Metaphor to Magnify

Metaphor to magnify

This may be a bit rambling, it may chime, but this is a semi-riff-with-structured-argument on a number of books (provided at the end) I have read in the past month (except Being & Time, which I am currently reading, but which has featured in good measure in Morton’s & Harman’s books). I hope it provokes some discussion.

Metaphor has extensive reach in how we perceive reality. That’s quite a bold, counter-intuitive assumption, isn’t it? Well yes, or not. Stopping, considering, it seems remote that a device, which uses another thing to point at a thing, indirectly, can’t possibly extend downward in such a perforating manner, to the core of perceiving a [the?] reality of things (maybe that’ll prove to be taking things a little far). But maybe metaphor is one (of potentially numerous) mad method for doing so.

Metaphor has taken a bit of a haymaker since Pound’s Imagiste Manifesto, especially the 4th criteria:  To present an image. We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art. I have always taken this to be a contributing factor in the shrugging off of figurative language, as if simile, metonym, personification or the like were a taint on the gracile sheen of a thing chosen for its already rendered, veneered perfection. But that seems to me problematic. It sort of embodies the assumption of a surface-reality exclusivity & moreover that things are in & of themselves without any capacity to affect each other. I have no quarrel with direct perception & the artistic validity direct focus on stuff for stuff-sake, is one I find admirable & can & often do subscribe to in my own poetry & gandering at the world.

Graham Harman is a contemporary philosopher in the “New Theory of Everything” OOO, which stands for Object Oriented Ontology. His friend & fellow OOO enthusiast, Timothy Morton expresses ontology as “the how of what” which is pretty succinct, but accurate.

The justification of OOO’s necessity is complicated, but the actual action needed to live by its tenets is pretty easy: respect inanimate things as you would animate things. Why? Well, when you do, you come to more rendered considerations of the reason-for, & what-will-happen-if of creating something. As Morton likes to highlight in his book Hyperobjects (:enormous entities stretched across time & space, non-local, viscous, affecting; global warming, being an often used example) if we’d thought in such a way earlier in our civilizing capacity (hindsight not really helpful here), we’d have been more cautious in our plastic usage, more ready to outline the potential negative feedback loop it would initialize; realize sooner it takes the potential rise & fall of cultures to degrade. Same with nuclear fission, yes, it powers our homes, provides comfort, concludes our ancient fear of night, but it has also affected the ecological imbalance of the world, penetrating the ecosystem, leaving lasting damage 24,000 from now in the form of plutonium-239 “Gamma rays shoot out of” (Morton) through its lifetime & iodine-129 which will still appear in the sediments for future archaeologists to discover 15 million years from now.

These examples show how our rash progressive nature is acted upon without proper interrogation of the lasting effects.

This is becoming increasingly incontestable in the context we find ourselves in: we are actually, seriously debating altering the geological period as we exist through the tipping point of our effect on the ecological system. There is no going back on what we have done—we are in the Anthropocene; (elegantly treated in Simon L. Lewis & Mark A. Maslin’s recent book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, a text worthy of everybody’s attention.)

In his book Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything Harman lays out some of the “principles of OOO”, number 1 being: “All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real or fictional.” How so? Well, easy. Look at the effects of pollution, the examples of which are numerous. As Morton explains, we live in “a world in which there is no away” because when you begin to treat even a typical process as a thing (object), then something always has an effect, we get “context explosions” which Morton articulates better than I can in an article titled Subscendence:

The thing about ecological contexts is that you can’t draw a line around them in advance, because ecology is profoundly about interdependence. The biosphere depends on earth’s magnetic shield to protect lifeforms from solar rays, and this depends on the way earth’s iron core is spinning, and that depends on how the earth formed in the early stages of the solar system, and so on. We are dealing with a potential infinity of entities on a potential infinity of scales—there is no way to ascertain whether the pleroma of beings has an end point, at least not in advance. Ecological awareness just is this context explosion.

This all ties in with metaphor & how it gets at the substance of stuffs. Kenneth Burke highlights that “etymologically ‘substance’ is a scenic word. A person’s or a thing’s sub-stance would be something that stands beneath or supports the person or thing.”(Burke: The Paradox of Substance) Because of the “context explosion” affecting things with things, in the context of an [the] environment we can see that sub-stance of reality is the propping of things by things. “The leg bone’s connected to the toxic waste dump” (Morton).

Harman breaks down an essay by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, in one of his chapters. Harman thinks the essay a “neglected masterpiece in the realist tradition of philosophy.” Harman’s extolling the virtue of Ortega’s essay is due to how Ortega pinches shut the gap jacked by Kant, who saw phenomena (everything we are “able to encounter, perceive, use, think about”) as irreconcilable with noumena, which we are unable to access directly. A thing [being] is ultimately ungraspable (something, which Heidegger when to great lengths to remedy). The repercussion for OOO is that objects become (potentially & demonstrably: people are clearly not making adequate alterations to veer away from planetary catastrophe despite the evidence) insignificant, they are unworthy of attention unless they attract us through a conditioned pleasantness: a flower’s scent, a beautiful object, fashion, cute animals; while ugly animals, weeds, algae, lichen, fungi are not as clearly represented as beautiful in & of themselves & thus of a lower degree of importance. This perpetuated bias is of little use to OOO.

Ortega’s great insight is that “there is nothing we can make an object of cognition, nothing that can exist for us unless it becomes an image, a concept, an idea—unless, that is, it stops being what it is in order to become a shadow or an outline of itself.” This happens often when a scientist tries to explain (turn into metaphor) to a layman what would otherwise be an equation, or complex technical process only an expert would normally understand. This may be considered a belittling of the thing, but actually, in the context of a scientist informing a layman, the reach of the idea is expanded, the context explodes into language rather than confined to a specialized jargon. Carlo Rovelli, is a fine example of a physicist who captures the poetry of his profession & articulates its merits, through metaphor to a wider audience; I wish I had his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics to hand for examples, but I left it in Korea.

Music is another example. The musician writes the music & then reads it. To the average person the written music is unintelligible, it could say anything. The musician transforms the jargon of written music into something accessible to anyone, on top of which value can be obtained. Imagine if music was a mystery in the Eleusian register?

What the metaphor provides is a similar access. This is because art does something spectacular, something data & empiricism struggles with: it aestheticizes the thing, making it accessible. Ortega qualifies this: “Notice I am not saying that a work of art reveals the secret of life and being to us; what I do say is that a work of art affords the peculiar pleasure we call esthetic by making it seem that the inwardness of things, their executant reality, is opened to us.”

This is my qualification for beginning this essay as I did. It helps give perceptual context to the quality of objects.

Metaphor I consider to be a magnification of sorts. Magnifying is to make the small larger, what metaphoring does is remove the insignificance of a thing & make it more significant, this has repercussions across all things, because of the proximity-making effect taking note enough to transform has. Metaphoring provides adjectival comparatives & superlatives a whole new reason to be. Think of looking into a petri-dish & then looking at a Hubble photograph of the observable universe. Two scales that resemble each other. The result: a conversation on scale, which in turn provides a context that oscillates between the macro & micro.

The performance of likening something to another thing[s] introduces us into the equation because it is only through the agency of a being (something like Heidegger’s Dasein) that the transubstantiation of stuffs into stuffs can become a force for understanding a closer knit relation we have with things. We come closer to objects in the act of likening them, because OOO brings us into an akin proximity with anything whatsoever: you are not so much indistinguishable from things, nor are you as or less important, only that by seeing them as accessible they become important tools, with a reduced likelihood they’ll be taken for granted. The bacteria, nor the cells or DNA in your body is not human, but they are the constitutive factors that allows you to be human; love your bacteria.

Ortega goes on to clarify that “the esthetic object and the metaphorical object are the same, or rather that metaphor is the elementary esthetic object, the beautiful cell.” [my italics] A cockroach is no replacement for a doctor, but that doesn’t mean the cockroach should be afforded less right to exist, otherwise what sort of repercussions on being-responsibility can that have? Where is the demarcation & why make it, how even? Who gets to say? Look around you. Essentially the swatting of a cockroach can produce the deleterious fixation of consumerism: both actions are thinking one effect has no effect on anything else.

To metaphor well, the properties of things can be listed & parallels founded on the evidence of their likeness, which intensifies both, bringing us into contact with the textures, uses, degrees of scale, shape & form of the thing being likened. (Degrees of scale is something I really want to talk about now, but will leave for a treatment all of its own.)

Take Alice Oswald’s metaphor in her poem Sisyphus from Woods etc. where she has the “thundercloud shaking its blue wolf’s head” & immediately both objects, though dissimilar in their structure & motive enhance each other through their puissance, texture & shape. We recognize immediately both objects as powerful, so they complement each other regardless of their dissimilitude. The properties of each are irreconcilable except through the aesthetic binding in the magnifying metaphor.

Metaphor allows us to interrogate the thing & in our interrogation we integrate ourselves, enabling dissimilarities to coalesce through aestheticism. This is why Morton analyzing Plato, arrives at the conclusion that “art is demonic: it emanates from some unseen (or even unseeable) beyond in the sense that I am not in charge of it and can’t quite perceive it directly, in front of me, constantly present.” (Morton, Being Ecological)

Metaphor is a telling phenomenon, it not only enhances aesthetic effect, it enables the restructuring of jargon accessible to a minority, to be opened to a majority. This is akin to the move away from the sacerdotal securing of knowledge for itself to control others, to the information age where we carry the whole history of human thought in a small, easily accessible, easily manipulated device. Whatever the problems the contemporary world spumes up from its well of complexity, I think we are more provided for & prepared to formulate solutions under the current paradigm than at any other period in history. Go forth & metaphor.


Burke, K. (1989). On Symbols and Society, ed by Joseph R. Gusfield. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Harman, G. (2018). Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. Great Britain: Pelican Books.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being & Time. trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: State University of New York Press, Albany.

Lewis, S. L & Maslin, M. A. (2018). The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene. Great Britain: Pelican Books

Morton, T. (2018). Being Ecological. Great Britain: Pelican Books.

Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, London: The University of Minnesota Press.

Morton, T. (October 2017). Subscendence. e-flux journal #85.

Oswald, A. (2007). Woods etc. London: Faber & Faber.



  1. Just when I thought it was safe – having just submitted an article to an American journal, and finished off, at last, a blog post taking on Maurice Merleau-Ponty – up pops a blogged essay I can’t ignore. Our mutual online friend brought this to my attention; with friends like that who needs pains in the bum! Here are a few observations (with apologies that as I do not have access to the html facility for your comments, some formatting may look a little odd, particularly where I try to include block quotes from other writers):

    We can’t live without metaphors. Every time we express anything we use another thing to point at a thing, even when that thing is very basic. Take the figure ‘2’. It stands for a quantity, but it isn’t itself that quantity. When we say “two oranges” two oranges do not proceed from our mouth, instantaneously called into being, but rather we make our words point to two oranges. All language, written, spoken, signed, or symbolised, is in effect metaphor. Any semiotician worthy of the name will point that out to you.

    And any phenomenologist worthy of the name will inform you that it is by metaphor that we tell of our encounters with the world we perceive. Max van Manen says:

    ●What appears in consciousness is the phenomenon or event that gives itself in lived experience. And the significance of the idea of “lived experience” is that we can ask the basic phenomenological question, “What is this (primal) experience like?” (811) ●

    Note that “like.” Once again, our description or expression of the lived event no more calls it into being than the figure ‘2’ calls a quantity into being, we can only say what it is “like,” even if we devise a single, special word to do so. In answering the basic phenomenological question, we cannot help but resort to metaphor. Moreover, we do not encounter – we never encounter – an independent reality. It is impossible to do so. Everything we meet has what Dan Zahavi calls “mineness:”

    ●Most people are prepared to concede that there is necessarily something “it is like” for a subject to undergo an experience (to taste ice cream, to feel joy, to remember a walk in the Alps). However, insofar as there is something it is like for the subject to have the experience, the subject must in some way have access to and be acquainted with the experience. Moreover, although conscious experiences differ from one another — what it is like to smell crushed mint leaves is different from what it is like to see a sunset or to hear Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole — they also share certain features. One commonality is the quality of mineness, the fact that the experiences are characterized by first-personal givenness. That is, the experience is given (at least tacitly) as my experience, as an experience I am undergoing or living through. (15, 16)●

    What is very difficult for the realist to grasp, is that far from representing the truth of how things are, of actuality, the entire philosophy of realism is based on imagination (Thompson). It tries to set the observer up on a dais, a viewing platform apart from experience, on which to review the parade of ordered bits and bobs of creation. The realist has to imagine them, the realist (back in the days before there were such things) had to imagine ‘1’ and ‘2’ and ‘3’ and – alhamd lilah! – ‘0’, the latter being the most imaginary of all, but the realist’s clock will not tick without it. Go deeper into the fabric of the universe, and metaphors come thicker, faster, to describe its minutiae; the ‘quark’ – the very word is a borrowing, another thing pointing to a thing – has ‘flavours’, has ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘strange’, ‘charm’, ‘bottom’, and ‘top’. These are not descriptions, they are metaphors. That sure as heck makes the small large, couching the what-it-is-itude of the quark in terms familiar to us in the bigger world, but it does not give any reality to the realist’s dais.

    When Thomas Nagel contends that:

    ●To acquire a more objective understanding of some aspect of life or the world, we step back from our initial view of it and form a new conception which has that view and its relation to the world as its object. In other words, we place ourselves in the world that is to be understood. The old view comes to be regarded as an appearance, more subjective than the new view, and correctable or confirmable by reference to it. The process can be repeated, yielding a still more objective conception. (4)●

    he fails to see the contradiction. He “steps back” but places himself “in the world that is to be understood.” Sorry, can’t have it both ways. He also ignores that, try as he might to “step back,” he cannot avoid encountering the world. The “initial view” is not in some way data to be introduced into an analysis, it is significance to be recalled at the second experience. The process is repeated, the actor makes a new encounter, and brings significance along again.

    However, from his imaginary viewpoint back from and in the world, by imagination, which is no small thing, the realist does manage to get a good hold of the mechanics of things. This he points to as proof of its objectivity. No, it’s simply an indication of its utility, which is not in dispute. It is in its utility that the strength of realism lies. But that’s as far as it goes. It certainly is not the totality of human experience, it is merely an understanding of the sum of its parts, in kit form. A “still more objective” conception points not to the certainty of the method, but to its provisionality; the most that rationalism can provide is predictability, not certainty.

    Ortega has it right – there IS nothing we can make an object of cognition unless it becomes an image. And that is not simply when a specialist explains something to a layman. It applies just as much when the specialist contemplates the subject of specialism.

    Good little article, ramble or not. Best of luck reading Heidegger!

    Works cited:

    Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. OUP, 1989.

    Thompson, Paul. “Nowhere/Everywhere/Somewhere.” Taxonomy Domine, 4th April 2019. Accessed 6th April 2019.

    van Manen, Max. “Phenomenology in its Original Sense.” Qualitative Health Research, vol.27 No.6, 2017, pp.810-825. DOI: 10.1177/1049732317699381. Accessed 20th April 2018.

    Zahavi, Dan. Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the first-person perspective. MIT Press, 2005.

    1. Well this is a very pleasing & thorough response, thank you.

      1. I hadn’t got to “we can’t live without metaphors” but it should have been only right for me to have included that. I agree undoubtedly.

      2. “What is primal experience like?” We are never able in any situation like this, to refer to the phenomenal directly, we must relate it, which is a part of the principles of logos, as Heidegger explains.
      I was thinking today how taking something for granted illustrates that something works extremely well. The perception of knowing we take something for granted, because it works extremely well, is a means of infusing life with limitless curiosity. Metaphoring is used by the poet, because the poet should have become aware of the taken-for-granted-ness of language & perception, thereby being able to do it. As we take for granted metaphor, perhaps it is proof of it working excessively well.

      3. A further quote from Ortega:

      “There is the same difference between a pain that someone tells me about and a pain that I feel as there is between the red that I see and the being red of this red leather box. Being red [ital] is for it what hurting is for me. Just as there is an I-John Doe, there is also an I-red, an I-water, and an I-star, Everything, from a point of view withing itself, is an I.”

      Also cogent:

      Now then, imagine the importance of a language system of expressive signs whose function was not to tell us about things but to present them to us in the act of executing themselves. Art is just such a language; this is what art does. The esthetic object is inwardness as such – it is each thing as ‘I’.”

      Because each thing is I-ness all of its own, relations are not static, but fluid & moreover created aesthetically by an individual.

      Thanks again.

  2. You stated: “Imagine if music was a mystery in the Eleusian register?”

    You could arguably all certain kinds of musical improvisation such a mystery, if by Eleusian you mean something that carries mystery power to enchant and make one feel they are feeling something sacred; now existing in a space of holy mystery. Improvised music often gets described in more cosmic terms than other forms, so it would not surprise me if there was a special Eleusinian Mystery rite in which the aulos was the catalyst for holy being (“wholly Being”?).

    The aulos often plays the interval of a fourth or a fifth, which is a very stereotypically “religious” sounding interval, especially when one of the notes of the interval is kept sounding on one reed as a drone for a succession of pitches on the other. I would love to have been an initiate via improvised aulos music, if such a thing occurred!

    1. My point was more that if music was accessed only through being read & never performed, as a language rather than a performance, as a spoken sermons where the music was not hummed but spoken-explained, then we wouldn’t be using the translating that would be turning the tune through a metaphoric process. As Roy Fisher says in his long poem Furnace: “A tune / is already a metaphor / and a chord / a metaphor wherein / metaphors meet.

      I see your point on improvisation though. I do a lot & find cosmic tones come full bright through, organically as if we are compelled to meet through the act of improvising.

  3. Though you don’t name it explicitly here, I couldn’t help but to think of the metaphoring gesture of pareidolia, which seems to me to be the best use we humans have for the “context explosion” ecology provides. We make sense out of what would otherwise be nonsense, and dictate the terms by which we access/observe/name that which we believe to exist, simply by declaring what *is* (which is to describe how it is similar to something else) at any given instant; we are the authors of all that exists by virtue of our declarations about “what and how,” for no thing is said to exist that isn’t circumscribed and thereby granted its existence within the scope of human semiotics. In short, in exercising the Logos (the Word and the creative life force), the god-self we evoke is none other than the Creator ( with a capital C). Being in charge of aesthetics, our only tether to perceivable existence, is an enormous responsibility that it could be argued is best left to those who devote their lives to the honing of metaphor. 🤓

    1. That is very cogent. Paredolia & the relating of none intentional patterns in things is a metaphoring process. It could be the mechaism that has us prefer one thing to another, as I example through cute animals over ugly animals. We should admire our bacteria in the same capacity as we admire a kitten. Through the realization of context explosion, we can do this & I think it has profound repercussion for how we organize our behaviour to the environment.
      If we bring scale in, at vast scales of geological & cosmic time, the life span of something against these backdrops of immense time looks static & appears to have more thingness bringing it into the proximity of objects, actually it is an object. We say “the thing is about this or that…”

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