Mitt Romney was having a bad week. This, as anyone familiar with the 2012 election’s proceedings can attest, does not really narrow things down.
That year’s primary saw President Obama and his opponent Governor Romney trade so many awkward, embarrassing blows that countless weeks from that season could be called “bad.” But this week had been particularly brutal. While traveling overseas to burnish his foreign-policy credentials, the hapless Republican had managed to seriously offend vast swaths of Britain and the Middle East, sparking new doubts about his gravitas and poise.
Frustrations boiled over one sunny day in Poland. Feeling neglected, a gaggle of American reporters began to scream questions at Romney from a hundred yards away, shattering the respectful quiet that hung over Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the candidate departed a wreath-laying.
“GOVERNOR ROMNEY! Are you concerned about some of the mishaps on your trip?”
“GOVERNOR ROMNEY! Do you have a statement for the Palestinians?”
And then, just as a furious campaign staffer commenced the tirade that would make him briefly famous, it happened. One especially loud and nasally voice sliced through all the rest. It shouted just four words—four words for the ages.
“WHAT ABOUT YOUR GAFFES?”
After the episode went viral, observers agreed that something about this last question was especially absurd, verging on self-parody. But what? From Big Bird to binders to “You didn’t build that,” 2012 offered nearly infinite fodder for familiar rants about the banality of corporate journalism or the lapdog liberal media. Why should Gaffe-gate seem uniquely more inane?
The answer lies in an idea from theatre and fiction. The “fourth wall” is the theoretical barrier separating audience from performance, the conceptual boundary between ordinary fiction and stories that are self-aware. When narrators speak directly to readers or when characters consciously acknowledge their fictionality, the author has breached the fourth wall. The technique pulls a story’s first-order participants off their fictional plane and conscripts them into second-order criticism, making characters into commentators that reflect on their own reality from outside it.
Gaffe-gate punched through the fourth wall in journalism. The question oozed strange self-awareness. It willfully blurred together the actual content of current affairs and ex post analysis of it. The reporter sought not Romney’s reaction to extrinsic events, but his second-order interpretation of a chattering-class narrative derived from his own behavior.
News coverage about news coverage designed to shape perceptions of a perception.
Millennials have a word for this. “That’s so meta.”
Meta indeed. And Gaffe-gate is not some isolated frivolity. It is representative—a canary in the coalmine of modern meta-culture. At every turn and in every arena, we flee the first order for the second. We avert our gaze from the substantive content of events, ideas, and values, and stare hypnotically into refracted rainbows of conceptually distant criticism—optically fascinating, perhaps, but profoundly insubstantial.
From markets to morals to our own mentalities, meta is metastasizing. Everyone’s a critic. Everyone’s to blame. And everyone is suffering for it.
Take the news we consume. Subway trains in Washington, D.C. are littered with banners on which smiling anchors from local TV ask, “Think our job is to talk? Our job is to listen.” This information inversion is utterly impossible to escape—and cannot be encapsulated better than in the stupefying sight of talking heads simply reading viewers’ Tweets on the air in real time. Even more inane may be CNN’s “iReporter” initiative, which exhorts ordinary people to record themselves opining and submit the video for broadcast. What do you think? Tell us your story. Everyone truly is a critic, and one’s qualifications for spouting this populist punditry seem inversely related to actual expertise.
As with the election and the economy, simple shallowness is not the issue. Pointless, tabloidy reporting is hardly a recent development. But even trivia can be communicated in a linear fashion from a relatively more informed professional to a relatively less informed public, with public reaction coming after novel inputs are processed. This new media landscape, where our own reactions are the primary events to which we all react, is a different beast entirely.
It is one thing to report breaking news, invite experts to comment, allow all this percolate, and then commission a public poll. It is something else entirely to regard an elite’s self-interested spin and an everyman’s instinctive emotions not as the implications of journalism, but as its proximate content. Even the lexical shift from content-rich terms like “journalism” and “reporting” to the bland and hollow “media” signals the move to meta: The mere fact that transmission is occurring, not the transmission’s purpose, gets linguistic priority.
The Internet has made pseudo-pundits and social commentators of us all, and what we self-appointed critics think about the news is the news. The instant anything happens, we begin digesting the events like a self-determined hive mind. We scan desperately for the cultural cues that will shape our armchair analyses from the first millisecond of awareness. And we bubble-wrap every opinion in thick layers of timid triangulation.
Contenting ourselves with parroting crowd-sourced snark may insure our egos against rebuke, but it condemns our minds to be unoriginal, uninteresting, and bleak. Certainly, a fruitful intellectual life does not require conclusively clutching preconceptual truth. That feat may well be impossible in this realm. But flourishing obligates us to at least use our concepts to pursue genuine knowledge. We need concepts of reality, not just concepts of concepts.
Omni-critique pervades other sites of public life. “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.” The famed economist John Maynard Keynes lodged this complaint in 1936, but its intuitive appeal endures. Now as then, many share Keynes’s suspicion that investors have ceased weighing the actual, intrinsic merits of the businesses they bankroll. Save for a few stubborn old-schoolers such as Warren Buffet, conventional Wall Street wisdom now affirms that buying a security simply means gambling on others’ expectations. Out with first-order economic investigation and in with the second-order sociological guessing game.
Even Keynes’s gloomy take proves insufficiently cynical. For though the objects of casino gamblers’ guesses may be trivial and arbitrary—playing cards or neon screens—they do still exist independently of the observers’ thoughts and feelings. To glimpse the modern economy, try instead to imagine a casino without any cards or games. Everyone simply sits in a circle and chooses their bets based on what others are betting. A surreal image, to be sure. But does contemporary corporate finance really seem any less insular or unproductive?
This shift onto the second order explains our growing sense that the indices have ceased to track actual people’s lived experiences in the economy. Of course massive bubbles inflate beyond reason; of course securities soar while incomes stagnate. How could it be otherwise when every investor has exchanged a detective’s magnifying glass for the tortoise-shell hipster glasses of a self-aware critic? So long as traders stare into a collective meta-mirror more than they reach for exogenous facts, disconnection is assured.
This grumble is not new, but the rise of automated, high-frequency trading lends it new salience. A stunning two-thirds of all transactions are now planned and executed in mere instants by massive computers that feed on reams of statistics and algorithmically evaluate market trends—trends the machines themselves now drive. The culminating achievement of our civilization’s most profitable industry is teaching robots to navel-gaze.
And meta’s march into markets did not stop there. An even stranger new phenomenon has observers pining for the days when Wall Street simply chased its tail.
In theory, the Federal Reserve is an external regulator. It occasionally adjusts the guiderails but basically lets economic activity proceed on its own. But during the 2008 crisis, our central bank leapt into the breach, deploying drastic measures that made the Fed a colossal buyer and seller in its own right. The referee sprinted from the sidelines onto the field and started calling the plays himself. And these extraordinary measures remain mostly in place today.
The result? Second-order side constraints have become the only pertinent first-order information. Investors’ chief concern, dwarfing all others, is how the Fed will behave. This has made capital markets little more than colossal and expensive thermometers in Ben Bernanke’s mouth. As if it weren’t meta enough for traders to gaze endlessly into a giant collective mirror, they now obsess over the bureaucrats who hold up that mirror and fret that their forearms seem fatigued.
The fiscal fourth wall lies in pieces at our feet. To be a financier is to be a critic of central bankers’ press conferences and seemingly little else. The meta-economy is upon us.
Bad enough that meta infests the public square. But our interior lives have shifted onto the second order as well, and this should disturb us even more.
Nothing could exemplify the conflation of criticism with content better than the reading habits of an archetypical Millennial. It is fashionable to cluck one’s tongue at the pervasiveness of skimming and summary, but who can afford to carefully comb through a book when you can dunk your head in the river of our collective consciousness and glean what you need through osmosis? A character in the 1990 film Metropolitan said it best: “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.” From our conversations to our contemplations and even in our writing, we lazily gesture towards the Platonic shadows of arguments and ideas with which we have barely begun to personally engage.
Like a carb-crazed preteen pounding down potato chips, we gorge on criticism and conjecture that is always flavorful but never filling. Our conviction that satiety will follow if we just listen even more intently to the echo chamber deafens us to the delicate, gorgeous harmonies of first-order literature and theory. They cannot penetrate this tin-can telephone.
Consider also the complaint—already clichéd—that publicly documenting our lives and our times has itself come to dominate those lives and those times. We social-media addicts ceaselessly chronicle our chronicling and interact about our interactions. Scanning a Facebook news feed is like stumbling into a room full of people composing diary entry after diary entry about the diary entries they and their friends are composing. This lonely touch-screen liturgy lights up our faces, but rarely our hearts.
Even our goals and aspirations have ceased to aim at essential things. Modern man is a meticulous optimizer with no clue why he optimizes. That includes coastal cosmopolitans who worship cast-iron cooking, pricey down comforters, and the latest REI gear. Their self-righteous obsession with life’s proper inputs and their deliberate refusal to “judge” its proper outputs aren’t especially consistent. This also includes data-driven acolytes of the “quantified self” movement: all their sleep tracking, life hacking, body scanning, and workflow tweaking leaves precious little time to muse about what ultimate purpose they are cultivating themselves to serve.
Quitting all talk of transcendent values worth living by or objective truths worth living for has forced teleology from our consciousness, and second-order technique has greedily expanded to fill the void. Still hungry to live well but forgetting how to flesh that out, we incessantly discuss the means of our lives but overlook their ends.
Employees surfing productivity blogs instead of working hard. Artisanal-everything “mommy bloggers” neglecting their kids while retouching family photos. Christians surfing faith-based lifestyle forums instead of reading the Bible. The Internet is not the only place where “curation” and critique are crowding out the creation of novel, substantive content. This is happening in our very selves.
The creep of criticism hasn’t spared our relationships, either. Ask an urbane twenty-something about their love life and marvel as even these intimacies are deposited coldly onto the second order. As we contemplate decisions large and small—whether and when to text back, whether and when to break-up—our actual affections are treated like afterthoughts next to self-aware commentary and forecasted implications.
Every Millennial has watched friends literally reason themselves out of love with partners who made them deliriously happy, often on the sole justification that “it’s just not where I’m at right now.” As if a breathtaking sense of companionship were not proof positive that wherever you are is precisely where you ought to be.
On-point passions are ceding the spotlight to “principled” perceptions. We reflect endlessly on what relationship we’re ready for, whether our intentions gel with social scripts, and how love could interfere least with our preexisting plans. More and more, the ex post implications of love’s presence are regarded as core criteria for its existence in the first place—and this lets neurotic self-awareness drive our actions when it so obviously should be shoved into the backseat. We are beckoned deeper and deeper into our own thoughts and intuitions and thoughts about those intuitions, a profoundly self-centered spiral that is sure to shed minimal light on the definitionally selfless state of love.
What portion of modern relationships do we devote to defining and discussing and analyzing the relationship itself? However we may thirst for uncomplicated affection, our second-order society cannot check solipsism and self-scrutiny at the door. For anxious new couples feeling out their first steps, a “define the relationship” meta-discussion is the new third date. For veteran pairs trying to peer into their futures, conversation after conversation devolves into wearying summits on the state of partnership, try though both parties might to avoid them. Even in love—especially in love—everybody truly is a critic.
It is a tragically self-defeating delusion that constant “check-ins” about happiness and fulfillment will produce an increase in either. Far better instead to check out—to surrender some self-awareness, relax our tight grips on the helms of our hearts, and let the warm winds of organic sentiment fill our sails and carry us across the uncharted sea. Love invites us, two by two, to lose ourselves in one another’s souls and in the world’s adventures. Why settle for cynical critique when this miracle lies on the table?
Blind sentimentalism is not the only alternative. Between creepy, controlling rationalism and unanchored volatility lies an age-old balance. Love should look more like Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter on the subject: A two-way dialogue between Head and Heart.
Men and women of faith may have read this much and nodded knowingly all the way. It is tempting for Christian believers to assume we are immune from seduction by the second order.
But why should this be? Because eloquent writers like Chesterton and Lewis assure us that belief means taking root in the true essence of things? Surely such statements present more of a challenge than a guarantee.
It is time to confess that our own spiritual lives are often threatened by the very same compulsion to critique: “Do I believe in God enough to call myself a Christian?” “Is this what loving Christ feels like?” “Am I just tricking myself?” To be sure, a healthy faith requires some reflection and questioning to grow. But we must take care—self-consciously weighing and measuring our faith quickly become false idols all their own. Should a genuine spiritual life be a jog through stunning scenery, or an anxious time trial spent staring at our speedometers?
It is so easy to lose precious minutes of prayer fretting self-consciously about the petitions we are offering. It’s so easy to lose sight of the Lord we hope to encounter behind a dusty haze of meta-analysis about the path our spiritual journey is taking. It’s so easy to find time aplenty to obsess over the denominational typology of our views, the intellectual rigor of our apologetics, and the social implications of our values—but then to short-change the radically first-order practice of kneeling, breathing, and making ourselves present to our Creator.
Christ’s two great commandments challenge us to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” They simultaneously direct our gaze upward into the distant heavens to seek the face of God and outward into the eyes of our brothers and sisters to love them just as fiercely. Markedly absent is any instruction to gaze vainly into spiritual mirrors and fixate on our own reflections.
I must conclude without a grand solution. I own no master plan to pull back the filmy curtains and let the bright and vibrant sunshine of real facts and values and beliefs dispel these second-order shadows. Like any worthwhile project, returning meta-analysis and detached critique to their rightful place—a small, piquant dessert after a hearty meal of real things—will defy tidy summary and top-down orchestration.
But we can begin, I propose, by sanctifying our own hearts. By attempting in earnest to cordon ourselves off as mostly meta-free zones.
Let us stop laboring so self-consciously to self-cultivate. Let us stop splashing in the shallows of irony and interpretation and dive deep into oceans of vibrancy and meaning. Let us cease to be Thoreau’s “men [who] lie on their backs talking about the fall of man and never make an effort to get up.”
When we talk, when we vote, when we eat and sleep and read, and almost especially when we love – our brothers and sisters as well as our Father – let us do these things fiercely and intentionally. Let us act more than analyze.
The Bible offers clear instruction to us who habitually seek refuge on the safe but shallow second order. Rather than personally engage with Jesus and his followers as they traveled through Jericho, a man named Zacchaeus opted to climb a sycamore tree. He preferred to analyze and reflect from afar. Christ called to the man with a simple command that we latter-day critics likewise must heed: “Make haste and come down.”