John Donne is remembered on the blog by the phrase, “no man is an island” indicating, a good deal before Adam Smith, the interconnectedness of our lives. Donne (1572 – 1631) was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a metaphysical poet. He specialized in drawing unexpected comparisons between a theoretical, spiritual or abstract notion and a concrete, palpable object. For example, Donne compared mutual love to a pair of mapping compasses, which, where-ever the points are placed on the surface of the world, lean towards each other and are connected.
The history of language itself is the history of the movement from the concrete to the abstract. Our ancestors had a far larger vocabulary than we do, as they were more particular than general.
The power of metaphor consists in making the abstract once again visceral: philosophy ‘proved upon our pulses’, in Keats’s phrase.
But it is a suspect power as it may not so much illuminate, as rhetorically persuade, or falsify.
The history of political and economic thinking is filled with metaphoric physicalisation of abstract ideas – from Hobbes’s “war of all against all”, Smith’s “invisible hand”, Marx’s “spectre haunting Europe”, right up to Matt Taibbi’s “great vampire squid”, powerful gut images have managed to consolidate a set of ideas, capture the public imagination, frame debate.
Rarely a thread of the blog goes by without some arresting image. The following is necessarily a swift and limited survey of some of the kinds of imagery used during the Irish economic crisis so far, followed by some thoughts towards a fresh set of images that might be explored.
Some images have become so commonplace and persuasive that I suspect many readers half forget they are metaphors: ‘kicking the can’, ‘the bubble’, ‘contagion’ being a prime examples. The reason to remind ourselves that these are metaphorical is that they may not necessarily provide an accurate portrayal of the situation. The palpable can overwhelm the concept. It is hard to say, ‘the risk of contagion is low’, without the sound of leper bells once again ringing out across Europe in our ears. Many, I think, thought that as ‘bubbles burst’, house prices would pop. It’s more of a seemingly endless slow puncture.
So far the most successful single allusion in print, is Morgan Kelly’s “we can only rely on the kindness of strangers”. This picks up the final line of Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, as she agrees to agree to being taken off to an asylum when force is in the air. It is an unusual metaphor as it works backwards from the abstract to the concrete. It euphemistically refers to the fact that in order to survive Blanche has been active as a prostitute – a profession which she would never publically acknowledge, and thus the ‘kindness of strangers’ is something she and her Johns both must misrepresent if they wish protect their self-image. It covers over the brutal transactional truth of what is going on. Kelly’s allusion suggests that Ireland must put out for a kindness that is really self-serving – but no one can say this out loud.
Sexual imagery and anxiety runs through the discussion of the Irish economy. In particular the heterosexual fear of male rape – being shafted. See the cartoon by Steve Bell (link here). The male victim is feminized and/or emasculated, while the perpetrator is perversely seen as more male – as playwright Tony Kushner has his fictional version of the real Roy Cohn say: “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys”.
From the blog here’s the Dork of Cork: “the passive submissive nature of the New Irish eunuch”, and here’s Brian Woods Snr quoting Schmoller: “Statesmen of a lower order also talk with eunuchs’ voices of the inability of the state to interfere anywhere: they mistake their own impotency for that of the state”. There is any amount of the use of the word “castration”. The link between the loss of economic sovereignty and the loss of virility is explicit.
Shay Begorragh skewered the more complex Sado-Monetarist relationship, with: “Please market – discipline me. No, more efficiently! Harder! There will be have to be sacrifices made, particularly by people with no capital. More pain! Dress like Angela Merkel in bondage gear! Scrooge me!”
‘The Economist’ has run with the half-admiring cover, ‘Silvio Berlusconi: The man who screwed an entire country.’ At a level at which men see themselves as very powerful, there is a cross-over from the imagery of such behaviour to its actual enaction. Perhaps Christiane Legarde’s quip that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters it wouldn’t have failed so catastrophically should be taken at face value.
Whilst there is a raw power about these images, they rest on a distorted and disturbing view of sexual and gender relations, and as much as they make a graphic case, they are also alienating. More relevantly, if the state is to get out of the economic situation it is in, then a metaphoric language which embodies a victim–perpetrator relationship is a dead end.
A second set of images are drawn from another particularly masculine obsession – war, violence and violent self-harm. There are any amounts of nuclear options, guns to head, hand grenades and so on. As surprising amount of it is directed inwards, with John McHale’s image of Ireland behaving like a man threatening to shoot himself in a crowded room being notable. It was countered by the image of Ireland being more like a man with the pin out of a grenade being prepared to let go – that was seen as more desirable.
It may well be that posters here do actually see the situation as a kind of warfare, but again the underlying testosterone-fuelled anxieties may not be the most fruitful source for an imagery which resolves, rather than inflames, a crisis.
Sport, in its guise as war by another means, particularly the vexed question of who exactly is hurling from the ditch, has also featured strongly.
Looking at particular images: the “twin pillars” of the new Irish banking system has embedded itself in the discourse (I am using the word ‘discourse’ to entertain Paul Quigley). This, I think, is unfortunate as it reminds the listener of the Temple of the Philistines which Samson was able to pull down – the analogy being that our economy will once more collapse should the banks go. Most of the supposedly positive banking metaphors (and actual architecture), try to present this kind of strength and solidity, but currently the newspaper reading public realize that banks are really fragile and volatile institutions, and the more they are presented as ‘robust’ the more the listener suspects that this is bluster. ‘Pillars’ captures exactly the wrong kind of static and low-tensile strength suitable for banks.
The “twin pillars” goes down the same road as “putting a floor” under the housing market. “Putting a floor” is a bad image, not because it is not vivid, but because it misrepresents the underlying reality of the way property prices move. It was used to persuade, not to explain.
Perhaps, for house prices, an image of a flying carpet that goes up when the people on board believe strongly in flying is more accurate.
Similarly with “sharing the pain”: a metaphor that lost its moorings.
Turning to transport, a more successful image for the banks was presented by John McHale here: “I think the analogy of a multi-engine plane is useful for thinking about what stops a run. There is redundancy in the system, but it is better to have all engines working. The main engines are the capital (for loss absorption), the guarantees, and the LOLR. In my view, by far the most important at the moment for deposit attraction and retention is a reliable LOLR.” This sits well with our intuition that because bank crashes, like plane crashes, are catastrophic, it is important to make them over-safe, and seek to make the crashes as few and far between as possible.
An exchange between Hoganmayhew and Brian G on the issue of contagion, used the plane analogy at length, and ended with Hogan saying: ‘Yep. It’s a design flaw, rather than pilot error’. That clarified, in my mind at least, that as much as individuals must take their share of the blame, the whole ‘aviation’ system needs to be revised if there are not to be more disasters.
Much has been made of the ship of state as an image, with not surprisingly the Titanic being a key reference. The deckchairs have never been left idle. My favourite comment suggested that the Irish government was behaving as if, having hit the iceberg once but having failed to sink the ship, it was best to go around and try it again.
DOCM clarifies his euro-centric views by offering repeated versions of “I have used the parallel of a lot of trains arriving in the station simultaneously, one, the Greek, being somewhat out of control.” This is apt, as it was the rise of the train system that underpinned the dominance of continental over maritime powers.
Away from transport, fire and the use of emergency services has also successfully figured, this from Joseph Ryan: “The situation to date has been compared to fire fighting. But is there any evidence that the Fire Department understands the dynamics of the fire or the consequences that deliberately not putting out the fire will have. There is no definitive fire break. Nor is there a will to create one. If anything the strategy has been to let the fire engulf the outlying areas, which it has done. The question is what is next. And who still retains their confidence in the fire department to prevent the very worst. Certainly, I don’t.” This lead to a discussion of whether a rules based system for ‘fire prevention’ is sufficient (don’t play with matches), or an acceptance that fires will always break out, and so an engine racing about the place putting them out is needed.
The Dork of Cork exemplifies his position that central banks are faith based by seeing bankers as a ‘priestly’ class.
In medicine, Kenny’s refusal to administer the economy “a lethal injection” by balancing the books immediately, resonates strongly as it captures an ambiguous relationship to medicine – kill or cure – and more specifically that the ‘cure’ of austerity is harmful and must be taken in small doses. One might agree or disagree with him, but it identifies a clear economic position.
Finally on the little run of successful images, John the Optimist once compared economic forecasts to weather forecasts. This is very insightful, as we can talk meaningfully about climate, empirical data, trends, theoretical debates that can be settled by testing, but because of the very nature of the system, we can’t say if it’s going to rain tomorrow. This struck me as capturing the issue of why members of the public are persistently asking economists ‘why can’t we just say what’s best’ and economists saying, ‘but it’s not that simple’. If the economy really is like the weather, subject to chaos theory, then all the computing power in the world won’t be enough to make absolutely beneficial decisions, even within a clear framework such as social democracy.
The origin of this article was a little exchange between myself and John McHale, in which he put his position as: “What I am groping towards is a way to prise open the window back to the markets.” And to which I objected as follows: “On ‘prising open a window’, I don’t think that’s quite right – too much strain, and people don’t like to buy in to people who are desperate. It smacks of burglary.”
For the sake of this post, let us suppose that a desirable outcome in the current situation is that the Irish sovereign is able to regain market access at a reasonable rate.
It would be helpful if supporting imagery drew on a satisfying mutual conclusion to a period of strife. For example, Spencer’s ‘port after stormy seas’, suggests that the Irish ship of state returning to port after choppy waters is satisfying, and perhaps the image of trading at the docks is useful.
Picking up on gender relations, we could say that Ireland and the markets are now in a period of trial separation, and undergoing counseling. Neither side wants an absolute divorce, but fear it may be so. One previously feckless side is showing how they can balance the house-hold budget, the other yearns for the prior state of harmony to be restored, and promises not to be such a user in the future.
Drawing from nature, the image of the bee-hive from Virgil’s Georgics to Yeats’s “bee-loud glade” has provided a rich imagery for harmonious and industrious societies. It also fits rather well, with the idea of Europe as a landscape, fruitful, but also full of parasites and climate threats. Sudden colony collapse is a problem all over the place, but, as it happens, the Irish bee is particularly robust. The Irish hive is regrouping, and its bees are still coming and going across the landscape. The bees of Europe have to collectively realize that whilst they compete for particular trees and flowers, the interests of the bees as a whole are more vital than one hive over the other. One for the socialists here, as we can look forward to the day when the workers realize that they don’t need a queen in the hive.
Finally, music might provide useful concepts. The poor old Irish harp has been abused and battered and the frame is cracked: but now the rot has been fumigated, the frame is being repaired, the strings are to be restrung and retuned, and soon it will be ready to take back to its place in the European orchestra.
For any of the above to work, the warning must once again be made that the concrete image is only apt if the concepts and actions to which it relates are truthful and accurate. So – rather pedestrianly – the rot, means cleaning out the banks and reforming public institutions, the cracked frame means closing the deficit, restrung and retuned are explicit micro-adjustments and measures to support social cohesion.
For Enda Kenny, a line for the next election, should the country get there in good shape – ‘the Irish harp rings true once more’.
In writing the above I am attempting to show how economic commentators have succeeded and failed in expressing complex or intangible ideas through metaphoric comparisons. The excellent contributions used above show, I hope, the rich and powerful impact of metaphoric language that is expressed on the blog.