Tag: Metaphor

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation

Miscellaneous. 1972. France. Paris. American writer, Susan SONTAG.

against_interpretation

Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag’s second book, was published in 1966, but some of the essays date back to 1961, when she was still writing for The Benefactor. Sontag had some to New York in the early 60’s, eager to become the writer she so longed to become. Her ideas at the time of a writer was someone interested in “everything.”

Against Interpretation is regarded as a quintessential text of the 60’s. “It wasn’t the Sixties then,” she writes. “For me it was chiefly the time when I wrote my first and second novels, and began to discharge some of the cargo of ideas about art and culture and the proper business of consciousness which had distracted me from writing fiction. I was filled with evangelical zeal.”

Interpretation

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Taming Art

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.

Genius

…interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.

Avoiding Interpretation

to avoid interpretation, art maybe become parody. Or it may become abstract. … Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content,t here can be no interpretation.

Our Task With a Work of Art

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

Art

Art is not only about something; it is something. … Art is seduction, not rape.

Morality

Morality is a code of acts, and of judgments and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, which prescribe a standard for behaving or tiring to behave toward other human beings general (that is, to all who are acknowledged to be human) as if we were inspired by love. Needless to say, love is something we feel in truth for just a few individual human beings, among those who are known to us in reality and in our imagination. … Morality is a form of acting and not a particular repertoire of choices.

Metaphor of Art as an “Argument”

The metaphor of the work of art as an “argument,” with premises and entailments, has informed most criticism since. Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.

Love and suffering

The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness. We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, but one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. … For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.

If this has you curious, you should read the entire book.

Susan Sontag on Style and Metaphors

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) spent a lifetime on writing, art, and the commodification of wisdom.

Her moving work, Against Interpretation, is regarded as a quintessential text from the 60s. In it, she addresses both the advantages and the disadvantages of metaphors.

Sontag writes:

against_interpretation

To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of style must rely on metaphors. And metaphors mislead.

Take, for instance, Whitman’s very material metaphor. By likening style to a curtain, he has of course confused style with decoration and for this would be speedily faulted by most critics. To conceive of style as a decorative encumbrance on the matter of the work suggests that the curtain could be parted and the matter revealed; or, to vary the metaphor slightly, that the curtain could be rendered transparent. But this is not the only erroneous implication of the metaphor. What the metaphor also suggests is that style is a matter of more or less (quantity), thick or thin (density) . And, though less obviously so, this is just as wrong as the fancy that an artist possesses the genuine option to have or not to have a style. Style is not quantitative, any more than it is superadded. A more complex stylistic convention-say, one taking prose further away from the diction and cadences of ordinary speech—does not mean that the work has “more” style.

Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the Inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.

I should make clear, however, that what I have been saying about dangerous metaphors doesn’t rule out the use of limited and concrete metaphors to describe the impact of a particular style. It seems harmless to speak of a style, drawing from the crude terminology used to render physical sensations, as being “loud” or “heavy” or “full” or “tasteless” or, employing the image of an argument as “inconsistent.”

Against Interpretation is well worth the read in its entirely.

John Holland: The Building Blocks of Innovation

“Most innovation comes from combining well-known, well-established, building blocks in new ways.”

***

light_bulb

John Holland, a professor of two vastly different fields—psychology and engineering—at the University of Michigan, lectures frequently on innovative thinking.

According to Holland, there are two steps to innovation. The first step is to try and find the right building blocks—the basic knowledge. Second, is the use of metaphors to relate understanding.

The first step is to try and find the right building blocks—the basic knowledge. Second, is the use of metaphors to relate understanding.

Holland is focused on innovation, but many readers of Farnam Street will recognize the first step—acquiring the building blocks—as the process for acquiring worldly wisdom.

Like us, Holland wants to connect well-known and well-established ideas from multiple disciplines in new ways to solve problems.

In our case, the basic building blocks are the big ideas in each major discipline. While this seems daunting, luckily, according to Charlie Munger “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person.”

Domain Dependence and Linking

It’s important that you can link these models together and recognize them outside of the domain they are presented. Many people, for instance, don’t link the supply and demand from economics and equilibrium from physics. Yet in many ways, they are the same thing. If you can’t recognize the forces at play outside of the system in which you learned about them, you are domain dependent.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb writes:

We are all, in a way, similarly handicapped, unable to recognize the same idea when it is presented in a different context. It is as if we are doomed to be deceived by the most superficial part of things, the packaging, the gift wrapping.

If you don’t have a basic understanding of each of the major models you won’t be able to link them together. And if you can’t link them together, you’re going to go through life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Construction of a Model

According to Holland, “the construction of a mental model … closely resembles the construction of a metaphor:”

  1. There is a source system with an established aura of facts, interpretation and practice.
  2. There is a target system with a collection of observed phenomena that are difficult to interpret or explain.
  3. There is a translation from source to target that suggests a means of transferring inferences for the source into inferences for the target.

Seeing new connections requires models and metaphors. Holland continues:

For most who are heavily engaged in creative activities, be it in literature or the sciences, metaphor and model lie at the center of their activities. In the sciences, both the source and the target are best characterized as systems rather than isolated objects. … In the sciences, decisions about which properties of the source system are central for understanding the target, and which are incidental, are resolved by careful testing against the world. As a result of testing and deduction, a well-established model in the sciences accumulates a complicated aura of technique, interpretation, and consequences, much of it unwritten. One physicist will say to another “this is a conservation of mass problem” and immediately both will have in mind a whole array of knowledge associated with problems modeled in this way.

“The essence of metaphor,” write Mark Johnson and George Lakoff in their book Metaphors We Live By, “is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

Holland posits that metaphors help us translate ideas into models, which form the building blocks of innovative thinking.

“In the same way that a metaphor helps communicate one concept by comparing it to another concept that is widely understood,” Robert Hagstrom writes in Investing: The Last Liberal Art, “using a simple model to describe one idea can help us grasp the complexities of a similar idea. In both cases, we are using one concept (the source) to better understand another (the target). Used this way, metaphors not only express existing ideas, they stimulate new ones.”

Metaphor and Innovation

From the Credit Suisse Thought Leader Forum:

To understand the problems in any discipline, it is necessary to have deep knowledge in that discipline. To resolve those problems, it is often necessary to look at the problem through the filters of a different and often distant discipline. The simplest analogy to the phenomenon is simply perspective. It is very difficult to understand, say, the traffic patterns of a city if you are stuck in your car at rush hour. With the distance provided by a traffic helicopter, however, it is much easier to see the major thoroughfares, the bottlenecks and the overall dynamics of the traffic system. The shift in vantage point offers better understanding and new insights for your strategy. For more abstract challenges, the use of metaphor serves the same purpose as distance in the traffic example. If we are stuck on the challenge of distribution in a global manufacturing company, for example, it may be useful to apply models from other disciplines as metaphors. The model that we have developed and used for our distribution system has been quite effective over the years, but we just cannot seem to resolve some particular challenge. Perhaps we can learn something from other kinds of distribution systems. How does an ant colony collect and distribute its resources? How does the human body manage its circulation and processing of nutrients and wastes?

Three Keys to effectively applying metaphors

There are three keys to effectively applying metaphors to achieve insight and innovation. First, you must develop a deep understanding of the metaphorical system. You will gain no new insights if you look at the human circulatory system and say, “Aha! The brain tells the rest of the body where to send things!” If you draw conclusions too quickly, then more than likely you have only recreated your existing model of distribution systems – you are seeing the human body’s circulation system as if it were the distribution system of a global manufacturing firm. If you invest the time and effort to understand this complex new system on its own merits, then you might discover something interesting about your own discipline. For instance, the human circulatory system is one of several overlapping hierarchical systems that allow the human body to grow, heal, change and yet maintain homeostatic balance. How do those systems overlap? How are the priorities of those different systems balanced? What overlapping systems exist in our global manufacturing firm, and how do they interact? An in-depth study of a new complex system should force you to ask new questions about your own, seemingly familiar system.

The second key to applying metaphors is to recognize the value of the cognitive leap. As you map the models from one system onto another, the fit will never be perfect. Our global manufacturing firm is not a human body. Therefore the solution to our challenge will not lie in our suddenly believing this to be true. Instead, the solution will lie one or two steps away. As we look at the human circulatory system, we will encounter questions and tangential thoughts. “What performs the function of ‘hormones’ in our organization?” We will not, of course, implement a system of complex chemical exchanges in our organization, but this might lead us to think about our communication systems or decision-making metrics in a new way.

The final key is often the most frustrating for managers — only a very few of the ideas that this process produces will be highly valuable. Some of the ideas will be useless. Many of the ideas will be interesting but impractical or irrelevant. Other ideas will serve as useful, incremental improvements to your system. But only a rare few of these ideas will be truly revolutionary. The secret is the same in any game of statistics – you have to try large numbers of these metaphors for the big ideas to hit. These ideas are the outliers, not the norm, and while metaphor can push your thinking towards the innovative, no process can guarantee that your new ideas will be both different and effective. Many managers are willing to try this approach once or twice, and give up when it does not immediately return impressive results. … In order to discover great innovations, you must engage regularly in the search and recognize that most of your discoveries will have either marginal or moderate value. Creative combination is a process that increases your odds of discovering breakthrough innovations, but it cannot guarantee success. This is a tool, not a silver bullet.

Metaphors

Aristotle Metaphor

For most people a metaphor is a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. “For this reason,” write Mark Johnson and George Lakoff in their book Metaphors We Live By, “most people think they can get along perfectly well without a metaphor.”

We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

Metaphor

What governs our thought governs our functioning. “Our concepts (even something as simple as the word we use) structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people.”

Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what the system is like.

Most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.

To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:

ARGUMENT IS WAR

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counter-attack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; its structures the actions we perform in arguing.

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.” In perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.

This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things–verbal discourse and armed conflict–and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR. The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, the language is metaphorically structured.

In the Investing: The Last Liberal Art, Robert Hagstrom writes:

At the simplest level, a metaphor is a way to convey meaning using out-of-ordinary, nonliteral language. When we say that “work was a living hell,” we don’t really mean to say that we spent the day beating back fire and shoveling ashes, but rather we want to communicate, in no uncertain terms, that it was a hard day at the office. Used this way, a metaphor is a concise, memorable, and often colorful way to express emotions. In a deeper sense, metaphors represent not only language but also thought and action.

Metaphors are much more than a poetic imagination or rhetorical flourish. They can help us translate ideas into mental models and those models form the basis of worldly wisdom.

what is a metaphor?

Many people contend that metaphors are necessary to stimulate new ideas. Hagstrom continues:

In the same way that a metaphor helps communicate one concept by comparing it to another concept that is widely understood, using a simple model to describe one idea can help us grasp the complexities of a similar idea. In both cases we are using one concept (the source) to better understand another (the target). Used this way, metaphors not only express existing ideas, they stimulate new ones.