Formerly a prefix, “meta” has now taken on a life of its own, indicating works that are self-consciously self-referential. Ben Zimmer, writing in the Boston Globe in 2012, notes examples in the tech field going as far back as the 1970s.
There’s nothing new about meta anything, however: Shakespeare loved his plays-within-plays and sonnets that referenced the lines of the sonnet they were written in. Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen provides us with a satirical meta-novel originating in 1759. And 1952 gives us Singin’ in the Rain, a meta-film not just about the film industry, but about the previous work of its co-director and star, Gene Kelly.
The meta-uses of meta, though, as a word to reference self-reference as it appears within art and culture, is a product of the 1970s because self-reference is a characteristic of postmodernism, which has origins in the mid-20th Century, and postmodernism is, by its nature, as much of a product of popular culture as it is of the fine arts.
Witness Andy Warhol, who presented pop culture as fine art, commenting on how we view things and what images mean to us in a way that was meant to prompt self-reflection in the viewer, thus turning meta-art into an act of meta-art appreciation, making us make us watch ourselves watching art.
And so meta as a word all its own is also what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss might have called “bricolage,” re-using available materials in order to address new needs.
The fact that we use meta as its own word, then, points to our need to describe meta-phenomena, and that might indicate a deeper problem: that those who produce culture are so enmeshed in the culture they produce that they find it difficult to create work about anything other than itself.