Interactive metaphors

At the September 14th Salon, attendees delved into the topic of Metaphor in Science, guided by co-moderators Leah Ceccarelli, a Professor in Communication, and myself, a PhD student in Public Health Genetics. As the first Genomics Salon held in the Simpson Center for the Humanities, it was a successful gathering of varied disciplinary backgrounds and experiences — a metaphorical bringing together of upper, lower, and outside campus.

As a rhetorical scholar, Leah studies public discourse about science, which keeps bringing her back to metaphor. She gave Salon attendees a taste of her 2013 book “On the Frontier of Science: An American Rhetoric of Exploration and Exploitation,” which examines the promises and pitfalls of the frontier metaphor of science. For example, sequencing the human genome in the 1990’s and early 2000’s was cast as a “mapping” expedition, akin to fulfilling the manifest destiny of the American frontier. This metaphor portrayed the Human Genome Project as individualistic, male, and competitive, which ironically was in stark contrast to the actuality of the massive international collaboration required to complete it.

My foray into studying metaphor was more recent, in the form of my Master’s thesis in Public Health Genetics in 2013-4. Intrigued by the dominant metaphors about the genome such as “blueprint,” “map,” and “recipe,” I wondered if increasing access to personal genetic information (e.g., via consumer genomic testing or clinical sequencing) would lead to new metaphorical framings.


Metaphor of “the genome is a map.” Credit: The Economist

Many people think of metaphors as conscious – even artistic – linguistic choices that people make. This isn’t necessarily wrong, and indeed reflects the conception of metaphor traced back to Aristotle, who wrote that in the rhetorical arts, “the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.” The modern, cognitive perspective on metaphor, however, recognizes it as intrinsic to not only how we speak, but how we think, feel, and act. What this means in practice for metaphor scholars is that metaphors are not handed to you on a plate. Rather, you have to study texts, identify fragments of metaphorical language, and from there work backwards to construct or articulate the underlying metaphorical concept.

Metaphors interact: vehicle and tenor

Leah demonstrated this practice to Salon attendees with a classic example from metaphor scholars Lakoff and Johnson, the metaphor “argument is war.” We rarely say that exact phrase out loud, but rather draw upon it when we say things like “taking sides,” “hold your ground,” or “defend a position” in an argument. Each part of the metaphor, “argument” and “war,” have commonplaces, or things you link with them.  The associated commonplaces are those that arise when you put the two ideas together. The metaphorical vehicle, “war,” highlights some aspects of its subject or tenor, “argument” (e.g., hostility and rivalry)  while simultaneously deflecting others (e.g., reason and deliberation). It’s the interaction of these two parts of the metaphor, the tenor and vehicle, that do the metaphorical heavy-lifting. However, as is clear from this example, the interaction of vehicle with tenor and the subsequent enhancement or erosion of aspects of the tenor can be problematic.

Metaphors interact: metaphor and audience

Another layer of interaction that occurs with metaphor is that of metaphor and audience. Specially, people bring their unique background knowledge and assumptions to a metaphor, which will inevitably shape how they view or interpret it. For example, at the Salon we had attendees work through example metaphors from my thesis project, as an exercise in identifying and articulating metaphorical concepts as “X is Y.” The text came from interviews and focus groups conducted in a research study trying to understand people’s willingness to participate in genomic research and their interest in receiving information back about their genomes. (Note these were spontaneous uses of metaphorical language.) One participant said that she would be interested to receive information back about her genome: “…it would be nice to know, I guess I’m thinking of credit score like, here’s your credit score and here’s how you can improve it.”

Salon attendees had strong and conflicting reactions to this metaphor. Some participants thought it was a dangerous oversimplification of genetic information, that it could be boiled down to one number of overall risk. Others thought it was useful in that it points out the evolving nature of genetic information – that the meaning might be unknown today but  later clarified or updated through further research. Others viewed the metaphor positively because it suggests that, like credit scores, genetic information can seem mysterious and impenetrable, something people would need a lot of guidance to unpack. The conversation around this metaphor made one thing clear: the associated commonplaces of “Genetic information is a credit score” manifested differently for different people, perhaps based on their preexisting ideas about genetics and/or credit scores.

Metaphors in practice

Once you start looking for metaphorical language, you see and hear it everywhere. What is not always so obvious, however, is the underlying metaphorical concept, or the “X is Y” statement. I’m interested to hear how you hear and see metaphorical language in your daily work or research. Please drop me a line here and tell me your metaphors! Myself and co-Salon organizer Jolie Carlisle may follow-up with you for a subsequent article that dives deeper into the metaphors we work with and experience on a daily basis.


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