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ES2407: Assignment One. Overview of the theoretical perspective required and of some aspects of construction.

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es2407 assignment one

ES2407: Assignment One

Overview of the theoretical perspective required and of some aspects of construction.


So far, although we have looked at how metaphors work, and how they may facilitate learning, we have said very little about the ‘art’ of learning. You now need to think about this aspect of our study for the assignment.

During the early stages of most communication courses, students are introduced to a simple formula - said to be ‘backed up’ by various research studies. The individual details of these research reports always make this formula seem mindless – but here goes:-

The more familiar an item of information is, and the more simply stated, the more likely it is to be understood – but also considered uninteresting.

The more unfamiliar an item of information is, and the more difficult its presentation, the more likely it is to be misunderstood – but also considered interesting.


It does not require much imagination to realise that there are problems with this formulation. If someone needs resuscitating, I don’t want to be charmed and intrigued by the emergency guidance notes I have, I want to be told as clearly as possible the procedures I must follow in order to give the victim the best chance of surviving. Equally, if I’ve decided that I want to read a detective story during my flight across the Atlantic, I don’t want to find out who did it after reading the first few pages.

On a teacher training course we might spend a lot of time working out how best to tackle the first half of the formula, since much institutional teaching is plagued by boredom brought about by repetition. But our present task is to look to the second half of the formula – and anyway, many of the solutions we develop here will also be useful in re-visiting the first half of the formula.


To recap the story so far:-

There are metaphors, and we now have two closely related theories of how they work: Richards’ and Black’s.

There is also a general way of understanding all representations. This relies on the idea of there being a ‘frame’ which creates an internal ‘environment’ that is separated off from our everyday world by the frame.

Within the frame there is, initially, a void, but in this blank space we can allow certain ‘rules’ to have free play – and typically, because the number of rules in play within the frame are reduced in number (and often further simplified), we get a clearer picture of the consequences of these rules in action – without the normal blurrings, contradictions, and simple confusions that are our normal experience.


To us as observers, the usual way we get to understand the consequences of these frame-rules is by seeing how the people/creatures/objects within the frame interact with one another.

Such a system of representation makes sense so long as we are dealing with conventionally mounted pictures, films, or bound books. However, too much attention on the physical existence of the frame can get in the way of later understandings. It is important to remember that what is most significant about this analysis is that we are dealing with self-enclosed systems of representation – separate environments if you like. It is these which Richards calls the ‘tenor’, and Black – confusingly now – the ‘frame’.


In week one we briefly looked at utopian and dystopian accounts – these were said to be good examples of complete representational systems and therefore constituted imaginative ‘tenors’ or ‘frames’.

Later, I raised the question of how we might understand an author’s purpose in producing a utopian account. I suggested that while each utopia (or dystopia) constituted a tenor (or blackian frame), it could also be understood as a metaphorical ‘vehicle’ or ‘focus’ – a two-for-the-price-of-one offer!


This suggestion immediately raises the question, if the utopian account is to be understood as an extended description of a metaphorical vehicle or focus, then where is the corresponding tenor (or frame)?

I suggested that the whole of our everyday experience might be understood as constituting the missing part of the metaphor intended by the author. In other words, each utopia and dystopia was an example of the art of learning in action: educational (in a broad sense) metaphors intended to raise questions about the conduct of our lives, about the nature of our imagined pasts, and the prospects of our imagined futures.


Perhaps in your assignment you may want to imply something as ambitious as a utopia or a dystopia, e.g. the triptych for The Garden of Earthly Delights by Heironymous Bosch. But there is an alternative strategy. Review the PowerPoint on the monstrous and try thinking about these images of distorted humanity as though they had, in some way, escaped from their representational frames and invaded our everyday world!

In a sense then, we would be ‘seeing’ these images as fragments that, while still conforming to the original frame-rules that allowed them to exist in the first place, were now injected into the normal buzzing confusion of the everyday.


If we apply either Black’s or Richards’ interpretation of metaphor it means that even the fragments of utopia or dystopia can act like metaphorical vehicles (or focii) – you don’t need all of the frame contents to make the metaphor work. So long as your audience understands the reference, fragments can be used to make allusions – hints of another way of seeing things that is not normally considered. In case the point is not clear; this leads on almost directly to an explanation of how collage and montage ‘work’.


After Thoughts

Refer back to Max Black’s theory of metaphor. He is more explicit than Richards in accounting for the associations which any metaphorical vehicle (or focus) must rely on if it is to serve its intended purpose, i.e., introducing a new perspective on the familiar. But before taking these ideas any further, there’s a new item of terminology we need. Not only are there metaphors, there are also metonyms. Metonyms, just as much as metaphors, rely on what Black calls a system of associated common understandings, i.e., a familiar representational system.


Here’s an example of one: ‘I see but two and twenty sail, Captain.’ Clearly, we are at sea in the era of sailing ships, and a look-out is reporting what he sees, but rather than saying that there are twenty-two boats he indicates their principal characteristic: their sails. Today we might say that a sail is the ‘iconic’ feature of a sailing boat (this is, by the way, a misuse of the word). Similarly, I can speak of ‘the Crown’ and ‘the White House’ and mean, respectively, the Queen and Her royal establishment, and the President, and his equivalent spread into the U. S. government. So one might sum up this usage by saying that we take a characteristic part of something to stand in for the missing whole. Metonyms are, in fact, more diversified than this suggests, but this explanation will do for now; and you can see where this is going: when we show image-fragments, such as a Frankenstein’s monster, it acts as metonym rather than metaphor - so what’s in a name?


It boils down to the intended educational relevance of the usage (as opposed to the many other uses to which we put metaphor). Given our interest in learning, If the intention is to superimpose an insightful, even shocking, new perspective on an existing context, then we should speak of it as being a metaphor, and the normal verbal clue is the use of words such as ‘is’ and ‘are’ in relation to a focus or vehicle word.

If the intention is not so much to bring about a change in perspective, but rather draw attention to a new way of ‘seeing’ significance within an existing and well-known representational system, then we are dealing with a metonym, and the normal clue is part-names substituting for the more usual proper or common nouns, e.g. While Churchill referred to Hitler as ‘that utensil’ – meaning a chamber pot – Heartfield identified his ‘big grasp’.


Most detective stories start with metonyms being ‘found’, finger-prints, foot-prints, DNA, etc. Sometimes a chance meeting with a stranger can be similarly metonymic, e.g. she has a Russian accent. Many ‘adventure’ stories use this device as well. The film, Godzilla, gets underway with the discovery of giant, lizard-like footprints; in Avatar, the first thing Jake sees after landing on Pandora is an enormous dumper-truck with equally enormous arrows sticking out of its tyres – a metonym for the ‘natives’’ savagery; and in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand leagues Under The Sea, we first get an insight into the existence of Nemo’s submarine through the appearance of a giant, glowing eye just under the surface of the sea.


So another way of thinking about the difference between metonyms and metaphors is that whereas the successful metaphor brings about a permanent change in perspective, or at least a fruitful fusion between old and new perspectives, the successful metonym brings about a modification to the existing rules by highlighting a feature that is now seen to require a more extended range of reference.

(For those who know Piagettian theory, it’s like the difference between accommodation (schema change = metaphor), and assimilation (deepening of reference detail = metonym).)


So, how big a bang do you want to make? You can either use metaphors or metonyms, but in each case you will find the process of montage construction the easiest way to tackle the assignment because it requires only your imagination, and some persistence in identifying the right images to convey your ideas, and then some scissors and glue. The web page on montage provides you with an academic background for later use, while the various illustrations should provide some models to start with. Remember, it does not have to be pictures alone, and it does not have to be just one medium by itself – experiment - but keep on learning!

(D.M.B. 2011.)