What is a Meta For?

This morning I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about metaphor, and how it effects our language. We were arguing over the level of metaphor that exists in everyday English, he was saying that it is really only sporadically used in poetry and music. I argued that it is actually more widespread than that. For example, the whole slew of sci fi movies that came out in the fifties and sixties were really metaphors about impending nuclear destruction.

Which brings up another point. If a metaphor exists, meaning that it can be structurally determined to be a metaphor but it was not created as a metaphor, is it still a metaphor? In the example above, all those sci fi movies are looked at in retrospect as metaphors for the U.S. Soviet conflict, with the evil aliens representing the imminent destruction of nuclear weapons. But what if some of the film makers didn’t have the desire to convey any message of the necessity of global peace and harmony? What if they just wanted to tell a good story about evil aliens that you could watch on a Friday afternoon? Would it still be considered a metaphor?

There are some that believe that language itself is a metaphor for reality itself. Reality itself is completely out our reach. Our eyes can only perceive a small percentage of bandwidth that is electromagnetic radiation. Our ears can only hear a sliver of the sound waves out bouncing around. And several experiments have shown that tactile sensations around our body are dependent on the area of skin under investigation.

In this model, language itself is just a shared approximation of what we think we are experiencing. That fact that so many people agree on the same thing says nothing about the accuracy of what they agree upon. We all can agree on the color red, but it is only read to our particular set of sensing organs. Two different objects that both appear red to us might appear totally different to creatures with differently evolved sensing organs.

I participated in a seminar once. In the seminar we were all told to think of a duck. A simple noun that we all knew. Four letters. No chance of somebody mistaking the word for dog, or rhino or antidisestablishmentarianism. But guess what? When we shared our answers, we all had a different duck on our minds. One guy even thought of a rubber duck, and some other guy thought of the Aflac duck.

So if the seminar speaker hadn’t had us share all of our ducks, and she’d kept talking about ducks, we would have followed her as long as our ducks fit into her story. The guy that thought of the rubber duck would have been lost if she said to imagine our ducks flying.

Now that I think of it, metaphors are a lot more prevalent in our everyday conversations and thoughts that I’d imagined. Perhaps the best way to leverage this simple realization is to appreciate he breadth and beauty of language for what it is. An expression of that which cannot be expressed, because that which is being expressed is inextricably connected to the expresser. As the expresser changes his experience of his expression, he changes that of which he is expressing.