Friday, June 03, 2011


This post will be a line of logic on the above article, which has kicked up dust in several different ways, mostly because people seem to feel it’s another homeland security scheme for scanning us naked.  Others think it’s a fool’s errand anyway.  I want to pick up the Lakoff angle (metaphors in thought and poetry -- I read Lakoff’s and Johnson’s “Metaphors We Live By” (1980) in seminary.) and use it to thicken (!) my unaccepted thesis on the poetics of liturgy (which I understand to be the expressive structuring of experience). 

First I need to establish the idea that a human being (or any “animal” -- animated, living)  is essentially a way of gathering sensory information and organizing it into an identity that can interface with the environment.  In the case of humans this enabled expressiveness we call art and can transmit to other humans. 

Back again to the level of “brain cell organizing,” which we can experimentally confirm is a physical structure of relationships among brain cells in order to store sensory information for retrieval and manipulation as “thought.”  The sensory information includes deeply internal phenomena like digestion or filtering by kidneys or orgasm.  It’s complex and not always conscious.  (Accounting for the difference between conscious and unconscious brain processing seems still undone.)

The original structure must be according to the experience of the infant before and just after birth when the final layer of brain is forming.  I originally found the categories formed then in the writing of mystics who had visions, which I understood as bringing to consciousness those primal structures.  They are dark/light, up/down, held/dropped, warm/cold, hungry/fed, and so on.  The mystics present them as paradoxical but intensely present at the same time.

The Atlantic article by Alexis Madrigal describes research by a semi-secret, highly-funded, quasi-governmental body called IARPA into metaphor systems embedded in the way we talk.  They want a computer to be able to scan language and pull out assumptions for the sake of their implications.  For instance, if you think “life is a journey,” then I would speak to you in terms of, maybe, “Pilgrim’s Progress,”  but if you think “life is a struggle”, then I might do better to talk about Jacob wrestling with the angel.  Part of this study is called “Incisive Analysis”!  The autopsy metaphor:  IARPA according to CSI.  Eeeks.

One little project asked people in one group to think about “crime-as-a-virus” which caused them to think about mitigation, meds, protection; and another to consider “crime-as-a-wild-beast” which caused people to want law enforcement, punishment, confinement.  The study claimed that the differences created by these two systems were LARGER than those between Democrats and Republicans or between men and women.

Other metaphors, often very simple, generate many a familiar phrase.  “Food is thought” triggers things like “what a nourishing idea” or “his ideas are half-baked” or "don't feed me that line."  The concept becomes a domain:  “thinking is preparing food and understanding is digestion and believing is swallowing and learning is eating and communicating is feeding.”

I love the lists of meta-concepts:
"Darkness is a Solid."
"Time is something moving toward you."
"Happiness is fluid in a container."
"Control is up."

Even the cartoons are exploring this stuff:  consider the “spin ninja” thread on “non sequitur” where assertions and assumptions are practically the spine of the strip.

We are told the idea that “happy is up” is nearly universal.

So, going back to my seminary liturgy project, I’ll make some generalizations that are not metaphorical themselves (maybe) but are useful in the choosing and organizing of metaphors in liturgy.  I will define liturgy as a performance/participation that uses sensory elements to express and reconfirm harmony with the universe -- sometimes marking a transition from one state to another and sometimes through a disruptive and disorienting change.  So sometimes it’s a rite of passage, sometimes a celebration of survival, sometimes an assertion of origins, sometimes the confirmation of the community.  I haven’t thought about using it in a negative way, but surely that’s possible.

I take the basic structure from von Gennep and Turner, which describe “liminality.”  This metaphor is about crossing the threshold (limen) between the sacred and the profane which are not entities or adjectives but different kinds of consciousness.  The brain must shift the way it is processing in order to “cross the threshold”.  I would argue that it is going to a deeper, more subconscious, more primal sort of thinking, maybe even using the mammal brain more than the human overlay on it.  But since mammals are deeply aware of “mapping” -- running the maze, searching for food, migrating through the territory -- this idea of a kind of different space is useful.  MUCH more useful than the dogmatic designation of what is sacred.  (See Eliade, “The Sacred and the Profane".)

The therapies of the Sixties and Seventies were sometimes effective and sometimes dangerous in using staged experience while in a liminal state, possibly induced by drugs.  Imitations of birth, experiences of being passed overhead or falling and being caught (mosh pits), blindfolds, sensory deprivation chambers -- a lot of experiment was going on.  The trouble was a lack of useful note-taking.  (I think of the Nazi experimenters who crucified people to see what actually happened, but for obvious reasons either kept no records or destroyed them.)  And sometimes the person’s interior organizing structure simply collapsed or went into a state of chaos that sometimes could be re-organized and sometimes not.  Physical malfunctioning of the body can do the same thing -- deep shocks, longtime stress, rogue molecules.  Now we talking about torture, a liturgy of destruction.

I take social rites of passage like weddings, graduations, birthday parties, debutante balls, memorials and funerals, to be liminal experiences at some level.  But regular intervals of worship -- coming together as a community, sharing in a liminal space, and then separating are important ways of keeping harmony.  There is another double-element that I express in terms of, well, “gravity.”  If it isn’t present and explicit, the experience will be more, um, “shallow” and less “immersive.”  The first is conscious awareness of threats, terrors, destruction, horror -- a “pressing down.”  The second is a conscious stating of what  saves, heals, strengthens, and forms identity -- a “lifting up.”  The two things need to be present together, in that order, and near the beginning of the communal experience.  In Christian terms they are called “the confession of sins” (our vulnerability and limitation as humans) and “the assurance of pardon”  (that we are loved and included).

I certainly welcome this particular use of Homeland Security funds to explore metaphor. Maybe the metaphors of “home” and “land” and “security” deserve welcoming reflection.  Do they “lift us up” enough to bear what “presses us down”?

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