Love is a rose

I hated the song “Love is a rose” when it dominated the radio waves. Later, when I discovered that Neil Young wrote it, it seemed to prove out the cliché that nobody’s perfect. From a formal standpoint, “love is a rose” is a metaphor, and one of many clichés circulating long before Shakespeare:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare (Sonnet 130)

At the most basic level, any metaphor is a “false compare” between two things that are not identical. It calls upon us to interpret, to actively try to constitute meaning from the information we’re given. At the word level, one is tempted to substitute a synonym but often this simply isn’t satisfactory. “Making an exposure” doesn’t have the impact of “taking a shot.”

As the ad copy here relates, the area of overlap between photography and shooting is broad and deep; it’s not simply a matter of using a simple substitution to make meaning out of the terminology. It’s a network of associations that are crowded around the word as connotations. But it isn’t a 1:1 comparison. A camera will never give someone a red badge of courage, a wound. Metaphors always entail a sort of tension between the expressed meaning, and its intended interpretation.

Exposure lacks the sort of immediacy, the flash of insight involved with taking a good shot. This is a major reason for the popularity of metaphor. Over time, photographic shots (or snapshots) have lost all associations with martial terminology. The camera is seldom assumed to be an instrument of violence.

Schemata derived from the networks of metaphoric comparisons seem to be foundational to our ability to acquire and deploy knowledge, particularly when new technologies are introduced. Metaphors, it seems, are one of the keys to framing knowledge. In short, we don’t know what makes a technology “good” or useful without some sort of frame of reference to slot it into. In fact, this idea of knowledge frames may hold a key to developing artificial intelligence.

What Shakespeare is poking with a stick is our conception of love as a mass of nonsensical metaphors. However, as a master of metaphor himself he knows full well that metaphor drives our intelligence forward on our journey to the undiscovered country. The riddle of it, or perhaps better still the joke, is that metaphoric knowledge almost always comes upon us quickly like a punch line, euphoria, followed by the satisfaction of having figured it out. Thank you Vicki Mikelonis.

The mechanism through which metaphor works its magic according to Paul Ricoeur is its distanciation. It renders the familiar unfamiliar, giving us a necessary distance to actively engage in the process of making sense. It is estrangement with the emphasis on strange.

In a weak sense, though, all language is metaphoric. When I see a chair, I can simultaneously apprehend a chair as an object of utility and hold its abstract word “chair” in my mind with neither being destroyed or altered by their apprehension although both are completely different with no overlapping characteristics. What is different about strong metaphors is that the tension between two terms creates a third, unnamable knowledge that once apprehended, is seldom forgotten. Eventually, though, the strangeness fades– as Nietzsche suggests, the face wears off the coin and it becomes useful only as metal.

In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of “new media” in the manufacture of stereographs. In 1873, the Kilburn Brothers of Littleton, NH were printing 3,000 stereographs per day and they weren’t alone. Stereographs work by means of an apparatus where two photographs taken from slightly different perspectives are fused in the mind of the viewer to create the illusion of a three dimensional image. The potential exists for great realism, but also for captivating illusions.

An ephemeral historical moment? Not necessarily. Stereograph publishers distributed actual photographs from just after the civil war (1865) in massive numbers until supplanted by halftone printing around the turn of the century. The cards were compiled and circulated like encyclopedias that could be purchased a single card at a time. With halftones, their currency was devalued until it was given away for free on cereal boxes in the early 20th century.

It wasn’t a bad run– perhaps comparable to broadcast television, which entered the scene with standards in 1961 before being supplanted by digital television at the turn of the 21st century. Stereographs lingered into the 1930s and 40s before transmuting into ViewMasters stripped of their 3d illusion.

Throughout, a process of estrangement dissolving into familiarity persists.