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It's unfortunate that the now disbanded alternative rock group Pop Will Eat Itself didn't live to see the prophesy of its name fulfilled. All of pop culture -- be it movies, music or TV -- is now engaged in a delicious orgy of self-consumption.

The feast began with pop culture's vainglorious exercise of self-reference: Everywhere you look, one cultural artifact refers to another that has gone before. And while the idea of a culture referencing itself was once avant-garde, it's now become a rear-guard action. A culture of self-reference is a culture looking at itself from behind, licking its lips and devouring the succulent rump roast it sees before it.

Television grabbed a seat at the cannibalistic table with the advent of meta-television: TV about TV. TV is no longer about life (if it ever was), or about art (if it ever was), but has become obsessed with itself like a washed up movie star. But unlike the character Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, TV's preoccupation with itself is celebrated as an intellectual bright light in a darkened and dumbed down cultural wasteland.

Consider The Simpsons, a cartoon that raised self-reference to a high art and in the process became one of the most acclaimed comedies of the nineties. The Simpsons' intellectual cachet depends almost entirely on its numerous references to itself and to other television programs, including its spiritual godfather, The Flintstones.

Pop music is also nibbling at itself. Rap stars constantly use themselves and other rappers as props in their songs, whether it's the Beastie Boys alleging its superiority over other rap artists or Eminem saluting his mentor, Dr. Dre. And although one man's pleasure may be another's poison, not so with the hip-hop generation. One man's music is definitely another man's music, as virtually every rapper seems to delight in including bars from another song in his own. Some rappers even manage to combine the use of others' music with references to themselves: the rap-metalhead Kid Rock seems incapable of doing anything except liberally sampling Metallica riffs while telling everyone what an American Badass he is.

The latest and most disturbing offering in pop-cultural self-cannibalism comes in the form of Scary Movie, the Wayans brothers' highly gross and high-grossing summer movie. The movie is a parody of Scream, and makes references to itself and to a host of other films including I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Blair Witch Project and The Matrix (a movie that also played with itself in a fit of filmic onanism). Scream, of course, was also a parody of the horror genre, which makes Scary Movie a movie about a movie about movies. That's scary enough for me.

What's scarier, this phenomenon is likely to escalate because self-reference leads to self-reverence (something discussed by Douglas Coupland in Generation X).

Those of us who get the Simpsons' more arcane cultural references think we're mighty clever, don't we, especially when the rest of the Homeresque dullards out there in TV-land are only interested in hearing Bart utter one of his immortal catchphrases. (Come to think of it, Bart's catchphrases were also the subject of self-reference in one episode.)

But as popular as self-reference is, it has a funny way of producing paradoxes. In the early part of the last century, logicians discovered that self-reference was the main cause of paradoxes in mathematics and they have been exercised about exorcising self-reference ever since. Take the self-reflexive sentence: "This sentence is false." If it's true then it's false and if it's false then it's true. Paradox city.

That may not seem like a big deal, but paradoxes do have an impact on work in cognitive science and computer science. And interestingly, self-reference works its own kind of paradoxical magic in pop culture.

The paradox is simple: The more pop culture talks about itself, the less it will say. Self-reference can be fun, and even subversive, but you eventually run out of things to refer to. If nothing new of substantive value is produced, you're left with leftovers -- with referring to other people's references à la Scary Movie. Before long, pop culture becomes Bobby Brady, clothed in Greg and Peter Brady's hand-me-downs but with no opportunity to sample any new duds of its own.

When the devil turned Homer Simpson's head into a doughnut, Homer couldn't resist having a piece of himself, remarking, "I'm so sweet and tasty." So it is with pop culture as it continues to binge at its cannibalistic repast. But if the culture is to survive, what goes down must come up -- and pop culture must purge the scourge of self-reference. Peter McKnight is a Toronto lawyer and ethicist who is writing a book on cultural issues. Arts Argument is a weekly forum on cultural issues. Readers are encouraged to respond to published pieces and to submit their own essays, by E-mail ( ) or fax (416-585-5699).