Tuesday, May 13, 2014


George Lakoff

“Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson was published in 1980, the year I was mostly in Hartford, Conn., trying to survive a ministry internship.  I knew about Lakoff, knew it fit into the ideas I held most precious, but didn’t have the time and focus to do it justice.  Evidently others had the same problem, but now suddenly this is one of the most discussed books around -- the book and its subsequent stream of thought which has met and mingled with neuroscience in a confirming way.  

“Stream of thought ” -- now there’s a master metaphor for you!  What follows now (like a puppy) is drawn  (like a bucket up from a well) from the document on the Internet at:   http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~israel/lakoff-ConTheorMetaphor.pdf    The point of it is that the separation of body and mind is ended.  Since the division has been a staple of European and American introspection and reasoning, all that is out-of-date now.  Interesting but not necessarily relevant.

Probably male as well.

When I was an undergrad (1957-61) we were taught Skinnerian rules:  stimulus (senses) in--> black box (???) --> response (action) out.  I’ve added a fourth step --> the community which supports and guides the person.  The “black box” is now much better understood, but it is nothing without the sensorium, the bodily responses, and the interacting community.  

Basically the composite organ/brain is a “dashboard,” which accepts, sorts through various OS strategies, and then triggers the action.  Much of the description of what happens is easily understood in computer terms, but the brain is far more than a computer because it is accepting and processing far more than five senses (much of them inaccessible to the conscious mind), which is why I keep calling it the “sensorium”, and because it IS the whole body that supplies the part of the sensorium that we perceive as our “emotions”, and because when it thinks and acts it is in the context of a community and -- even more than that -- a real-world ecology which has shaped that community.  Desert/jungle/mountain/plains.

Sprint dashboard

How does it work?  Metaphor.  The brain works by metaphor.  Lakoff: “The word metaphor has come to mean a cross-domain mapping in the conceptual system.”  The big controlling metaphor is what I’m calling the “game board.”  What Lakoff explores is also the “game board,” a big master conceptual pattern that supports and guides expressions of smaller relationships.  He speaks of it as “mapping” which is like my game-board idea, except that a MAP gives rise to a different set of sub-metaphors:  “Where are we going with this idea?  What is the path?  Do we have land marks?  Are we there yet?”   But a GAME BOARD offers a competitive Gestalt:  “Are we winning?  What’s the score?  Let’s roll the dice and take a chance.  I’m getting good at this.”  

What counts is not which prescribed overall metaphor context one should use, but achieving awareness of the assumptions involved and choosing the set that works the best for the task.  As Lakoff reminds us, “everyday abstract concepts like time, states, change, causation and purpose also turn out to be metaphorical.”  The brain creates these categories from experience and then enacts them as thinking.  

Piaget and Iliusha

Remember Piaget?  All that endless child-watching while the kid put clothespins into a milk bottle, then dumped them out; bounced a ball off a wall; rolled it down a board; stacked up blocks and knocked them over; pinched spring-loaded clothespins.  That was world-making.  All recorded as “how things work.”  Part of the bag (!) of metaphor details.  Those were just objects:  the same kinds of experiments were going on with people to see how they would react, though most of us don’t really remember poking their mom in the eye out of curiosity.

Recently I was fascinated by a video of little kids whose teacher would call them over individually and get them to tell stories which she wrote down, then discussed.  The boys wanted to include death and talked about a horse being killed.  The girls didn’t want death and in particular didn’t want horses to be killed.  They LIKED horses ("My Little Pony"), but they would let them “faint” in the story.  

And they were willing to let “bad” creatures (i.e. the ones they didn’t like) go ahead and die.  They said explicitly that it was fine to kill “bad people.”  Already they had picked up their culture’s preoccupations, trying to figure them out.  (I was shocked by the judgmental girls.)  Here are the beginnings of stigma and all the racist, classist, sexist categories that confound us.  The girls were adamant -- but what about the boys who got shut up to keep from offending them?  The girls knew that their parents will say death is not “nice.”  All “bad” should be eliminated by making it faint.  I think the film was on Aeon, a site that loves this sort of thing.  http://aeon.co/film/games-bring-discoveries-for-the-children-playing-and-for-us-too/  http://aeon.co/film/wrights-law-a-short-film-about-an-extraordinary-physics-teacher/

So far I don't really have a grip on Lakoff and “liminality” but I think it’s here somewhere: going to a “place” where it’s “safe” to “change” your mind: a sanctuary, a no man’s land, time out, King’s X.  Going back inside yourself to the place where you were a wide-eyed kid who could just consider stuff, absorbing its smell, its sound, its feel against the skin and how you “felt” about it before you had words for feelings.

At some point in the lives of some people there comes a realization that there is more than one way to “map” the world.  Maybe it’s a change in location, maybe a whole cultural change from moving to a different country, or maybe a relationship with a person who is quite different, who eats different foods, hums different tunes, is surprised you haven’t read the same books.  There is nothing more exciting and scary than dealing with the world breaking apart into possibility.  Some people can’t stand it.  It might help them to consider a metaphor like mapping overlays, those transparent sheets of plastic one puts on top of the old map so as to mark the points of same and different.  (You can do it on the computer easily, but it won’t have the sensory aspect.  On the other hand, it can sequence through time.)

This comparison forces one to be abstract, to go to meta-thought, thinking about what matches and why.  Some call it re-framing, some call it re-newal, re-naissance (naissance is birth/natal), a whole new dimension revealed.  It’s scary -- like falling into space without knowing where you’ll land -- some people freak, others go into denial, some run for it. Marv Shaw, when he was teaching philosophy of religion in Bozeman years ago, used to tell about big tough cowboy kids and the horror that crossed their faces to realize that maybe there was no God after all.  That you could even THINK that.

When I was admitted to Northwestern, one of my favorite high school teachers said to me, “Oh, I’m so glad because now you’ll get to know rich people!”  I had no idea what she was talking about then.  Only later did I understand that they were entirely different folks with different tastes and beliefs.  Of course, I thought I DID know about theatre people, but they turned out to be from a different kind of theatre than I ever imagined.  The very first acting student I met was Dave Pressman who asked me what I thought of The Method.  I didn’t know what he was talking about.  When I began consorting with UU’s, I was suddenly introduced to “Pachelbel’s Canon” and “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”   Here are several artistic ways to illustrate a dead princess.  Different cultures for different folks.

A person can get a taste for this sort of thing, so my first teaching job on the unknown-to-me Blackfeet Rez was right up my alley.  I was the only person in town delighted to find horses in my front yard.  Beyond that, the world of cowboy artists was more worth exploring then than it is now that it’s sort of mushed into the glamour mainstream.  But animal control -- well, that has teeth!  Each was a coherent world, a realm, all unsuspected and functional.

In the end thinking this way gives a person a sense of possibility, that there is NOT just one way to be, that existence can be negotiated.  John Calvin had it wrong.  It also means we’re all in this together, sensorium/dashboard/songanddance/and the big community of the planet.  The metaphor is a boat, an ark, a space ship, spherical, room for everyone.  So far.  Result?  Riding the solar circuit, swinging around the orbit and hoping for what is new under the sun.  Hoping it will be a shock.  Or at least a surprise.
Street rat exploring velocity.
Already mastered parcours.

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