November 29, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

One day in twitterland: Metaphor, memory and amazement

People have all sorts of opinions about Twitter, but for me, so far, the experience has been positive; never more so than when it comes to ‘interdisciplinarity’.

I work across the humanities, social science and natural sciences and follow people from what one may call all walks of science. I also work across science and society, being interested in science communication, science writing, public engagement with science and all that, and, again, I follow all sorts of experts in these fields.

I am not a great tweeter myself, but I absolutely enjoy the twitter banter and wit that I find amongst those I follow, as well as, of course, their knowledge and expertise about science, society, photography, art, literature and more.

And, finally, sitting on Twitter when I can’t got out or move a lot, has also, quite often, saved me from falling totally into the pit of depression.

Twitter, knowledge and learning

This week I became, yet again, acutely aware of the privilege Twitter conveys to people like me, that is to say, the privilege of being able to acquire knowledge and information quite easily and learning lots and lots of new things, at the touch of a button.

Some of these things are just wonderful to know about in themselves and for themselves (like when I became aware of, to give only one example, Seb Falk’s book on the ‘light ages’ and now know a bit more about astrolabes than before), while other things are not only enjoyable to know but also useful to know in my line of work – and the list is endless here because there is so much I don’t know!

This became, yet again, apparent to me, when I opened Twitter after having posted a question about metaphor and memory – what makes metaphors memorable, sticky? I got some really useful answers; and some of the answers awoke old memories!

Amongst the answers I got, I select two, because they rang particular memory bells in my head.

Metaphor and memory

Chris Farrands reminded me of the work by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur who wrote about metaphor and memory in his book La Métaphore Vive (strangely, the English translation of that title is The Rule of Metaphor). Ricoeur wrote about metaphor from a phenomenological and hermeneutic perspective and I had been quite fascinated by that in the 1970s but had totally forgotten about it. I had not really focused on metaphor and memory though, linked through the concepts of image and imagination, as well as history and forgetting, I think.

I had to go to my shelves and dig out that book again. I have to confess, it is quite a dense tomb! But overall, for Ricoeur, as for later cognitive linguists, who, like me, forgot about him, metaphor is an important cognitive process embedded in action and interaction.

Metaphor and evolution

Juli Peretó, an evolutionary biochemist (whom I knew from my synbio days) retweeted my question to a friend, Martí Domínguez, who had worked on the origins and evolution of metaphor. Martí is a biologist cum (visual) metaphor expert and novelist. When reading his work on metaphor, I was reminded of my own fascination with linguistic evolution and language change, which led to me organising a conference on that topic in 1987 in Oxford. When Richard Dawkins turned up, that was quite a memorable event.

I coupled this interest later with one into metaphor when studying the various adaptations of the metaphor ‘silent spring’, from its inception in the 1960s up to the early 2000s, in an article published in 2003 as part of a special issue of entitled “Metaphor and Ecology”.

Metaphors we act by

In the evening of the day that had started with phenomenology and evolution, I looked at Twitter again and my eyes fell on a discussion about science rhetoric. This conversation involved the science writer Philip Ball, the cognitive and educational linguist Sally Zacharias and the interdisciplinary education, philosophy and politics expert Julia Molinari – and later myself and Martí.

The whole thread started with a question posed by Philip: “When did the mere act of writing about a subject become an ‘intervention’ in it?” The answers ranged over recommending reading the work on ethics and poetics by Aristotle, to reading, of course, How to Do Things with Words, by John L. Austin (which I read after Ricoeur and which supplanted La Métaphore Vive in my intellectual affection), to reading, recommended by Philip himself, Shapin and Schaffer on rhetoric and language as tools of scientific authority in the 17th C…

And, finally Julia pointed us to Charles Bazerman’s 1988 ‘Shaping written knowledge‘ (where he explores how rhetoric shapes the genre of the experimental article in science) – which I really hadn’t heard about before but should have, as it references some of my favourite authors in the history of pragmatics.

Chapter 12 in particular is a wonderful attempt to explore the interface between science and rhetoric, an exploration, that, pace Bazerman has, however, a longer tradition than he thinks. I agree with him though when he writes: “We need thoroughgoing and wide-ranging research into the historical and current rhetoric within the sciences and other knowledge-generating communities to gain a grasp of the range of practices, the thematic interactional concerns, the local emergence of typified forms and actions, and the implications for socially produced knowledge.”

At the end of this long conversation. Sally asked a good question: “Who said ‘science is the history of metaphor…?’ (this is a genuine question)” – I wish I had said it somewhere as strongly as that! This encapsulate my own thinking extremely well. But who really said it?

Education and entertainment

The whole thread ends with Sally tweeting “Aw ? metaphor chats can be one of best perks! this has been a fascinating thread”…

So, why do I tell you all this? This was ONE day in twitterland! One day of knowledge acquisition and knowledge transfer! One day of giving my brain cells a bit of a work out, while not being able to go outside for a workout. One day that left me with a (re-)reading list as long as my arm: Ricoeur, Austin, Shapin and Schaffer, Bazerman and of course Martí Domínguez.

In one of his articles, entitled “The metaphorical species: Evolution, adaptation and speciation of metaphors”, Martí says, after quoting dear old Giambattista Vico, “In this sense, the human species might be called ‘the metaphorical species’ because it is the only living entity that has developed abstract thinking in an amazing and complex way.” Again, I wish, I had said that somewhere as clearly as that!

Image by InspiredImages from Pixabay






Posted in Metaphors