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Stuck to Our Own Metaphors


Though we don’t often think about it, we live and act quite frequently on the basis of metaphors. And that is for a very good reason. The realities of the world around us are far too vast and complex for us to make sense of on a strict, case-by-case basis. So, in order to save ourselves from the terror-inducing feeling of being adrift in an unfathomable sea of chaos, we habitually recur to the use of metaphors; that is, as one dictionary put it, “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” 

But humans, being the hurried, careless, and stability-seeking creatures we are, have the frequent tendency to confuse metaphors with the complex phenomena they are meant to have us explore. While this gives those who do this an initially enhanced sense of mastery over their surroundings, it tends over time to blunt their capacity to grapple meaningfully with the fundamentally dynamic and multiform nature of their world, or even the particular abstract concept they claim to want to understand and explain to others. 

As Joseph Campbell said when speaking with Bill Moyers about the perennial human attempts to understand the profound mystery of our existence, “Every religion is true in one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.” 

We seem to be witnessing a frightening and perhaps historically unprecedented proliferation of this practice of cognitive flattening in our culture; a trend, moreover, that points to a shocking inversion of long-standing assumptions regarding who among us are best equipped to engage in what is sometimes referred to as multivalent or higher order thinking. 

According to one long-standing and widely held belief, the ability to engage with complexity closely aligns with the degree to which a person has engaged with reading and/or other abstract forms of knowing, such as mathematics, physics or chemistry, over the years. 

Indeed, as Walter Ong argued in Orality and Literacy, the supplanting of a culture dominated by the spoken word by one where texts became the key vehicle of information transmission undoubtedly catalyzed an important uptick in abstract thinking in those societies where this occurred. And with this new bent for abstraction; that is, the ability to drill down and locate the arguably essential and often hidden mechanics of many realities in our midst, came a greatly enhanced confidence in the human ability to shape and act positively upon the world. 

All well, good and accepted. Except for one thing. 

If there is anything that the Covid phenomenon has shown us, it is that in the third decade of the 21st century, it is precisely our most putatively literate classes that are least capable of accepting the various states of contingency implicit in the work of engaging with the vast complexity of the world. 

Rather than entertaining the often enormous fruits of intelligently pondering the multivalent realities around us, and inviting us to do the same, they beat us over the head with false binaries and basically threaten us into accepting the supposedly unassailable “truths” they would have us believe they discovered whole cloth in their long years of schooling. And if we deign to question them, or resist their bullying in the name of simple human dignity, they dismiss us by calling us insulting names. 

How have we gotten to this strange—and I use this term quite advisedly—totalitarian place where so many from our most privileged classes have become almost completely stuck to the metaphor of their own superiority, while blatantly abdicating the basic intellectual practices upon which their exalted status is said to rest?  

Put another way, how have we gotten to a place where the ability of Oliver Anthony to meaningfully plumb the enormous complexity of the human condition in an interview with Joe Rogan outstrips that of most people presented to us as knowing authorities in academic and political fields by a factor of ten? 

On the most basic level we are obviously looking at a massive failure of our educational system. 

We could go on and on about the absence or presence of this or that policy or practice in our schools and universities and how they have contributed to the problem. 

But to do so would, I believe, miss the larger issue which is, in my view to ask the following: 

What is it in our broader culture that has led us—precisely at a time when our beholdenness to the instruments and processes of modern technological culture has never been greater—to a widespread seemingly systematic outbreak of cognitive literalism on so many important fronts? 

As I have often suggested, one reason is that our elite culture-planners want it that way, and have developed extremely sophisticated means for nudging us into a place where we learn to accept the engineered foreclosure of our dialectical horizons as a completely organic and natural process. 

Learning to accept the stark reality of these relentless elite-generated attempts to cognitively corner us, and using this realization as a stimulus for aggressively decoding for our young the particular techniques involved in these efforts, would go a long way toward helping us to once again direct our energies to the mission of engendering human thriving.

But this still leaves us with the question of why the master manipulators have been able to advance so very quickly and easily across the landscape of our elite institutions in the last few years. In other words, what is it in us that has made it so easy for them to achieve their goals? 

If we were to be honest with ourselves, I think we would find that it has a lot to do with our own rapid and largely unconscious abandonment, under the onslaught of a brand-centered consumerism—brands are, of course themselves metaphors for various slices of the so-called good life—of rituals and mental habits that lead to the development of intellectual and moral discernment. 

Perhaps a recent story can help spell out what I’m talking about. Though those that know me today might find it hard to believe, I fancied myself as a bit of a slick dresser as a younger man. However, my decision to enter academics in my mid-twenties, and the three decades of limited cash flow that ensued as a result of that choice, ended all that. 

Prompted by a desire to resist the wave of personal sloppiness found in ever-greater sectors of our culture, my old desire to look good in a suit and tie recently resurfaced, Rip Van Winkle-like, in my life. 

So, I headed out to a well-known department store to satisfy the urge. There, all the suits were divided up by brand, with prices ascending according to the perceived prestige of the designer. 

On close inspection, however, I realized they all had one thing in common. Most were made in low-wage countries out of cheap synthetic materials. In short they were of an overall quality that I never would have wanted to buy or wear as a younger man.

Not wanting, however, to turn my search into a long and drawn-out project, I eventually bought one of the suits on offer. 

But what I didn’t do afterward was to try and convince myself that, based on the price and the particular brand in question, I had gotten a good, high-quality suit of the type I might have yearned for three decades back. 

No. I was offered mostly dreck and had chosen the option least offensive to my sensibilities. 

In other words, I did not engage in the self-deceiving game of getting stuck to the metaphor of quality attendant to the designer in question. 

But how many of the smart, credentialed people we know are disposed to, or capable of, doing the same thing in such situations, or in the much more consequential realm of ideas? 

How many are capable, to give just one example, of looking beyond the elite-produced Fauci brand to identify the almost comical fraudulence and dishonesty of the man? 

Not too many, it seems. And this should worry us all a great deal.

Is there a way out? Yes, I believe there is. 

But if we are to find it we must largely dispense with the idea that the solution can be found within the confines of the linear paradigm of inexorable human progress. 

That project, which began roughly 500 years ago, and that has brought us untold benefits, is now in a stage of sharply diminishing returns. As the great violence it has unleashed along with its great progress demonstrates, it always carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Those seeds are now in full bloom. 

No, if we are to move forward mindfully we must first look to the past. 

Earlier I mentioned some of the things that, according to Walter Ong, were gained with the switch from a largely oral culture to a textual one. 

What I did not mention then is the extensive list he compiled of the many things we also lost in the same process, things like vocal enchantment, deep memory, empathy, holistic thinking, situational awareness (and its effect on our ability to perceive what is truly real), and an acceptance of human struggle, and at the same time, a concern for social homeostasis. 

Sounds to me like stuff much of our culture could use an awful lot more of. 

And I think that it serves as a reminder of the urgent need to tear ourselves away—and to demand that our children tear themselves away—from the glowing simulacra of life on the screens before us, and engage as often and as urgently as we can in in the humanizing enchantment of full-body, eye-to-eye, transmission and reception of the spoken words. 

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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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