A Little About Lakoff

by Mark Staff Brandl

Theories are constructed objects. “They assembled a theory.” George Lakoff 1

Although first appearing in the late 80’s, cognitive metaphor and embodied mind theory took until the turn of the millennium to begin affecting the practice and understanding of creators and scholars. It is still far too little known by visual artists, curators and critics. Mark G. Taber and I intend in our own small way in this website to help spread the word, as it were.

Cognitive linguistics, especially the subdivision called cognitive metaphor, is largely based on the ground-breaking work of George Lakoff and his two collaborators, Mark Turner and Mark Johnson. Lakoff, who began as a student of Noam Chomsky, initiated research which led to the creation of an important interdisciplinary study of metaphor, now generally called cognitive linguistics. Theorists involved in this approach advance the hypotheses that metaphor is the foundation of all thought, that linguistic elements are conceptually processed and that language is chiefly determined by bodily and environmental experiences.

The desire for an imminent fundamental change linked to a new understanding of trope is indeed in the air, not only for me; ever more frequently, artists and authors have begun to refer to metaphor and cognitive metaphor theory. For example, Frank Davey, a Canadian poet with an involvement in theory, states the following in an interview with Héliane Ventura in the journal Sources.

Lakoff and Johnson suggest that many of our habitual metaphors are connected to our culture’s ideological investments. ... To some extent their work appears to be related to various projects of Deconstruction, in that they raise to consciousness the hidden assumptions of banally figurative language. Political and economic metaphors, they write, “can hide aspects of reality,” “they constrain our lives,” they “can lead to human degradation.” But they also argue that ordinary language is necessarily metaphoric, that cultures need the conceptual frames of metaphor to provide perspectives and coherence. And I recall that as well they examine metaphors around women, for example women as food (“a real dish”) or as fire (“hot babes,” “hot stuff,” “kiss of fire,” “torrid romance” etc). It’s this ... kind of metaphor that I play with in Back to the War in poems such as “The Complaint,” or “Sweets,” or “The Fortune Teller.” ... The “link” that metaphor requires isn’t foregrounded in [my poems] but is merely latent until it is made by the reader...2

Likewise, art critic Barry Schwabsky writes of the influential New York painter Jonathan Lasker in ArtForum magazine:

Jonathan Lasker once told me he thought the Minimalists had been trying to make an art without metaphor, and in fact had succeeded; but the point having been proved, he continued, there’s no longer any urgent motivation to produce more metaphor-free work. 3

Cognitive linguistics and Harold Bloom’s 4 revisionism were a revelation to me. I found Bloom’s notion of agon to supplement Lakoffian conceptions splendidly. Bloom sees the primal activity of the creative life as one of struggling with and overcoming one’s influences by revisionistically, willfully and yet imaginatively misunderstanding them. In cognitive linguistics and agonistic revisionism, I discovered theories which read true to my experiences and additionally offered openings to the world, criticizing the solipsism and sophistry of much other current literary theory by, among other strengths, subsuming their rivals’ insights. I will discuss my adaptation of Bloom’s theory in later articles.

It can now be seen that the Late Modernist attempt to undermine metaphor, as described by Schwabsky and Lasker above, although necessary at that time, did not actually function as expected, but was rather a negational, metaleptic trope in itself. Moreover, Davey expresses a perception that there is a continuation between Derrida and Lakoff, an opinion both controversial and, surprisingly, held by many. In his eyes as a working poet, he finds aspects of Deconstruction and cognitive metaphor to be akin, something that both factions would heartily rebuff. The continuum containing both these theories is that of the free play of tropes. The fascination and excitement of encountering and applying new conceptual systems can lead to productive discoveries, both in the hands of creators and of scholars, whatever their final political status becomes. Applying novel theories can produce new discernments into literature and art contemporary with a given philosophy, but also into aspects of the nature of creativity across a broader time span.

Lakoffian theory offers, at this time, an atypical model, in that it acknowledges agency, that is, it recognizes the individuals who make art experiences. This renders a chance to investigate and speculate on the nuts-and-bolts of creation. The cognitive theory of metaphor is also unusual in that it is a linguistic theory more concerned with concepts than with words alone, thus fostering application to a wide range of art forms. An important facet of cognitive linguistic theory is that metaphors are embodied, that is, that mental concepts are constructed tropaically out of bodily experiences. These foundational perceptions can furthermore lead to what he terms “image schemas,” which can then be used to structure somewhat less physical events. This has potentially significant implications for the poet, the painter, the novelist, the critic and the scholar. It is indeed one of the main tools I have chosen to employ in my theories. In my dissertation and in my articles here, Lakoffian theory was and will be applied to the competitive discovery of trope within aspects of form in visual art.

Lakoff believes that a proper appreciation for metaphor cuts through the perpetual clash between the so-called “objective” view of trope (that it is purely literary, almost decorative) and the so-called “subjective” view (that it has no direct tie to experience). He promotes an alternative that stresses the centrality of metaphor to our thinking processes, and thereby to our language and other actions. Hence, I see cognitive metaphor theory similarly offering an alternative to Formalism and Poststructuralism by subsuming them both. Thus my theory is derived from cognitive linguistics as a method of augmenting the range of poststructural thought and revivifying appreciation of the formal discoveries of authors and artists.