Meta, a postmodern curse word

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Interesting discussion, albeit using the NBC TV series Community to make its point, on Diet Soap podcast and blog An Emphatic Umph about “meta”, how it is used inappropriately, and whether or not is something of a curse word now.

We have encountered much of this discussion in STS, a lot. It is part of a broader discussion about reflexivity, which we wrote about in a Qualitative Sociology article (expensive here, free here). Our claims are more about making accounts, but the basic premise prevails.

At An Emphatic Umph, they raise the classic work on Bergman’s Persona citing Mubi: “It embraces its own artificiality as a medium that has its sole function in representing human impressions and/or emotions. Thus, embracing the postmodernist vein of self-reflexivity, Bergman includes various metacinematic scenes in the film.” Super ugh, self-reflexivity! Painful to read now with a bit of distance from the super-mind-blowing-ness of it all.

Summarizing things nicely, we read “This is to say, the postmodern considers not just the content but the terms and means of content production“, to which we must emphatically agree; however, consistent with the tone of the AEU piece, some folks have this a little too far, or, worse, have left us in a super-lame self-referential circle as we claim to have discovered this fact over and over and over again.

And yet … “And yet there is a certain smug self-congratulation. Rather than meta disrupting our knowing, it brings us into the know, as if we’re in on the whole gag” (re: the fall of the fourth wall in cinematic art). Whew! Again, agreement on all fronts; the part that is difficult for me to swallow (for it is a bitter, bitter pill) is that we gain anything from doing so (i.e., being overtly meta or tickling the fourth wall), which is a point made wonderfully by Mike Lynch who argues that, well, all human communication is already reflexive, thus rendering any attempts to gain ground in an academic or even moral sense by being meta/self-reflexive is beyond pointless (in the best paper about reflexivity ever, but this contest does not include book chapters, for it is Latour that get’s that one, with the dissertation victory going to our friend Malcom Ashmore).

If nothing it to be gained from meta/self-reflexivity (and we generally find Lynch correct in his account), then, Latour concludes, we need to be reflexive in non-self-congratulatory ways, in this case, that means to be infra-reflexive, which implies that we need to overcome the dead-end of any attempt to get an edge on others through the overt use of reflexivity as well as find ways to be reflexive without being too clever about it and just using it when needed (which is all the time) without asking for so much in return (like being congratulated for taking a picture of a picture or something like that).

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

5 thoughts on “Meta, a postmodern curse word

  1. if you haven’t yet Richard Rorty’s review essay on Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum is a short but powerful pivot in the “linguistic” turn, along with sections of St.Fish’s doing what comes naturally and his diagnosing of “theory hope” (a strain perhaps of archive-fever), all of which point nicely to a sort of ‘radical’ behaviorism (like that being fleshed out by the post-Wittgenstein enactivists, or as Rorty summarized we are always already manipulating) as an update on pragmatist fallibilism/instumentalism and Andy Pickering’s mangling.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=_vr1FVzDYfcC&pg=PA89&lpg=PA89&dq=rorty+eco&source=bl&ots=y8zwcTHeq0&sig=rcj4eqrR3A-EsctiV4udAqxOgmk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-XZrU7_lOMz0oASi6ICIDg&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=rorty%20eco&f=false

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