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Tropic Discourse

I suppose I have been interested in metaphor and other tropes since I went to a conference on “Metaphor and Thought” back when I was in grad school in the 1970s. No doubt it goes back further, to creative writing in high school, or the first college classes I ever took, in poetry, and in creative writing. I know I spent some time in grad school with a colleague from the AI program at UC San Diego, trying to figure out how one might start to develop language comprehension programs that could understand metaphor. For various reasons of education, working as a research psychologist, and considering myself something of a literary person, I believe metaphor is central to both language and thinking.

I remember an undergraduate friend who, for whatever reasons, thought she wanted to study clinical psychology at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio (not the Ohio State University, with its football consciousness). I think maybe her boyfriend was going there. But in her interview there she was told by two young faculty that if she wanted to become a psychiatrist, she should get a medical degree first, but it she really wanted to understand human minds and emotions, she should read Kafka and Dostoevsky. That may have been long before the whole subfield of Emotion really became a hot area of study in the last ten or twenty years, odd only if you think people go to see a shrink because they feel bad, not because they can’t think properly. I recently discovered that no less a figure than Noam Chomsky, one of my intellectual heroes back in the days he was still a linguist inventing Transformational Genetic Grammar, and I was studying psycholinguistics, also has said that reading literature is really the best route to understanding human mental life. I also had a young colleague in the European Society for the Study of Science and Religion who won an early scholarly award for a paper explaining her motivation for leaving a graduate program in neuroscience. She had come to believe the operationalization of many of the concepts needed to understand consciousness operationalization being how we define concepts to make them more easily measurable, one of the hallmarks of empirical research, led to such brutal oversimplifications as to render much of the research trivial, and that reading Kierkegaard’s would make for a substantially more enriched and fulfilling life. Indeed, part of the motivation for my early retirement from academic psychology is that I thought that understanding the narrative that defined emotion, mind, self, and even soul might be better served outside it.

I always like teaching about Freudian psychoanalytic theory in a course on personality, as he, along with his protégé Carl Jung, were willing to think about the overall structure and history of human minds rather than doing the infinitely fragmented piecework of too much empirical research. Who was ever going to do the synthetic work of pulling all the pieces together to present a picture of a whole, integrated human life. I did manage to get my department to make the course in Theories of Personality one of our “integrative” junior-level courses, to do exactly that. There are plenty of empirical problems with depth psychology, of course, which may not mean so much that it is untestable or unfalsifiable, but that it is difficult to formulate in testable or falsifiable hypotheses, not that one cannot. But one of the annoyingly simplistic critiques included arguing that Freud’s ideas, say about fixation on the anal stage, are not literally true.

Freud’s psychosexual stages are defined by different “border crossings” between what is inside and outside one’s body, consisting of the orifices by which such commerce occurs, which are both lubricated by mucous membranes, and rich with neural receptors. While it is empirically true that severity of toilet training is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce the concatenation of personality characteristics described as an “anal” personality, this particular set of characteristics, of being hyper-organized, overcontrolling, obsessed with cleanliness and order has been empirically shown to co-occur. But why should its origin be restricted to toilet training? Certainly the anus is one of those orifices, lined with mucous membranes and rich with neural receptors, that is likely to be, at some point, one of the foci of psychosexual development. But wait, isn’t this really just a synechdoche, one of those interesting tropes wherein a part is taken to represent the whole? Indeed, isn’t this whole stage of psychosexual development about how the growing child learns to control his body in social prescribed ways? Certainly different cultures have different rules and expectations about the elimination of waste, but there are a huge range of “body-control” behaviors that a child is also learning: To sit still in church, not to bite one’s sister, that there are circumstances in which there are different expectations about vocal volume, that falling down screaming in a grocery store aisle to get one’s way is not likely to be effective? And aren’t those “anal stage” characteristics really, as another Freudian protégé (actually of Freud’s daughter Anna) Erik Erikson put it, actually a psychosocial stage of “autonomy vs shame and doubt”? Please class, would anyone care to speculate as to why Sigmund Freud won the Goethe prize for literature rather than a Nobel for science (or at least medicine, if Freud is to be identified as a neurologist)? Because much of his understanding of human development is decidedly not literal! So if a critique takes it’s use of tropic discourse literally, and then critiques it for not being literally true, is the problem with the theory or with the critique?

There are larger problems in our culture of text-based electronic communication, some of which I have addressed in this blog before. I’ve recently begun to participate on several area “story slams,” where one is given a topic or theme, and asked to tell a story about one’s life hat is “true to the best of one’s recollection.” Unfortunately, even here, where one expects to find more literary types to be, well, a bit less literal and more likely to use various alternative tropes, I was surprised to find so many of the stories about “scars,” to be about actual physical scars, rather than more interesting ps