Do we all live in a cheese submarine?

Caspar Henderson

A tweet by the journalist Hugo Rifkind has been having its 15 hours of fame, provoking hilarity for some and likely annoying others. At the time of writing this has had over 6,000 retweets and 14,000 likes:

The thing is, the best way to understand Theresa May’s predicament is to imagine that 52 percent of Britain had voted that the government should build a submarine out of cheese.

Why the attention? The novelty of the coinage is likely an important factor, as well as its humour. Rifkind’s tweet would, presumably, have attracted fewer eyeballs had he chosen a chocolate teapot — an already familiar coupling to denote something thought to be ludicrously misconceived.

But there is more to it than that. Rifkind is trying encapsulate and advance a view of Brexit, an issue that many people feel passionately about, and, with the aid of metaphor, make it ‘sticky’ — something that will grab attention, reassuring the settled views of some and infiltrating or disturbing the minds of others. He is joining a battle of ideas, in which metaphors can be powerful weapons.

The psychologist Robert Sapolsky has called humans ‘obligate metaphorists.’  He observes:

Humans used to be unique in lots of ways. We were the only species who made tools, murdered each other, passed on culture. And each of those supposed defining features has now been demonstrated in other species…But there are still ways that humans appear to stand alone. One of those is hugely important: the human capacity to think symbolically. Metaphors, similes, parables, figures of speech—they exert enormous power over us. We kill for symbols, die for them. Yet symbols generate one of the most magnificent human inventions: art

The impact of Rifkind’s tweet may be small in the scheme of things, but cumulatively such efforts can exert profound effects. The metaphor of nation as a household that must pay its way helped convince a significant proportion of people in Britain that austerity was necessary after the financial crisis of 2008. And the idea of ‘taking back control’ which appealed to so many voters in the 2016 referendum on U.K. membership of the European Union did so in part because it framed one of the most globalised economies in the world as an imagined community that could act with almost complete autonomy.

Not surprising, then, that there is a virtual industry generating new metaphors. In an essay published back in 2015, the journalist, author and linguist Michael Erard who had worked as a full time metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a U.S. think tank, shared some insights from the trade.

Attempting to unpack what metaphors really are, and what makes some successful, Erard pays tribute to the work of the psychologist Walter Kintsch, who suggested the ‘strong’ metaphors…draw their source from ‘a concrete term, rich in imagery and potential associations.’  Further, this domain is unrelated to the thing you’re trying to explain: it’s ‘something unusual’, wrote Kintsch, ‘a pleasant surprise. ’ But it cannot be too much of a surprise. “I like Kintsch’s notion of good metaphor as a surprise,” writes Erard. “But it also has to be able to survive, avoiding traps in the culture that can disable it.”

Reflecting on the cognitive underpinnings of metaphor, Erard refers to a theory advanced by the psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg that metaphors are really categorisation proposals, or provocations. An alternative, from the psycholinguist Dedre Gentner, describes metaphor as a ‘mapping’ between two concepts. Together with the psychologist Brian Bowdle, Gertner also proposed a ‘career of metaphor’ hypothesis. In this account, people understand new metaphors more easily if they are presented as mere comparisons.

“One thing you learn very quickly as a metaphor designer,” writes Erard “is that your language and your culture’s resources aren’t infinite. Nor are they as versatile as you might hope”:

The richness of the semantic resources that a designer can muster always encounter friction from the human brain’s built-in biases and preferences, as well as cultural defaults that block certain kinds of understandings.

Prominent among our biases, he observes, is that we seem to have trouble grasping forms of causality that aren’t direct and linear.

People tend to favour stories over facts, asserts the Israeli historian Noah Yuval Harari;  we are all embedded in fictions.  One question is how adaptable and useful these stories are.  A yellow submarine offers a story of celebration and, ultimately love. A submarine built out of cheese not so much.


Thanks to Jonathan Rowson

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