Monday, June 6, 2011

Frankenstein's Metaphor

"Today all the available sources of intuitive life - cultural tradition, the natural world, the body, religion and art - have been so conceptualised, devitalised and 'deconstructed' (ironised) by the world of words, mechanistic systems and theories constructed by the left hemisphere that their power to help us see beyond the hermetic world that is has set up has been largely drained from them."
Iain McGilchrist
To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, and having read Iain McGilchrist's The Master & His Emissary I now see everything in terms of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. He observes that the brain creates its own projections in the outer world, such that the world then reinforces the workings of the brain in feedback loops through culture, technology, institutions etc. But we have 'two brains' - the left and right hemispheres - that operate in complementary but quite different ways. So we can potentially create two very different projections in the outer world. The genius of McGilchrist's thesis is to explain the history of Western civilisation - from the Ancient Greeks to the 21st century - in terms of these different projections, e.g.: the Reformation and Enlightenment as projections of an ascendant left hemisphere world; the Renaissance and Romanticism as projections of an ascendant right hemisphere world. Today (and for over the past hundred years) the left hemisphere has been in the ascendant - and the feedback loops of technology and political correctness appear to be accelerating us even further into its hermetically sealed world.

So I reached for my 'hammer' when I read about the Metaphor Program at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) - an intelligence initiative of the US Government (ht Next Wave Futures). The goal of the project is to 'exploit the use of metaphorical language to gain insights into underlying cultural beliefs… by developing and applying a methodology that automates the analysis of metaphorical language'. In other words, by understanding how people in other cultures think then it might be possible to change how they think. PsyOps with a dash of Jungian analysis. 

The program proposers (in the documents on the IARPA site) say they will deliver a methodology, tools and a prototype that could be used as the basis for a system in the future:
  • The teams will deliver a functional prototype that demonstrates the automated handling of data, discovery and semantic definition of metaphors.
  • Teams will produce and deliver a formal description of the methodology and tools developed for the metaphorical language analysis and their application to case studies. This will include a formal description of the constituent framework design and functions that results from the case study analysis.
  • The teams will develop tools and techniquesfor the various stages of the metaphorical analysis, deliver the tools to the Government and describe their application to the stages of the process.
  • The teams will deliver the metaphor repository with a description and definition of the repository design, the semantic principles that were used and all results from the analysis of the linguistic and conceptual metaphors. Discussion of the outstanding issues, lessons and future directions will be included.
 This is the left hemisphere in action. For metaphor is the domain of the right hemisphere yet here we have a left hemisphere mindset seeking to occupy the territory of the right hemisphere. McGilchrist says about metaphor:
Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor. ...Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life. ...I am talking about any context ...in which words are used so as to activate a broad net of connotations, which though present to us, remains implicit, so that the meanings are appreciated as a whole, at once, to the whole of our being, conscious and unconscious, rather than being subject to the isolating effects of sequential, narrow-beam attention. As long as they remain implicit, they cannot be hijacked by the conscious mind and turned into just another series of words, a paraphrase. If this should happen, the power is lost, much like a joke that has to be explained (humour is a right hemisphere faculty).
The joke, of course, is that the IARPA initiative to deconstruct metaphors in foreign cultures (read 'Muslim') will serve to drain the same metaphors of their power to persuade. Though it might throw up a few handy tips for aspiring politicians seeking (re)election in 2012. And for their speech-writers.  But that isn't my main point. Rather the Metaphor Program is simply a late-stage sign of the increasingly dysfunctional left hemisphere world in which we are now trapped. Mary Shelley caught the spirit of an age when she wrote Frankenstein - a novel depicting the hubris of a left hemisphere world view that sought to create the whole out of mere parts. Nowadays we don't have Frankenstein's monster, we have Frankenstein's metaphor - but it is the same hubris, one that seeks to deconstruct the values and cultures of others and to reconstruct a 'newer/better/nicer' culture in its place. No doubt made up of parts supplied by the United States of America.

Of course, by drawing attention to this fundamental flaw in the IARPA program I may well be doing my bit to ensure a more successful one replaces it. In the Global War on Terrorism we are all conscripts...

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