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"Don Quixote is described as the first postmodern novel due of its use of self-reflexivity in the second volume." --Sholem Stein

"It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form." --"The Solar Anus" by Georges Bataille

"What is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. --Friedrich Nietzsche in "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", tr. Walter Kaufmann

“That self-knowledge is the highest aim of philosophical inquiry appears to be generally acknowledged” --Essay on Man

"All great fiction, to a large extent, is a reflection on itself rather than a reflection of reality."--"The Impossibility of Saying the Same Old Thing the Same Old Way" (1971) by Raymond Federman, cited in Narcissistic Narrative (1980) by Linda Hutcheon

 This page Self-reference is part of the meta series. Illustration: Reverse Side of a Painting (1670) by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, an example of metapainting.
This page Self-reference is part of the meta series.
Illustration: Reverse Side of a Painting (1670) by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, an example of metapainting.

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Self-reference occurs in natural or formal languages when a sentence, idea or formula refers to itself. The reference may be expressed either directly—through some intermediate sentence or formula—or by means of some encoding. In philosophy, it also refers to the ability of a subject to speak of or refer to himself, herself, or itself: to have the kind of thought expressed by the first person pronoun, the word "I" in English.

Self-reference is studied and has applications in mathematics, philosophy, computer programming, and linguistics. Self-referential statements are sometimes paradoxical.



Self-reference also occurs in literature when an author refers to his work in the context of the work itself. Famous examples include Cervantes's Don Quixote, Denis Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist, Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, many stories by Nikolai Gogol, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, and Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. This is closely related to the concept of breaking the fourth wall or meta-reference (which often involve self-reference).

The surrealistic painter René Magritte is famous for his self-referential works. "The Treachery of Images" includes words claiming, in French, it is not a pipe, the truth of which depend entirely on what the word "ceci" (in English, "this") is taken to refer to. Is it the pipe depicted—or is it the painting or even the sentence itself?

Self-reference is also employed in tautology and in licensed terminology. When a word defines itself (e.g., "Machine: any objects put together mechanically"), the result is a tautology. Such self-references can be quite complex, include full propositions rather than simple words, and produce arguments and terms that require license (accepting them as proof of themselves).


In language

A word that describes itself is called an autological word (or autonym). This generally applies to adjectives, for example sesquipedalian, but can also apply to other parts of speech, such as TLA, as a three-letter abbreviation for three-letter abbreviation, and PHP which is a recursive acronym for "PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor".

A reflexive sentence has the same subject and object (e.g., "The man washed himself"). In contrast, a transitive sentence requires the subject and object to be non-identical (e.g., "The man hit John").

There is a special case of meta-sentence in which the content of the sentence in the metalanguage and the content of the sentence in the object language are the same. Such a sentence is referring to itself. However some meta-sentences of this type can lead to paradoxes. "This is a sentence." can be considered to be a self-referential meta-sentence which is obviously true. However "This sentence is false" is a meta-sentence which leads to a self-referential paradox.

Self-referential sentences include "This sentence contains thirty-eight letters.", and Quine's paradox of "Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation" which yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation.

Fumblerules are a humorous list of rules of good grammar and writing, demonstrated through sentences that violate those very rules, such as "Avoid cliches like the plague" and "Don't use no double negatives". The term was coined in a published list of such rules by William Safire.

In mathematics

Hofstadter's law, which specifies that "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law" is an example of a self-referencing adage.

In cognition

Neuroscience research suggests the existence of neuroplasticity, a phenomenon in which thinking processes unconsciously change the neural circuitry and structure of the brain via sensory experience, input from the environment or reactions hitherto.

In art

Self-reference occurs in literature and film when an author refers to his or her own work in the context of the work itself. Examples include Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest and Twelfth Night, Denis Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître, Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, many stories by Nikolai Gogol, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Federico Fellini's and Bryan Forbes's The L-Shaped Room. Speculative fiction writer Samuel R. Delany makes use of this in his novels Nova and Dhalgren. In the former, Katin (a space-faring novelist) is wary of a long-standing curse wherein a novelist dies before completing any given work. Nova ends mid-sentence, thus lending credence to the curse and the realization that the novelist is the author of the story; likewise, throughout Dhalgren, Delany has a protagonist simply named The Kid (or Kidd, in some sections), whose life and work are mirror images of themselves and of the novel itself. In the sci-fi spoof film Spaceballs, Director Mel Brooks includes a scene wherein the evil characters are viewing a VHS copy of their own story, which shows them watching themselves "watching themselves", ad infinitum. Perhaps the earliest example is in Homer's Iliad, where Helen of Troy laments: "for generations still unborn/we will live in song" (appearing in the song itself).

Self-reference in art is closely related to the concepts of breaking the fourth wall and meta-reference, which often involve self-reference. The short stories of Jorge Luis Borges play with self-reference and related paradoxes in many ways. Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape consists entirely of the protagonist listening to and making recordings of himself, mostly about other recordings. During the 1990s and 2000s filmic self-reference was a popular part of the rubber reality movement, notably in Charlie Kaufman's films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the latter pushing the concept arguably to its breaking point as it attempts to portray its own creation, in a dramatized version of the Droste effect.

Various creation myths invoke self-reference to solve the problem of what created the creator. For example, the Egyptian creation myth has a god swallowing his own semen to create himself. The Ouroboros is a mythical dragon which eats itself.

The Quran includes numerous instances of self-referentiality.

The surrealist painter René Magritte is famous for his self-referential works. His painting The Treachery of Images, includes the words "this is not a pipe", the truth of which depends entirely on whether the word ceci (in English, "this") refers to the pipe depicted—or to the painting or the word or sentence itself. M.C. Escher's art also contains many self-referential concepts such as hands drawing themselves.

In popular culture

  • In Mel Brooks' 1974 film Blazing Saddles the villain is killed outside a movie theater premiering Blazing Saddles. Similarly, Brooks' 1987 film Spaceballs uses the video release of the movie that the audience is watching to see what will happen in the future.
  • Some Monty Python sketches involves characters consulting or referring to the script to determine what to do next. Their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is extensively self-referencing, including numerous on-screen references to incidents in "Scene 24"; soundtrack music being repeatedly noticed and silenced by a character; a sotto voce admission that a castle is "only a model", and the like.
  • The 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction is about a character's knowledge that he is apparently living out a story written by an author, complete with narration which is audible to him. He eventually confronts the author, identifying himself as a character from one of her books.
  • Several classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes animated cartoons show characters going into a movie theatre, where they watch a version of the cartoon they're in.
  • In DC Comics' Legion of the 3 Worlds, The main antagonist, Superboy Prime, is the Clark Kent from a destroyed iteration of the real universe, supremely displeased from how his favourite comic books turned out while journeying in their multiverse (depicted as coexisting with the real one). Eventually, Clark returns to our dimension, where is confronted by his distraught parents and girlfriend, having read the chronicles of his villainous action from the comic books published after his "departure".
  • In the Tintin adventure "Cigars of the Pharaoh", Tintin finds himself the relenting guest of a sheikh who recognizes him and shows him another album of his adventures. In earlier editions, the album was Tintin in America, then Tintin in the Congo in the color version. But later (current) editions go even further by showing the album cover of an adventure yet to come (Destination Moon) at the time of the story, but which is by now known by modern readers of earlier adventures.
  • In Ain and David Gordon's Obie Award-winning play The Family Business, a character who is a playwright is asked what he is writing. "This," he replies, "I'm writing this."
  • The folk song "Goober Peas", which dates from around the time of the American Civil War contains the lyrics: I think my song has lasted almost long enough. / The subject is most interesting, but rhymes are mighty tough.
  • In Arlo Guthrie's 1967 recording of his song/monologue "Alice's Restaurant", he says at one point to the live audience he's performing for: "I've been singing this song for 45 minutes now, I can sing it for another 45; I'm not tired ... or proud."
  • Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain", which contains the lyrics, "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."
  • Da Vinci's Notebook's song "Title of the Song" is composed entirely of self-references.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Self-reference" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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