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.


  1. Ah, I think I see what you're saying: you're putting "explicit" diagrams on one side, metaphor on another.

    And then there are certain things — Shrigley's dog image — that belie any attempt to explicitly diagram it.

    But I'm confused: Why can't I diagram the dog image — assume it's a stuffed dog with a sign in its hand, presumably put there by someone? Sure, there are complexities to this sense — which I could still diagram, even if not explicit. (Although this diagram would be a flow chart of a sort with forks and circles and such.)

    And then there's the coconut: isn't it odd that a coconut is dispensing wisdom? How is this more diagram-ready than the dead dog?

    I suppose I'm saying: isn't a diagram a metaphor and a metaphor a diagram?

    Or am I missing something here. Which is a very likely possibility.

    1. Daniel, thanks for your comments.

      I think we're coming back to Cezanne being able to paint just 2 good apples in his lifetime. There's only one way I've found, so far, to make "good sense" of the coconut photograph. And, I haven't found any way to do that with the dog. I can sense something there metaphorically, but all attempts to make it explicit fall short, leave things out, fail to cohere, etc. In that vein, I don't think the "stuffed dog" interpretation really measures up either. It would require too many Ptolemaic additions, as you seem to note, in order to keep it working.

      Also, it's interesting that you zeroed in on the "try to be happy" on the coconut. As I thought about that post yesterday, I kept coming back to Jonathon Raban's in "Summer with Empsen" and the need for ambiguity in art. Why should art have to be ambiguous? Is it just vanity? Or is it a requirement to include the ever-present duplicity that makes us the "rational" animals we are? It does seem a bit at odds with making "good sense" of these things.

  2. I totally agree that certain things — here, images — more proactively or aggressively belie ready sense. I am attracted to such things.

    There is a sense in which the coconut is even more complex to me precisely because it's so deadpan, precisely because it's almost nothing. Hence rather that winding back upon itself, albeit without ever getting there — as the dog image might be said to do — the coconut image amplifies banality, opening up an even stranger trope of amplification — one, were I a better informed rhetor, I'd know the name for.

    Foucault at one point compares two performative sentences:
    "I am lying" and "I am writing." The former is a performative contradiction that is premised on a logic that exceeds the sentence — a formal logic of which the sentence is an example.

    The latter, however, is even stranger as the constative and the performative or in perfect sync: I am doing and saying the same thing at the same time! Language, then, is no longer an example of the real, of an external logic, but is the very site of the world coming into being.

    As for ambiguity, multivalence is a condition of life, not just art. If art is not to be cliche — that is, dead — it must be multivalent. And that forges ambiguity.

    1. I like your take on "try to be happy" being deadpan. The voice of God; or what the voice of a god should be.

      I'm just not sure I like the stagedness of Shrigley's photographs. The Getty Museum had an exhibit several years ago featuring Lee Miller and other surreal photographers. The way they were staging their photographs seemed to vitiate what they were trying to say until Miller herself got into WWII. Then, her surreal photographs were no longer staged, the war itself juxtaposed things in strange ways, and they took on a vitality, for me, the others lacked.