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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #14, 9/6/2006

Metaphorical Expression

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Some of these ideas are explained better in Essay #52: High Contrast

The world is full of boring home videos, mediocre photo albums and tedious letters home about people's dull little lives.

What is the remedy for this? Metaphor.

Whatever your medium may be—writing, photography, paintings, videos, movies, music, talk—your best defense against boredom is to express yourself in metaphors. That is, you need to convey your message in symbolic terms, using some indirect detail or reference.

For example, instead of saying, "I love you," which has been rather overused, you could say, "My love is (like) a red, red rose." Unfortunately, that has also been overused, but it give you an idea what I am talking about: Instead of trying to talk about your love directly, you can let another object symbolize your love—a rose—and talk about that instead.

A better metaphor is something fresh that hasn't been used before, preferably something with an unexpected twist.

"My love's just bustin' at the seams, Honey!"

Now that's more interesting.

What makes most family photos and home videos so dull is that they just capture the scene, as it is, without trying to find the metaphor. The event you are recording may have great significance to you at the time—a wedding, baby's first steps—but none of that meaning is going to be conveyed in the final product unless you deliberately put it there.

Here is an example of a metaphorical photo that I took a couple weeks ago....

I have never met the girl in the photo, and I don't know what she is really thinking, but the photo conveys a certain metaphorical impression about her state of mind. She appears sad, lonely and pensive, and we feel sad for her just looking at the photo.

In this case, drops of water are standing in for her state of mind. I think this photo has depth because it is not saying something directly, only implying it. We associate drops of water with teardrops. She is living, it seems, in a whole world of them.

On the surface, it is a poor photo. The girl is out of focus, so we have very little information about her. Only a few raindrops are in focus, which doesn't improve the data content. We have no frame of reference to know where this girl is or what her problems are. Yet, it is a powerful photo.

This example illustrates my six elements for compelling artwork in any medium. (At least six are all I can think of right now.)

  1. Be metaphorical.
  2. Be ironic.
  3. Be existential.
  4. Record a unique and irreproducible event
  5. Show both motion and emotion.
  6. Remove distractions.
By metaphorical, I mean you should try to find a symbolic way of saying things. This shouldn't be forced. The symbols already exist in the environment around you; you just have to find them. (In this photo, raindrops are a symbol for the girl's state of mind.)

Ironic means that you should try to say the opposite of what would normally be expected in a situation like this. Irony creates tension and interest that give life to an artwork. (In the photo, I think an irony exists between the bright and cheerful colors of the scene and the girl's dark state of mind.)

Existential means that you should try to find some universal human emotion that every viewer is going to have some experience with. (Sadness is something we can all identify with.)

A unique and irreproducible event is a time and place in history that will never happen again. This is a hard to explain, but I believe that every photo, essay, song or video should be the product of a unique set of circumstances. This photo appears to contradict that rule, because it looks to you like a generic girl surrounded by generic raindrops. I guess what I mean is that there is no way in the world I could ever reproduce this photo even if I wanted to. It is the product of a unique confluence of events—including my presence with a camera—that is never going to happen again.

I guess another way of stating this is, "Be candid." If an advertizing designer liked this photo, he might try to reproduce it by hiring a model, creating a colored backdrop and then generating raindrops in the studio. None of those photos, I think, would match this one. Once you start trying to reproduce something that has been done before, you lose the magic of uniqueness, and your product inevitably suffers.

Motion and emotion means that there must be evidence both of physical motion (the raindrops) and some kind of human feeling. Here is an example of a photo with both motion and emotion...

A still photo doesn't move, but the best photos always create an illusion of movement, by body language or whatever. In the photo above, the illusion of motion is created by all of the heads leaning forward toward the speaker. The emotion is in the intend expressions on the listeners' faces and the "explaining face" of the speaker.

In the photo of the girl and the water drops, there is both physical motion (the water) and character emotion (sadness). Sometime even stillness itself is a form of motion, if the photo makes the stillness clear. Both motion and emotion have to be present for a perfect work. (In a linear work, like a song, there is a change in the listener between the beginning and the end.)

Remove distractions means that you should crop or otherwise edit your product to remove things that distract from your central metaphor. For example, the original image that appeared in my camera was this one...

The photo was taken in the Rose Garden at Exposition Park in Los Angeles (full album). Note that the raw picture seems quite boring at first glance, and most family photographers would have probably discarded it. Taking the photo was only half of the journey. The other half was detecting the metaphor and pulling it to the surface.

The same techniques can be applied to any artform and even to your day-to-day interactions with others: metaphor, irony, existentialism, uniqueness, motion/emotion and editing.

In my writing, I use the same principles: Express ideas with colorful metaphors. Say the opposite of what is expected. Try to capture a universal human experience. Express a unique moment in history. Show movement and feeling. Edit out all distractions.

Here is an example from a newsletter I published last week, describing a certain government bureaucrat...

    Staff knows already that "Yes, Mr. Morton," is the only acceptable answer. Any other response gets you the cute little Elmer-Fudd-blowing-his-top thing, where the head turns beet-red and smoke blows out the ears.
I could have said, "Any other response makes him angry," but that would have been boring. "Angry" got replaced by an absurd metaphorical image that couldn't possibly be "real" but that conveyed a lot of complex feeling. No real human has smoke blowing out of their ears, yet no one who knows the subject would say that I am lying. I am using a metaphor, and the end result is something much more powerful than any adjective.

The irony is that I am taking someone in a prestigious government position and equating them with a diminuitive cartoon character. Everyone loves irony, especially when the rich or powerful who have crafted an invincible image are shown to have human weaknesses. Irony is probably my single most important weapon as a writer. No matter what subject I am writing about, I am going to try to find some element that is counterintuitive. Once I do, then the writing just flows naturally.

The existential element of the quote is that I am describing anger, a universal human emotion. I didn't even have to say "anger" for you to know what I mean. We have all seen it and experienced it.

The unique time and place applies to the whole newsletter. I am not trying to write a universal treatise on child welfare; I am responding to a unique set of circumstances that will never happen again in history. The newsletter, like a good photo, is a time capsule that captures a moment. No treatise I could write can ever be as powerful as something that thoroughly occupies its place and time.

My own emotions are clearly expressed in the quote: I am rueful of my opponent. I have a political agenda, which implies movement. The motion is the smoke blowing out the earts. Whatever can be said, things are not remaining static.

The removal of distractions lies in the editing. As I wrote the newsletter, one paragraph after another was discarded because it got in the way. In the quote above, I could have said a lot more about the subject's temper tantrums, but the additional information would have probably distracted from the central metaphor of the guy blowing his top.

In both the photograph of the girl and the quote above, there is some artifice and deception going on. I don't know if the girl was really sad, and my disadvantaged political opponent doesn't have much defense against my Elmer Fudd metaphor. I guess the mark of a good artist or journalist is not just to produce these metaphorical and ironic works but to make sure they are valid.

I hope that my attack on my political opponent is actually a valid reflection of his personality and an honorable way to achieve my goals. I want my art to reflect reality.

In the girl's case, I don't know if art matches reality, because I never talked to her. What I want instead is for the scene to be genuine, at least in some internal way. As my chosen policy, I may crop and rotate the scene and perhaps fine-tune the color, but I won't mess with the details of the scene, as in Photoshop. It is important to me that the photo be real (and my writing be non-fiction), only because when you digress into any kind of fantasy, you lose your natural boundaries.

I contend that the same principles apply to every artform. For example...

  • VIDEO: I haven't done much with video, but I imagine that the same principles hold. When you go to the zoo, the worst thing you can do is try to record the scene "as it is." Instead, you should look for metaphors. The best opportunity you have at the zoo is to see animals as stand-ins for people.

  • SONGS: The best popular songs—the ones that always stick with you—are metaphors for something else. "Desperado", by the Eagles is a good example. Sometimes you don't even know what the metaphor is referring to, but it is still powerful: "Take me to the River" by the Talking Heads. The worst songs are the ones that simply state things, without the veil of metaphor.

Reader Comments

“thanks for the creative side of the research” —Lamia Allani 5/14/07 (rating=4)

“Thank you, thank you! This is so helpful because it inspires me to use build upon my skills as a consultant and presenter on issues related to child welfare practice improvement areas. This is a great tool to help trainees' get in touch with their human nature side of engaging families and to force them into doing some self-awareness of their own skills and perspectives.” —Family Engagement Specialist in New York 3/1/08 (rating=5)

Ratings so far: 4 3 5 2 1 (Average=3)

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