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From "the road" to "the fast track" - American metaphors of life.

LIFE IS A JOURNEY is one of the most ancient and venerable of metaphors. It is a core metaphor of the mystical Chinese philosophy of Taoism: The Tao is The Way, The Path, which is constantly changing.

In the English language, we have a series of metaphors which rest on the root metaphor TIME GOES PAST US FROM FRONT TO BACK, as pointed out by Lakoff and Johnson. (1) We "face the future," the "time will come," we "look ahead" to next week.

In the United States, in the second half of the 20th Century, we have fashioned our own variations on this universal theme, focusing on one of the most conspicuous elements of our landscapes: "the road."

"The road" has been a powerful metaphor for freedom from the constraints of ordinary life, ever since Jack Kerouac's On the Road became the Beatnik Bible in the 1950's. Kerouac saw beauty in gas stations and freedom on the road. The metaphor caught the imagination of a generation. Many of the key phenomena of "the Sixties" developed in coherence with this metaphor.

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, for example, traveled around the country on a bus driven by one of Kerouac's buddies, Neal Cassidy. The Beatles piled a bunch of people into a bus for their "Magical Mystery Tour." And getting high on psychedelic drugs was called "taking a trip."

And what was at the end of the road? California, celebrated in song and story by the Beach Boys as a land of endless beaches, tanned girls, surfboards, and hot rod cars.

In a way "the road" took over the task historically assigned to the frontier in American history -- it was an outlet, an opening, a way for the disaffected and disenchanted to pick up stakes and move on. It offered hope and adventure, mixed with uncertainty and danger. "The Sixties" was also an era of hitchhiking, when people would give each other rides and share life stories. I remember my days of hitchhiking on both coasts during those years, meeting all sorts of people, never quite sure where I'd wind up, but often being pleasantly surprised by the knowledge and insights of ordinary people.

When "the Sixties" faded into dissention, paranoia, and the "Me Decade," the beatnik-inspired "road" metaphor relaxed its grip on people's imaginations. But it did not go entirely away. Instead, it transmuted into another metaphor, "the fast track." From being a relaxed, hang-out "road," the metaphor became a high-stakes, corporate, competitive "track."

Two variants of this metaphor are common: the "fast track," which one finds in schools, law firms, and corporations; and the "fast lane," which seems to be open to anyone willing to take risks.

On the "fast track," one finds driven, competitive, overachieving children, men, and women. People on all levels of the "fast track" get extra homework, demanding crisis problems to solve, and short deadlines. The "fast track" wears people down. You get lots of money, but have little time to enjoy it.

Lately we have been hearing about alternatives to the "fast track." In the mid-1980s there was controversy over the "mommy track," where women having children would be shunted onto a side track a bit less fast. By the 1990s, the "mommy track" was looking more desirable to both men and women who had to raise children. That led to the "local track," which allowed women to work part-time but still advance in their firms.(2)

Life in the "fast lane" has a considerably greater variety of characters in it. The ways of earning money in the "fast lane" are often borderline legal or downright illegal. Gangsters, hipsters, con artists, hustlers, and drug dealers set the tone. It is a world of high stakes, high status, beautiful women, beautiful lies, fast money, fast cars, fast talk, fast women -- at least so goes the mythology. The "fast lane" is a kind of terra incognita -- no one is sure of the rules. One imagines road signs: FAST LANE, LEFT: POOR PEOPLE EXIT RIGHT.(3)

But sooner or later you arrive at the toll gate. What is the toll for living in the fast lane? We are rarely told, beyond the formulaic endings in the movies and on TV where the denizens of the "fast lane" demimonde get gunned down by the wholesome representatives of law and order. Despite this there are always plenty of recruits, it seems, for life in the "fast lane." Is the "fast lane" a death trip? Or can people escape it to find rewarding lives in a quiet suburb? We don't really know. In a way it doesn't matter -- most of those in the fast lane don't seem to care.

I have noticed another metaphor which occasionally pops up, which is congruent with these fast track-lane metaphors: the metaphor of the "rearview mirror."

Marshall McLuhan made this metaphor famous by talking about the way a new medium, at first, is made to do the work of the old media -- looking at the future through a rearview mirror.

But the metaphor popped up unexpectedly in the conversation of W. Edwards Deming, the total-quality management guru, talking about management by results. Managing a company only according to its results, he said, is like driving a car by watching only the rear-view mirror. His point was that managers need to pay attention to the processes that produced the results if they wanted to make lasting changes. (4)

The notion that we are going inexorably ahead and yet refusing to look through the windshield, but instead are concentrating on the rear-view mirror, provides a powerful critique. It conveys the senselessness and dangers of attitudes which refuse to face the unsettling future.

And rear-view mirrors can be tricky. I am reminded of the lettering on many such mirrors: "Objects Are Closer Than They Appear" -- an appropriate epigram for the "fast lane."

So our leisurely beatnik "road" has become a high-pressure corporate "fast track" where even wishful looking in the "rearview mirror" won't shield us from unexpected buffeting by other denizens of the "fast lane" who might overtake us at any time.


1. Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pg. 43.

2. Deutsch, Claudia. (Oct. 6, 1991). The Fast Track's Diminished Lure. New York Times, Section 3, pg. 25.

3. For the idea about the road signs, I am indebted to Jean Baudrillard, in his book America. (1989), NY:Verso.

4. W. Edward Deming, in Deming of America, Petty Consulting Productions, Inc., PBS, May 10, 1992.

Dr. Raymond Gozzi, Jr., is Associate Professor of Communication at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois.
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Title Annotation:Metaphors in Action
Author:Gozzi, Raymond, Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:A general semantics glossary, part 4.
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