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Paper #4: Arguing Through Images


Like anecdotes, metaphors are "simple forms" or basic units of discourse which may be used to organize more complex levels of writing or speaking. They are just as valuable and just as necessary for the communication of ideas as they are for the expression of emotions.


Write a hyperlinked essay in which you describe some topic (the "subject" of your essay) in terms of one or two metaphors.

Step #1: Locate a relatively short text--a primary source, either emblematic or authoritative--that really interests you or that discusses the subject you want to take up in your own essay. Transfer (copy) this text to floppy disk; save it as an ASCII (DOS) file.

Step #2: Closely examine the metaphors (dead and alive) used in this text. Categorize them according to domain.

Step #3: Write an argumentative essay that takes one of two tacks:

Expand on or elaborate an understanding of your chosen subject by exploring or by making explicit some aspect of the comparison left undeveloped by the standard metaphor (employed in the text you studied). As Lakoff and Johnson point out, the use of a metaphor to communicate an idea leaves a certain number of attributes associated with the "vehicle" of the metaphor undeveloped. Your essay could capitalize on this observation. It could take the metaphorical vehicle somewhere it has never been. For example, you could begin with a statement like this: "My professors seem to assume that the brain works like a sponge; they don't realize how right they are." Then, you could go on to show readers how understanding the mechanics of sponges might give readers insight into how they might most efficiently absorb and retain data.

Expand on or elaborate an understanding of your chosen subject by introducing an entirely novel or original metaphor of your own, one that deviates from "standard" usage but which communicates a new insight about your chosen subject. For example, you could start with this observation: "School is most often perceived as prison." Then, you could go on to argue the benefits of reconceiving it, metaphorically, as dance.

The successful essay solves two writing problems. First, it figures out how to use the "primary" text as a hyperlink to show readers the metaphors that conventionally structure the subject under examination. Second, it makes metaphors "pay off." It's not an academic exercise. That is, the successful paper gives readers the real-life benefits of extending an old or employing a new metaphorical vehicle. In no uncertain terms, it shows the importance of metaphors.


The writing problem in this assignment is to use the description of some concrete, particular, detailed reality in order to help a reader (including yourself as reader of your own work) understand your ideas about a specific aspect of life.

In writing this paper, you will be engaged in a process that Gregory Ulmer has described as the systematic comparison (analogy) between two domains whose correspondence may not be obvious. In general, the comparative process assumes that one of the domains is familiar enough to serve as a model for an unfamiliar domain ("A hurricane moves like a block of wood floating in a stream of water": familiar = action of wood in water [vehicle/signifier]; unfamiliar = hurricane in jet stream of air [tenor/signified]). Anything and everything available in the realm of the "vehicle" or signifier may be used to stand for the domain of the "tenor" or signified. You know you have a good metaphor when the initial comparison reveals some insight into the tenor that you may not have immediately thought of when the comparison first occurred to you. When using a metaphor, always keep in mind that your communication works simultaneously at two levels, and that you are using one level to explain the other one.