Every metaphor starts out as a wild beast
July 12, 2011 6:38 PM   Subscribe

"Writing about metaphor is dancing with your conceptual clothes off, the innards of your language exposed by equipment more powerful than anything operated by the TSA. Still, one would be a rabbit not to do it in a world where metaphor is now top dog, at least among revived rhetorical devices with philosophical appeal." [What's a Metaphor For?]
posted by vidur (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Neat. The NPR article linked from this thread really made me think about how important metaphor and analogy is, especially this:

Mr. McCULLAGH: I think you're right. Whoever wins this case is going to be the side that presents the best and most compelling analogies. In common-law systems, like the U.S., when you don't have a clearly established precedent on a particular issue, you go and try to reason by way of analogy and metaphor.

posted by selfmedicating at 6:46 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

A metaphor is a bridge.
posted by loquacious at 6:56 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I figured that the NPR story was the inspiration for this post selfmedicating. Before I almost had a Derrida flashback, I got back onto the path related to how people learn complex topics in ill-structured domains. I think that the reviewer missed out on one bit of contemporary cognition in the review. I wouldn't say that the world is necessarily more complex or ill-structured than before, but I think that a larger proportion of people have experiences such as trying to look things up on the web or understand climate change - novice minds encountering complex ideas that require dimensions of what used to be exclusively "expertise." Wittgenstein would note that almost everyone is running amok across the landscape.

I would say the ascendency of metaphor (I always loved Gentner's work on structural analogy), the ascendency of metaphor serves us well as we have to try to explain more complex things to a larger number of people than ever before. The Supreme Court is one very important example, but I would venture to say that the frequency of the everyday experience is a sign of an useful adaptive behavior that regardless of its origin. I should stick to commenting in Mississippi Basin Flood posts, my comments do tend to overflow their banks.
posted by cgk at 7:09 PM on July 12, 2011

I have this theory that people who grew up reading fantasy and sci-fi trouble understanding metaphor-heavy literary fiction because to us almost every metaphor was literalized.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:26 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I enjoy rubbing my nipples with lard.
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 7:45 PM on July 12, 2011

Metaphor is the dreamwork of language.
posted by kenko at 7:48 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Great article!

Metaphor connects objects in an otherwise lonely and desolate world.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:53 PM on July 12, 2011

Obligatory XKCD.
posted by kandinski at 7:55 PM on July 12, 2011

I kinda like dead metaphors. News at 11.
posted by ovvl at 8:14 PM on July 12, 2011

Writing about metaphor is dancing with your conceptual clothes off

Phew. I thought it was going to say something about architecture. I very nearly tore my MacBookPro screen off.
posted by mykescipark at 8:49 PM on July 12, 2011

What's a metaphor?

For sheep to graze in.
posted by komara at 9:26 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

fu*k meaning
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:37 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ironically, metaphor is the most direct way we have of experiencing the world. Most of our internal narrative consists of the same old stories that we have been telling ourselves our whole lives in order to make sense of the world. And they are not particularly compelling stories; they are mostly derived from our culture's controlling metaphors. Dead metaphors, really.

Experiencing the world directly is strangely enough perceiving it as something else...well, actually, as many things. Since language is an inadequate mechanism to fully describe reality, metaphor serves as a vehicle for expressing the unimaginably complex and beautiful interconnectedness of our world. All of the art forms use metaphor in one way or another to express the ineffable beauty (and pain) of our passage through life.

(We use the word "metaphor" most particularly in literature simply because the, well, literal and usually quotidian nature of linguistic expression demands the use of metaphor to break free of its usual limits.)
posted by kozad at 10:26 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

fu*k meaning
posted by This, of course, alludes to you


posted by NMcCoy at 1:22 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

See also Metaphors We Live By.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:17 AM on July 13, 2011

If you get far enough in the process of thinking that you can express an idea to someone else using words, you've performed some amount of abstraction. If you can say "elephants are heavy," you have in mind a general concept of "elephant" that probably includes what they look like, how they move and their dextrous trunks, and how to distinguish them from anteaters; and you have in mind a concept of heaviness that probably says you'd have a hard time lifting an elephant even if you could get it to stand still, and if you have an elephant on top of you, that presents problems much different from having a blanket on top of you.

If the process of deriving generic characteristics from specific experiences and then assigning labels to the generic characteristics is itself an example of metaphor, then yeah, I guess all thought is based on metaphor. But I would tend to call that "abstraction," and regard it as a superset of metaphor.

The abstraction I've described is what I'd call a "first-level" abstraction, in that it derives its generic characteristics directly from sensory experiences: seeing an elephant, lifting heavy things, having something heavy on top of you. I guess you can call first-level abstractions "metaphors" if you want, but I think it's more traditional to use "metaphor" to describe abstractions of the second level and above: "This backpack's an elephant!" to communicate how heavy it feels to you, presuming the listener understands that elephants are heavy, and what it means to say that elephants are heavy. The latter abstraction must have already occurred for the former one to work, hence "second-level".
posted by LogicalDash at 7:21 AM on July 13, 2011

This article is wonderful; I really want to read this book. Thank you for posting.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 8:30 AM on July 13, 2011

Q: What's a metaphor?
A: Grazing cattle.

read out loud...
posted by Alles at 4:35 PM on July 13, 2011

Thanks for posting... I guess.
posted by Loki's Thunder at 9:23 PM on July 13, 2011

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