the power of metaphors

We are, of course, aware of the power of metaphors, but we often simplistically believe that we choose the metaphors we use rather than them being embedded within metaphors that are so deep (and often simple) that we misunderstand their power and their hegemony. Lakoff and Johnson have provided an excellent analysis of this idea in Metaphors We Live By and Lakoff has contributed significantly to our understanding of the role of metaphors in public policy and discourse, often employed by the media and politicians.

In an editorial on the fiscal cliff, Lakoff illustrates the ways the fiscal cliff metaphor is constructed through other more deeply held metaphors. Here is an excerpt:

Let’s take a look at the metaphorical complexity of “fiscal cliff” and how the metaphors that comprise it fit together. The simplest, is the metaphor named MoreIsUp, which is a neural circuit linking two distinct brain regions, one for verticality and one for quantity. It is a high-level general metaphor widespread throughout the world, and occurs in a vast number of sentences like “turn the radio up,” “the temperature fell,” and so on.

The economy is seen as moving forward and either moving up, moving down or staying level, where verticality metaphorically indicates the value of economic indicators like the GDP or a stock market average. These are indicators of economic activity such as overall spending on goods and services or the sale of stocks. Why is economic activity conceptualized as motion? Because a common conceptual metaphor is being used: ActivityIsMotion, as in sentences like “The project is moving along smoothly,” “The remodeling is getting bogged down,” and so on. The common metaphor TheFutureIsAhead accounts for why the motion is “forward.”

In a diagram of changes over time in a stock market or the GDP, the metaphor used is ThePastIsLeft and TheFutureIsRight, which is why the diagram goes from left to right when the economy is conceptualized as moving “forward.”

When Ben Bernanke spoke of the “fiscal cliff,” he undoubtedly had in mind a graph of the economy moving along, left to right, on a slight incline and then suddenly dropping way down, which looks like a line drawing of a cliff from the side view. Such a graph has values built in via the metaphor GoodIsUp. Going down over the cliff is thus bad.

The administration has the goal of increasing GDP. Here common metaphors apply: SuccessIsUp and FailingIsFalling. Hence going over the fiscal cliff would be a serious failure for the administration and harm for the populace.

These metaphors fit together tightly in the usual graph of changes in economic activity over time, together with the metaphorical interpretation of the graph. From the neural perspective, these metaphors form a tightly integrated neural cascade — so tightly integrated and so natural that we barely notice them, if we notice them at all.

What is equally important about Lakoff’s illustration is that one metaphor, especially one built on more deeply cognitively embedded metaphors, cannot be easily replaced (if at all) by an alternate metaphor.

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