A distinction between figurative and literal analogies is sometimes made by teachers of rhetoric, but we are better served to think of analogy as an intersection of the figurative and literal from which a healing insight might emerge. The telling of a fanciful story can help to refigure a perilous reality to which we have become inured. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is just such a story when it is read as a figurative analogy to a troubled actuality. (more…)
Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.
Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars. (more…)
The contemporary world is accustomed to the language of progress, a linear sense of ongoing change, a process of betterment that moves upward and onward. It presumes that what went before was primitive, or at least less advanced, than what followed. We advance step by step toward the future and eventual perfection.
Progress—as the commonsense discourse of development (of upward, onward, linear change from ancient primitiveness through advancement to future perfection)—clusters with terms such as making headway, forging ahead, forward-looking, evolution, growth, maturation, expansion, improvement, efficiency, and enrichment. Thus, no lesser light than Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with saying, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”
The language of progress inevitably extends to politics, economics, and technology. As a function of language, consistent with Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action, “progress” seeks its own terministic perfection to the point of overemphasizing profit, individualism, and power by underemphasizing society, community, and cooperation. (more…)
We think of American exceptionalism as a phenomenon of political culture. Deep historical roots nourish the contemporary sway of this mythic formation in US war culture. It is a powerful force for military interventionism, John Feffer suggests, that is “inscribed in the genetic code of the country.”
The DNA metaphor for a cultural construction may seem like a contradiction in terms if it is taken literally. Otherwise, it indicates the stability of a worldview regardless of changing times and punishing consequences.
Going boldly forward is a mythic mantra seemingly immune to the hard lessons of experience. Indeed, it transcends experience. It serves as a heroic call to persistence in the face of imminent disaster. (more…)
Barack Obama’s capacious case for the nuclear accord with Iran (address at American University) contains an interesting treatment of the myth of exceptional America. “What separates us from the empires of old, what has made us exceptional,” the President declared, “is not the mere fact of our military might” but our advancement, since World War II, of an evolving system of international law “to prevent the spread of deadly weapons, to uphold peace and security, and promote human progress.”
It is unclear whether President Obama means the US in not an empire or that the American empire, unlike others, is a force for good. This point of ambiguity marks a tension between diplomacy and military force that persists throughout the speech. The President manages this tension in a way that makes the US more alike and interdependent with other nations than independent, distinct, above, or apart from them. In his words, “we live in a complicated world” where, despite our power, “we are one nation among many.” (more…)
The perception of war’s necessity derives from (or at least corresponds to) a narrow view of the adversary. Enemies are imagined in caricature as the embodiment of evil. The crude image is an easy projection of a people’s collective anxieties.
A predisposition toward diplomacy and peacemaking requires a broader construction. It is more difficult to reflect on an adversary’s humanity than to react to a frightful caricature. The primitive impulse favors fighting over negotiating.
The debate between President Obama and his critics over how to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb is illustrative. (more…)
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. (more…)
The Landscape of Dead Metaphors is a petrified geography where dreams of Empire come to rest in a soldier’s grave. Berlin 1945: living corpses gather in the streets to cheer Mother Courage, waving to the crowd from an automobile. She survived, but lost all her children in the business of the war.
A white horse leads the parade, carrying a mounted soldier’s armor encompassing a brittle skeleton. Although the night is dark—the war horse signals—the sun will rise and the day will come. (more…)
A Caucasian hit man named Vaggan in a Tony Hillerman murder mystery, The Ghostway (1984), kills to cleanse. After a nighttime hit, he arrives home to shower, relax, sleep, exercise, and eat a healthy breakfast of wheat germ, alfalfa sprouts, and cheese. Sprawling, decaying Los Angeles, with its swarming minorities and choking smog, is his base of operations. He works for crime bosses who get rich dealing drugs, stealing cars, and sharking loans. He kills deadbeats, using his earnings to buy weapons and build a bunker. He anticipates the day of the falling missiles, when hydrogen bombs will burn the city clean and sterilize a rotting civilization: “blood, death, fire, chaos, honor, and new beginnings. ‘Nietzsche for thought, Wagner for music,’ his father would say” (pp. 122-123). Götterdämmerung, Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, inspires Vaggan, who expects to survive the curing ceremonial of the impending holocaust.
Clean war (to revivify the dead metaphor of just war) is the work of the gods. Dirty wars are oxymoronic at best. (more…)
Dead metaphors are the figurations of myth made literal by common consent in the war state. Unacknowledged as mythic figures, their imagery is lost to conscious awareness and inaccessible to critical interpretation. They denote a factual world rather than symbolize condensed narratives of the human imagination that reveal society’s “deepest hopes, desires and fears, potentialities and conflicts” (Joseph Campbell, “Metaphor as Myth and Religion”).