Sunday, October 14, 2012

On Metaphors

Jeebus Christmas dancing on a tasty Ritz Cracker, the Intertubes (or at least parts thereof) do not understand the concept of "metaphors."

Posted above is a brilliant video by Boots Riley and The Coup called "The Guillotine." The entire video is metaphorical, of course, given its invocations of "The Wiz" and "Les Mis" and who knows what all. Boots and The Coup are Oakland, CA, artistes, and you don't mess with them. You just don't.

So hotflashcarol posted the video over at FDL the other day along with a link to an article on it at Wired. This caused something of a stir because one of the mavens of the site became enraged at the "suggestion of violence" in the video and commenced to denounce and renounce the video, everyone involved with it and hfc and all their works and descendants unto the seventh generation. Or something.

I've run into this situation a surprising number of times in my perambulations around the InterTubes and Teh Webs since dirt was new. The use of metaphor simply escapes the consciousness of certain individuals who assert some kind of "authority" within the Web-O-Sphere, and typically something like All Hell breaks loose as various posters try to edumacate their stupid asses.

Trouble is, it never works. There is no learning curve whatsoever. Whoever is objecting to the metaphorical statement or video or whatever typically never does anything but object, denounce and renounce and then disappears. There is no interaction, discussion, or engagement. Thus, there can be no learning, and that seems to be the point: simply declare, upon Authority, and be gone.

So it was at FDL.

The individual who objected is known there as a curmudgeon and spoil-sport in any case (there are a number of such high in FDL's hierarchy; it has always been so, sadly. When it was first manifested, it really made me wonder about Jane's judgement, let alone the judgement of those she delegates, but I have since learned it's a somewhat more complicated situation than might first appear to be the case...)

hotflashcarol removed her content from the post, stating that she didn't want to get involved with the Objector, as she was well familiar with his ways, and she wanted no truck with him at all. The post and thread however was maintained for sometime afterward -- the post with no content, the comments mostly slamming the Objector for idiocy and stupidity and celebrating the musical and visual dynamism of Boots Riley and The Coup. And, importantly, mentioning over and over again that "it is a metaphor."

You would think after a while it would sink in, but as is the way on the InterWebs, it never does. I'm convinced it's because there are some online devotees who are simply incapable of comprehending the concept of Metaphor. It doesn't -- and apparently can't -- occur to them that artists (especially) utilize metaphor all the time, it is their stock in trade, and that the Metaphor is not a literal evocation or invocation; it is a means to more fully appreciate and understand... something.

The objection was to the "suggestion" of violence in the video; the "suggestion" was that of the Guillotine, a widely recognized Metaphor in Revolutionary and Resistance circles. No one I know of is actually advocating the employment of guillotines, at least not as they were used in the French Revolution. But their image is apparently a powerful one, and certain people are -- perhaps justifiably -- terrified of them. The Guillotine gives them the willies, bad. The image of the Guillotine, and its use as a metaphor for the Power of the People makes some people believe that the Mob will start chopping off heads any minute if they are not curbed and controlled. No such thing is the case, but the fear is somehow overpowering to some people.

As many people pointed out, the Guillotine Metaphor is not a literal invocation of violence, nor is it meant to be. It is an invocation of Power, the Power of the People. "We got the Guillotine" -- they've got (ie: the Authorities have) the army and the police. They impose violence on the People each and every day, without let or hindrance, and that is the real violence of our current condition. The Guillotine Metaphor suggests their violence against the People is subject to interference.

But all this should be obvious.

Really, it should.

Unfortunately, on the InterTubes, especially in the so-called Progressive Sphere, it isn't. Never has been. I'm convinced it never will be.


  1. Metaphors aside, the Guillotine
    is more of a terror weapon used to silence and cower populations by, example: "act up and you will get in the neck......"

    The rather small amount of "royalty" during the French Revolution that saw this fate is by far almost miniscule in comparison to the use the Nazi and 'modern' French state put this method to use.

    So in my view the metaphor fails particularly when you consider how unhinged large parts of the American Right is already... the slight use of said "metaphor" being how the web is today and the ease at which the Right can turn arguments and distort reality, It becomes almost tragic comedy that those in opposition to our evolving authoritarian predicament would think such an idea as metaphorical when in fact it is most definitely more likely to give those on the right ideas about how to 'improve" the death penalty....


    Although the Guillotine is known for its frequent use in France, it was also a common execution by the Nazis. According to the Nazis themselves, there was over 16,500 executions by Guillotine between 1933 and 1945. Around 1944 the Nazis used the Guillotine even more frequently. During this time, Hitler ordered an additional 20 machines and began recruiting more executioners. In a ten month period between 1944 and 1945, over 10,000 heads fell. At the execution camp in Plontzensee, 70 Jewish prisoners were executed in a single night! The most significant executioners was Johann Baptist Reichart. He served as a prime executioner before, during, and after the Nazi regime. It is said that he has guillotined 2,876 people, more than any other executioner. Even more amazing, Reichart guillotined 1,399 people in the year of 1944,. This is an average of four victims per day!


  2. jackson,

    Your comment makes plenty of sense -- given the facts of the matter. I'm well aware, for example, that the guillotine had quite a career after the French Revolution, primarily, as you say, as a terror weapon of the State (not just by France and Nazi Germany, either) to keep the proles and conquered peoples in line. The irony, of course, was that the guillotine was conceived of as a "mercy machine."

    Its literal history isn't how it's used in the video, however, and I don't know whether most of those who would see and object to the video would be reacting from the basis of knowledge of that history.

    There seems to be a visceral reaction in parts of the "left" -- particularly on the Internets -- to the idea of "losing one's head" -- by having it chopped off -- in a Revolutionary or Resistance context. Particularly -- and I think bizarrely -- in a historical context, ie: the French Revolution. I've seen people (ostensibly on the "left") claim that the French Revolution and the violence associated with it, particularly the use of the guillotine during the Terror, did nothing to improve the lot of the French People. I think the French would disagree, but what do they know?

    There seems to be no problem, on the other hand, with the very public use by the state of swords to cut off the heads (and arms and hands and legs and feet) of people in places like Saudi Arabia to this day.

    If an allied and "traditional" state is doing it, in other words, no matter what they are actually doing (and SA is one of the worst, but there are others...) it's OK. If a Revolutionary movement or Resistance campaign or Enemy State does it, or even hints at it through metaphor, or an artist (like Boots Riley) uses the metaphor in his work, all hell breaks loose.

    I've long been curious why that happens and why when it does happen, why it is almost always confined to the "left".

    Even my use years ago of a metaphorical -- and comical -- phrase from "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

    ** Who should be first against the wall when the Revolution comes **

    caused a similar stir. It was deemed "violence advocacy" and was widely denounced in no uncertain terms for blood-lust and worse.

    It's really bizarre.

    When I pointed out the metaphorical and comical context (and source, with links) to some of those objecting, the denunciations continued, and some got louder.

    As for rightists picking up on the metaphorical use of these images and utilizing them literally, as the Nazis did, for example, I honestly don't know how you avoid that risk.

    They will, quite simply, use anything as a weapon against the so-called "left."

    It's something like protesters trying to avoid any sort of commotion, confrontation, or discomforting of Authority -- so as not to get beat up or gassed or arrested. It doesn't work. What protesters do has almost nothing to do with how Authority reacts; the reaction is driven, almost always, by the perceived effectiveness and the potential threat posed by the protest. Authority has learned from the successful nonviolent protests of the 1960's and '70's, and they have learned how never to let that sort of thing succeed again.