Overweening Generalist

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Metaphors in Literature, Philosophy and Science: Divagations

"It's an instrument," Machine Gun Kelly said. "Play it." [1]


Lately I've been studying ideas about influence, coercion, advertising, hypnosis, and ideas about "mind control," particularly what is usually called "conspiracy theory" ideation. I'll just leave it at that.

Well...no. Let me add one thing: I have come to a tentative conclusion about that last item: Yes, some conspiracy theories about "mind control" seem to have varying degrees of validity, if not soundness. Others seem batshit crazy to me. But for those C-theorists with more scholarly minds - or even those who have attained reading levels of a bright 15 year old - I think the richest depths to plumb are in the study of 1.) Rhetoric, and 2.) Metaphor. You wanna learn how to control minds? Find out everything you can about both of those areas. You won't be drilling in a dry hole.

                                Can Chinatown be a metaphor? Who for? Why?


In a prescient essay from 1996, "Farewell To The Information Age," UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg quotes John Perry Barlow, Ted Nelson and Michael Benedikt about how digitization wipes everything clean and is totally revolutionary. Barlow said something to the effect, "We thought we were in the wine business but it turns out we're in the bottling business." Nunberg riffs off this - in 1996! - by writing, "We are breaking the banks and hoping still to have the river." (If I recall correctly Nunberg is quoting Paul Duguid.)

No divagation here. Make up your own!


"You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you've got to get back on the freeway again." [2]


"I am completely convinced that there is a wealth of information built into us, with miles of intuitive knowledge tucked away in the genetic material of every one of our cells. Something akin to a library containing uncountable reference volumes, but without any obvious route of entry. And, without some means of access, there is no way to even begin to guess at the extent and quality of what is there. The psychedelic drugs allow exploration of this interior world, and insights into its nature."
-Alexander Shulgin, PIHKAL p.xvi

Do you like to find out new things every day? The pleasure of learning a new thing gives you a bit of a dopamine buzz. Because you're learning. And possibly from books. Now: what if you already have the most marvelous stash of novelty-in-form-ation ensconced in your genes? Too bad you don't have a key to that library. Well, who is this Shulgin guy? Does he know of which he speaks? If he's right, what are some of the barriers to keep you/me from accessing the stupendously wondrous texts held within?

A friend of Ted Nelson - Jaron Lanier - thinks the idea that all it will take is another thirty or fifty years of Moore's Law and our computers/AI will outrun Nature? Probably wrong, even though widely accepted among his fellow Internet-inventors. And, because I love metaphors around books, Jaron says this:

"Wire and protocol-limited mid-twentieth-century computer science has dominated the cultural metaphors of both computation and living systems. For instance, Jorge Luis Borges described an imaginary library that would include all the books that ever were or might possibly be written. If you were lucky enough to live in a universe big enough to contain it (and we aren't), you'd need to invest the lives of endless generations of people, who would always wither away on starships trying to get to the right shelf. It would be far less work learning to write good books in the traditional way. Similarly, Richard Dawkins has proposed an infinite library of possible animals. He imagines the invisible and blind hand of evolution gradually browsing through this library, finding the optimal creature for each ecological niche. In both cases, the authors have been infected by the inadequate computer science metaphors of the twentieth century. While an alternative computer science is not yet formulated, it is at least possible to speculate about its likely qualities." - The Next Fifty Years (2002)

First off: are there any Borges experts out there? I wonder how much Borges was influenced by computer science in his marvelous "Library of Babel" versus notions of infinity he'd read about in kabbalah, Renaissance magicians, and sufism. Still, I guess Jaron's point holds regardless. And he's been trying to re-imagine a computer science for quite awhile now, given the quick advent and obvious problems of inequality and surveillance.

The codex-book as metaphor seems so potent to literate minds. When I read Borges's famous short story, then read Lanier's literal interpretation, I realize I visualize the Library of Babel as something along Chomsky's "discrete infinity." I mean, I don't want to board a starship, but I do hazily recall many days of spending timeless hours in the stacks of very large libraries or used book stores, finding endlessly marvelous things, actually looking at books written in Chinese - completely mysterious and yet wondrous - and the Babel branch is like that, only it goes on forever. The place closes at 10 PM, and I realize I never ate dinner. And now that you mention it, I don't see any EXIT signs anywhere. How long have I been in here? How do I get back to the register?

However, psychedelic drugs as accessing experiential book-like knowledge? I don't know. One often reads in visionary works the problem of our "clouded lenses" - flawed vision as metaphor. In Erik Davis's Nomad Codes there's a metaphor around psychedelic drugs as keys that can open doors previously kept locked. Earlier (c.1976), Dr. Leary gave us the metaphor of DNA as text: "The DNA code contains the entire life blueprint - the history of the past and the forecast of the future. The intelligent use of the brain is to imprint the DNA code." - Info-Psychology, p.59 As an exercize, unpack all the metaphors there!


Speaking of kabbalah: Joseph Dan discusses the structural argument of the Zohar: "Historical events, the phases of human life, the rituals of the Jewish sabbath, and the festivals are all integrated into this vast picture. Everything is a metaphor for everything else." - Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, p.33


"The history of consciousness is the history of words, " Joyce said immediately. "Shelley was justified in his bloody unbearable arrogance, when he wrote that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Those whose words make new metaphors that sink into the public consciousness, create new ways of knowing ourselves and others." [3]


Along the above lines, one of my favorite passages in Lit about the poet's magickal imaginative powers to alter reality comes from a passage in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Theseus says the "poet's eye" works on "the forms unknown" and:

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name.

You've probably seen this quote used to bolster all sorts of arguments in contemporary thought. There seem to "be" things "out there" as yet undiscovered OR: people experience something but have no words to label these "things" in experience. The neologist, the meme-propagator, the master rhetorician, the re-framing metaphor user who alters minds: these all seem to fit Theseus's poet's magickal workings.

In a delightful book on the neuroscience of music, Daniel J. Levitin discusses our need to categorize from an evolutionary standpoint. "Categorization entails treating objects that are different as of the same kind. A red apple may look different from a green apple, but they are both still apples. My mother and father may look very different, but they are both caregivers, to be trusted in an emergency [...] Leonard Meyer notes that classification is essential to enable composers, performers, and listeners to internalize the norms governing musical relationships, and consequently, to comprehend the implications of patterns, and experience deviations from stylistic norms." Then Levitin quotes The Bard's lines from above. - This Is Your Brain On Music, p.147


There may be one reader (I'm looking at YOU!) who has wondered, "Is this dude gonna address all the 'the brain is a computer' metaphors?" No. Because there's too much written about it. I swim in those waters. (Are you, by chance feeling hyper-aware of metaphors right now? Hyperaware of the so-called "tacit dimension"?) One of my favorite lines about "the brain is a computer" comes from some book I don't even remember reading, but it's in my notes. The brain is NOT a computer, but it is a Chinese restaurant: crowded, chaotic, lots of people running around, and yet stuff gets done. I apparently got this metaphor from Welcome To Your Brain, by Aamodt and Wang.


George Lakoff admits his empirical research on metaphor (of which I am a major amateur reader) had been preceded by Ernst Cassirer, I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Benjamin Lee Whorf and a few others. The oldest thinker he names is Vico, who died in 1744. Lakoff argues strongly and convincingly that metaphor is not some fancy part of speech, as most of us were taught. It's deeply embedded in everything we say and do. I once wrote him that he never mentions Norman O. Brown, who said, "All that is, is metaphor." Lakoff wrote back and said NOB wasn't "empirical." Anyway, check out these lines from a guy who died in 1592 (if Vico was allowed, why not this guy?):

"To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think that they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that are no better than the chatter of my chambermaid." - Montaigne "On the Vanity of Words"

Okay, maybe it's a stretch. Montaigne seems to not be arguing that metaphor is basic to our speech - as Vico did - but he seems to be rather unimpressed by the talk of metaphors. And yet, he's using metaphors in every sentence. If Montaigne were here to find this out, I suspect he'd find it all quite marvelous.


A.) I recall Joseph Campbell talk about a lecture he gave on gods, goddesses, heroes, etc. And a young man rose up and said these things didn't exist; they're lies. Campbell replied they were metaphors. After a slightly rancorous exchange, Campbell suddenly realized the young man didn't know what a metaphor was. Campbell told him it's when you say something IS something else. 

B.) Alfred Korzybski argued that humans suffer for taking literally what he called "The Is of Identity" and "The Is of Predication." If I say, "Cate Blanchet is the greatest actress alive now," (And I might if you were here, just for fun, but for now that would be missing the point entirely) I'm predicating/identifying/making the same "Best Actress In The World" and "Cate Blanchet." But who knows how to logically prove my assessment? And even if I could prove - an impossibility, in my metaphysics - that Cate "really is" equal to the term "best actress in the world," Cate's so much more than that. I'm hypnotizing myself or you or both of us by leaving out Cate as a mother, Aussie, masturbator, gardner, philanthropist, a person with a rich private memory, as prankster, etc, etc, etc, etc. 

How do we square A with B? And what about font size?

1. From the Hemingway-inspired short story by William S. Burroughs, "Where He Was Going," from Tornado Alley

2. Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

3. Masks of the Illuminati, Robert Anton Wilson

                                          OG logo by Bobby Campbell


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I must admit I feel cautious about "rhetoric". It makes me think of the movement not to teach literature in English and/or writing classes. Two community colleges I've taught at forbid the teaching of literature in most English classes. They wanted the classes to focus on "the writing process". I've encountered this line of thinking at the high school and graduate school levels as well. When I got my bachelor's degree in English back in the 80's I don't recall hearing the world "rhetoric". When I went back to get my master's in 2000 in English composition the first two classes I took had the names "The Western Rhetorical Tradition" and "The Rhetoric of Life Writing". The rhetorical emphasis seems to correspond to an anti-literature bias. I see this in Common Core as well, with its emphasis on "informational texts", by which they mean non-fiction.

michael said...

Thanks, Eric.

Being uneducated, I started reading about "rhetoric" studies around Berkeley (the university, not the philosopher) and realized it was a given: most communication can be said to contain rhetoric of some sort: you're trying to convince or alter the mind-states of others using certain techniques. The most effective techniques, if we were taught any at all in school, were fragments of a much much larger picture.

You seem to be talking about the administrative people behind official schooling and how they're using the rhetoric of "rhetoric" to emphasize one thing over another, and this seems to offend your value system. While I agree the picture you put forth here seems lamentable, I have nothing to do with "all that."

What I'm saying about rhetoric (I really didn't address this head-on) is that, to paraphrase the old line about politics: if you don't do it, it will do you. I see the deep study of Rhetoric as not only intellectual self-defense, but as a way of appreciating how all of my favorite artists accomplished their seduction of myself. Saxophone solos, architecture, ads, fashion, graffito...all "contain" (a heady metaphor indeed!) rhetorical functions that deserve some sort of analysis. This is part of my riff on "mind control": everywhere sophisticated techniques, some 2400 years old, are being used to get us to "believe" some thing is true.

Another way of looking at how I see "rhetoric": your comment qualifies as such. And my entire blog does too.

There's a very ignorant but common semantic assumption about the use of the term "rhetoric": "That's just rhetoric about X, Q, and Z." I even thought that 20 yrs ago.

When Gorgias the Sicilian sophist arrived in Athens, he made a splash for his easy use of poetic figures in prose. In his defense of Helen, he argued that she must be forgiven for going to Troy 'cuz she was FORCED to do so. Who/what forced her? Paris, the gods, persuasion, or Eros. 300 yrs later (or so) Dionysius of Halicarnassus found Gorgias's speeches filled with vulgar, even puerile effects. Nonetheless, Gorgias's speech demonstrated that language, if used with rhythmic devices and other hypnotic techniques (NLP seems based in Greek rhetorical devices to me) can attain a divine power like magic, and can wield an irresistible force.

(The rhetorical use of "repetition" can backfire if it's not used with verve. I woke up today to see that one Republican candidate may not recover because he didn't know how to couch his repetitions in an effective rhetoric.)

To quote classicist Danielle Allen, "Gorgias's poetic devices [...] constantly remind the reader that words figure and represent reality and so always make it; they do not transparently reflect whatever is beyond language." In other words, Chomsky's inability to account for semantics is a gargantuan irony, given his stated libertarian socialist visions.

Manic The Doodler said...

I love the "brain as a Chinese restaurant" metaphor. Or is it an analogy?

Eric Wagner said...

You certainly seem hyper-educated. The Aeolus chapter of Ulysses seems an interesting study of rhetoric What do you think of NLP? I met Richard Bandler once and found him very intimidating. I've read ten or so of his books. I like them, but I don't really get them. I would like to attend one of his seminars.

michael said...

@ Manic the Doodler: I had it in my notes that the brain "is" a Chinese restaurant. But the current "school" of thinking about metaphors I'm most fascinated in (G. Lakoff/Mark Johnson/Mark Turner/Gilles Fauconnier/Eve Sweetser/James D. McCawley and even the latter-day Wittgenstein), says analogies work basically as metaphors, because of the hard core neural circuitry that's called into play. Do you have a different reading? Good to hear from you, Manic the D.

@Eric: I read _The Structure of Magic_ by Grinder and Bandler, and a lot of a second volume that followed (was it _Structure of Magic II_? I don't recall). I thought Grinder's use of Chomsky was for the first book was weird. It was an odd reading. I had been reading a lot of Korzybski, and some stuff that spun out from him: _Language In Thought and Action_, Stuart Chase's _The Tyranny of Words_, Irving Lee's _The Language of Wisdom and Folly_, Harry Weinberg's _Levels of Knowing and Existence_; _People In Quandaries_, by Wendell Johnson, and a bunch of Neil Postman. The only thing Bandler seemed to bring in that was new was hypnotic techniques, and I was willing to try them on myself and my girlfriend and a friend or two, but I never consciously practiced that stuff out in the "real world."

Interestingly (to me, at least), the "pick-up culture" and their bible, Neal Strauss's _The Game_ was germinated in NLP, at least in part.

Manic The Doodler said...

@Michael I don't have a different reading just like the brain IS a Chinese restaurant… Mine certainly is although sometimes the orders are wrong & the service can be a little slow!

michael said...

@ Manic D: Mine too! I once ordered kung pao chicken, but they delivered General Tsao's instead, so I asked the General if he wanted to switch and he was cool with it. I ended up getting a nasty fortune cookie, "You will die in a fire soon," so I skipped out on the check. My brain works a lot like this.

Anonymous said...

“The anxiety of influence”, “Metaphor as the desire to be different” and “To write greatly is the desire to be elsewhere” I perceived as the trinity in unity, first time I read – The Western Canon – by Harold Bloom.

This post motivated me to go back to “The Canon” and re-read some seductive lines:

“Literature is not merely language; it is also the will to figuration, the motive for metaphor that Nietzsche once defined as the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere. This partly means to be different from oneself, but primarily, I think, to be different from the metaphors and images of the contingent works that are one’s heritage: the desire to write greatly is the desire to be elsewhere, in a time and place of one’s own, in an originality that must compound with inheritance, with the anxiety of influence.”
(Preface and Prelude, p.12)


michael said...

@Alex: thanks for classin' up the joint!

Aye: Nietzsche is cited by Lakoff as the next after Vico to say that metaphor is not an abnormal use of language, used for poetic or deceptive purposes in political thought; metaphorical thought is basic. And Fred N by 1873 (with "On Truth and Lie In An Extramoral Sense") seems to have the power of metaphor down into his bones.

Rorty, in being influenced by Harold Bloom, said if you're an ironist you dread the thought of saying something mundane about your life on your deathbed. Thus, to transcend yourself is necessary. And it seems new metaphors are the royal road.

Deep structure, The Black Iron Prison, the Illuminati, brain circuits, the collective unconscious, the Id, The Matrix, Chapel Perilous, Omega Point, World Soul, kundalini, infinity, mind-body duality, Gaia, discarnate evil, Akashic Records/genetic archives, the multiverse, etc: come up with one on par with these...

I confess I experience the anxiety of influence and am not up to the challenge. I do see Nietzsche's writing, on the whole, as a way of writing himself into more exalted moods, and if not: less unpleasant ones. He's the greatest philosophical writer to me. And Joyce's anxiety of influence with Bill the Shake seems at times dramatic, and other times - esp in FW - comic. As if he's acknowledging his anxiety about Da Bard and overcoming it at the same time, in glorious fashion.

Thanks for weighing in, Alex.