Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

The Dominance of Light and Vision Imagery

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought.

Here is a thought experiment.  Why are there so many more metaphors and analogies built from visual terms than terms used to talk about what we hear? One slightly disconcerting thing about writing a book on sound is how often I must reach for descriptive terminology using metaphors based on sight. It undermines my key argument that sound is the true “first sense.”

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought. “Life as a game” or “Organizations are like badly made machines” are consequential in suggesting what to look for, what to fear or what to ignore. If organizations are “like machines,” they ought to be pretty easy to disrupt. Machines require all parts to work together. If an organization is like an “organism,” no such tinkering will make much difference. Plants like bamboo are nearly indestructible. But I digress. Back to descriptions based on sight.

They are everywhere in our narratives of the world. Hence, we have “soundscapes,” and audio engineers construct a “soundstage.” Both terms are derived from words describing what we see. I’ve found myself as depicting tubas as producing “fogs” of sound, or high frequency noise as being like “looking into bright sunlight.” A recording is said to by “dry”—not improved by signal processing—or “wet:” a track that has been put through any number of fillers and filters. Moisture or the absence of it is something we see or feel. We also seem to talk a lot more about sound “reflections” than “echoes,” especially when considering acoustical problems. The first is more visual; “echoes” are clearly aural. One more example: the gap that separates the arrival of a sound  coming from the right side to the left ear creates a “sound shadow.” That microsecond delay between the arrival of sound between our two ears is partly how we locate a source in three-dimensional space. Again, the visual reference dominates the explanation.

Communication owes a great deal to the aural. But the conversion of  perception from one sense to another requires the new terms to survive on foreign soil. That can sometimes help us think more creatively. But the seeming dominance of visual imagery even to describe sounds represents a kind of rhetorical synesthesia. This condition applied here means that someone will experience one sense via the language of another sense. It’s not a cognitive feature most people seek. We generally like our senses to stay in their lanes. To be sure, Italian words commonly used in musical expression are helpful, at least to Italians and musicians. But they haven’t caught on. Descriptive terms for sound still seem limited.

This quandary isn’t keeping me up at night. But thoughts are made available to us by the words we have for them. What might we be missing because we don’t have names for sonic effects? Then, too, perhaps that part of sound that is music needs no help for language. We sense it when an a musician caught in the web of a long interview seems relieved to quit talking and actually start singing or playing.

Quieting Brain Chatter

          The Conscience       A. N. Mironov

There is the old joke about the New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker, who often turned to drink to quiet her own inner demons. “Bartender: What are you having? Parker: Not much fun.”

In these times many of us may feel the same way.  It is a challenge to escape the chatter of negative thoughts.  But heavy lubrication is probably not the answer, even though the sale of alcohol is up nationally.

A Google search using the three words that title this piece yielded 1,670,000 results.  And using just the last two words increased the hits nine-fold. There is obviously an interest to explore our own recurring streams of “self-talk” and their more compulsive forms that psychologists label “rumination.” All the more, given these stressful times when unvoiced thoughts and worries may follow us through the day.

In a basic sense, self-talk is simply thinking. An active consciousness is partly what makes us human. As Jonathan Smallwood and Jessica Andrews-Hanna note:

Although mind-wandering may be unpleasant for the individual who experiences it and disruptive to the tasks of the moment, self-generated thought allows consciousness freedom from the here and now and so reflects a key evolutionary adaptation for the mind.

Indeed, consciousness is the gift that allows us to have an active interior life. We implicitly recognize this power when we refer to the active minds in ourselves and others: the vast but partly unknowable store of accumulated experience and personal insights that we all carry around with us but do not necessarily voice.

And yet it is common to hear stories about how disabling a person’s interior thoughts can be. The culture’s justifiable interest in stressed individuals now often comes with the caution that we can dwell too much on challenging circumstances. Solutions include seeking more exercise, turning off the news, or connecting anew with a friend or relative.

But it is useful to remember that our preoccupation with brain chatter is not a new concern.  Novelist Tim Parks has argued that we have long had a crippling obsession with the literary device of the interior monologue.  It’s been used by many of the twentieth century’s writers.  Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a representative case. Others such as Christopher Lasch have made the same point more broadly, seeing an inward turn in the American character. In the same century, he argues, our focus on our own needs made us a more narcissistic and self-obsessed nation.

And there is also our cultural romance with figures who seem to go against the grain and set their compass on their own passions, often at the cost of barely letting others into their lives. Socially challenged innovators—perhaps Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs—are often admired for showing a kind of single-minded preoccupation that plays out in desultory conversations with family and friends, but intense conversations within themselves. Scientific American’s Farris Jabr isn’t so sure, at least with regard to a fixation on interiority in modern popular fiction. He also challenges the idea that there is a culture-wide weakness for stories built around unexpressed thought. “Yes, we talk to ourselves—our minds chatter incessantly—and we are the saner for it.”

We just have to find creative ways to keep the demons at bay, at least for a little while longer.