Came across this old post when I went looking for the Thoreau quote, which is about steam engines, and thought I'd bump it to the top of the queue. It's about how we use metaphor to lay claim to the world.I’m interested in figurative language in this post, but not the sort of figurative language that excites the cognitive metaphor people. Those figures, those metaphors, have become so naturalized that their figurative nature is no longer apparent. Their meanings have become so settled that they’re regarded as literal, not figurative.
No, I’m interested in figures that have new work to do. Actually, I’m interested in one particular figure, one that I’ve been using. It interests me both in itself, for the work that it has to do, but also as an example of the more general phenomenon.
That figure is one I’ve been using to talk about graffiti sites. While I know that the graffiti is put on the walls by particular writers at particular times for whatever purposes they may have, I find it useful, perhaps in a sense indispensable, to talk of the graffiti as an expression of the spirit of the place, for which I also use the Japanese word kami. No, I don’t think there is actually a ghostly creature at the site who’s somehow directing graffiti writers, but . . . .
Let’s set that aside and consider one of my touchstone passages, which I’ve used in a post about ontology. This is a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s “Sound” chapter in Walden (1854):
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion . . . with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in gold and silver wreaths . . . as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.
There’s quite a bit of figurative language in that paragraph, but I’m interested in two metaphors, iron horse and fiery dragon. The iron horse is a well-known metaphor for a steam locomotive, perhaps from all those old Westerns where Indians use the term. Fiery dragon is not so common, but it’s use in that context is perfectly intelligible.
What was Thoreau doing when he used those figures? He certainly recognized them as figures. He knew that the thing about which he was talking was some glorified mechanical contraption. He knew it was neither horse nor dragon, nor was it living.
Or was it? Did he really know that it wasn’t alive? Or did he think slash fear that it might be a new kind of life? We live in a world where everyone is familiar with cars and trains and airplanes from an early age, not to mention all sort of smaller self-propelling devices. We find nothing strange about such things. They’ve always been part of our world. And so, as we learned to talk, as we learned to think, we made places for these things in our worldview, along with rocks, a dandelions, raccoons, the wind, and other humans.
But Thoreau and his fellows did not grow up in such a world. They grew up, and learned to think about, a world in which things which moved across the surface of the earth did so either under animal power or human power. When steam locomotives first appeared, even primitive ones, that was the first time in history that people saw inanimate beings, mere collocations of things, move over the surface of the earth under their own power.
So where would they fit into the conceptual system? With other mechanical devices, like pumps, and stationary engines, or with mobile animals and humans? They had properties of each. In physical substance they were like the mechanical devices. But in what they did, they were like animals and humans. Fact is, they didn’t fit the conceptual system. Maybe they WERE a new form of life.
Well, they weren’t and they aren’t. But they did pose conceptual problems. So I suspect that, when Thoreau used those figures, iron horse and fiery dragon, he used them to capture the in-betweenness of the steam locomotive, the fact that their nature seemed to belong between the cracks in the category system.
Well, that’s where I am with the graffiti site. The word site is impoverished with respect to the work I need it to do in characterizing the locus of graffiti. My electronic dictionary (Encarta) glosses it as “an area or piece of land where something was, is, or will be located.” That definition defines site as something a surveyor could locate.
But doesn’t automatically and reflexively evoke everything that I think is relevant, though one can infer those other things if one knows that doing so is necessary. The graffiti site necessarily entails the size of the surface on which graffiti is place, but also lines of visibility into and through the site and lines of physical access. How many people can work there comfortably? Legal status is also important: Does the graffiti writer have legal access to the site? Have other writers gotten-up at the site, or nearby? Various configurations of these attributes are suitable for different kinds of graffiti. If you know graffiti, then you know that. These configurations, in my mind, need to be understood and apprehended as holistic gestalts.
Thus a tagging site is different from a piecing site. But do you know it by making inferences from what you already know, so that you readily arrive at the appropriate configuration of traits? Or do you actually have one gestalt for piecing site and another for tagging site, no inference necessary?
Whatever. We have no term for those things, those multi-dimensional spatio-social-legal things where graffiti exists. And so I say that the site has a spirit, and that spirit is the gestalt of all those things. The “spirit”, if you will, is not a disembodied living being that haunts peoples minds and makes them do things. But it IS more that what can be expressed on a surveyor’s map and more than the word “site” connotes and denotes in English.
So, a bit of figurative language is necessary, along with all the explanatory language needed to gloss the figure. The figure is needed because, on the one hand, I can’t write a whole paragraph every time I refer to a graffiti site and, on the other hand, I DO need to indicate that we’re talking about something more than the physical surface.
Yet notice that this figure, kami, is something I use in addition to, as a supplement to, the “bare” notion of the site. What I’m really after is that, say, the phrase “graffiti site” automatically invoke the kami-notion without it having to be explicitly referenced.
Finally, if the received notion of graffiti site is deeply inadequate, what about the rest of the received terms through which we discuss graffiti? How many metaphors are we going to need to get this right? Do we even know that ‘getting it right’ would entail?
Cultural change, conceptual change. It’s, it’s . . . it’s what?