February 27, 2002

Metaphor Starvation

One of my not-so-secret fears is that many people now are losing the ability to not just read and write effectively, but to deal with metaphor in any meaningful way. In many ways, our ability to interpret metaphor dictates how well we succeed in life. It's the whole signifier-signified thing: if I can make lots of rich connections between people, places, and things in my life, I can more readily incorporate new experiences.

That's one of the reasons why I lament the death of the so-called Classical Education. Reading the Greek and Roman classics, and being informed on the Judeo-Christian tradition, was considered vital to success in life once upon a time: no more. So when Sting in an old Police song complains of being "caught between the Scylla and Charybdis" I wonder how many people know what he is referring to (it's from Homer's The Odyssey, to save you a Google-check). The metaphor is completely lost to most of the listening audience. And this trend is only increasing in today's media-driven world -- our myths are based on athletes, movies, TV shows, and other such ephemera that probably won't survive the age we live in, much less survive for future generations.

One of the great hopes I had for the Internet was that it would drive people to create wholly new forms of art and discourse, things that would refresh our almost-dry pool of metaphors. This hope has not been fulfilled yet, and if RIAA and the MPAA have their way (via the noxious DMCA) it may never happen. To the image merchants, metaphors are product. They must be kept simple so they can be sold to as many people as possible. They must be free of real depth, so as not to challenge or offend anyone. And they must be ruthlessly recycled, over and over, until the Heat Death of the universe. I hope that we -- the netizens -- can take back control of the Internet and level the playing field with the BigCo's -- I will tell them to speak to me and not at me.

Give me some metaphors with muscle!