January 13, 2013
the metaculture spiral
What’s your culture to metaculture ratio? I think I consume about 1:1. To be honest, I don’t understand the academic explanation for metaculture. In my own simple way, I think of metaculture like an eddy formation, where culture turns in on itself like a whirlpool.
Metaculture is when something is about the thing that it is. So like, a movie about making a movie. I saw a gallery show once which was all black paintings. No colour, no narrative, no context, nothing but brushstrokes. The paintings seemed to be about nothing, except the act of making a painting. Or a book that calls attention to itself as a book, like a novel with footnotes. Or a tuxedo t-shirt – trompe l’oeil is nothing but clothes with clothes on. A tweet about tweeting. And so on.
Since metaculture is culture about culture – that also includes criticism, comment threads, panel discussions, blog posts, academic writing, and so on. The culture out there is now so massive and complex, I need help to understand and navigate it all. Sometimes I listen to reviews of books and movies I have no intention of viewing or reading, just so I can feel like I’ve got a handle on the cultural zeitgeist. I’m consuming secondary culture in a primary way.
Metaculture feels necessary and inevitable. It can also feel like a downward spiral. Like a trap. The scary thing about metaculture is that it doesn’t open up possibilities – it shuts them down. For instance, literature about literature is appealing to writers and critics who spend their lives immersed in literature, but totally fails to connect with people outside of that small, rarefied world. While metaculture is often acclaimed within its own sphere, it has little universal appeal. Metaculture sections off and isolates its participants.
This has a homogenizing effect, creating stagnant pools of static culture. I’ve noticed this in personal style blogging, clustered around websites like IFB. Since all of these fashion bloggers are following each other, along with the same set of media outlets, and using the same resources for advice, that particular niche is suffering from a certain pervasive same-ness. This is one of the reasons that my advice to young people interested in fashion is to consume a broad and varied cultural diet (and to be wary of advice). In fashion, there are many people who only take inspiration from within the realm of fashion itself – the result is a dearth of novelty and a certain tone-deafness to the rest of the world.
I think all culture moves in spiral formations. For myself, I am now trying to avoid inward-facing metaculture spirals and move toward spiralling out. There’s something that unites great culture – it takes on the big, universal unknowns – what is this life? Why are we here? The things we all share – love, hate, joy, pain, beauty, death, loss and discovery – that’s where the real stories are. Great culture is inclusive, not exclusive – it offers something any human being can access. There’s something so much more exciting and expansive about culture that attempts to be bigger than itself. Culture about itself delivers diminishing returns – taken to its inevitable conclusion, it becomes absurd.
Another quasi-metaculture trap that seems to trip up female creatives in particular is turning themselves into the subject. How do you make your work bigger than yourself, when the work is yourself? Even as a blogger, I’ve noticed that posts about myself attract much more attention than posts about abstract ideas, or the visual work (where I am not the subject) that I spend most of my time creating. It’s easy to see the temptation to put yourself on display in some way, if it gathers more eyeballs and reactions than anything else. And yet, I resist it, for two reasons. One – just because the mainstream culture rewards women for being contained (or chained) to their physical bodies, doesn’t mean I have to pander to it. Two – because it can turn you into a parody of yourself, quicker than you’d think. The end game is not pretty.
There are so many reasons why we are living in an era of metaculture. We’re still grappling with a new communications technology revolution, so it makes sense that much of what we create is so concerned with the particular devices we’re creating it on. The sheer volume and complexity of culture, now so easily accessible, makes referencing like a medium unto itself – the mash-uppers, the collage artists, the curators – all necessary and interesting developments.
I don’t think metaculture should be feared – even if it does seem like a harbinger of our own end-times. Just as we are consuming the planet until there’s nothing left, perhaps human culture is mirroring that entropy by turning inwards and consuming itself.