Post image for Metaphor as Foundation of Consciousness

Metaphor as Foundation of Consciousness

Metaphor as Foundation of Consciousness

by Joe Weil on November 9, 2010

In my next several posts, I am going to talk about metaphors and the invisible neutrino of “and” that lies beneath them. I will make the following contentions:

1. Metaphors are as much about disassociation as association
2. Metaphors generate subtexts.
3. Consciousness and metaphor are inseparable.
4. To present two unlike objects is to create the implicit arc of metaphor.

5. All language is relational.

In a sense, language is innately metaphorical because no word is the thing or state of being it describes. We can call a person “Big Ben” or “tree” if he is tall, “bean pole” if he is skinny, or we can call an obese person “slim” or “bean pole.” This is ironic, sarcastic, incongruous. An obese person is certainly not “Slim,” but to say to an obese friend, “Hey Slim,” can carry far more meaning than calling him “hey, obese friend.” First, we may be assuming an intimacy that is allowing us to tease him (one must be careful of assuming anything in this post-structural age in which the rigid structure of political correctness has been raised). Depending on the tone, the situation, and our attitude, “Slim” can be endearing, scathing, or merely habitual. For this reason, I will use Bentham’s idea of laudatory, neutral, and dislogistic registers of speech.

We can call a person a “leader (laudatory, unless we are being tongue in cheek). We can call that same person “assertive” (one of the qualities of a leader, and neutral in tone) or we can call him a “tyrant,” bossy, macho, aggressive, a slave driver, or Hitler (dislogistic). Here’s the miracle of language: suppose this person has just made love, and he ravished his lover in a way she approves of, and when they are done, and doing advanced Yoga (for who smokes afterwards in this age of madness?), she turns to him and kisses his assertive shoulder and says: “Aww… my little Hitler.” She has just made Hitler a term of endearment. But does Hitler go away as a possibly dislogistic implication? Not at all! Thus, a dislogistic term, used in an affectionate or laudatory way creates a sort of dialectical energy and charge. At the same time, she is being loving, she is also affirming that this man is assertive, or macho, or, perhaps, even a power junkie, such as Hitler.

This is why comedy often tells us what we have built a piety around. If you want to know the piety of a culture, see what its comics are mocking or tweeking. In the old screw ball comedy, My Man Geoffrey, two rich and spoiled society girls go to a junkyard on a scavenger hunt for charity to find a “lost man.” If they can bring a homeless man back to the mansion, they will win the scavenger hunt. The movie was made during the depression, and this “hunt” immediately established the cluelessness and privilege of the sisters and showed the seriousness of that age by making light of it. It both cushioned the full blow of the plight, and served to define it.

Metaphor then is volatile, and it is always relational. Even when it seeks to detach, it joins, and when it would join, it detaches. It creates disassociation as much as it creates association. Metaphors are properties of fractal and generative consciousness, but they are also distortion. We live in our verbal universe, communicate complex emotions, negotiate the most subtle nuances through a series of distortions. We can fall prey to our metaphors. In point of fact, consciousness could be defined as the willingness to fall prey to one’s metaphors. We can think, reason, learn, even negotiate space and time without metaphors, but we can not be fully human in the sense of nuance, irony, and social parlance without them. Our age, being still caught in the scientific myth of denotative terms, objective reality, empirical truth, has fed this myth to those who would root out injustice, and prejudice, by making sure all speech is neutral–devoid of either its dislogistic or laudatory registers.

Ah, but here’s the rub: A child blows up his sister, and the father calls him into the living room and says: “Now son… blowing up your sister was inappropriate.” That might get a laugh years ago, but, in our present “professional” world, pedophilia, blowing up one’s sister, and eating San Francisco might very well be called “inappropriate actions” and no one laughs. This scares the hell out of me. To use Aspergers as a metaphor, there is something Aspergian about this state of affairs. We can blame scientists. We can blame the cult of neutrality. We can even blame a sort of extreme dadaist literalism. Our neutral speech is as much a semiotic indicator of power and control as our dislogistic and laudatory speech–far more so. Someone living in a dislogistic register will give us the sense of someone ignorant, crude, not in command of his or her emotions. Someone living in a laudatory register will give us the sense of a suck up, a cheerleader, a person courting favor.

Social intelligence calls for both negotiating these registers along situational and contextual lines, and blurring those lines. Neutral speech can be anger and ultimate violence made conspicuous by its absence. To say “we have decided to disregard the civilian casualties in a particular campaign and to pursue our objective with extreme prejudice” is to apply a “professional” gloss to the intentional killing and destruction of thousands. Language allows us to call genocide a “final solution.” Just as a relation means separate as much as together, our language distances us from our deeds as much as it defines them. It allows us to call the death of children in warfare “collateral damage.” As for me, I’d rather have someone call me an asshole than refer to me as “expendable.” To take all the emotion out of a verbal construct in no way lessens the violence of a culture, but may even increase it. When a metaphor allows us to detach, and all metaphors allow us to detach, it becomes dangerous, but, without that danger, no consciousness, and no poetry is possible.

A metaphor then seeks to be misunderstood as well as understood, albeit in a fruitful and generative way. Poets, before scientists, were the first disciplinarians where metaphors are concerned. They did not want them mixed. They did not want them too imprecise. A poet is the lion tamer of metaphor, but, in creating a lion to tame, he also makes a lion who can possibly eat a culture, define it, distort it. “The age of reason” is a metaphor. If we break it down, it is not accurate. We move toward grace by a judicious stumbling. This stumbling is consciousness, and consciousness depends, to a very great extent, on our metaphors–not only their precision, but their power to distort.

“My love is like a red, red rose,” is a simile. My “love is a rose” is a metaphor. The simile can contain a likeness or affinity without being beholden to a full substance. The simile qualifies. It says: my love is like a rose because, like a rose, it is beautiful to me and makes me feel lively the way roses indicate the life of summer has arrived. And it is sweet to the smell, and soft to the touch, but it also has thorns and can hurt. And it is brief and must wither and die. A metaphor says to the simile, “Well, if that’s the case, my love IS a rose!” Metaphors are committed to falsehood and inexactness for the sake of a possibility more vital than precision. They allow us to move more quickly through the world by a series of almost, close to, and close enough.

The great sage of consciousness, Julian Jaynes, broke metaphors down into “metaphrands” (the unseen quality or emotion we are trying to get at), “metaphier” (the thing we use to get at it), “paraphrands” (the subtext of the metaphrand), and “paraphier” (the subtext of the paraphrand). We will confine ourselves to the metaphrand and the metaphier, here:

“My love” is the metaphrand. I want to express its qualities, so I resort to a metaphier of the rose. Now, once this metaphor enters the language, everyone accepts it at face value. When that happens you have a cliche. You can either refuse to use the cliche or you can have fun with it, deconstruct it, or, like a good dadaist, take it absolutely literally. In a Marx brothers movie, Chico might say to Groucho: “Boss, it’s raining cats and dogs.” Groucho might say: “Quick man! Have you no sense? Go out there and put some of that rain on a leash… I could use a good pet.”

This sort of humor comes from taking the figurative literally. Comedy is of the head more than the heart because, in addition to testing and teasing our behavioral pieties, it tests and teases our sacred metaphors. In a Marx Brothers movie, the absurdity of dreams is generated by taking a metaphor with all its metapheirs and exploding it. We “derange” the senses– something Rimbaud advocated at the beginning of modernist poetry. A simple way into modernism and post-modernism is to say that, like pre-modernism, it moves through a universe of metaphors. Unlike pre-modernism, it seeks to emphasize not the associative, but the dis-associative aspects of metaphors, and, by doing so, create a new perspective by incongruity. In this respect, it is essentially comic, though often in a terrifying, nightmarish way. So to re-cap, metaphors connect unlike things, create relationship, and allow us to move through the world while at the same time creating disconnects, confusions, and falsehoods. Post-modernism emphasizes this later power.

In the next post we will look at a poem by Andre Breton that functions in this respect. Some people don’t “get” the Marx Brothers. They are “silly.” Some people don’t get why anyone would feel pleasurably sad watching a sunset. They lack that emotional nuance. In the one case, an overly pious F-factor (feeling) may short circuit the humor. In the other case, an overly emphasized T-factor (thought) might make the person blind to “pleasurable sadness.” Let’s try to be capable of both, but each new poem will cause us to choose, and in a hundred subtle ways.

Image Source

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous November 9, 2010 at 8:07 pm

joe–this is awesome. how would you connect this with ezra pound’s discussion of metaphor (which he compares to chinese ideograms) in ABCs of reading?

Anonymous November 9, 2010 at 8:07 pm

joe–this is awesome. how would you connect this with ezra pound’s discussion of metaphor (which he compares to chinese ideograms) in ABCs of reading?

Adam November 9, 2010 at 8:21 pm

micah, how would you!

Anonymous November 9, 2010 at 8:37 pm

well–i’ve always thought there was an interesting connection between pound’s writing on metaphor and eisenstein’s essays on film and the chinese ideogram. eisenstein discusses montage in film as a juxtaposition that can help enact a marxist revolution of sorts. for pound, the ideogram works as a metaphor for metaphor because you’ve got several things layered on top of each other. in that overlaying, the meaning spreads between them, and in the mind of a reader, i think that association will always be working on some subconscious associative level. for example, when i was in nyc walking through crowds in the subway (especially after it had rained), i kept thinking about how ghostly their faces were, how they floated in an almost disembodied way. later i realized it was pound’s poem “in a station of the metro” working in my brain. in an interesting twist, all these different ideas on metaphor have flooded into each other in my brain and now i can’t think about one idea without the other coming up. the ideas would not exist in my head as they do without the other. definitely evidence for joe’s contention about subtext!

it’s also interesting to me that joe points out metaphor as dissociative. we always think about the way that metaphor tries to make associative connections. in doing so, however, we often neglect the flip side, that we’re trying to stretch the edges of the metaphrand and metaphier (if i’m using those terms correctly–they’re new to me, so i might not be). that is, comparing the sun to a coin is not only changing the image of the sun, but it changes the image of a coin as well. i guess i usually think about first part of the metaphor, but neglect the second part.

i would be interested in hearing more dissection of that relationship. i once tried to do something similar with the metonymy of whiteness in moby-dick (the whale is white, ahab’s peg leg is white, there’s that whole chapter on whiteness and things that are white, etc.)–how whiteness is a sort of “transfer agent” between those various objects in the book. i think it came out more or less incomprehensible, though. but i suspect there’s some connection with that and the way the “invisible neutrino of and” functions in a metaphor.

Stewart Kahn Lundy November 9, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Fascinating. Your contention that metaphor is dissociative has radically changed my perspective on the use of metaphor. While I would always say that language changes that of which we speak (especially words), I had never thought to extend that to the function of metaphor.

Obviously, when one says “The coin is the sun” the coin changes, but if A is B, then B is A — the sun too has changed (implicitly) and has been “dissociated” from its prior conceptualization… even if unknowingly in the conscious subject.

For point #3, I would include the inverse. Not only does presenting two unlike objects present the possibility of metaphor, but presenting two same objects necessarily includes difference. Nothing can be the same without difference, or different without some (however obscured) sameness. To be called “same” is not to be “equal” — I am the “same” person as I was ten years ago, but that sameness includes difference.

You’ve done a very good job breaking me out of my everyday conception of metaphor, and if that was your intent, you did well. Either way, thank you.

Stewart Kahn Lundy November 9, 2010 at 11:56 pm

The introduction of Chinese ideograms into this discussion is useful, though many Chinese-readers do not know the meanings of picture roots (radicals) consciously — but then again, the same is true of metaphors and ‘western’ etymologies.

When I was being tutored in Mandarin Chinese, I spent countless hours researching the radicals. A lifetime could be dedicated to the discrete meanings of picture roots in ideograms. What is your knowledge of them, Micah?

Anonymous November 10, 2010 at 12:10 am

my knowledge is pretty small. although, i can confirm that–to some extent–some mandarin speakers don’t know the roots of their own ideograms. i pointed out that the word for east is a combination of man, tree, and sun, and many of my students were shocked that they had never realized that before.

Stewart Kahn Lundy November 10, 2010 at 2:29 am

Some interesting ones (to me) are these:

“Good” is the combination of the word for woman and man, a clear manifestation of Daoism in everyday speech.
“Eternity” is the only ideogram that contains every possible stroke.
“Ark/boat” has the character for eight and mouth. Christians say “Noah!” but I think it’s a reference to the number 8, which is a number of newness, renewal, life, spontaneity and the Mahayana (“great vessel”).

I didn’t know that about “East” — why is that? The sun is obvious, but the tree?

Stewart Kahn Lundy November 10, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Also, the power of Haiku is in the radicals of the Japanese ideograms. The visual recognition of the harmony of the symbols makes the strength of Haiku in its native language much more obvious… Haikus really aren’t possible in English, not in a meaningful way.

Not to mention the fact that Chinese Tweeters totally get way more words than we do. We get 140 characters, but for them that’s a full paragraph!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Image Source