Friday, February 8, 2013

Kimmel: "Why we mix metaphors" (2009)

This is a quantitative and qualitative study of mixed metaphors by Austrian linguist Michael Kimmel (not the American gender researcher of the same name).

Kimmel's topic is cases of metaphor spaghetti like the following, taken from the Guardian:
Tony Blair’s criticism of EU regulations […] would be laughable if it were not so two-faced. While preaching the pro-business gospel, he has done nothing to stop the tide of EU rules and red tape from choking Britain. (quoted on p. 109; boldface in the original)
Such mixed metaphors are common and rarely cause much confusion. In the quantitative part of the paper, Kimmel finds that about three quarters of all pairs of adjacent and topic-specific metaphors are of a mixed type (p. 102 and his table 6).

Metaphors Are Still "Deep"

This poses the question of "why mixed metaphors are cognitively successful" (p. 110).

Kimmel's answer seems to be that we don't experience a rhetorical tension between metaphors because they are mostly processed locally, so we "forget" the image in one sub-clause before we merge it with its neighbor:
[…] I hypothesize that the tightness of connection of ‘‘carrier’’ clauses crucially affects our tendency to process the metaphors integratively or not. Only the close syntactic integration of two metaphors within a clause can enforce or foster a close integration of their semantic content qua imagery. Where mixed metaphors occur across clauses no ontological clashes will be felt to begin with and secondary mechanisms to keep the clash at bay are dispensable. If this is correct, making sense of mixed metaphors is a natural by-product of default clause processing. (p. 110)
So "metaphors with regard to their imagistic meaning must be primarily understood within their proper clause units and not between the units" (p. 112, emphasis in original).

This seems to imply that metaphor mixtures are coherent if and only if they appear in separate clauses, which is not quite the case. Kimmel thus adds the possibility of "shallow processing" (in the sense of Gibbs 1999; see Kimmel's page 112). He can then say:
How jarring such a clash of images becomes in someone’s perception probably depends on the depth of metaphor processing (Gibbs, 1999), as will be discussed later. (p. 109)

Flashes of Metaphor

But "shallow processing" seems to be a last resort for Kimmel, and it seems that he wants to defend a strongly "cognitive" view of metaphor for as long as possible. In many cases that contain inconsistent metaphors, he thus resolves the tension by postulating a super-process that decides what gets into the final parse of the sentence, and what doesn't:
In my view, we may think of a metaphor cluster in such a way that a given conceptual metaphor temporarily "flashes up" in the cognitive unconscious when the first metaphorical expression is processed. In some cases this activation – without being expectational in the strict sense – influences the selection of the subsequent metaphor(s), whereas in many other cases this activation fades or is overridden by other discourse devices. In that sense temporarily active conceptual metaphors are part of a field of multiple discourse attractors that vie for influence. (p. 113)
So the ambiguous conclusion is that
non-metaphoric linguistic devices invariably blend into metaphor processing (p. 109)
and that
conceptual metaphors as cognitive, but perhaps not fully discourse-governing conceptual structures. (p. 109)
Specifically, he emphasizes the general flow of an argument as a force that can impose order on an array of diverging metaphors (cf. p. 109).

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