Wednesday, 7 March 2018

What Is Meta For?

I suppose it's pretty obvious, really, but it is remarkable how the arrival of a new word (or the repurposing of an old word) can consolidate previously fuzzy and provisional areas of thought into something so convenient and easy to handle that it quickly becomes a well-worn cliché. I remember one of my fellow sixth-formers around 1971 describing his negative reaction to reading hyper-literary writers like Borges or Pynchon. He said, "It's as if this book is carrying a big sign round its neck saying HEY, READER! I AM NOT REAL! I AM JUST A NOVEL!" At the time, I thought this one of the cleverest, most astute observations I had ever heard. Which, actually, it was. Nowadays, of course, he'd simply have said, "well, it's all a bit too meta", and we'd have quickly gone back to talking about girls and music.

It may have taken several decades to get to this point, but pretty much everyone now knows what "meta" means, and can recognise it when they encounter it (although, regrettably, this has not meant that we have stopped seeing books carrying a big sign saying "I AM JUST A NOVEL!"). Such a word, once established and even if widely misunderstood, democratises thought, and resets the limits of what can easily be thought about. My friend's observation in 1971 was the result of real thought and genuine insight, expressed in a vivid way. But if a 17-year-old reads Borges today and declares, "Meh, it's too meta for me!", that barely nudges the thinkometer needle. We have moved on.

Similarly, pretty much everybody now accepts some version of cultural relativism as self-evident. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any social or cultural issue; certainly, all knowledge is a construct; obviously everything depends on where you stand, who you are, and where you come from: it stands to reason. And so say even quite conservative commentators, who definitely weren't saying that not so long ago. With all due respect to proverbial wisdom, it turns out that what's sauce for the goose may well not be sauce for the gander. Who knew? Other than habitual gander-eaters, obviously. Why they have kept silent about this over the centuries is an interesting question.

When it comes to relativism there are differences of opinion, of course, even among those in the habit of thinking carefully about things – it wouldn't be relativism if there weren't, would it? – but there are also real problems of misunderstanding and misapplication as the broad-brush concepts get taken up by those who are, um, not in the habit. It's a problem, surely, when a sophisticated and nuanced relativism gets vulgarised into a reflex mistrust of so-called, self-styled experts: "Antibiotics? Inoculation? That's just your opinion, doctor! I demand herbal homeopathy!" And quite how vigorously the more exotic outliers of, say, identity politics may have been wagging the statistical dog (the one that answers to the name of Oddly Normal) is a fraught question. Clearly, when it comes down to it, no single person is ever completely "normal" [1], although – looked at through the other end of the telescope – that is exactly what most people, by definition, are. Paradox! Speaking as a left-handed short man with impaired hearing and anosmia, not to mention a strongly bibliophile orientation and extreme social-mobility trajectory issues, I think society still has a long way to go before my personal cluster of identities have been satisfactorily addressed. Why handedness is not at least as urgent an issue as sexual orientation is a mystery to me: how dare you presume I'm right-handed!

That matters that were once the subject of postgraduate seminars or exclusive to certain secretive subcultures can become the commonplaces of coffee-bar chatter only really becomes possible when the right words escape into the wild from the realms of jargon and slang, and either find a match with some new perception emerging in the collective public mind, or create an unanticipated new niche for themselves. The internet, by enabling us to eavesdrop on so many previously private conversations, has accelerated this process, ensuring a steady flow of linguistic novelties and their associated ideas into common parlance. Sex is an obvious example. I'd bet most people didn't even know [censored] was a thing before about 1980, much less something they might be tempted to try. Once the word is out there, however, previously unexpressed desires can quickly find a local habitation and a name. I admit I felt obliged to look up [censored again – where do you find this filth? Ed.] when I read the word for the first time last week. Blimey. It seems I'm still more innocent than I thought [2].

Art – and mainly literature, and in particular poetry – is the place where the nascent and not-yet-named most often get their first exploratory outings, triangulated by such indirect means as sound, rhythm, and metaphor. Through poetry individuals with especially acute antennae can tentatively grope their way towards something strongly felt but as yet unknown, bouncing language around the way a bat uses echo-location to "see" in the dark. That's almost a definition of what I would regard as "serious" poetry, as practised today by, say, Alice Oswald. You might say that the poet is engaged in a more sophisticated, self-motivated version of what you do when the doctor asks you to describe a pain, or the nature of your tinnitus. You know exactly how it feels or how it sounds – of course you do – but the available words are not a close enough match with your experience. You want to share with the doctor exactly how it feels, to communicate; it seems important.

But what comparisons can you reach for that capture the precise qualities of the various ringings and buzzings you hear, at different times, in different contexts, with your head held in various different positions? The steady background hum of a desktop PC? An overworked fridge on a hot day? A roadside field of crickets in August in southwest France? An idling motor on the street – probably a diesel van? – heard through the muffling and distorting extractor-fan vent in the downstairs toilet? Perhaps "that terrible screaming all around, which is customarily called silence?"[3] But I have learned that these are not questions that should be opened and mused upon in a medical context, that the consulting room is not a place for poetry, not unless you want some cruel and possibly compromising annotations to be made in your file. Too meta by half... "Intermittent buzzing" or "continual ringing" will do, you ridiculous hyper-literary hypochondriac.

1. There is the famous example of the US airforce jet cockpit designed to match "average" pilot dimensions, measurements which, it turned out, no single pilot possessed, and which were therefore leading to crashes and sub-optimal pilot performance. If you don't know about this, google "average pilot cockpit".

2. I was made acutely aware of the limits of my erotic universe when in 1973 a worldly-wise friend at university described to me what was going on in the gay clubs of New York at the time. They do what?? Good grief...

3, Part of a quotation from Büchner's play "Woyzek", displayed on screen at the start of Werner Herzog's film "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser". Trust me, never get literary with a doctor.


amolitor said...

What's meta for? It's when you're riding, riding across an infinite plain on a powerful stallion but the stallion is actually a tweet about a stallion and infinite plain is actually the internet and there's a buzzing in your ears as if there was a bee in a bottle inside a burlap sack behind the woodpile while is actually a tweet about a woodpile.

Mike C. said...

As Marianne Moore put it in her poem "Meta", "imaginary sacks with real bees in them", or something like that.


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

1)i am also lefthanded, and usually notice when people on tv are left-handed

2)at my last audiologist consultation, the preliminary paperwork asked if i was bothered by tinnitus - i said no, it doesn't bother me, even though it's there all the time

Mike C. said...

mistah charley, ph.d.,

I should do a tinnitus post, there's clearly a lot of us around... Personally, I'm less bothered by it now, but it has completely changed my ability to listen to music (when it's bad, a piano sounds like it's been "prepared" with rusty nuts & bolts), and I have lost a lot of hearing on one side.