Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 2, 2008

Spatial Metaphors in Subjectivity

Filed under: Discussion — nickroth @ 4:33 am

Our discussion Thursday touched on the notion of the politics of metaphors, especially spatial ones, when they are used to describe various media, such as computers, computer interfaces, and other information systems. I’d like to briefly expand this discussion to touch on something closer to my own research interests – spatial metaphors for subjectivity – and to reconnect that back to its relevance for a discussion of our perception of new media.

I’m not going to venture to propose an original or foundational moment in which spatial metaphors were first used to describe the individual self, but I am willing to suggest it’s been going on for a long time – I am thinking specifically of a passage on memory in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, from 1690:

The Memory in some Men, ‘tis true, is very tenacious, even to a Miracle: But yet there seems to be a constant decay of all our Ideas, even of those which are struck deepest, and in Minds the most retentive; so that if they be not sometimes renewed by repeated Exercise of the Senses, or Reflection on those kind of Objects, which at first occasioned them, the Print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen. Thus the Ideas, as well as Children, of our Youth, often die before us: And our Minds represent to us those Tombs, to which we are approaching; where though the Brass and Marble remain, yet the Inscriptions are effaced by time, and the Imagery moulders away. The Pictures drawn in our Minds, are laid in fading Colours; and if not sometimes refreshed, vanish and disappear. How much the Constitution of our Bodies, and the make of our animal Spirits, are concerned in this; and whether the Temper of the Brain make this difference, that in some it retains the Characters drawn on it like Marble, in others like Free-stone, and in others little better than Sand, I shall not here enquire, though it may seem probable, that the Constitution of the Body does sometimes influence the Memory; since we oftentimes find a Disease quite strip the Mind of all its Ideas, and the flames of a Fever, in a few days, calcine all those Images to dust and confusion, which seem’d to be as lasting, as if graved in Marble. (151-152; italics in original)

Locke’s Essay offers an excellent example of a foundational text for the development of the modern western self that grapples with diverse metaphors for how the mind works, including print, engraving, furniture, and architecture. Even when he is discussing characters and images, Locke tends towards three-dimensional imagery: the “deepest” memories, engraving in stone or marble. I imagine there are an endless supply of early (and earlier) philosophical descriptions of the mind in terms of spatial metaphor – I cite Locke both because his use of metaphor is so rich, and also because his concept of the self is such an important part of how we today still imagine individuality.

Which brings me to my first principal question: does the use of spatial metaphors to describe the self and subjectivity in itself affect cognition and/or perception? In other words, if we imagine the mind to work in a certain way, will we tend to think in that way? This is not to ask that if we describe the mind as a cabinet in which we can add or remove knowledge, will we think like a cabinet, but it does a seem a valid inquiry to ask what influence on cognition can be ascribed to the very metaphors used to describe that cognition.

Let me suggest a few analogies to clarify what I mean. Describing computers in spatial metaphors does not necessarily make computers function in spatial ways, such as architectural hierarchies. At the lowest level, it seems that a Universal Turing Machine, or by extension any contemporary computer, remains basically unaffected by our perception of it. However, if we develop coding languages and operating systems from a perspective that is informed deeply by spatial metaphor, then the way we use computers will begin to more and more approximate the metaphors with which we preconceive them.

Here’s a very different example. A lot of guitar players (really this extends to all musical instruments) conceive of their playing in somewhat spatial terms. For improvisation especially, it is useful to “see” the guitar neck as a two-dimensional space upon which certain spaces, demarcated by frets and strings, are more or less consonant or dissonant based on the key of the song. It is quite easy to find spatial patterns on the surface of the fretboard, and one can often hear contemporary musicians discuss chord progressions as “t-shaped” (think C-G-A-F) or “box-shaped” (think C-D-G-A). Other guitarists approach the instrument with no such preconceptions, learning by pure memorization or conversely relying on more freely on trusting muscle memory (or, the I’m-just-channeling-Satan/Hendrix/God/etc. approach). Other non-spatial metaphors exist as well, many of course based on solely auditory imagery, others on temporal factors. My point is that in all cases, the guitar itself remains unchanged, but the way it is played differs drastically. Consider the potential differences in the metaphorical preconceptions of, say, Jimi Hendrix and Andrés Segovia.

So does conceiving of the self in spatial terms have an effect on how that self actually thinks? I think so, yes. The metaphors we use to describe things like information systems or playing guitar or cognition do have structuring effects on the way those things operate.

From this, certain other questions arise: does organizing the self in spatial metaphors make the self more inclined to perceive other things in terms of spatial metaphors? Or does it alter cognition in other, more nebulous ways? Rather than answer these questions directly, I’d like to briefly explain where I’m coming from, and what I might be getting at, with all this.

A good deal of my senior honors thesis (remember, I’m not actually a grad student yet, so that thesis expresses the fullest embodiment of anything I can begin to call “my work” or “my research” to date) is spent on tracking the metaphor of “The Grid” in terms of language, cognition, and physical environment, from the mid-eighteenth century to the late twentieth century, as it plays out in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, as highlighted by certain important elements of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.” Anyway, that’s a lot to get into, so I’ll leave it at this: I think the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw a rise in the tendency toward grid-forms (essentially multiply stacked and orthogonally arranged binarisms) in the physical environment (the increasing precision of lines of latitude and longitude, cities developed and planned on grids, architecture arranged by grids, etc), and in linguistic and cognitive modes – of the self (black/white, male/female, rich/poor, master/slave, etc.) and worldview (nature/culture, science/faith, real/fiction, etc.) I think this tendency towards grids describes Haraway’s concern with the “Grid of control” at the foundation of “white capitalist patriarchy,” and I think Pynchon and Haraway are up to the same thing: an anti-grid agenda in the form of either Haraway’s cyborg or Pynchon’s novels’ cyborgian relationship with their reader. That’s fifty-something pages in a paragraph, but I think it gets the idea across of the importance of how we “map” the mind and its relation to how we “map” our world, and that spatial metaphors are absolutely crucial to those ends.

So to return to my original point, I think it’s important to look at the spatial metaphors for cognition and their effect on our perception of new media. If the mind is conceived of – and consequently operates as – a grid, what does that say about the way we have developed computers, which are based on binary code and utterly dependent on the Electric Grid. And what does it say about the spatial metaphors with which we continually describe new media?

~Nick Roth



  1. I really enjoyed this post. While reading I was struck that “the grid” might be a useful metaphor for thinking about the psychometric/physiological approach to reading narrated by Sue Currell. The experiments she describes are rooted in the two-fold goal of (1) disciplining the reader and (2) gridding the page into efficient columns of “digestable” typographies.

    If this represents the instrumental Edisonian conception of reading, the anti-grid might be found in the page “experiments” of Mallarme, Marinetti, Pound, WCW, Bob Brown, etc. Currell nods at but doesn’t discuss the new aesthetic approaches to the page-as-interface emerging around the turn of the century (and harkening back to Sterne).

    I’d also be curious to hear if and how your thesis avoids the binarism of grid/anti-grid it implies (and which is articulated by Currell as self-improvement/art).

    Interesting stuff either way.

    Comment by jeremy — February 5, 2008 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  2. The article by Michael North referenced in the Currell is available here:

    The most relevant crux of North’s argument is that the aesthetic goals of writers like Pound and Brown were in fact eerily similar to the “instrumental” ones motivating the research discussed by Currell (i.e. improving reading speed and retention).

    Comment by jeremy — February 5, 2008 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  3. A late reply to Jeremy’s comments:

    I definitely read your post before I read the Currell, and so it was certainly on mind during the reading, and I think issues of the grid are certainly at play there.

    As for the grid/anti-grid binarism, I’m not going to pretend to have fully avoided it. I tried to establish a sort of apparent binary more like grid/blob (via Franklin Melendez), and then discuss how Pynchon navigates that binarism, and how that navigation parallels what Haraway calls “cyborg writing.” I’m still working on editing down and revising the paper, with some thought on maybe one day trying to get it published, and perhaps the term “anti-grid agenda” is too dichotomous. I think Pynchon and Haraway are both to some extent rebelling against a tendency towards grids in Western tradition, but not in favour of an anti-grid or a blob – it’s more about creatively reconfiguring grid-spaces and other metaphors.

    Comment by nickroth — February 14, 2008 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

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