Sianne Ngai’s concept of minor aesthetic categories was developed to think about “aesthetic experiences grounded in equivocal affects”. I worked to think through the concept of ‘meta’ as it circulates in popular culture as a similar minor aesthetic category. Like Ngai’s three examples — the cute, the zany, and the interesting — ‘meta’ is characterised by an inherent affective contradiction of both embracing facts or information as providing answers while at the same time multiplying the conditions of possibility for asking questions. ‘Meta’ does not describe objects or qualities of objects, but the distinct modalities of aesthetic engagement with para-texts and relations of engagement themselves. At stake is the logistics of culture and the circulation of discourse.
The cultural industry has fully embraced this mode of participation. Their role is to facilitate the production of centers of fixation or ‘lures’ around which fans organise. Of critical importance here is the excess of information or content, as David Turner argues in a piece on the transformation of music fandom, “With a surplus of music available, the “community” itself, or rather the sense of oneself as participant, is increasingly the point”.
The market effects of the blockbuster can be repeated, but only via the orchestration of fans from the bottom up. Saturation marketing does not work. Manipulating hype cycles without substantial pay off in the form of participatory listening also does not work. Repeating the distinction in Bennet and Segerberg’s work between collective and connective action, there is meta-detective work operating on a connective level, rather than collective level. To return to Turner:
The connection that fans in decades past built through purchasing music is now better observed through YouTube or even Instagram comments — fan engagement is connected to how much time one is willing to spend hunting for leaks or standing in line for a pop-up shop. The ideal fan doesn’t pay for a singular release, but instead spreads memes and creates enough online noise to keep their favorite artist trending: Recently the indie rock artist Mitski reposted memes in the run-up to her latest album, Be The Cowboy, to Instagram; fans returned the favor, throwing the hashtag #BeTheCowboy across social media. As the industry has monetized fan dynamics, moving toward participation as product, the perceived value of music has changed: it’s less about the artist, or even the artist’s relationship to their fans, than “engagement” itself.