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Challenge: Metaphor as an unexplored resource in a time of challenge

Metaphor Project


1. Context

As noted earlier, each form of presentation has both strengths and weaknesses, depending on a number of factors but especially on the subtlety or complexity of what needs to be communicated and to whom. The question is whether it is possible to devise some means of by-passing the desperately slow learning cycle associated with research, education, policy formulation-implementation in a world in which the education gap is increasing rapidly. If the current crisis is to be taken seriously, people need to acquire access to an appropriate response by some other means.

2. Prevalence of mechanical metaphors

The unfortunate characteristic of answer propagation in response to the global problematique, as currently practised with all the skills of media specialists, is that it is conceived in terms of mechanical metaphors such as "hitting" a "target" audience and achieving "impact". This is the approach used both by the public information programmes of the United Nations family of organizations and by many grass-roots initiatives. This could be described as a "particle" approach acting to achieve the displacement of people from one mind-set to another.

3. Existence of complementary non-mechanical metaphors

Arguments such as those in Section KD suggest the need for a complementary "wave" approach acting to achieve the entrainment of people in terms of their current mind- sets. Propagating an answer by resonance may prove to be a more appropriate mode in dealing with the "field" of world opinion. Particle propagation tends to be considerably slower than wave propagation, as well as being easily blocked or deflected.

The challenge is to make available something simple enough to be comprehensible and yet "seductive" enough to retain peoples involvement. On the other hand, if it is to be of any value at this time, it must also be sufficiently complex and coherent to encompass the complexity of a social reality in crisis, and yet empower people to act together to contain the crisis in such a way as to be transformed by the unique learning opportunity it constitutes. This is a tall order, far beyond the capability or ambition of conventional international programmes.

4. Cultural "carriers"

Under the circumstances it is appropriate to look at unconventional possibilities. One approach is through existing processes, penetrating all levels of society, which already hold most peoples attention, transform their awareness, and govern their actions. The challenge would then be whether it was possible to "code" onto these, as a kind of "carrier", a second level of meaning. The "double meaning" should then offer a totally new set of insights suggesting new patterns of action.

5. Construing the territory as the map

Some possibilities for this approach are: popular music and dance, spectator competitive sports, strip cartoons, rumour and scandal, humour, astrology and divination, myths and legends, fables and parables, sex, courtship and family life, nature and weather patterns. The merit of the last possibilities is that they effectively involve coding the world problematique back onto the world and onto human beings, which would seem to be a conceptually elegant response to the problem of self-reference (D R Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid, 1979). There is a remarkable possibility of "re-reading" the world, as articulated by the sciences, for the metaphoric insights it offers.

There is also merit in relating a conscious pattern of significance to a substrate by which people are usually governed unconsciously. In Jungian terms this is an appropriate and fruitful form of marriage between conscious and unconscious elements. Humanity's inability to relate creatively to aspects of these unconscious elements (eg the environment and the reproductive instinct) severely aggravates the problematique (eg environmental degradation and the population explosion).

6. Metaphors as a short-cut

The approach advocated therefore involves the simple pleasure of activating new metaphors which can enchant, empower, explain and orient approaches to the problematique through the user's own comprehension of each metaphor's significance. But such metaphors is are only new in that they have not been widely used before, despite the fact that everyone has access to them.

In Boulding's words: "Our consciousness of the unity of the self in the middle of a vast complexity of images or material structures is at least a suitable metaphor for the unity of a group, organization, department, discipline, or science. If personification is only a metaphor, let us not despise metaphors - we might be one ourselves." (Ecodynamics, 1978).

Or, as the poet John Keats puts it: "A man's life is a continual allegory - and very few eyes can see the mystery of his life - a life like the scriptures, figurative."

The charm of it, as Gregory Bateson stated in concluding a conference on the effects of conscious purpose on human adaptation, is that: "We are our own metaphor." (Catherine Bateson. Our Own Metaphor, 1972, p.304). Unfortunately we have over-identified with the metaphor and have been unable to see ourselves in perspective. The lack of such self-reflexiveness could well prove to be an important contributory factor to the current uncontrolled attitude to procreation which is at the root of many current problems.

Metaphors are much used in every culture by people of every kind as vital short cuts to the communication of nuance and complexity. There is a desperate need for any such short cuts at a time when new intellectual and other insights are virtually inaccessible to most people unfamiliar with the professional jargons in which they are formulated.

7. Accessibility of metaphors

Metaphors have the tremendous advantage of being grounded in what is familiar, often at a gut level. As such, not only do they facilitate rapid comprehension, but they often suggest new dimensions to what is being conveyed through them. These unforeseen dimensions can provide subtle poetic linkages between isolated mechanistic concepts, as well as totally new insights to be explored.

The natural environment, for example, gives perceptible, concrete, three-dimensional illustrations of the kinds of subtle distinctions which the mind is capable of making. Metaphors based upon any such phenomena therefore firm up intuitions of relationships between non-physical phenomena - rather than reducing them to simplistic, mechanistic forms (as tends, to happen when the natural environment is destroyed, impoverished or inaccessible). They thus offer insights into the management of differences.

8. Reframing and re-enchantment through metaphor

Metaphors have a unique ability to enchant people and capture their imagination - at a time when alienation and cynicism are the rule. This in fact is what has made them extremely suspect in the eyes of professional intellectuals. As with any tool, however, the issue is really one of learning when and how to use it, and to what purpose. Comprehension of problems and their possible solutions, for example, may lie in understanding how their metaphorical equivalents may be interrelated.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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