Monday, April 8, 2013

Kövecses: Metaphor in Culture (2005)

Let's have a little look at the fine print in Zoltán Kövecses book Metaphor in Culture. After trawling through about 300 pages of positive evidence, Kövecses gets around to considering some problems. A short passage within the last five pages of the book is dedicated partly to a discussion of incoherence in metaphor (pp. 289–292).

Kövecses looks at two examples. First, he considers the conflict between fear-is-cold metaphors (cold feet etc.) and the sentence Our fears are fueled by acts of terrorism (p. 289). Then he gives a metaphorical explanation for why Clinton couldn't have an affair, while Mitterrand could (p. 291). Let's look at those two examples one by one.

Fear and the "'Cognition over Embodiment' override"

About the fear that seems to be both cold and burning at the same time, Kövecses writes:
What's going on here then? Does metaphorical thought conflict with embodiment, thus contradicting one of the major claims of the cognitive linguistic view of (metaphorical) understanding? I believe this is exactly what is happening. But I do not think that this conflict creates a major difficulty for the experientialist view of the embodiment of metaphors. All that needs to be done is to make a slight change in the strong version of the theory. I suggest that we conceive of the simple but highly generic metaphors that are based on tight correlations in experience (such as INTENSITY IS HEAT) as powerful conceptual devices that can override local embodiment in other parts of the conceptual system (in FEAR IS COLD). In other words, once we have a highly [p. 290:] entrenched and generic simple metaphor such as INTENSITY IS HEAT, this metaphor can be applied even to cases in which the metaphor does not fit local embodiment (as in the case of FEAR IS COLD). I do not know how common similar cases of "embodiment override" are, but I guess they are common enough that they call for some explanation within the theory of embodiment of meaning. The notion of simple, generic, correlation-based metaphors that are powerful enough to override local embodiment would be my best best shot at solving the issue. (pp. 289-90)
The biggest problem with this suggestion might not be its theoretical shortcomings, but rather its blatantly ad hoc character. It is indeed a "good shot" at evading a problem but has little psychological motivation. With such a patch-on-patch methodology, it is difficult to see what would count as a "major difficulty."

More specifically, it is also difficult to see why INTENSITY IS HEAT should be more "tight," "simple," and "entrenched" than FEAR IS COLD. If a "tight correlation" is not a matter of embodiment anymore, how then are we supposed to understand this concept? All this seems to pull the carpet from under several fundamental aspects of the theory, in an obscure corner of the book.

Sex in France and the "'Social-Cultural Experience' Override"

And now for the sex. Kövecses opens his discussion of the Clinton/Mitterrand comparison with a quick brush-up of George Lakoff's theory of political emotions, in particular, the alleged SOCIETY IS A FAMILY metaphor. Then the same puzzle as above:
Given that the same metaphor and metonymy in the French conceptual system [as in the American], how come marital infidelity never became a political issue in France? I believe that thte answer is that another part of the conceptual system can override some of the mappings of the SOCIETY IS A FAMILY metaphor. If there is a culture, such as France, in which sexual freedom (of even family members) is an important value, then the metaphorical connection "family issue political issue" is not made (i.e., activated) because it would be inconsistent with the part of the conceptual system that maintains that sexual freedom is important. In other words, a part of the broader cultural context (in this case, the value of sexual freedom in France) can override the particular mappings that a culture sets up between the FAMILY source and the SOCIETY target. (p. 291)
So you see, your values are founded in metaphorical thought, except when they are founded in your values.

Who's On Top, Anyway?

The notion of "override," here as in Lakoff's version, implicitly requires one mechanism to have a higher priority than another.

This assumption is usually not spelled out when the concept is invoked, since it is usually called upon to explain inconvenient data while still maintaining the strong view that "metaphor governs thought." This is of course impossible if one simultaneously says that thought governs metaphor.

Naturally, Kövecses also faces this problem, which Michael Kimmel apparently pointed out to him (p. 292). Consequently, he goes on to disavow the rhetoric of the preceding pages:
The talk about "overrides" may seem to suggest some kind of temporal and causal progression from a "universal base" to a "cultural overlay" and an ontologically "most basic" part from which other things emerge, or develop. I do not intend any such interpretation. I do not claim that there is first a universally embodied shared metaphor in different cultures, just as I do not claim that the three systems that interact in metaphorical conceptualization [bodily, cultural, and cognitive] can be meaningfully separated from each other for other than heuristic purposes (see chapter 10). As I have argued elsewhere (Kövecses, 2000a) and in chapter 10, I view the emergence of metaphors as being simultaneously shaped by both embodiment and culture (and most likely also by communicative context). I simply use "override" as a convenient way of talking about certain "incoherences" and "conflicts" among the heuristically postulated systems. In reality, all that we see is the differences in metaphorical conceptualization across and within cultures. Thus the term override should be taken as representing a convenient fiction to talk about such differences as we move from culture to culture, from subculture to subculture, and so forth. (p. 292)
Falling back on "words don't matter" is a bizarre argument for somebody working in cognitive metaphor theory; but rhetoric aside, what does this mean in terms of the two examples above?

Specifically, have a second look at the following two snippets:
… generic metaphors that are based on tight correlations in experience … can override local embodiment …
… a part of the broader cultural context … can override the particular mappings …
What happens if we replace these sentences with the pedestrian observation that cultures differ?

There might be a reading under which this states more than the tautology that things differ when they differ, but I don't feel I'm getting much to work with here.

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