Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 6, 2018

metaphors we fail to think by

Dan Chiasson on Emily Wilson’s Twitter feed:

The conversation spiralled out to other words in the passage, other choices, with Wilson returning to a line she’s used before: “Homeric Greek is a mix of dialects from different ages.” It was a striking invocation of an earlier era’s most resplendent verbal technology, the Odyssey itself, to justify a choice made in the age of Twitter. It reminds us that Homer’s poem, too, was a crowd-sourced database of generations of knowledge, customs, set pieces, and legends. To love the poem is to change it.

Well, no, the Odyssey really isn’t “a crowd-sourced database of generations of knowledge, customs, set pieces, and legends.” Not in the least. This I/O model of thought and art, in which the poet aggregates input and vomits output, does gross violence to the imaginative subtlety with which great poets sift through, responds to, makes use of, and transforms the many stories they have heard and the many human voices from which they have heard them. 

To which one might say, Come on, dude, it’s just a metaphor. But as I have noted before, these metaphors that redescribe humans as computers, and thought as the kind of computation that computers tend to do, are pervasive, and when we use them over and over and over again, we gradually and quite seriously alter and impoverish our self-understanding. We get smaller and simpler in order to resemble our tools. And to me, that joke isn’t funny any more

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