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Has metaphor collapsed?

IT ALL STARTED when I was reading America, by Jean Baudrillard. The French philosopher had been traveling through the United States, waxing poetic on his favorite subjects of media, simulations, and the automobile and its culture which he claims he never fully understood the joys of until he toured America.

Then came an offhand remark which set my mind buzzing:

Astral America. The lyrical nature of pure circulation. As against the melancholy of European analyses...Joy in the collapse of metaphor, which here in Europe we merely grieve over.[1]

The collapse of metaphor! Why hadn't I heard about this before? Was I writing a regular feature on something that had collapsed in France?

I scanned the rest of the book -- no further mention of this momentous event. I was familiar with some of his other writings -- but found no discussion of the collapse of metaphor in them. I was stuck. How to find out more information about this alleged collapse?

The usual ways of discovering information were not available to me. What did I think I was going to do, look in the New York Times Index and find a story from 1982:


Thousands Panic -- Humanities Departments Dissolve

Then there would be the follow-up stories:


Perphaps more ominously:


International Libraries Alarmed

A careful of the quote shows that Baudrillard felt that metaphor had collapse in the United States, also. However, Americans were joyful about it. I imagined these news stories:

"It's About Time," says Person-on-the-Street As Metaphor Collapses in Universities on East Coast Coast; Midwest Alerted; Californians Ask, "Didn't Metaphor go with Bell-Bottoms and Love Beads?"

But no, there were no such stories buried in the microfilm records of the past decade. If the momentous event had occurred, it did not receive the coverage it deserved. This leads, inexorably, to the question of why -- and to the post-modern conviction that nothing is as it seems. Has there been a cover-up? One must take such possibilities seriously in this post-post-Nixon age.

It is possible to imagine a conspiracy so vast, so powerful, that the collapse of metaphor could be sucessfully hidden? Kept from public discussion, while the entrenched interests of the status quo -- publishers, newspapers, writers, academics -- acted as though nothing had happened? All to preserve their privileged positions while in reality the basis for their elitsim had disappeared?

Well, that might be taking it a bit far.

Still, this situation does raise the question of how one finds out about interesting developments of thought. It can be a very chancy affair. For all our high-tech information age equipment, we still must rely heavily on word-of-mouth, that ancient custom. I called various folks I know who keep up with developments in French thought -- none of them had heard of the collapse of metaphor.

I went back to Baudrillard himself -- back to the text. The passage quoted above continued:

The exhilaration of obscenity, the obscenity of obviousness, the obviousness of power, the power of simulation.

Here was some familiar themes from the philosopher -- particularly his obsession with simulation. Perhaps there is a clue to his declaration of the collapse of metaphor. For a simulation is closer to the "original" than a representation is -- it can even take the place of the original in our media-based culture and nobody would know it.

Perhaps, in this age of simulation, the distance required by metaphor is closed. For metaphor is a bridge between different domains, asserting a structural similarity between areas normally thought to be separate. If, through simulation and the all-embracing simultaneity of the electronic environment, everything tends to blend together, domains melt into a gray continuum, then the distance necessary for metaphor is annihilated. Metaphor collapses just like a bridge across a canyon whose two walls suddenly move close together.

Perhaps this is what Baudrillard was getting at with his inscrutable epigram. Such are the joys of reading this philosopher, who strikes me as the French Marshall McLuhan, absorbed with the effects of the media and a master of the witty aphorism.

Has metaphor really collapsed? While pondering this question, I realized that the claim that metaphor has collapsed is itself a metaphor. It is a metaphor for the havoc electronic media have played upon our language's category systems. How postmodern. In denying something, you must affirm it. In order to declare the end of metaphor, you must use a mataphor.

So I expect that metaphor will not go out of business soon, even though its nature may change as language itself changes in its relation to reality. Metaphor may not collapse, but it may transmute. And we probably won't read about it in the pages of our newspapers.


[1.] Baudrillard, Jean. (1989). America. NY: Verso. See also: Poster, Mark. (1990). The Mode of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Author:Gozzi, Raymond., Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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