Friday, June 8, 2012

From Metaphor to Diagram

Listening to the Daniel Coffeen's lecture, "Rhetoric of the Image + Merleau-Ponty's Chiasm," and the students' discussion (in the background) regarding David Shrigley's photograph on the left , I kept waiting for someone to say "it's a soccer field."  References were made to a "desolate scene," "barrenness," "background," "this area," "some field," a "vacant lot."  One student said "this soccer field, I guess" but didn't go anywhere with it.  For me, being specific about it being a "soccer field" brings it all together.  The housing in the background becomes a place where those absent soccer players live, the coconut looks like a soccer ball that could be used as a substitute in trying to be happy, but it also looks like it is hung from the near goal as a target for shooting practice.  It becomes a way for those kids in the rundown housing to shoot their way out of that situation and perhaps be happy in another more well-to-do life.

Regardless whether my interpretation is stupid, naive, or whatever — no connoisseur of such things is going to like  what I've done — what I have done is replace the metaphor of the photograph with a more or less explicit diagrammatic understanding of it.  For me, then, the metaphor is on it's way to becoming a cliché.  In contrast to that, though, consider the photograph on the right from Shrigley's home page.  There is a "sense" in which that cute little dog is dead.  It's not that it can't think; it's not that dogs do not have emotions, live, etc.  But there is a sense in which the dog couldn't have made that sign, or know what it means, and in that sense the dog is dead.  In this case, though, I have trouble making that sense explicit.  Maybe it's that the dog is incapable of self-reflective thought?  Maybe it's like Tournier's Friday who ceases to be human when taken out of human relationships.  Still, that's not quite it.  The photograph insists on remaining a metaphor, refuses to move toward being a cliché.  If I want to get at that sense again, I have to go back to it.

Peirce laid out an iconic trichotomy of image, diagram, and metaphor.
"Hypoicons may be roughly divided according to the mode of Firstness of which they partake.  Those which partake of simple qualities, or First Firstnesses, are images; those which represent the relations, mainly dyadic, or so regarded, of the parts of one thing by analogous relations in their own parts, are diagrams; those which represent the representative character of a representamen by representing a parallelism in something else, are metaphors." [CP2.277]
Personally, I've never been a big fan of metaphors, or at least not of thinking in metaphors.  The devil is in precisely those details a metaphor glosses over.  But when there is a sense that can only be glimpsed metaphorically, that cannot be made explicit diagrammatically, then I have to admit, we're dealing with something special.