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February 11th, 2021
Analogies and metaphors aren’t perfect, and that’s by default. There’s criticism lobbed at these cognitive tools for this lack of fidelity. The argument follows that if a metaphor is needed than is the original core point all that clear in the first place? Why can’t it translate?
Increasingly context is becoming more and more atomized. Individually and as a culture our focus is becoming more narrow. The result is that what comes into focus gets pulled out of context. Such is one of the dangerous underpinnings of cancel culture. The warriors of such a movement, while likely well intentioned and often bringing up fair points, are still all too willing to be very sloppy with the context, cherry picking details to collage a particular picture that best serves the movement. Orwell is most certainly rolling in his grave, perhaps with laughter. This sort of context-cut-and-paste was formerly only the sin of powerful tyrannical governments. But now the diseased treatment of context has spread like a plague through culture and publications that were once held in high regard as the clearest and most honest word have, within the last decade morphed into massive opinion pieces, tailored to grab attention instead of offer the truth.
It’s an unfortunate monster of a game where short rounds might be won by those who play, but it’s a game of war that has an aim to consume every player regardless of who seems to be winning.
And along with this storm, the old tools of analogy and metaphor have been swept up. Once the jewel of poetry and the indispensable tool of explanation and education, metaphor is now trusted less, which perhaps makes sense considering the assault on context.
A metaphor functions like a bridge between contexts. Analogies too, straddle the border between contexts, and this is exactly why they are useful. As tools they expand context so that one context can be understood in terms of another, and by doing so, those two separate contexts join, like bubbles merging to grow larger. While the current trend is to narrow in until we’ve atomized every last bit of life so that we can no longer identify the meaningful connections between the pieces we’ve ripped apart, metaphor offers a chance to backtrack the dangerous path, like an anchored point of yesterday to which we still grip the rope.
The context of metaphor itself, is a lack of understanding. When the point has failed to get across, and mere vapid description falls short, we take a step back and try to see what might exist in the context of those we seek to reach that might function as an isomorphism - as a way to translate the information of our point into the terms of another’s perspective. And from such a zoomed out position, we inhabit the larger context and seek shared images and relationships that mirror what we know narrowly.
It’s a strange tension that we maintain, between zooming in to the specifics to gain deep understanding, but also to step to understand how the minuscule context of a detail fits into the grand scheme of things. Without a well-oiled zoom that enables both pictures, we are easily lost, but most definitely lost if we are stuck zoomed in on details that are bereft of context, by default. It’s the difference between trying to navigate one’s way through the city by looking at a square inch of ground at a time, and taking the elevator up to the observation deck in order to get a better view of the lay of the land.