A Metaphor for Something

A few months ago, I saw a man sitting and playing a harmonica on the roof of the Forbes Media building in Manhattan. I was reminded of a tag that Jason Kottke uses for certain posts on his website: this is a metaphor for something.

Kottke and I aren’t the only ones to have stumbled upon this idea, of course. A blog called Clusterflock has posted images with that title a number of times, although usually with less justification than Kottke, in my opinion. A Google search turns up other examples.

“This is a metaphor for something” strikes me as a very interesting category. How is it that we can recognize something not as being a particular type of object, or similar to some other type of object, but as the sort of thing that might be used to stand in for some other object—we don’t know what?

Maybe the answer is that we do know what the supposed metaphor is pointing at—we just don’t feel like saying, perhaps because our idea is too vague or diffuse or difficult to put into words. That seems to be the case, for example, with this Onion article from 2007, “Nation’s Crumbling Infrastructure Probably Some Sort of Metaphor.” The metaphor, in this case, clearly takes the poor state of America’s roads, bridges, etc., as a symbol of the poor state of America; the only unclear part is what exactly about America is supposed to be crumbling.

Still, even if we do have some idea of what the supposed metaphor refers to, it’s interesting that we’re able to identify its undefined potential. We normally think of metaphors as custom-made for a specific use, rather than modular like an item in a toolbox. But we’re able to recognize symbolic potential in certain images and file them away for future use.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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