In January 2002, two researchers announced that the universe was blue. A light / almost pastel / not quite cerulean / aquamarine.
2 months later, the conclusion of their survey, conducted across 200,000 galaxies and 2 million lightyears from its Earthly epicentre, was amended. The cosmos was recast in a new palette due to software recalibration based on human error, with lead scientist Glazebrook stating, “There’s no error in the science, the error was in the perception.” (1)
Debate settled. Time blinked. The universe remained a frightful beige.
meta \ ˈme-tə \
1. showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category : cleverly self-referential
“Item perspective ist ein lateinisch Wort, bedeutt ein Durchsehung,” begins Erwin Panofsky’s seminal tract, Perspective as Symbolic Form. This citation of Dürer, like my own here in turn, is intended as a foundational mooring for the respected art theorist - a conceptual precedent suggesting (ety)mythological origins and art historical validation. (2)
This kind of writing seems self-insulating and passé in the face of contemporaneity - this era of self-reflexivity, pseudo-encyclopaedic performance and confidently hyperbolic newness.
There is a bright young terminology that galvanises the art-adjacent set, whose conversations have recently moved from the gallery through Clubhouse to Twitter. So easily we form an exclusive vocabulary, issued with characteristic ease and emptiness.
The latest buzzword - from finance through to fine art - is the nebulous and encompassing term ‘Metaverse’.
This phrase has risen in common parlance, peppered into wine-laiden conversations from Art Basel afterparty to social media agency. But no one can seem to tell us what Metaverse really means.
I empathise - to a degree - with academia’s necessary lag and the prepubescent shyness of critics seeking chronological validation, but as the Greeks themselves could not decide whether meta- meant about / above / beyond / behind, I must meander from this bibliographic tradition of dual authentication.
Without immediate historicity, theorists like Latour and Jung turn to metaphor and mythos; beyond that, Montaigne to anecdote, and beyond them, the pre-Socratics to opinion. In science, just hypothesis is all we have to go on.
And so I propose a working definition - not one constructed post-haste, but one which engages in this prepositional confusion.
The Metaverse is
a product of the contemporary world
an interface between corporeal reality and digital identity
/ not / a place for it requires no body
/ not / an object for it requires activity / not subjectivity / to engage.
The Metaverse is a new form of perspective.
2. informal : concerning or providing information about members of its own category
Perhaps more important than his archivistic intention, one of Panofsky’s great contributions to art history was his argument that perspectival analysis is a direct revelation of artistic intention.
Taking Cassirer’s position that symbolic forms presented formats through which contemporary cultural knowledge could be obtained, Panofsky argues that the geometric construction of perspective within the architectonic space of an artwork provides insight into typical worldview characterised by authorial context. (3) As such, art objects themselves - catalogued by their mathematical composition - can be considered symbolic forms, gesturing towards perception of something beyond concrete and knowable experience (following Kant’s definition of meaning). This ‘something’ is the Kunstwollen, a perspective denoting the cultural consciousness of an era which is not necessarily our own.
A symbolic form is a perspective / a way of looking through / rather than a way of looking at a piece of art. To Panofsky, the art object is where the specific artistic charge of a cultural period is accessible through certain formal visual qualities. It’s this translation of intention that couches Panofsky (via Riegl and Cassirer) in neo-Kantian reason.
This brings us, by way of daedalia, back to the metaverse.
The word’s amorphous nuance struggles against formality:
/ no form / no space /
/ no space / no body /
/ no body / no self /
/ no self / no gaze /
Perhaps this is what those nebulous Greeks meant by meta. Without beginning / end, subject / object, symbol / reason, we can only look through.
3. a: occurring later than or in succession to : after
I can’t tell you where the metaverse is. Or what of it. But I can tell you how we got here - though here is hardly the right preposition.
Conversationally, I’m not the first to diagnose this age. I could cite bemused screenshots of Instagram memes / or Jia Tolentino’s last article or that cat short story that everyone talked about at virtual wine nights all of last summer / or I could brush past some older LitHub / Semiotext(e) articles which held validity for a time.
There’s nothing that I can say about this era that hasn’t already been framed as an op-ed complaint or an academic statement, which these days, seem to figure as much the same thing.
So instead I try to describe our era (Weltanschauung) through the broad strokes of generalisation.
We are an attention economy accelerated far beyond the greatest expectations of the Futurists or the post-machine gun predictions. Speed is no longer enough - that’s still a vector which connects point A to point B. We live networked between taps, clicks and pixels. We desire immediacy / no longer intimacy.
We are in a state infused by connectivity / cybernetic fantasia / implausible connectivity that demands total dissolution of the self and conformation to globalised standards of sociopolitical staking, attention wrecking, and superficial judgment.
We are in the golden era of egotism, where - despite an incessant overabundance of networking - we have never felt so similar / so alone.
3. b: situated behind or beyond
Marc Augé, the visionary French anthropologist, acknowledged this contemporary condition in his 1995 book, Non-Places. “The situation of supermodernity” he says, is the product of “overabundance of events, spatial overabundance, the individualization of references.” (4)
These insights were articulated half a decade before they told us the universe had been averaged into a colour.
Augé coins his titular neologism, non-place, to describe a type of space that is grounded only in liminality, articulated by copy-and-paste symbolic forms that are not dependent on culture or memory. He cites airport lounges / motorways / bus terminals as exemplary “spaces of circulation, consumption and communication”, scattered between the anthropological spaces and cultural locations which provide us identity, relationships and history. (5)
The Metaverse is the non-place you never have to leave.
In a non-place, resignation of individuality and assumption of facelessness are conditions of entry for any individual. In an airport lounge, you are reduced to your function as passenger - equally utilised as your compatriots in first and economy alike. The same can be said of participants in the Metaverse, where the same neutered utility is provided by anyone connected to the Internet of Things. It does not matter what you’re linked into, or whether you are interfacing with web2 or web3, upholding respective falsehoods of anonymity which provide some sensation of security and the loci for metamorphosis. Given the totality of this amorphous cyber-universe, it does not even particularly matter what is being said and felt. It only matters that it is being.
So in order to plug in to the metaverse, you first must uphold a typical individuality.
Mauss, in Lévi-Strauss’ interpretation, claimed the typical individual is a non-alienated yet non- enlightened person whose approach to living is perfectly congruent with that of contemporary culture at large. (6) And in the binary decisions and thoroughly unimportant lives we all perform online, scrolling our way through from dawn to dusk, we garb ourselves in the psychological camouflage of sameness, following algorithmic contracts, directing us towards self-erasure
(at least, until we turn off).
I refuse to place blame on us - us complicit by-products of this increasingly supermodern society - for the way that we function within it. Admittedly, there is a certain release in looking for somewhere which is not relational, historical or concerned with identity. A lot of people hold this hope that the Metaverse will be a liminal Neverland, full of Cryptopunks and good fortune, where nobody has to grow up.
I can’t blame us for that displaced bliss either. It’s pretty bleak out here and we’re alone
(and that, we can’t turn off.)
3. c: later or more highly organized or specialized form of
In 2012, the creative agency K-Hole released Youth Mode, a manifesto on the death of counterculture best known for pioneering the term ‘normcore’.
“In Normcore, one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging,” dictates the condensed black-and-bold font (narrow kerning). “Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand.” (7)
I fear that if I surveyed the Meta-verse, the average aesthetic category would be normcore. Implying that same baseline. Overarching beige.
So -- if there is no I/eye in the Meta-verse, then how can we actively make judgments?
I’m concerned about the implications of sameness because universality connotes compliance. iPhone commands, credit card reverification, Slack pings, Twitter password support - the whole technological toolkit speaks in the imperative, commanding certain functions and actions which have implications beyond digital identity.
In the Meta-verse, I am constantly being told how to look. The hardware tells me what buttons to tap, how to like / comment / share / connect. The software tells me whether I should be sporting argyle vests this season, which political opinions are algorithmically correct and hence worthy of my interest, what filter I should use to make myself more stereotypical and appealing.
It’s even not that my perspective is being hollowed into some telescopic miniature of the Meta-verse agenda.
It’s that just by being, I’m re-enforcing it.
4. : change : transformation
In Panofsky and Augé alike, the line is considered fundamental to human composition. While the former operates on a classical art historical basis, the latter argues that the line structures society, representing individual actions within urban and anthropological space. (8)(9)
In digital representation, the base unit of an image isn’t a line. It’s a pixel.
Digital art professor Meredith Hoy maps this change through historiography in From Point to Pixel, arguing that digitality (the proto-Metaverse) is ripe with philosophical, sociological and aesthetic implications. “Thus, digital symbols, such as pixels, are regular, interchangeable, and exact copies of one another,” she states, evoking Müller and media theory while dividing analog from digital schema. (10)
What is left unstressed, however, is that a pixel is formed by averaging the pixels which surround it.
It’s just a coagulated average of colour.
In the Metaverse imaginary, each typical individual functions as pixel.
I look / but only through.
I am / but without myself.
I see / but only what is around me.
5. : more comprehensive : transcending
The metaverse is:
a way of looking (perspective)
a post-human place of constant input and interactivity (non-space)
an inevitable symptom of the contemporary condition (aesthetic category)
- Erwin Panofsky (tr. Christopher Wood). Perspective as Symbolic Form. Zone Books, 1997. 26.
- Glenn J.D. (1972) Kant’s Theory of Symbolism. In: Reck A.J. (eds) Knowledge and Value. Tulane Studies in
- Philosophy, vol 21. Springer, Dordrecht, 20. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-010-2824-0_2
- Marc Augé (tr. John Howe). Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. New York: Verso Books, 2009.
- Ibid, VIII.
- Ibid, 16.
- K-Hole. Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom. 2013. http://khole.net/issues/youth-mode/
- Erwin Panofsky (tr. Christopher Wood). Perspective as Symbolic Form. Zone Books, 1997. 31.
- Marc Augé (tr. John Howe). Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. New York: Verso Books, 2009. 46.
- Meredith Hoy. From Point to Pixel. Dartmouth College Press, 2017. 33