Metaphor, Metafive, Metasix,...

Benoit Baald

We are entering what many are calling the "information age". The fact that most of our economic, technical, and educational resources are devoted to the information industry, coupled with the way "information" itself has been and is being commodified, must certainly, it seems to me, be having an effect on our consentual world view, or the way we as individuals view that reality we share with others. Although it's hard to reflect on a self that's being hypothetically de-programmeed, i.e. to consider my mind as devoid of a certain body of information and context--that which relates to "information"--I am certain that my immersion in such an "info-culture" as ours has influenced my interpretation of reality, especially in giving me a toolbox of metaphors to work with. In fact, if asked to define "language", I would define it as a system for the exchange of information, allowing a loose, even hyper-inclusive, definition of "information".

With computers, information is carried in a binary "bitstream" (mathematically composed of 1's/0's; electrically of on's/off's) which allows "information scientists" to quantitatively study the efficiency of data transmission as a function of density. Normally, one would consider the information transmitted to be the semantic content encoded in the binary syntax, but interestingly, the bitstream is information itself, which can be utilized by the machine directly, electronically, without any interpretory mediation. Now, if noise-bits that carry no pre-defined semantic data -is added to the bitstream, chances are that the machine would still work--the bitstream would still be a syntactical structure to the machine-but reinterpreting the semantic content (decoding the bitstream) could result in a somewhat chaotic semantic representation, as well as erratic opperation of the machine. Now, error-correction circuitry is usually included to reconstruct information in the face of noisiness, but it is still prone to misinterpretting an especially noisy signal. The goal of information science, then, is to pack semantic information as densely as possible into the bitstream, with a minimal amount of noise, or perfect error-correction, so that the semantic content can be retrieved intact.

Wheelwright talks about metaphor as a vehicle for semantic transformation which intensifies the sense of reality obtainable from the written word. But is this motion brought about magically, by the arrangement of words on a page, or is there more that can be said for the end and means involved? It seems to me that metaphors are devised when one wants to pack semantic information very densely. In fact, one could consider the poet (generally the master of metaphor) akin to the information scientist, packing as much information as is necessary -usually the more the better, especially if we allow "information" to include not just words, but emotional connotations associated with them, nuance, etc. -into the syntactic structure to bring "life" to the experince of the receiver/interpreter of the poem.

Consider epiphor, to "carry upon", suggesting a direct mapping of similarities beetween the metaphor and that which it is trying to suggest. "The sea smiles from far off. Teeth of foam, lips of sky." Here, Lorca compares the sea to a mouth smiling, the foam on the waves to teeth, the sky -at sunset, perhaps -to lips. There is an obvious relation here of the two sides of the comparison -which characterizes epiphor -but more to the point, information is densely packed. Explicating this line -unpacking it -would require many times its syntactic quantity (and would undoubtedly rely on further metaphors, as Jaynes shows in "The Origin of Consciousness"). One might want to explain that the sea smiles only because it also has the capacity to snarl, that its teeth -the waves -in a fury can turn to fangs, that its perceived to be smiling might reflect a certain mood or world view being suggested by the poet, etc. One might even unpack the metaphor of the ocean -wavering emotional tide of the subconsciouss -and apply it to the above explication.

Also implied in epiphor is the aim for "low-error" transmission. Epiphors are usually straightforward comparisons where the poet intends the reader to unpack the information in a linear fashion, and is confident of knowing what the poem will suggest. Certainly, though, noise can be encoded in the syntactic representation in the form of ambiguity, which will require a sort of error-correction process. Usually, ambiguity will be added to increase the amount of information that can be unpacked because the decoded set would include all possible semantic sets which could arise in decoding.

Diaphor doesn't rely on direct mapping of comparisons, but instead on juxtaposition of usually incongruent ideas. I think this is very similar to noisy encoding. A very noisy bitstream is interpretable by a computer, but as what? Error correction may help rectify some syntactic errors, but with a very noisy signal, the semantic content decoded from it may be very incongruous indeed. So, I see diaphor as a noisy -ambiguity-rich -encoding process, where the poet is in control of the amount of noise to be encoded. Error correction occurs when the decoder realizes the ambiguity of the information -the semantic incongruity -and devises possible sets of semantic content. Now, assuming that ambiguity is directly proportionate to possibilities of interpretation, we see that diaphor is a method for very dense encoding of semantic information. It's also worth pointing out that the amount of "noise" that the poet can add is infinitely variable, i.e. there is a continuum of metaphor from epiphor to diaphor, which is often seen nested, and which is under the control of the poet.