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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Governance: Metaphor as a language for global governance

Metaphor Project

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1. Metaphor as an unexplored resource

Since the 1970s there has been an explosion of interest in the cognitive role of metaphor in all areas, but especially in the language of disciplines. It is no longer considered merely a matter of rhetorical flourish or poetical imagination. It is now argued that our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical. It has even been suggested that the development of civilizations is essentially a progression of metaphors. Others have noted that if the present age faces a crisis of root metaphors, a shift in metaphors may open new vistas of human possibilities.

Metaphors are used to get a conceptual handle on complexity, notably in physics. They have a major role in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Educators make extensive use of metaphor, building on its traditional role in religion. Metaphor is fundamental to skilful advertising and image building. Politicians (and their speechwriters) are constantly in search of more powerful metaphors to position their proposals more effectively. Use of metaphor underlies discussion of organizational cultures and their ability to innovate. In that respect metaphor or guiding imagery (leitbild in German) is also vital to technological development. Computer software advances are keyed to new metaphors, such as "Windows". Breakthroughs in groupware await discovery of appropriate metaphors.

Despite its widespread use, notably at the grassroots level in many cultures, little has been done to explore its relevance to the challenges of the international community.

Donald Schon (1979) has argued that the essential difficulties in social policy have more to do with problem setting than with problem solving. For him: "the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the direction of problem solving." As noted above, he contrasts a housing problem where slum areas were defined as a "blight" or "disease" with one in which they were perceived as "natural communities". Using the medical metaphor the former justifies use of radical "surgery" to excise the blight, whereas the other calls for ways of enhancing the life of those communities.

A metaphor thus provides a framework of credible associations that increases the probability that relationships in other domains will be conceived according to that pattern, rather than another. Most institutional policies are based on implicit metaphors that may be quite inappropriately simplistic in relation to the challenge of their mandate. Global governance could be said to be currently trapped in inadequate metaphors.

2. Opening new possibilities

It is not that traditional policy models are ineffective or inadequate. The difficulty is rather in the incompatibility of models, however useful in different specialized domains, and the resulting weaknesses that emerge in any supposedly integrated strategy. Suspicion concerning integrative models has become a wise precaution.

Beyond any structural modifications, the key to the success of future strategies appears to lie in the imaginative manner in which valid, but seemingly incompatible, initiatives are woven together. The challenge is highlighted by the absence of models adequate to the reconciliation of "centralized" and "market" economic strategies in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe. There are no available models because the challenge to the imagination transcends the world of model builders by which strategies have been so influenced. It could be concluded that new possibilities for global governance are to be found beyond the strategic incompatibilities in which visions of its future tend to become entangled.

It is metaphors that provide the imagination with "keystones" to balance the tensions between tendencies which, without such integrative elements, would appear incompatible. World governance in this sense is a question of "imagination building" rather than "institution building".

Governance at the highest level should therefore focus attention on the emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphors -- that are capable of rendering comprehensible the way forward through complex windows of opportunity. The challenge lies in marrying new metaphors to models to ensure the embodiment of new levels of insight in appropriate organizational form.

Exploration of metaphor needs to be liberated from the ghetto of literary studies in which it has languished. People at every level of society need to be empowered in their use of metaphor to reframe the challenges they personally face in exploring new opportunities unconstrained by the outmoded patterns of the past. Metaphors can become catalysts of self-organization. They can offer new approaches to intractable problems such as unemployment, drugs, discrimination, and misuse of resources.

3. A transcendental global identity

The identity of global civilization is thus closely associated with the "gene pool" of metaphors. From this the global policy-makers may draw fruitful metaphors to guide their formulation of responses to new opportunities and crises. New metaphors need to be fed into this pool by those with the ability to identify them -- and that includes the poets of the world!

This vision of global governance does not call for radical transformation of institutions. Rather it calls for a shift in the way of thinking about what is circulated through society's information systems as the triggering force for any action and its integration.

At present governance in the international community is haunted by a form of collective schizophrenia -- a left-brain preoccupation with "serious" academic models and administrative programmes, and a right-brain preoccupation with the proclivities of public opinion avid for "meaningful" action (even if "sensational;"). This quarrel between models and metaphors could be transformed by focusing more effectively on the metaphoric dimensions already so vital to any sustainable motivation of public opinion.

The identity of the global community should not be so closely linked to the seemingly impossible task of maintaining a consensus on particular solutions as appropriate, and therefore "correct". The identity to cultivate should be detached from this level of short- and medium-term preoccupation. This confusion favours tokenism and unimplemented resolutions that in turn reinforce cynicism, alienation and loss of credibility. In these times all simple solutions eventually become problems, just as all problems are in effect unpleasant solutions.

The creative opportunity is to cultivate instead an understanding of how incompatible solutions can be woven together as phases over time in a cycle of policies. It is metaphors -- such as crop rotation -- which make comprehensible and credible such a complex approach. It is at this level of conservation and generation of metaphors that may be found a dynamic pattern for global governance appropriate to sustainable development.

4. How to proceed ?

What approach should be taken to the possibility of choosing a metaphor to better articulate the future pattern of global governance? Five criteria could be considered:

(a) Variety capture: Clearly a metaphor must be rich enough so that each may find in it the dimensions to which he or she is sensitive. There is therefore advantage in highlighting those which reflect the most advanced thinking of our civilization -- those touching the frontiers of aspiration to explore our potential and articulating our comprehension of the most complex domains. But, although of necessary complexity, these metaphors must allow for simple comprehension, preferably permitting clarification by rich and evocative imagery.

(b) Option opening: A useful metaphor must avoid the problem of over-deterministic models which leave no "free space" for the imagination to explore and make discoveries. Better than static metaphors, those that embody a dynamic reality open more possibilities to the imagination. They lessen the impression of exhaustiveness and determinism -- having less of a function of a conceptual straitjacket. Such metaphors "seduce" and enchant the spirit. Their meaning can be "mined" according to people's degree of need and curiosity.

(c) Limitation recognition: As with every model, a metaphor can only give a partial image of a complex reality. And like a model, a given metaphor may not be to the taste of everyone. A metaphor has a limited audience (or a "market") which may be a function of culture, education or age. Consequently any effort to impose a single metaphor is therefore destined to failure (even though this may be disguised to the extent that there may be resistance to the meaning carried by the metaphor, which is then seen as a sterile dogma).

(d) Metaphor complementarity: The limitations of any given metaphor may be compensated, provided that it is seen as forming part of a set of complementary metaphors. Then the weaknesses of one are compensated by the strengths of others, and the dominating points any one metaphor is constrained or checked by the insights brought by others. In such a system of metaphors, each has more chance of finding an appropriate, and even seductive, perspective than through any single metaphor.

(e) Self-reflective metaphors: A complex dynamic system is always a challenge to comprehension. This is also true in the case of a system of metaphors. Such metaphors should therefore be chosen on the basis of their individual capacity to provide some comprehension of the system of which they are part. This criterion guarantees, to some degree at least, the integrity and the coherence of the system.

5. An example: crop rotation

Every peasant farmer understands the necessity of crop rotation in a field in order to avoid the accumulation of the negative consequences resulting from planting of any one species. The farmer knows that, to ensure the sustainable development of his field, he can grow one crop in that field for a period but must then replace it by a different crop to remedy the defects to the soil caused by the first. He may have to grow a third and a fourth species before finally returning to the first in his crop rotation cycle. It is the cycle that guarantees sustainability, not any particular crop.

This well-tested approach suggests the possibility that no one policy in a given domain can be maintained beyond a certain period without accumulating negative side-effects. And it is therefore with a distinct and complementary policy that these effects may be partially counter-acted. Thus to guarantee any form of sustainable development, a cycle of distinct policies is necessary in which each compensates for the action of others.

6. Mining cultural resources for global governance

The crop rotation metaphor is of course an illustration of the implicit message of democracy -- but what political party would publicly recognize the need for the policies of others to compensate for the negative side-effects of its own? The function of global governance must necessarily emerge beyond the concepts and positions of parties which each contribute to its definition. It is at the level of the appropriately balanced cycle that the nature of such governance may usefully be understood.

The system of metaphors, or of ways of thinking, may itself be understood as a cycle of metaphors, each with its strong and weak points. It is clear that the crop rotation metaphor will appeal most to those with agricultural concerns -- and especially those concerned with so-called organic agriculture. Equally powerful metaphors, capable of integrating complex policies, may be derived from traffic circulation or ecosystems of species. Other insights may, however, be captured through metaphors based on molecular resonance hybrids or nuclear fusion reactors. The art is to seek metaphors in domains of dynamic complexity which have attracted the most powerful thinkers (and research investment). The conceptual patterns they have developed may then be used as metaphoric templates to guide handling of the complexity of global governance.

How many complementary metaphors are necessary to sustain insight into the rich subtleties of the global governance of the future? Would it not be natural for a major metaphor to be associated with each domain with which a major policy or government ministry is associated -- or with each "Specialized Agency"?

These arguments offer possibilities to every level of society, from the individual to the collective. The opportunity lies in effectively mining our cultural resources for metaphors to ensure our individual and collective survival. Is it not metaphor that can offer insights to bridge the relationships between competing models and policies? Through metaphor to a sustainable ecology of development policies!


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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