Professors are . . . (fill in the blank)

September 19, 2011

For your metaphor safari, please take one more step. You’ve gone into the field, found and captured two images, juxtaposed them and expressed a common metaphor, like “lawyers are sharks” or “file-sharers are pirates,” the two we looked at in class. If we’d said, “lawyers are like sharks,” we would instead be using simile.

So, for Wednesday, bring in a typed up explanation of the metaphor: what it is expressing (identify the “x” and the “y” in your “x is y” metaphor), specifically, and the rationale of or for the attributes of “y” being ascribed to the “x” in your metaphorical equation, and which ones it leaves out. In other words, in the metaphor, lawyers are cold-blooded, predatory, blood-seeking, top-of-the-food-chain beasts, but they don’t actually live in water, have more teeth than normal or grow dorsal fins.

And a word of background: Let’s not underestimate the value and power of metaphor not only as rhetorical device, but as a way of seeing and relating to the world. As Lakoff and Johnson argued, understanding experience in terms of objects, which is what metaphors do, allows people to pick out parts of their experience and treat them as “discrete entities or substances of a uniform” and, therefore, translatable and referent kind ( George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, The Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 25).

Once a person has thus made his or her experiences concrete in some way, they can be referred to, compared, classified, quantified, and reasoned about. Metaphors are not merely language, therefore, but ways of understanding. Once expressed, typically in language, metaphors begin to structure thoughts, attitudes, and even actions. Don’t we actually believe that at some level we are pirates or thieves in the ways we copy and share files? This is the work of the metaphor. We aren’t. We are not pirates, thieves or criminals. Metaphors are powerful, therefore. They are worth unpacking.

Happy hunting!