Tony Veale – Ways of Seeing and Not Seeing with Metaphor

Ways of Seeing and Not Seeing with MetaphorUniversitycollegedublinlogo

Tony Veale
Department of Computer Science
University College Dublin

Metaphor and the “dolly zoom”
The “dolly zoom” is one of the most dramatic camera moves in the filmmaker’s repertoire. It comprises two camera actions that are executed simultaneously: a “dolly shot”, in which the camera is quickly pulled away from its target on a trolley or a track; and a “zoom shot”, in which the camera lens extends for a simultaneous close-up of the target. These two actions almost cancel each other out, but not quite: while the target remains resolutely in focus, and appears just as prominent on the screen, the background behind the target dramatically falls away. The resulting effect is suggestive of a shocking realization or a moment of sudden clarity. The most famous dolly zoom in cinema can be found in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and occurs when Chief Brody becomes aware of the titular shark for the first time. Readers can see the shot for themselves on Youtube.

Good metaphors work a lot like dolly zooms: they focus sharply on those aspects of a topic that are of most interest to a speaker, and allow the rest of the world to fall away. So metaphors of seeing have always held a special attraction for us as scholars of metaphor. Max Black likened a metaphor to looking through a piece of blackened glass on which a pattern had been carefully etched away. The glass allows us to see only what the etchings have been designed to reveal, and what we see is given shape and meaning by the structure of the etchings. Metaphors invite us to see, tell us where to look, and control what we see when we do look.

The argumentative use of metaphor: Two examples
We use metaphors to communicate with and persuade others, but we also use them to persuade ourselves that the world really is the way we want to see it. Consider the following dialogue from the movie Jurassic Park (also by Steven Spielberg). Genetically-engineered dinosaurs have run amok through a hi-tech theme park-slash-safari, dashing the owner’s hope of a trouble-free launch. John Hammond, the delusional owner, is seen here talking with a mathematician, Ian Malcolm, who has been asked to certify that the park is safe for its public launch:

Hammond:   All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked!

Malcolm:  Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.

Notice how Hammond’s implicit metaphor downplays the scale of his failure; he reduces bloody carnage to the inevitable glitches that face every new business. So he uses his Disneyland metaphor to look away from the bloody debacle and focus instead on his long-term business case. But Malcolm responds by turning Hammond’s self-deluding metaphor into a full-blown conceptual blend, re-focusing the conversation on the bloodbath while ridiculing Hammond’s myopia. By drawing on contextually-salient conceptual elements that lie outside the tight close-up of Hammond’s metaphor, he cleverly punctures Hammond’s delusion.

A figurative dolly-zoom can also be seen in an anecdote recounted by the boxer Muhammad Ali. As he tells it, Ali was a passenger on a commercial air flight when he was told to buckle up for takeoff. “Superman don’t need no seat-belt”, Ali is said to have replied, petulantly but entirely in character. “Superman don’t need no airplane neither” came the reply from the stewardess. The basis for Ali’s metaphoric view of himself as Superman is obvious: both exude muscularity and strength, and Superman always triumphs over his opponents. These points of comparison are so obvious that Ali fails to see other aspects of Superman that are just as obvious in the context of an air flight: Superman can fly! If a dolly zoom makes the background fall away, a contextually apt response such as that of Malcolm or the stewardess above can restore it with a resounding thud.

Metaphors offer ways of not seeing as well as seeing. Our metaphors can be beguiling, and can lead to state of cognitive capture when creators are in thrall to their own figurative creations. When metaphors are used to argue for or against a position, as in the Hammond and Ali examples above, one must thus wonder if a metaphor is not obscuring one’s view of salient facts that are painfully obvious to others. We are discouraged from producing mixed metaphors, but it clearly pays to be capable of generating a diverse set of metaphors for a given topic, so that we might avoid blind-spots in our reasoning.

Metaphor Magnet
In my group at UCD in Dublin, we use computational models to explore the processes of metaphor generation, to build software that is capable of autonomously generating a multitude of original or extended metaphors for many different topics. This work is a natural complement to the large body of work on the interpretation of metaphors, which has the luxury of assuming that the metaphors under consideration have been created by an intelligent human being to communicate a coherent meaning. In contrast, our software must first construct this meaning for itself, then search for an effective metaphorical conceit, and only then search for apt linguistic form. Our software can be accessed as a public web-service called Metaphor Magnet (see http://ngrams.ucd.ie/metaphor-magnet-acl) which can also perform a basic form of lexico-conceptual blending. It will even generate a poem from its own metaphors on demand (albeit not a very good poem; check out the following: http://ngrams.ucd.ie/metaphor-magnet-acl/p?source=soft:rain&target=love). Metaphor Magnet also tweets its own metaphors, via its unmoderated Twitter account MetaphorIsMyBusiness (handle: @MetaphorMagnet) every hour or so.

To help understand how metaphor influences the way we see the world, we have also built another autonomous “Twitterbot” named @MetaphorMirror. This bot sets out to pair an apt metaphor (generated by Metaphor Magnet) to headlines from the news stream on Twitter (e.g. from CNN, the BBC or Fox News). We are currently evaluating the extent to which the chosen metaphors influence a reader’s viewpoint on the news story, which will, in turn, help us to better understand how metaphors shape what we see and what we do not see.

Why not check out these Twitterbots for yourself? Any researchers wanting more detail on their workings, or wanting a large stock of computer-generated metaphors on a diverse range of topics (or even from just one topic) can contact me at Tony.Veale@UCD.ie and we will be happy to oblige. We can generate them for you wholesale!