Metapher und Kritik (theoretical)
I’ll start off by explaining why I’m not naming this “Metaphor and Critique”.
“Metaphor and Critique” is a very ambitious title. And that’s fine, as what I’m going to talk about has universal application. At the same time, however, I want to make clear that I’m talking about my own use of metaphor in this blog, and since the name of the blog is Kritik der Animationskraft using the German hopefully hints at this as well. I want to convey a general and a specific use at the same time.
I’m weeks away from reaching the 2 year mark in writing for this blog, and just the other day I was lucky enough to learn of a book that helped me understand some of the method behind my madness. The book is called Models and Metaphors by philosopher Max Black (published in 1962).
Early on in the book Black tries to elucidate what a metaphor is, and in doing so he hits upon a couple of important notions:
“…subjects [in a metaphor] are often best regarded as ‘systems of things’, rather than as ‘things’.” (pp. 44-5)
“The metaphor selects, emphasizes, suppresses, and organizes features of the principal subject by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject.” (p.45)
First off, metaphors tend to be collective. If I say “he is a pig”, then a) I am not referring to a particular pig but to pigs in general, and b) there will be several perceived qualities of pigs that will come to be associated with my statement (untidiness, noisy eating, being fat, etc.). There is a whole cluster of qualities that I am associating this man with.
Notice too that by calling a man a “pig” I’m (most likely) NOT suggesting that he cannot talk. Sure, pigs can’t talk, but these are not the qualities that make pigs stand out in our sociocultural milieu. Therefore a metaphor involves a selection of qualities from the subsidiary subject (the pig) as it reinforces or reveals a particular selection of qualities in the principal subject (the man). I think the key point here is that metaphors tend to enrich the principal subject, rather than transform it in a neutral fashion (by taking and adding in equal degrees) or downright impoverishing it. I would argue the suppressive aspect is only temporary and strategic, set in place to allow other associations to rise up.
Later on, in a chapter entitled “Models and Archetypes”, Black deals with theoretical models as being similar to metaphors. This is because:
“A memorable metaphor has the power to bring two separate domains into cognitive and emotional relation by using language directly appropriate to the one as a lens for seeing the other; the implications, suggestions, and supporting values entwined with the literal use of the metaphorical expression enable us to see a new subject matter in a new way” (p. 236)
For their part, theoretical models in science and the humanities:
“(whether treated as real or fictitious) are not literally constructed: the heart of the method consists in talking in a certain way. It is therefore plausible to say, as some writers do, that the use of theoretical models consists in introducing a new language or dialect, suggested by a familiar theory but extended to a new domain of application.” (p.229)
Black also has in mind a structural requirement for this modeling to work:
“In stretching the language by which the model is described in such a way as to fit the new domain, we pin our hopes upon the existence of a common structure in both fields.” (p. 238)
Maybe because of this, Black stops short of saying that a model is simply a more elaborately sustained metaphor. He quotes another writer who argues that models can be more suggestive and come to possess more applicability than a simple metaphor. I myself tend to think it’s all one and the same phenomenon. [see below for more on this structure business]
The important thing for us is that the drive behind metaphors and models is essentially one: you take two things that aren’t commonly seen as having a relationship, of equality or close similarity and you try to see one in terms of the other in order to [if the process works as it's supposed to] come to a new, more profound understanding of the former.
There is always the danger of being misunderstood. Some fans like to accuse writing like mine of showing hate toward anime and hate toward oneself as an anime fan. The idea is that if you are comparing anime with, for example, theology, then you must feel that anime is silly (or at least, you must be vulnerable to that sort of criticism from others) and that by bringing in other, more serious stuff you are trying to legitimate your hobby. I’ve never met an anime blogger to whom this criticism could apply. Not a single one. I guess it’s possible that such people exist, but in practice once you decide on writing about these matters constantly like we do it’s because (not despite the fact!) you have a high opinion of manga and anime.
What about Black’s structural requirement? I myself am happy enough to call everything I do “metaphor” and surrender the term “model” to the scientists if it will make them happy. Still, allow me to trot out the great Pico della Mirandola as he might have an answer for Black. Pico’s guiding principle, an old maxim of Neo-Platonic emanationism and syncretism (though you don’t need to know anything about these two thought systems to savor some of the power of this quote) reads:
“All things exist in all things in their own mode.”
In explicating this ancient maxim, Pico comes up with a bewildering and enchanting statement. His Thesis 3>20:
“The self-identity of each and every thing is then most itself, when in itself all things exist in such a way that in itself all things are itself.”
If you’re curious about this, Pico’s Theses are [here] in a wonderful edition with awesome commentary. I’ll let you decide what if anything the thesis could mean for Black’s requirement of a common structure between different things or systems when deploying a model.
I think frequent readers of this blog will have felt by now how relevant all of this is to the way I write my posts. I’ll bring up some concrete examples next time…