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May 7 2012 2 07 /05 /May /2012 00:52

You'll have to forgive me. After the previous posting, I thought it would be a good idea to do something a little lighter in tone. The title is a bit of a tease, in fact, since I'm only ambivalently making fun of the term. A more serious (less playful) title could well be something like "Oh, dear! This one is about metaphors, too."

 

The issue I want to get at is perhaps best illustrated by the well known joke about the person on a bus, who, seeing another passenger with a large banana sticking out of his ear, asks "Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me why it is you have a banana in your ear?" The answer he receives is simply "I'm sorry: you'll have to speak louder. I've got a banana in my ear!"

 

The writer G.K.Chesterton composed a delightful short story on a somewhat similar theme, in which a rather academic-looking man begins to wear a cabbage on his head for a couple of weeks before it is revealed that, since he had promised to eat his hat if he was proven wrong about a particular statement, and he was, then he was in duty bound to actually use something edible as his hat if he was to honour his promise to eat it.

 

Trivia? Yes, of course, but Chesterton was notably one of the very few people who was aware of the importance of the principle (now, unfortunately almost a "buzz-word") originally coined in Russian by Viktor Shklovsky, subsequently picked up by Bertolt Brecht in German as "Verfremdungseffekt", and then further by some literary and theatre critics as "de-familiarization" or "alienation." Rather more playfully, the actor Simon Callow, tongue in cheek, called it the "mooreeffoc" effect (that is, akin to the experience of seeing the word "Coffeeroom" from inside the window upon which it had been written.)

 

What has all this to do with the meaning of the title of this post? Well, all the various meanings of the terms congeal around the implication that we sometimes only see things clearly when they appear in a form that is unfamiliar to us. And that, of course, brings us back to our previous posts on the utility and danger of our using metaphors to define our awareness of experiences that might otherwise be inadequately understood.

 

I am choosing to write about this right now because I have recently been re-reading a piece by Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Sophia Marshman (now, Wood) on the significance of metaphor in the works of Zygmunt Bauman. (You'll remember that in my very first post, I drew your attention to this very significant European sociologist.) Jacobsen and Marshman evaluate Bauman's use of metaphors very specifically in relation to how effective they are in helping us to see what was already familiar in a somewhat different manner. What emerges from their article for me, however, is an issue that transcends the particular context upon which they are commenting.

 

In my earlier posts on the use of metaphors I simply spoke (over-simply, I'm sure) of how their effects are achieved. What I did not mention, and is now at the forefront of my attention, is the question of the longevity of a metaphor's ability to enable us to break free from a more restricted mode of thought. Indeed, I am particularly interested in the speed at which an at-first-freeing metaphor itself becomes part of yet another different kind of familiarity, which itself then closes down the opportunities for more open thinking. I even toyed with the suggestion that all metaphors have what could be termed a "half-life", that is, a measure of how much time it took for their effect on opening up new thinking to diminish. Unfortunately, such a precise measurement would be impossible: metaphors are not radioactive elements whose rate of decay is invariant. Indeed, the power of metaphors is vulnerable to a number of factors: who reads, them, how many read them, and when. Sometimes a quickly weakening metaphor is resuscitated by its exposure to a new public. It's nevertheless also true that  a metaphor loses most of its initial powerful effect over time, and becomes part of "normal " language. Linguistic scholars have documented the existence of many ostensibly "dead" metaphors in our languages that continue to maintain the power to influence our thinking without our recognizing their implications. They have thus in fact become part of the way we unknowingly import belief assumptions into our "normal" modes of thought. (In MSOU I give the example of our frequent usage of the terms "superior" and "inferior" in this regard.)

 

You'll remember, too, I hope (from an earlier post) that powerful metaphors are as easily available for closing down thinking as they are for opening it up. There is also the factor of the inherent ambiguity of a metaphor's potential meaning. Bauman, for example, has commented on the use of a gardening metaphor that emphasizes the designation of particular groups of people to be classified as weeds endangering the integrity of a beautiful socially cultivated society. His examples refer primarily to the language that could be used to "rationalize" the obliteration of such undesirable growth. The language is familiar to us from any controlling group that justifies oppression and marginalization of undesirables. (Sorry! That last term reveals another kind of linguistic ploy, the "personalization" of an attribute. That is important enough for me to post on it separately later.) "Weeds", "cankers", "viruses", "germs", "vermin",and so on are still being used in this way by the authorities in oppressive regimes to justify punitive practtces. And yet, the same gardening allusion can be used to alert us to our need to care for and cherish one another. Arguably, Voltaire did himself use the metaphor in that way in the final sentence of the novella Candide. There is still indeed work to do in the garden. A significant part of that work would undoubtedly be to become more alert to the implications of the assumptions our metaphors invisibly contain . . .

 

Cheers,

 

John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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