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Meta-reference is a special type of self-reference that can occur in all media or media artifacts, for instance literature, film, painting, TV series, comic strips, or video games. It includes all references to, or comments on, a specific medium, medial artifact, or the media in general. These references and comments originate from a logically higher level (a "meta-level") within any given artifact, and draw attention to—or invite reflection about—media-related issues (e.g. the production, performance, or reception) of said artifact, specific other artifacts (as in parody), or to parts, or the entirety, of the medial system. It is, therefore, the recipient's awareness of an artifact's medial quality that distinguishes meta-reference from more general forms of self-reference. Thus, meta-reference triggers media-awareness within the recipient, who, in turn "becomes conscious of both the medial (or "fictional" in the sense of artificial and, sometimes in addition, "invented") status of the work" as well as "the fact that media-related phenomena are at issue, rather than (hetero-)references to the world outside the media."[1] Although certain devices, such as mise-en-abîme, may be conducive to meta-reference, they are not necessarily metareferential themselves.[2] Similarly, innately metareferential devices, such as metalepsis, are to be seen as special cases of meta-reference. The terms meta-reference and metalepsis can, therefore, not be used synonymously.

History of the concept and the term[edit]

While meta-reference as a concept is not a new phenomenon and can be observed in very early works of art and media not tied to specific purposes (e.g. Homer's invocation of the muses at the beginning of the Odyssey in order to deliver the epic better), the term itself is relatively new.[3] Earlier discussions of metareferential issues often opt for more specific terminology tied to the respective discipline. Notable discussions of meta-reference include, but are not limited to, William H. Gass's[4] and Robert Scholes's[5] exploration of metafiction, Victor Stoichita's examination of early modern meta-painting,[6] and Lionel Abel's[7] investigation of metatheatre. In the context of drama, meta-reference has also become colloquially known as the breaking of the fourth wall. The first study to underscore the problem resulting from the lack of cohesive terminology, as well as the necessity to acknowledge metareference as transmedial and trans-generic phenomenon, was published in 2007 by Hauthal et al.[8] Publications by Nöth and Bishara[9] as well as Wolf[10] followed suit, raised similar concerns, included case studies from various media, coined and helped establish the more uniform umbrella term meta-reference as define above.


While every medium has the potential for meta-reference, some media can transport meta-reference more easily than others. Media that can easily realise its meta-referential potential includes, for instance, literature, painting, and film. Although music can be meta-referential even outside the confines of lyrics, meta-reference in music is much harder to create or detect.[11][12] Music, therefore, would be a less typical medium for the occurrence of meta-reference. Nöth argues in this context that although non-verbal media can be the home of meta-reference, the contained meta-reference can only be implicit because non-verbal media can only show similarities, but never point directly (or explicitly) to meta-referential elements.[13] Others, however, argue that meta-reference is explicit as long as it is clear.


John Fowles begins chapter 13 of his novel The French Lieutenant's Woman with the words

This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters' mind and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in [...] a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God.[14] [emphases added]

This is an example of explicit meta-reference because the text draws attention to the fact that the novel the recipient is reading is merely a fiction created by the author. It also foregrounds the convention that readers of realist fiction accept the presence of an all-knowing narrator, and breaks it by allowing the narrator to take centre stage which invites meta-reflections by the recipient.

In American comic books published by Marvel Comics, the character Deadpool is aware that he is a fictional comic book character. He commonly breaks the fourth wall, to humorous effect. To other non-aware characters in the story, Deadpool's self-awareness as a comic book character appears to be a form of psychosis. When other characters question whether Deadpool's real name is even Wade Wilson, he jokes that his true identity depends on which writer the reader prefers.[15]


The Truman Show is a movie that contains a high degree of meta-reference. Truman, the protagonist, is unaware that he is part of a reality TV show, but the audience knows about the artificiality of both Truman's life and, by extension, the movie that is being watched. This is underscored by putting emphasis on the production process of the fictional reality TV show, which makes the audience aware of the same features being used in the movie at the time of watching. Further examples of meta-reference in the movie include spotlights falling from the sky seemingly out of the blue, or a raincloud which is curiously only raining on Truman following him around on Seahaven Beach. Both instances point to the artificiality of Truman's life as well as the film itself.


Manet, The Balcony

An example of meta-reference in painting is Manet's Balcony by René Magritte. It comments on another painting, The Balcony by Édouard Manet, by mimicking both the setting of the balcony as well as the poses of the depicted people, but places them in coffins. Thus, the recipient's attention is drawn to the fact that not only are the people in the painting long dead and only still "alive" in the representation, but arguably also that the artist (Manet) and the impressionist painting style are just as dead as the portrayed individuals. Furthermore, it is foregrounded that the impressionist painting style is just a style that may be copied, which further emphasises the fact that both works are only paintings created in a specific way.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wolf, Werner (2009). Metareference across Media. Theory and Case Studies. Amsterdam - New York, NY: Rodopi. p. 31. ISBN 978-90-420-2670-4.
  2. ^ Wolf, Werner (2009). Metareference across Media. Theory and Case Studies. Amsterdam - New York, NY: Rodopi. p. 63. ISBN 978-90-420-2670-4.
  3. ^ Werner, Wolf (2009). Metareference across Media. Theory and Case Studies. Amsterdam - New York, NY: Rodopi. p. 73. ISBN 978-90-420-2670-4.
  4. ^ Gass, William (1970). Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York, NY: Knopf.
  5. ^ Scholes, Robert (1970). "Metafiction". Iowa Review. 1 (4): 100–115. doi:10.17077/0021-065X.1135.
  6. ^ Stoichita, Victor (2015). The Self-Aware Image. An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Antwerp: Studies in Baroque Art. ISBN 978-1909400115.
  7. ^ Abel, Lionel (1963). Metatheatre. A New View of Dramatic Form. New York, NY: Hill & Wang.
  8. ^ Metaisierung in Literatur und anderen Medien : theoretische Grundlagen, historische Perspektiven, Metagattungen, Funktionen. Hauthal, Janine. Berlin: De Gruyter. 2007. ISBN 978-3110199451. OCLC 155834217.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  9. ^ Self-reference in the media. Bishara, Nina, 1977-, Nöth, Winfried. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 2007. ISBN 978-3110194647. OCLC 471132600.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  10. ^ Metareference across media : theory and case studies. Wolf, Werner, 1955-, Bantleon, Katharina., Thoss, Jeff., Bernhart, Walter. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 2009. ISBN 9789042026704. OCLC 436342321.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. ^ Michaelsen, René (2009). "Exploring Metareference in Instrumental Music -- The Case of Robert Schumann". In Wolf, Werner (ed.). Metareference across Media. Theory and Case Studies. Amsterdam - New York, NY: Rodopi. pp. 235–259. ISBN 978-90-420-2670-4.
  12. ^ Wolf, Werner (2007). "Metafiction and Metamusic: Exploring the Limits of Metareference". In Nöth, Winfried (ed.). Self-Reference in the Media. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 303–325. ISBN 978-3-11-019464-7.
  13. ^ Nöth, Winfried (2009). "Metareference from a Semiotic Perspective". In Wolf, Werner (ed.). Metareference across Media. Theory and Case Studies. Amsterdam - New York, NY: Rodopi. pp. 889–121. ISBN 978-90-420-2670-4.
  14. ^ Fowels, John (2005). The French Lieutenant's Woman. London: Vintage. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-099-49707-3.
  15. ^ "Cable and Deadpool" #47.

Further reading[edit]

  • Metareference across Media: Theory and Case Studies. Dedicated to Walter Bernhart on the Occasion of his Retirement. Wolf, Werner (Ed.), Katharina Bantleon and Jeff Thoss (Collaborators). Amsterdam/New York, NY, 2009.
  • Winfried Nöth: Metareference from a Semiotic Perspective / Andreas Mahler: The Case is 'this': Metareference in Magritte and Ashbery / Irina O. Rajewsky: Beyond 'Metanarration': Form-Based Metareference as a Transgeneric and Transmedial Phenomenon / Sonja Klimek: Metalepsis and Its (Anti-)Illusionist Effects in the Arts, Media and Role-Playing Games
  • Hermann Danuser: Generic Titles: On Paratextual Metareference in Music / Tobias Janz: “Music about Music”: Metaization and Intertextuality in Beethoven's Prometheus Variations op. 35 / René Michaelsen: Exploring Metareference in Instrumental Music – The Case of Robert Schumann / David Francis Urrows: Phantasmic Metareference: The Pastiche 'Operas' in Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera / Jörg-Peter Mittmann: Intramedial Reference and Metareference in Contemporary Music / Martin Butler: “Please Play This Song on the Radio”: Forms and Functions of Metareference in Popular Music
  • Henry Keazor : "L'architecture n'est pas un art rigoureux": Jean Nouvel, Postmodernism and Meta-Architecture / Katharina Bantleon, Jasmin Haselsteiner-Scharner: Of Museums, Beholders, Artworks and Photography: Metareferential Elements in Thomas Struth's Photographic Projects Museum Photographs and Making Time /
  • Jean-Marc Limoges: The Gradable Effects of Self-Reflexivity on Aesthetic Illusion in Cinema / Barbara Pfeifer: Novel in/and Film: Transgeneric and Transmedial Metareference in Stranger than Fiction
  • Hans Ulrich Seeber: Narrative Fiction and the Fascination with the New Media Gramophone, Photography and Film: Metafictional and Media-Comparative Aspects of H. G. Wells' A Modern Utopia and Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie / Daniella Jancsó: Metareference and Intermedial Reference: William Carlos Williams' Poetological Poems
  • Ingrid Pfandl-Buchegger, Gudrun Rottensteiner: Metareferentiality in Early Dance: The Jacobean Antimasque / Karin Kukkonen: Textworlds and Metareference in Comics / Doris Mader: Metareference in the Audio-/Radioliterary Soundscape / Fotis Jannidis: Metareference in Computer Games
  • Janine Hauthal: When Metadrama Is Turned into Metafilm: A Media-Comparative Approach to Metareference / Andreas Böhn: Quotation of Forms as a Strategy of Metareference / Erika Greber: 'The Media as Such': Meta-Reflection in Russian Futurism – A Case Study of Vladimir Mayakovsky's Poetry, Paintings, Theatre, and Films

External links[edit]