Sunday, September 27, 2009

Magical metaphorical landscapes

I love metaphors. They get me so excited. They take me on writes of fancy to the fun parks, wunderkammers and mystery destinations where my brain loves to play....with words. 

Writes of fancy is also the name of a new book I am writing with a friend about whatever ideas pique our collective curiosities.

Metaphors are special language tools that open up spaces between concepts that we can then turn into technologies to grant us extra powers. Think the cartoon family, the Incredibles.

Shakespeare was a master of the art, contributing hundreds of new words to the English language. So was Einstein, who asked us to board imaginary trains and elevators to experience the relativity of the speed of light.

Advertising copy writers use metaphors to direct our attention to new-to-the-world features we might not otherwise recognize. Authors use metaphors to enrich their stories and connect us to their characters. Scientists use metaphors to explain their big ideas in "word pictures" we can easily understand.

Consider for a moment "metaphorical landscapes". What is it about landscapes that help us think about metaphors? Perhaps there are mountainous metaphors that raise rich concepts to new heights. Meandering metaphors that flow through your mind. Volcanic metaphors which erupt from time to time. Earthquake metaphors that shake what you believe to your foundations. Or even metaphorical autobahns which speed your new concepts to their destinations.

In fact, all language is metaphor. Linguist Guy Deutscher, author of The Unfolding of Language, shows that our language is built on the top of "a reef of dead metaphors", a living layer on the accumulated bodies of their predecessors.

We don't even know they were once metaphors. Audiences now erupt in laughter like volcanoes. Business tries to curb the power of the unions, like the bit in the horse's mouth designed to hold it back. Ground breaking ideas began with shovels. The offices of our internal political enemies leak like taps.

Here's how I go about playing with metaphors:
  • Start with a concept/situation. For example, a very large number of cockroaches scurrying around the kitchen.
  • Ask yourself what is another word for a large number/something that moves? It could be an army, troop, battalion, plague, river, torrent, waterfalls, shoal (like fish) or flock (like birds).
  • Try out combinations of these words with cockroach e.g. an army of cockroaches, a battalion of cockroaches, a torrent of cockroaches, a waterfall of cockroaches, a shoal of cockroaches.
  • Choose one of the metaphors that seems to work best and explore it more deeply using its' characteristics e.g. army - march, beach landing, storm the battlements, house-to-house fighting, insurgency, assault, attack, bomb, shoot. 
  • And here's the end result: An army of cockroaches stormed my kitchen sink and engaged in house-to-house fighting with the dish mop, the squeegee, the tea-towel, the dirty plates, the food scraps and the sink plug, then launched a final assault on the drain hole dungeon.  
So here's a workshop to explore the power, wonder and occasional insanity of metaphors:

1. State a current/issue/opportunity/problem. e.g. sadness.
2. Think of a weird/disconnected/absurd/wildly off the mark alliterative (first letter the same) word that is vaguely descriptive of the issue - sadness - and transform it into something new e.g. serendipitous sadness, silly sadness, stupid sadness, sensible sadness, sumptuous sadness, smiling sadness.
3. Choose one of your combinations of words and make a list of all the kinds of things the new combinations of words helps you imagine. e.g. silly sadness might suggest hosting a sadness party, or playing silly sadness games, or doing silly things to divert your attention, or realizing how silly it is to focus on being sad.
4. Now, thinking about your new word combinations, imagine/describe a new physical, psychological or cultural tool (e.g. attention diverter, sadness sponge, prizes for the silliest case of sadness) that would help you participate in that activity and the roles that participants might play, (e.g. sado-masochistic party hostess, sadness disposal technician, happiness games designer), and the rules of communication for these new activities, (e.g. zen transformation of sadness into happiness, sadness abandonment, sadness/happiness displacement process).

Note: You can even raise your metaphors to new heights, by piling metaphors on top of metaphors, the equivalent of Alfred Jarry's pataphorical thinking. e.g. Metaphorical sadness madness. Happiness-sadness spree. A flight of fancy in infancy from sadness to happiness? A delightfully disturbed romantic dalliance? Sado-masochistic Zen transformation that diverts attention from any kind of reality and hurts so much it is relatively enjoyable.

#Deutscher, G. (2005).  The unfolding of language. London: Heinemann.

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