12 Days of Anime Day Seven: Offensive vs. Defensive Meta-ness

As many of you guys are probably aware, I have a long-running love-hate relationship with the idea of meta-ness. And, as you probably can guess, it’s time to revisit that relationship yet again so I can dump some more of my thoughts onto this blog.

Kaiki too meta.

Kaiki 3meta5me.

Becoming meta-aware of your own actions and the context in which they take place is not really a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the most useful perspectives you can frequently take towards an issue since it forces you to try and adopt one (if not multiple) outside perspectives through which to scrutinize your own actions. It allows you to think on a once-removed level from your current context, make connections, and avoid being a hypocrite. While the frequently used “privilege” psuedo-arguments I hear on campus can be irritating (for reasons I’ll hopefully get to in a future post where I expand on my foray into melodrama logic!), they ultimately stem from these well-meaning ideas about understanding our contexts.

Note that this idea of individual meta-awareness is different from empathy, which I would argue is probably the more important of the two skills. To be empathetic, you want to see the world through someone else’s perspective so you can gain insight into both how they think as well as how they feel. This helps you better understand other people. When being meta-aware, on the other hand, the focus is on you — the whole project is to try and disassociate yourself from your own actions to understand them in a broader context. One is how someone else see’s the world; the other is how someone else sees you.

Just imagine penguins are watching your every move.

Just imagine penguins are watching your every move.

This type of thinking interests me in a purely academic sense because of the way it not only builds on itself (being meta about being meta, etc.), but of the type of insularity it generates. For each level of meta-ness a person tries to achieve, he ends up reaching a more and more exclusive subgroup of people due to the increasing amount of knowledge inherent in drawing the relevant connections and understanding the evolving lexicon. In anime, this type of environment creates an incredibly incestuous community that continually builds upon itself. So for all that some creators might rail on the community, I think it’s actually a fantastically interesting place that really emblematizes the types of concepts underlying things like Stand Alone Complexes.

However, the type of meta-ness that evolves in these types of communities has one intrinsic problems:

  • What purpose does it actually serve?

In the general meta-aware case I outlined in the first paragraph, meta-ness serves a useful function: it allows you to understand the context in which your actions take place so you can improve on the ways in which you interact and see with the world. This is a bit of a tall order, but…*shrug*

Tall enough to break through the 4th wall, perhaps?! (huehuehue)

Tall enough to break through the 4th wall, perhaps?!?!?!

But what about in anime/media more generally? What purpose does making all these references to other (somewhat related) works really serve? Or pointing out the fact that the story is aware it’s a story read/watched by viewers? Or that its part of a larger media environment within a specific fandom? Or that it has a particular historical lineage? Or showcasing how it is constructed/broadcast?

There really seems to be no point to any of these actions for most of the things I’ve watched. It’s almost like being meta is a compulsive act, something that shows (and viewers!) just do just for the sake of doing it. As a result, “pop culture” ends up being this perpetual machine where everyone feels this desire to consume everything because everyone uses them to make references and needs to understand what’s going on without any real “reason” behind it. Anime of course ends up being no exception. The meaning behind being meta ends up being completely overlooked in the quest simply to be meta.

(This logic ends up being similar to that used in descriptions of “late capitalism“, but I don’t want to get into all that shit. Cool stuff though.)

Clearly the symbol of late capitalism.

Clearly the symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern society.

However, being meta is an action, and like every other action/element/symbol/thing, we can attempt to infuse some sort of meaning into it. Drawing attention to the constructed nature of media, for instance, can be important in allowing people to broaden interpretations and engage with stories in different, directed ways. It can allow people to better understand what goes into the stuff they watch, both externally (how anime gets made), internally (what preconceptions they hold), and the fuzzy place in-between (where tropes and similar concepts live). Most importantly, meta-aware media can help train us to be more critical in general of the type of things we consume, which can allow us to think more critically about the themes (meaning of courage; conceptions of family), frameworks (technology vs. nature; man vs. robot), and “tropes” (fanservice; body language) they propagate.

(In retrospect, this is what one of my original meta posts was probably trying to get at…)

The Monogatari series tends to be the flagship for this type of thing.

The Monogatari series tends to be the flagship for this type of thing.

But there is a big difference between being “aware” of something and actually doing something about it. In fact, being aware about something can often make you less inclined to actually do something about it, whether that be some form of external (protesting, boycotting, raging on forums) or internal (re-framing thinking, changing context) action. And this difference is what I’m getting at when I use the term “Offensive” and “Defensive” in the title.

Broadly speaking, offensive meta-ness is meta-ness that’s meant to make the consumer feel uncomfortable and unsettled, with the explicit or implicit goal of inspiring some type of action in the viewer. By contrast, defensive meta-ness is meant to be reassuring — you already know what’s up, so you point it out, hint at how clever and progressive you are for noting it, then pat yourself on the back for being aware of the issue. And finally, neutral meta-ness is the type of thing described above, where it’s this compulsive act that seems to have no strings attached.

As you might have noticed, the definitions above are fundamentally subjective: I’ve assigned not only intent to these terms, but also directionality, so that there’s no way to actually distinguish between whether any singular meta moment is meant to be offensive, defensive, or neutral. And it’s this ambiguity which I believe draws the largest debates within the fanbase as to the merits/demerits of any particular show, and in particular whether a show is just a “recycled piece of harem garbage”, “a clever genre deconstruction”, or just plain crap.

I mean, such QUALITY right here

I mean, such QUALITY right here.

For examples of this phenomenon, we can look towards discussions on HaganaiNisekoi, OreImo, or No Game No Life (casually using older examples since I’m still out of touch with anything that’s aired in the past few months). While people often lambast the “deconstruction” viewpoint (frequently since it comes with the oh-so-great buzzword “postmodern”), the reason why some fans arrive at these interpretations can often be traced to how they’ve chosen to interpret the meta-aware content: while a “normal” show likely illustrates or even defends the status quo, a “deconstructionist” one is meant to shed light on the genre in a useful (and often positive) way. It may be that I’m overly optimistic and/or give shows (much) more credit than they’re due, but on this blog I tend to favor interpretations leaning towards offensive meta-ness. And most of the disagreements I get in the comments tend to come from people who’ve taken this exact opposing viewpoint on what function such meta-ness serves.

(That said, I generally try and showcase the logic behind my arguments quite thoroughly. While it’s trivially true that consumers can “poach” any particular meaning from a given piece of media, I still believe that some interpretations tend to be more valid/natural than others.)

Anyway, while we can argue over the type of meta-ness present in individual shows, I actually find the concept of defensive irony to be particularly scary given how easily it can work its way into both our own mindsets and the public consciousness. It’s a mode of thought, inherent to the viewer but influenced by the media in question, that subverts the whole positive impact meta-awareness can have, driving a wedge between awareness and action that allows us to congratulate ourselves for things we never really resolve simply because we’re clever enough to notice their presence and influence on our lives. This remains especially true within heavily Internet-centric fan communities such as anime fans where these meta-aware attitudes (“I’m glad I can see the meta-ness in this anime yo!”) and impulses (“This partially obscure anime reference I just made is so clever yo!”) are really prevalent.


Clearly how I would feel if I ever engaged in such a practice.

So…yea — these are the latest iteration of my thoughts on all things meta. They’re a bit rough (although I’m inordinately pleased at how DEEP AND META I think the images I chose are), so I’d love to hear what you think (that I think that you think that I think that you think that…) in the comments!


5 responses to “12 Days of Anime Day Seven: Offensive vs. Defensive Meta-ness

  1. I’m a bit struck by how you differentiate “meta-awareness” and “empathy”. You say one is self-focused while the other is other-focused. That seems really simplistic, though. After all, to develop self-awareness in the first place, you need to be aware of where you stand in relation to others. Also, the “self-other” binary is really unhelpful when you’re trying to be empathetic, because that way you risk essentialising people and their ways of thinking.

    I’m also a bit confused by your idea of “neutral meta-ness”. How can you reflect upon yourself neutrally? Could you give examples of meta-ness “with no strings attached”?

    My caveats aside, I think it’s useful to think about “meta” approaches in terms of direction as well as intent. One thing I’m curious about is what drives the impulse towards insular reference pools, like the sort we see in the otaku database. Also, how much do you need to be “in the know” to appreciate the textual density in pop culture? Probably not all that much when it comes down to it, since everyone starts somewhere and we constantly make up new meanings on the fly.

    On a side note, I love each and every one of the images you used in this post. You da best. Keep it up.

    • It’s a very simplistic dichotomy because 1) I’m being unfair, and 2) trying to foreshadow the later outline of “defensive” irony, where being meta helps to insulate you from your surroundings rather than the other way round. A balance of both are definitely necessary for understanding others without essentializing them. So yea – you’re 100% right.

      The “neutral” idea is sort of along the same lines as the “apathetic fan” I talked about a while back I think. So like a “default mode” of being meta, if that makes sense.

      Also, how much do you need to be “in the know” to appreciate the textual density in pop culture?

      This is an excellent question, and I’ve pretty much reached the same conclusion as you in terms of realizing people don’t actually need to know all that much to participate. I’m really interested in how such “meta-ness”/textual references end up being signaled though, like how people learn to recognize parodies without ever having seen the things actually being parodied (e.g., Django Unchained).

      I love each and every one of the images


  2. Is Meta another Trope itself?
    Do you think that in the cases of every long running shows (like Kamen Rider or Pretty Cure, maybe even western ones like CSI), meta of itself is inevitable?

    • I don’t think meta is inevitable. I’ve seen the episodic write-ups of someone for whom Madoka Magica was pretty much the first anime they’d paid attention to, no experience with magical girl or sentai shows or anime tropes. They still received the themes and messages loud and clear, because the relationship between Madoka Magica and previous magical girl shows was not critical to its story intent, just a bonus demonstration of its point for people who did recognize it.

      The most critically acclaimed media seems to be the ones that use their story to illustrate broader themes. Tropes and meta are shorthand for us to know what themes or points they might be going for, but all that means is that it isn’t a shorthand people who have never encountered that trope before, but a longhand. Some have said that the reason we can keep having the same reboots and remakes and formulaic media being made is that for a portion of the audience, it isn’t a retread, but new media to them.

      Meta is just another layer of content through which we can interpret something, but it should only be used as a reinforcement, not a primary mechanism of storytelling. Glasses/lenses do not see in and of themselves, they are things that you see through, and so it is with meta.

  3. Pingback: You Can (Not) Redo: Back to Blogging | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

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