What’s a Meta For?
A metaphor could be said to be like a symbol on steroids (to use a metaphor). By comparison, it takes us to a deeper level of understanding and meaning. It’s often a figure of speech — surfing the net, for example. We use them every day without being aware of them: starving for attention, a thirst for knowledge, covering one’s ass, throwing one’s weight around. We may talk about a pianist’s fingers dancing over the keys, or a difficult task being a marathon rather than a sprint. See what I mean? Metaphors in language need not be elegant or poetic, either. There are vulgar ones for sex, such as laying pipe or plowing a furrow. In the 1960s, they called it balling.
Metaphor is widely used in sports, politics, and the media. A news story that lasts is said to “have legs.” Baseball is a metaphor of pastoral America, whereas football is more expressive of modern technology and warfare, with its shotgun formations and long bombs for touchdowns. George Carlin has a brilliant bit on this. One of the best political metaphors came after Bush bailed out Wall Street and the banks in the fall of 2008. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann likened it to an out of control fire hose spraying taxpayer dollars in every direction.
Apart from language, metaphors can be found everywhere, if we just look. When we use analogy to further illustrate something else, we’re being metaphorical. In Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, the creature is a metaphor of technology run amok (a reference humankind has apparently missed).
Until the early 20th Century, the clock served as an exemplar of the Newtonian mechanistic world view. The universe was a fixed and static system, it was all complete, and nothing new was happening. Amazingly, this was the accepted view despite occasional bright comets, seemingly nullifying the theory. What would be a proper metaphor for the quantum state we currently believe in? A river, maybe, but it flows only one way, and nowadays even the concept of an arrow of time flowing from past to present is being questioned. How about a whirlpool?
People have compared the brutal extraction processes of oil drilling, fracking, or mountaintop removal, as environmental rape., and I think that’s an apt comparison. Monsanto, who have openly said they want to own everything that grows, recently developed a “terminator seed,” because the seeds produced by those plants will be sterile, incapable of germination. Could you ask for a better metaphor of a death culture than that?
Not long ago I heard a news report saying that foreclosures of churches are at an all-time high. Could this reflect that many of their teachings are bankrupt of ideas? I refer here to the many fundamentalist groups who concentrate more on God’s wrath than Jesus’ love.
I’ve heard it said that the proliferation of zombie movies is a metaphor of how so many people seem to be devolving into irrationality, or mob mentality. Here we have the zombie as low-information voter.
I was talking to a fellow one day, a devotee of Ayn Rand, and her philosophy of consummate selfishness. She didn’t believe there was any such thing as society; it was just a collection of individuals. That’s as ridiculous as saying I don’t believe in the body; it’s just a collection of cells. Taking it a bit further, each of those cells must cooperate with the others to maintain the body’s health (maybe that’s the origin of the expression “body politic”). If one cell reads Atlas Shrugged and decides to go off in its own direction, we call that a cancer cell.
I’ve always thought the game Monopoly was a perfect metaphor of the type of predatory capitalism we have today, and why it’s incompatible with democracy. Each player tries to amass as much wealth and property as possible. The game ends when one player has it all, and everyone else is broke. And if fact I just learned about the predecessor of Monopoly, invented by Lizzie Magie. She called it the Landlord’s Game, and she was trying to make that very same point.
As we’ve entered the age of the internet and worldwide instant communication, the image of a web has become a kind of metaphor. The abbreviation www stands for worldwide web, as I’m sure you know. By the way, there’s an ancient Hopi prophecy that one day the entire world would be covered by a gigantic web, like that of a spider.
The right brain governs music, poetry, and other creative expression. It is in this part of the brain that metaphor has the strongest resonance. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both talked about symbolism as the language used by the subconscious to communicate with the conscious mind, often through dreams. I’ve often wondered, could metaphor be the language the planetary consciousness uses to communicate with us? We’re endangering the only home we have, in order to obtain enough resources So how would a planetary consciousness communicate to us that seven billion is about six million too many for the planet to sustain? If we are part of a self-regulating planetary mind, perhaps more and more people would be born gay. That’s quite a reach, but think about this: what are the most prevalent and lethal cancers of the human body nowadays? They’re those of the reproductive system — testicular or prostate in men, and uterine, ovarian, and breast cancers in women. I’d say that’s more of a holler than a whisper, wouldn’t you? I mean, that should get our attention, shouldn’t it? But do we make the connection? Is there a connection to be made?
We spend much of each day focusing on our smartphones, ignoring the world going by as we play with electrons. Could the iPhone, iPad and iPod be metaphors of our increasing obsession with our immediate gratifications — feeding the I? These are questions we might ask ourselves, when we can “find the time.” It could be that by an awareness of symbol and metaphor surrounding us, we might come to a better understanding of our interconnectedness. Just a suggestion.