Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Metaphors We Live By, Part One: Writing as Agonism

Aside from being a seminal work, Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1980), and its core concept, that we create beliefs about ourselves from the language we use, informs the central argument I am trying to convey about writing. We have inherited the trope of agonism from the Western Philosophical tradition; this one underlying belief controls how we think about writing. Before I explain further, let me point out the one metaphor we have typically been taught to believe about writing: that it is a "struggle." This is how writing is almost invariably characterised. Conversely, other cultures, notably Chinese and Japanese, use different, less violent metaphors, to describe acts of creativity. I will discuss these differences further, but for the moment, I want to focus on the ways in which we create our own reality about writing via the language we use to characterise our experience of it.

For many, metaphor is a poetic device, but in rhetorical analysis, metaphor is a linguistic tool, used to convey analogy. When we deconstruct that analogy, we find a less well-understood 'hidden' realm of meaning. This in no way implies that the meaning is conveyed 'unconsciously,' in the psychological sense, but that it is not used overtly, and is therefore not transparent. Meaning that is not transparent goes undiscussed, and because of that, typically contains tremendous emotive power over the reader, because you are being, in effect, manipulated by the underlying social values a word connotes.

In the case of the history of writing, our inheritance about writing is based on Ancient Greek sociocultural and sociopolitical values. We in the West have long believed in the Greek principle of democracy and the notion that the culture of pre-Hellenistic Greeks represents a Golden Era of philosophical and political accomplishment, and so we tend to see the Greeks as inherently good and noble people. However, we forget too much when we elide Ancient Greek cultural values with their divergent, and much more blood-thirsty, political values. In truth, theirs was a culture undergirded, and undermined, in my opinion, by their insistence on agonism as the arbiter of any outcome. For every philosopher who valued 'sophrosune,' the way of temperance, there was the man who lived a life in almost constant contest with his fellow Athenians. If you read the Greeks, especially in the original and not in translation, you find that these were a people almost obsessed with besting their opponent.

Agonism, therefore, informed their political ethos. Winning an argument became a paramount goal; writing the best speech, based on its quality, was insufficient. What was important was persuading the demos to do what you said. Agonism lay at the heart of the political instability and volatility of Greek city-states, which is why they were constantly at war with one another. Their Olympic games were intended to impress surrounding areas in Greece with the power and strength of its athletes, a fitting analogy for the assumed power and strength of Greek warriors, who were expected to be braver and stronger than mere mortals could reasonably attain.

Within the ethos the Greeks left to us lies the seed of what we think we know about writing, which is based on their belief in the importance of besting an opponent, as well as the importance of being better than anyone else. This elitism lay at the core of what it meant to be an Athenian. Athenian philosophers such as Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle all discussed what made a piece of writing "good," and in prior posts, I mentioned the essentialised notion that a piece of writing is only good if it is divinely inspired.

These philosophers all believed, to a greater or lesser extent, that it was not possible for 'mere' humans to write well without divine assistance. We have inherited the belief that labor is insufficient to make writing 'good'; that writing is difficult because we are always struggling against human limitation, and that only through outside help can we hope to overcome these difficulties. There is a fundamental flaw in this way of thinking, of course, and I intend to discuss the limitations of perceiving writing as a struggle.

No comments:

Post a Comment

My Shelfari Bookshelf

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

How have you overcome writer's block?