first applied to thought in 1605 when it meant turning your attention to something. Ninety years later, the empiricist John Locke used it in distinction from sensation: Sensations enter from the outside world, while reflection is the mind thinking within itself. “Soon thereafter,” writes Rose, “reflection became synonymous with … independent, careful thought.” Reflective thought abstracts you from the situation, if only for a moment.
“Going meta” is a modernized version of the old idea of reflecting, but it’s not exactly the same. When you reflect, you stop what you were doing and enter the world of thought: You turn off the vacuum cleaner and reflect on humans as makers of order, or whatever. When you go meta, you also stop what you were doing, but you stay in the same domain: When a news show goes meta, it’s still a news show talking about news.
There’s something of value to preserve in the old notion of reflection as a full stop, a deep pause, a real letting go. That’s when we can think about the meaning of what we’re doing.
Things can’t be understood within themselves. They only make sense because of the hidden—or at least hushed—assumptions that let us take them one way instead of another. But those assumptions need questioning, for no assumptions and no beliefs are correct all the way down.
Questioning those assumptions requires reflection’s deep pause because the job of an assumption is to be as invisible as the ground our soles hide when we walk. We can’t examine our assumptions except by pausing what we’re doing. Really pausing.
The old man in me wants to bemoan the loss of the metaphor of reflection because it explicitly implies a thorough break, while the metaphor of going meta implies that you’re still keeping busy even though you’ve elevated your view. But I truthfully don’t know if anything will be lost as we switch from the old metaphor to the new.
In fact, since “going meta” usually applies to a conversation, while reflection is something we tend to do alone, the new metaphor implies a sociality that thinking sorely needs.