Misplaced Metaphors in the Anthropocene: Beware of the Devastating Power of Cultural Clichés & Misconstrued Metaphors on a Small Planet

Misplaced-Metaphores-RhodesIn a short volume published decades ago entitled Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson drew our attention to the fact that most of us, most of the time manage to make our way through life and make sense of the world around us with a relatively limited set of metaphors. As anthropologists have always emphasized, however, it is essential to understand that metaphors are not “instinctual,” but rather “cultural,” phenomena. They are not given to us in our DNA, but rather are learned very early on in life—usually as an aspect of learning the language and other rule-governed norms that we master while growing up in any given culture. So thoroughly are these cultural phenomena absorbed that humans come to regard them as “second nature.”

QR-Misplaced-met-ntBecause metaphors are so deeply inscribed in our existence, we do not really have control over them at first, any more than we have control, for example, over the “mother tongue” that we learn, or the physical environment that is our first “home.” Later in life, perhaps, we can reflect upon key metaphors that we internalized unconsciously as our eager and absorbent minds encountered life’s complexities, but, just as many people never learn a second language beyond their “mother tongue,” so, too, do many people—perhaps most—not learn to transcend the limits of the metaphors that came to govern their consciousness from their youngest years forward.


Herein lies much of our problem as a cultural species in the Anthropocene: we have evolved both as a physical species and a social species in a world whose governing physical parameters change on different time scales than our biophysical equipment as a mammal, on the one hand, or our cultural symbol systems as a social species, on the other. It is the relative “lag” time or differential “acceleration” rates in these three simultaneous registers of our existence as a species (biophysical, genetic, and cultural) that causes the problems we must now confront.

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