Metaphors Define Us

Ice axe photo“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” 

In a post entitled “The Courage to Imagine” (July, 2012), I looked at some of the analogies the scientists were using to explain the phenomenon of the Higgs Boson and the so-called God-particle which had been (or might have been) discovered. These metaphors ranged from ski slopes to molasses.

The genius of science is again testing our metaphoric ingenuity in another recent breakthrough. Our genes were thought to contain millions of “junk” DNA. It turns out this junk actually controls whether we contract anything from cancer to depression. The metaphor some scientists are using is they they now have a Google Map. Before, with the Human Genome Project, it was

“… like getting a picture of Earth from space… It doesn’t tell you where… the good restaurants are, or the hospitals or the cities or the rivers.” NY Times

I love the image of these newly respected bits of DNA now being able to find a good restaurant. Or, more to the point, a hospital.

I began thinking again about the role of metaphor in our lives. It’s probably true that metaphors are “so much a part of the deep structure of our mentality that ‘our ordinary conceptual system… is… metaphorical in nature.” (Lakoff & Johnson)

Consider the law — which I did for many years as a practising lawyer. Legal discourse, court submissions and Judges’ rulings are rife with figurative expressions, so much so that the law has been described as “a magical world . . . where liens float, corporations reside, minds hold meetings, and promises run with the land.” (Thomas Ross).

Of the five senses which could be used as the conveyors of information, it is sight which has been in favor with the legal shape-makers. We “observe” the law; actions are seen “in the eye of the law”; lower court decisions are “reviewed”. Instead of being abstract, the law is something we can visually look at: it is a “body,” a “structure,” a “seamless web.” Ownership is imagined as a “chain of title.” The law is absorbed with light and darkness: there are “bright lines” between legal doctrines; we resort to “black letter” law and one can have a  “color of right”. Perhaps most telling about the domination of the seeing metaphor is that Justice must be blind, because otherwise she may be prejudiced.

Scholars have noticed a shift. Because of the influence of feminism and multiculturalism, metaphors having to do with sound are beginning to characterize the legal system.

‘… law [is] a matter of “voice”: a figurative “speaking,” and even, on occasion, a “singing” in which institutions, groups, and individuals should all be articulate participants. Some voices… generally those of the oppressed or the marginalized – must first be freed from the shackles of “silence.” Fairness demands “hearing” and carefully “listening” to all of these voices.’ Making Sense of Metaphors

I think this has happened because, if metaphors are part of our deep structure, when the existing metaphors have become rigid and won’t let in other perspectives, they start to change. They expand to the other senses — from sight to sound — to let in more of the world. And metaphors, by their very nature, are radical.

In the next “catch” I’ll write more about how some lawyers, in taking on the issue of aboriginal title in British Columbia, insinuated new metaphors into the language of the law in order to establish the recognition of these rights.

Franz Kafka, who narrowly escaped becoming a lawyer, wrote:

A book should be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.

Now that’s a metaphor.

Having wandered far from molasses, ski-slopes and Google Maps, I return to the more central domain of metaphors (and similes) which is poetry; ee cummings, the master, wrote:

“My father was like a red red rose”

“Spring is like a perhaps hand”

“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands”

It’s a relief to be in this realm.