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Saturday, February 1, 2014

When Metaphor Fails: What Counts as ‘Porn’?


In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson laid out a major philosophical position on language and meaning, namely, that spoken language (and so, by extension, written language) is fundamentally and inevitably metaphorical in nature, i.e., that all linguistic meaning is based on a metaphorical understanding of the world.

Let me start again. This time I’m going to use another color for a while to help get Lakoff and Johnson’s point across.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson laid out a major philosophical position on language and meaning, namely, that spoken language (and so, by extension, written language) is fundamentally and inevitably metaphorical in nature, that all linguistic meaning is based on a metaphorical understanding of the world.

Some would go even further with this than I have gone; others would object to going even this far. But you see the general direction of the argument? So let’s continue.

Our commonest of utterances, according to Lakoff and Johnson (who convinced me years ago), are shot through and through with metaphor. Johnson continued to develop the thesis in The Body in the Mind. Families of meanings cluster around our most basic embodied experiences, such as inside and outside, up and down, etc. Language without such a foundation is unimaginable – and there again is another metaphor, for we imagine in images, not necessarily visual but necessarily drawn from our physical senses of embodiment.

‘Metaphor’ itself is a metaphor, a meaning “carried over,” as oil is carried in a jar. And think of the contrast usually made between ‘figurative’ and ‘literal’ language. What does ‘literal’ mean? There are no letters in speech, are there? So is not ‘literal’ itself a metaphor, dependent on ‘figurative’ meaning?

The French philosopher Henri Bergson, my “main man” in philosophy, famously realized that we human beings can only make sense (how’s that for a metaphor: make sense) of time by casting it in spatial terms. American Sign Language, spoken languages, and arguments on free will (the last Bergson’s original focus) all bear this out. We spatialize time in order to see it conceptually, and in so doing, Bergson says, we cannot help misrepresenting it. Here is a quick and dirty recap of his dissolution of the free will argument: The determinist sees a fork in the road ahead and tells us that which road we will take when we get to the fork is fixed in advance. The free will advocate says no, when we get to the fork, we can choose. Bergson’s point is that there is no fork ahead, no road, no path at all. Where we postulate the forked road ahead, there is, as yet, nothing. Only as we live in and through time do we create the course our life takes. The future is what is not-yet, nonexistent.

The French language is rich in agricultural and pastoral metaphors, and so after a digression or background explanation, Bergson writes, “Let’s come back to our sheep” to signal that he is once again taking up the main thread of his argument. “Revenons à nos moutons.” English is also rich in agricultural expressions (“one rotten apple”; “a hard row to hoe”), as well as many from the English maritime past (“a loose cannon”; “down the hatch”). Like the more basic metaphors, the ones we don’t even notice, these figures of speech have over time become clichés, their origins seldom brought to mind, if not forgotten. What is a cliché to a native speaker, however, can be a charming and lively metaphor to one who comes to it in a language acquired later in life.

But I have not yet even introduced my sheep! Here goes--.

Recently I was taken to task on Facebook over a term that offends me in its newly widespread, indiscriminate application. Clearly, ‘indiscriminate’ is my interpretation of the new usages. (That is clear, isn’t it?) I am not pretending to take a god’s-eye view here. This is my perspective, my point of view, and no one is under any obligation to share it, but I would like to lay it out more thoroughly than I did on Facebook. 

The term is ‘porn,’ and I was accused of failing to appreciate the metaphor active in the uses that offend me. My friends were pushing me (whether this was their intention or not) to think carefully, and I did. 'Pornography,' the full, longer form, previously signaled a serious, controversial subject long debated in the realms of art, aesthetics, law, and civil society. The abbreviated term, by contrast, has come to signal an amusing, sophisticated dismissal of seriousness. Thus we are invited to exclaim and laugh over ‘food porn,’ ‘book porn,’ ‘bookshop porn,’ and ‘bookshelf porn.’ 


Why, aside from food, do so many of these have to do with books? Is it merely that my own life’s focus brings them to my notice that I have come to detest these phrases? Are there an equal number of uses in other parts of American life? Music? Sports?

“Revenons à nos moutons.”

As with widespread adoption not long ago of ‘ho,’ mostly by young people, calling so many things ‘porn’ not only not only sexualizes them but also trivializes sexuality. An enormous power is ignored and/or denied. Is the joking another version of the camel hiding its head in the sand? Do we fear the power of sexuality that much?

A friend of mine, doing research for a book she was writing, ran into a very dark reality behind a beautiful façade, a summer camp on an achingly beautiful island where, far from family and legal surveillance, young boys were sexually abused and exploited for the purposes of a child pornography ring. Nothing about the story was amusing.

At the other extreme, my friend Helen wrote for her blog a post on world-famous libraries, including photographs of surpassing, catch-your-breath loveliness. I am so grateful to Helen for not devaluating the great buildings and collections in her blog post by calling them ‘library porn’!

Human beings are capable of dreadful cruelty, shameful neglect, and unspeakable perversion, but our species has also added to the beauty and fullness of creation with works of art in every domain, along with institutions and systems of government, law, and science. At times we achieve magnificence with our works. Are we embarrassed to recognize the good? Are we as embarrassed to feel ourselves responding to beauty as we should be ashamed of being drawn to the gutter? Are we afraid of looking and sounding naive unless we shift instantly to a glib pretense of humor that levels all experience – no more horrors, no more inspiring heights?

‘Amazing’ and ‘awesome’ take human responses of awe and amazement and transfer them onto the world outside themselves. The mountain itself knows nothing of awe; it is we who feel awe in its presence. When a blueberry muffin or a pair of high heels is ‘awesome,’ what is left to say of the mountain? And when lovingly executed haute cuisine or the creation of an impressive book collection or a beautiful building is called ‘porn,’ what word can we use for the sexual exploitation of those children hidden away on the island?

Sexuality isn’t the only powerful human experience in the world. Words have power, too. On the other hand, we can bleed power out of words by abuse, misuse, or casual overuse. Do our lives matter? Does it matter how we treat one another? Do our efforts and achievements matter?

The world is not as flat as some pundits would have us believe. What have we to gain by relinquishing strong language with which to describe its beauties and its horrors. To anyone who loves words, this is an important question.

At home these winter evenings we have begun watching the television series The Newsroom” on DVD, and last night we watched an episode titled “Tragedy Porn.” In this episode the network in the story, attempting to gain back recently lost viewers, joins other networks in bypassing important, serious news during ratings week to focus on the most salacious, least important aspects of (1) the trial of a mother for killing her child; and (2) the ruin of a politician’s career for having posted sexually explicit photographs of himself on Twitter. In this instance, I thought the use of the word was perfectly appropriate: the network audiences were invited to wallow in cheap images and easy judgments without much if any concern for important issues or relevant facts. The network was pandering, the audience thrilling voyeuristically to cheap horrors. In this instance I buy ‘porn’ as a metaphor.

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? And, on a lighter note, how do you rate my use of the cliché in the foregoing sentence?


3 comments:

Gerry said...

I don't do FB, but on the basis of what you wrote here, I think you ended up arguing both sides of your point - which makes sense to me, as I'm pretty sure all metaphors take their meanings from their contexts.

I use "porn" in "violence porn" (works that pander to the appetite for loathsome details of horrors) and "ruin porn" (works that dwell on emblematic urban decay, feeding the fever dreams of the smug). These uses of "porn" are not at all humorous. In their contexts they are expressions of disgust.

OK, I use "food porn" too - and in that context it's something different. Perhaps all language wears away as rock turns to rubble under moving glaciers. When the glaciers melt we come up with new metaphors for feelings - or for our numb inability to feel.

fleda Brown said...

Really smart and interesting post, Pamela. The argument about language and metaphor may be a new thought in the west, but Buddhist thinkers have said exactly the same thing for 2500 years. All is metaphor. And that's okay. When we learn to live with flux, we can see life as it really is, not trapped in pre-digested chunks.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, you are too quick for me! Yes, I see what you mean about my having argued both sides, but do you see what I mean about the difference between a strong, vivid, obvious metaphor and a cliché? I know you do; that was a rhetorical question, i.e., not a real question at all.

Fleda, you would love -- if you don't already -- Bergson. Life for him was not CHUNKS!