The sea, Michael Osborn explained decades ago, is an archetypal metaphor that resonates rhetorically. It sets off a primal emotional response that lends “a special urgency to rhetoric.”
The symbolism of the sea stirs something deep in the human psyche. It serves as an image of adventure, heroic journey, and discovery. It conveys a sense of danger, suffering, cleansing, transition, redemption, and rebirth.
The ambiguity of the symbolic sea is such that it can suggest both the spirit of freedom and a foreboding presence of peril and destruction, such as a tidal wave extinguishing the flickering flame of freedom.
Riding stormy seas, the rhetorical ship of state
can be made to represent a tightly structured hierarchy, all citizens performing their assigned tasks in harmony with the needs and interests of the vessel as a whole. Commanding this symbolic society is an enhancing projection of ultimate authority, the all-powerful sea Captain. How many despots have recommended themselves successfully to a frightened public by appearing symbolically as the proposed Captain for a distressed ship-of-state?
The image of a “mutinous crew” of political dissenters can express “antidemocratic sentiments” and justify repression.
Albert Beverage imagined the ocean as an avenue for U.S. imperialism; it rendered the world contiguous.[i]
The archetypal image of the sea can add rhetorical force to undemocratic politics and imperial warfare in subtle ways. Rather than reveal itself as a metaphor with mythic overtones, it operates below the threshold of critical awareness in daily accounts of an endless war on terrorism.
The continuous ebb and flow of the war is a naturalizing balm. It makes interminable warfare comprehensible by giving it form through rhythm. The tide of war rises and falls rhythmically with the pull of the moon.
One day, the news is military success against the Islamic State. The enemy’s advance has been halted; plans are afoot to retake the lost territories. High tide.
The next day, the news is military setback: “The main al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria is extending its control over a swath of territory that was until recently held by the collapsing moderate opposition, jeopardizing U.S. plans to form a new rebel force to fight extremists.” Low tide.
[i] Michael M. Osborn, “The Evolution of the Archetypal Sea in Rhetoric and Poetic,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 63.4 (1977): 347-63.