Rhapsody On Metaphor & Intellectual Pleasure

Further, metaphors must not be far-fetched, but we must give names to things that have none by deriving the metaphor from what is akin and of the same kind, so that, as soon as it is uttered, it is clearly seen to be akin….

– Aristotle, Rhetoric 1405a

What are we doing when we aim for a semantic performance to be apt, profound, suggestive, provocative, poignant, obscure, entertaining, funny, or shocking?

In some sense, we’re looking to “do things with words:”   we’re aiming at perlocutionary uptake.  Examined from a somewhat absurd, but nonetheless traditional, (Cartesian-solipsistic) standpoint of isolated (but somehow linguistic) consciousnesses:  we intuit certain entailments of our metaphors we hope our audience also intuits.  Suppose, however, that we acknowledge that we’re out on parole from brutish apedom specifically because we’re on this langue journey together.  Then, it’s hard to say which is more remarkable:  (1) that we use the metaphor function of speech (Gr. metapherein) as a vehicle for the telepathic transfer of intelligence or (2) that we use the same function to invite the kind of social bonding that spawns political community and democratic co-navigation of our sociopolitical, economic, and physical cosmos.   Metaphor isn’t just simile sans feature-mapping.  Part of the intellectual pleasure we derive is “figuring out” the entailments of the metaphor–just as we intuit the logic of a joke, or trace the curve of a sexualized body past the regime of obscuring couture.  Following Locke’s theory of property, because we performed the intellectual labor, its fruits belong to us:  entailments, punchlines, fantastic jouissance.

In another sense, we’re exploring the “adjacent possible.”  Since a metaphor is a narrative in miniature, these remarks apply equally to metaphors and narratives, allegories and stories.  The adjacent possible is always qualified by topic (however technical) and by the mindsets & mindsettings of the interlocutors involved.  Physicists expect aptitude from their peers.  So too chemists, biologists, botanists, sci fi aficionados, philosophers, moralists, and even ordinary purveyors of pop culture.  Blockbuster movies sell tickets.  Jokes succeed or fall flat in social settings.  So too peer-reviewed journal articles, books, songs, paintings, fashion statements, scientific theories, proverbs, and parables.  All of these meme-laden semantic performances function as mental suggestions, whispering, “Join me in these realms of possibility.”

Similarly, by means of hortatory metapherein, every semantic performance is an invocation, a future-naming.  Each is an open-canon meme-set, rhizomatically extending into sparkling projections of dasein.  All culture (indeed all nature, so transformed) is a holistic and myriad-voiced, open invitation to “get in where you fit in”–aesthetically, logically, and morally–in all of your existential, social, creative, and intellectual capacities.  We mold the world’s potential to our own.  Archimedes had a very specific adjacent possible that transformed his altered bathwater levels into a eureka experience.  The same thinker, enjoying a cordial, sativa-elevated conversation on a cool summer’s evening, may perceive entire worlds in the same grain of sand she nonchalantly trampled after her last department meeting.

At our most salient, as we “name the nameless” together, we craft magic words that cast powerful social spells on our common future, and the long tails of our shared imagination summon a world that our psychosomatically-primed neurochemistry finds worthy of dopamine release.

______________________

Select References:

Aristotle, Rhetoric.
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.
Ted Cohen, “Metaphor, Feeling, and Narrative.”
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, “Rhizome” in A Thousand Plateaus.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
Stuart Kauffman, Investigations.
George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government.
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor.
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics.

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