Literal Pizza

Quadriga About six weeks ago I pushed my argument against the categories of “literal” and “metaphorical” again, and in the next two paragraphs I’ll take another pair of small steps. In between then and now I’ve marked a great many exam scripts, recuperated from marking exam scripts, and gradually brought my brain back to focusing on scholarly pursuits. I regret falling off the blog habit, but there we are. To resume from where I left off: “Symbols and metaphors work not because of mystical linguistic properties, but they work in the same way that literal language works.” Readers encounter familiar and unfamiliar words, consider what best accounts for their combination in this context, and ascribe that meaning to the the expression in question. Now, back to the flow of my previous chains of paragraphs.

Rather than reifying “literal” and “metaphorical” as categories (or abandoning the notions altogether, per impossible), we understands the world better by treating expressions as more or less direct, perhaps, or obvious; or we can contrast “prosaic” with “poetic.” Such a gesture may appear superficial, a scrim of hermeneutical exactitude covering exactly the same discourses as before, but (to my mind) they serve helpfully to remind us that when we try to apply the “literal”/“metaphorical” dichotomy to other instances from the more general phenomenon of expression — let’s say “dance” and “baking” — it’s easy to see that they categories don’t work well. Some dance more closely simulates narratives and themes that it appears to depict, and other dance defies assimilation to such a schema. Some cooked foods involve the careful preparation of particular edible items without particular transformation (I’m partial to lightly stir-fried broccoli, for example) and other foods are prepared to resemble, or taste like, or suggest, other foods or inedible items or themes. That doesn’t make a medium rare steak more literal than a pizza whose ingredients are laid out in the configuration of a human face, or sushi made to resemble Ewoks (no, I’m not kidding).

We operate with a literal/metaphorical distinction in language because language offers a degree of conventional precision in expression that we find it convenient to deploy terms that point toward particular patterns of usage. Since no one’s going to mistake seaweed-wrapped rice for adorable short furry aliens from a Star Wars film, we don’t need to make that distinction. We struggle in graphic arts, working with the distinction between representational (or “photo-realistic”) and non-representational or abstract; likewise, even less successfully, in music. Instead of trying to force other expressive modes onto the Procrustean bed of linguistic precision (a precision that nonetheless falls short of what its partisans ask of it), we do better to recognise language as an atypical instance of expression, letting our expectations of language to begin from (and continue some of the imprecisions of) music, sculpture, cookery, and painting. Some verbal expressions are more evocative and indirect; some are more plain and obvious. And that’s OK, and it doesn’t require us to multiply entities.


2 thoughts on “Literal Pizza

  1. One theory has it that language develops by metaphorical extension. (Forgive me if you discussed this elsewhere.) So, for example, we start off with the word “stand” to describe something we do with our bodies. Then one day we apply this meaning to how we talk and say we take a rhetorical “stance.” Then, a la Nietzsche, the metaphor dies, becomes petrified. Its meaning becomes “literal,” and the language grows. Anyone who doubts that language is just such a soup of extended meanings need only look up the etymologies of any ten “precise” terms from a paragraph of scholarly discourse. You know, like the word “discourse.”

    I imagine language as a continuum between mostly “literal” terms related to our physical existence (our bodies and related spatial metaphors) at one extreme (the oldest words) and the creative work of poets using words in certain ways for the first time (“her arms were the corridors of an iceberg”) at the other extreme, with things like “stance” in the middle. The words of the poet would present as the most “figurative” and as most in need of “interpretation,” while ironically most strongly resisting interpretation.

    I think all of this runs parallel to what you are saying, but I trust you’ll tell me if I am wrong.

  2. Tim, you’re generally on my wavelength, but I’m trying to emphasise the non-verbal point of departure for thinking about how language works. So I’m less interested in origins and trajectories than in two particular points you touch on: first, that there’s a range of literal-metaphorical uses (I don’t want to invest in “origins” or “used to be a living metaphor, now a dead literalism”), and second that we typically associate the metaphorical-figurative range of the spectrum to “difficulty in interpreting.”

    So I think we’re in closely related positions, but the question of how closely related will depend on the extent of your confidence with the dimensions I step back from.

Comments are closed.