Metaphors From the Ground Up

In my last post, Synaesthesia, Non-linguistic Thought, and Minerality?, I spoke often of metaphors without explaining as much as I probably should have (I’m supposed to keep these posts brief because they are my least popular). I mused on grounded cross modal metaphors (think warm & cool colors) and then of once removed metaphors (minerality) and I hope to elaborate on those concepts. This is tricky territory, so just like Marshall McLuhan, I don’t explain—I explore.

I learned of grounded metaphors from George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, which I kept encountering in bibliographies. Lakoff launched a thousand ships and argues very successfully that all language is metaphorical and proceeds to give a pretty spectacular tour. We often get constrained by our metaphors and I’ve since tried to champion the idea in culinary that we need to drop good and bad for the more useful ordinary and extraordinary.

Leon Adams, the director of the Wine Institute, was particularly into semantics after realizing how constrained we were by metaphors and names with congealed symbolism. A lot of the legal work Adams did was to change subtle terms within the law like the promotion of the term table wine and the removal of the term fortified wine. Adams’ vision was paramount to changing the image of wine from a salvage product and skid row beverage of ill repute to something positive associated with culture, wholesomeness and food. Adams’ oral history, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry, is full of amazing semantic anecdotes.

Grounded metaphors are grounded in bodily experience and Lakoff shows how happiness is up. I often refer to grounded cross modal metaphors and this is where one sense is described in terms of another like warm & cool colors or having sweet aromas or bass notes in perfume. Cross modal metaphor constructs get mistaken for synaesthesia, but I argue in the last post that they are merely a case of well elaborated non-linguistic thought.

Happy is up: Sad is down
I’m feeling up. That boosted my spirits. My spirits rose. You’re in high spirits. Thinking about her always gives me a lift. I’m feeling down. I’m depressed. He’s really low these days. I fell into a depression. My spirits sank.
Physical basis: Drooping posture typically goes along with sadness and depression, erect posture with a positive emotional sate.
-George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, 1980, Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language

I’m suspecting that the scaler adjective problem is what forces grounded metaphors to get once removed like minerality. If a shape is more complex than round or angular, it is too hard to describe so we gravitate towards something less grounded like an object comparison hence the move towards cobble stones, crushed stones, and the like.

George Lakoff also wrote a wild book called Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things which I read a lot of before it got mind meltingly technical, though I was able to take a lot of useful ideas away from it. Flavor descriptors can get strange and we don’t always know what category someone is intending to put them in. Many people refer to acidic wines, beyond their acquired tastes, as bitter, not because the wine is bitter because they don’t enjoy the dryness and they also don’t enjoy bitter things. Bitterness is a sensation, true, but in this context bitterness just symbolizes negativity. When you do not know category options well enough, these scenarios come up. We may at times see a similar scenario with “lemony”. Lemony is an object comparison, and plenty of things can resemble the aroma of lemons and share chemical compounds, but they can also simply be refreshing which is from the category of affect and not the category of sensation.

I’ve often looked at the smallest increments of things I could dream up. Something discussed on this blog a lot is the idea that art is a form of problem solving and the smallest problems a work of art can solve are anxiety, complacency, cementing memories, and retrieving memories (If Chuck Close or John Baldessari said that they’d get a standing ovation while in culinary I just generate confused looks). This framework has been invaluable to understanding the decorative in art and understanding culinary’s place in the art world.

Something else small I’ve been pondering is what the smallest increment of symbolism is (and thus the first increment in a life form?). Symbolism is the counterpart to sensation, just like semiology is the counterpart to aesthetics (and phenomenology is the unification of the two). I suspect that the first increment of symbolism is attaching nutritional value to a sensation. This means simple, possibly single celled organisms may have symbolism. This grew into larger chunks and billions of years later we have Roland Barthes Mythologies (which I did not enjoy because he could not explain acquired tastes).

A memory may be when symbolism binds to sensation, be it as simple as nutritional value or danger. The presence of nutritional value may be why flavor perception is so synaesthetic seeming and the co-experiences are so memorably bound. In my theories on wine pairing (contrast enhancement in space and time for food and wine interaction), I also looked at nutritional preference comparisons where contrast can be enhanced by your mind to reveal preference for a sensation. As elemental and insignificant as these tiny symbols seem, they weigh and exert pressure on metaphors we think only refer to sensations.

The mind’s complexity has definitely grown to the point where we have trouble separating symbol from sensation, and the ability of the two to manipulate us created rhetoric. We just don’t have the objective anymore because we have memory. Aromas, specifically, are so completely entwined with symbols (recollections) that they absolutely do not stand alone, but that is probably also the largest contributor to the pleasure of drinking wine so no complaints from me.

As metaphors for aromas get more removed from the round and the angular, like the hotly debated minerality, higher degrees of symbolism creep in. You cannot really describe an olfactory sensation or maybe you can if you state pyrazine, for example, as the chemical compound that provoked it, but that is probably overly simplified. Instead, you can only describe sensations that occurred along side it. Hence somehow you intuitively arrive at roundness. There is a movement by some sommeliers to champion the use of chemical descriptors, but I feel like they are over confident in its usefulness and not fully aware of its limitations. I should probably read more of their writing and think about it more.

Object comparisons are more symbolic than we think and they can become primed vividly in many cases while holding curiously few chemical compounds in common with what is compared. I’ve been drilling red plastic, which has pthalates that smell eerily sweet, and I’ve vividly smelt cherry so real it was almost hyper real. The experience has some mysterious characteristic like enhanced attentional contrast which may some how be the mark of a hallucination. We have a sense of how attention is distributed among the senses and perhaps you can feel an interruption of the normal distribution. That cherry, often even in wine, stands so vividly in place of so much that just isn’t there chemically. It must be noted that it doesn’t happen for everybody because you must have the correct library of recollections to generate it, but in so many cases we do.

Acrid is a funny term and was singled out by Constance Classen’s Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. I’ve noted before on the blog that it refers to angular aromas and has unique phonetic convergence. Acrid may be rooted in a comparison to the haptic sense. Acrid is often used to describe the sharpest most angular aromas such as acetic acid, ammonia, or bleach. The word saw more common usage in the 18th and 19th centuries and was used to describe sharp but less extreme aromas like ginger, galangal, and cumin. The sensation of the word said aloud has a striking correspondence to the shape of aromas described as acrid.

The phonetics of our word choices are not always arbitrary and even infants have been found to match nonsense sounds to shapes consistently with adults. Euphonic convergence may have been more significant to the dawn of language, but then we quickly developed irony and started naming six foot four nightclub bouncers Tiny. Acrid may be some sort of ancient original word and I wonder if the Chinese have it as well.

Co-experience gets accumulated so mysteriously that I’ve had trouble even pondering the sources. How do we get bass notes to ground olfaction in terms of sound? Maybe there is no co-experience but there is rather just the pursuit of scale. We understand auditory scale fairly easily and possibly use it as a metaphor to explain olfaction in terms of volatility. G. Septimus Piesse was first to try and elaborate olfactory scales in terms of musical notes and his results are startlingly intuitive. 

Olfaction gets dragged in multiple directions because of co-experience and recollection so the scales never become straight forward and often get represented as a constellation or a spider graph.

shackleton spider

Descriptors are now being arranged via new ideas in data science into semantic odor space and the best work is being done in perfume. I bet soon we are going to have tons of new insights in to the dimensionality of odor/flavor space and it will power long thought impossible ideas like a wine recommendation engine that can accurately catalog sensory experiences and make truly useful recommendations. Oh shit, that is my Vino Endoxa project and I’m starting to assemble a team and make significant progress.

Vino Endoxa
Vino Endoxa: The Categories of Affect versus Sensation
Vino Endoxa: Three new categories and Pamela Vandyke Price
Vino Endoxa: Freedom and Confinement
Vino Endoxa: Vino Endoxa is Delectable and then Some
Vino Endoxa: Fine Versus Commodity Distinctions

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