Synecdoche

/ Knatz.com / Teaching / Thinking Tools /

Part for Thing
Evolution by Association
@ K. 1999 01 16

Mission: to expand synecdoche into an epistemological metaphor

Behold. A sail!

Yeah, the guy sees a sail all right. But the message is that a ship is in view. Or maybe all the guy does see is the sail. Perhaps the hull is still blurred with the sea, at (or still under) the horizon. But the importance of the message comes from what’s generally below sails: merchandise, your life-or-death cargo finally coming to port, news, loved ones … or enemies, cannon-fire, doom, conquest …

Maybe the guy is a poet. Or a playwright working with no special effects but words. Perhaps the “ship” is in his mind’s eye: he’s trying to get you, his audience, to “see” an eidetic ship.

Either way, we have an example of synecdoche: a rhetorical device where a part of a thing stands for the whole of a thing. (The whole can also stand for the part: it’s still synecdoche. Man, that’s some woman! Though all you’re looking at is her boobs.)

Synecdoche was never too big a deal in any of the English classes I took or taught. You might get an advanced degree in English and never hear the term. Synecdoche became a big deal for me only once I saw in it (thanks to Korzybski) a rich metaphor for phenomena in biology, in evolution, in psychology, in politics … I quote from Dark Beacon [Link to be restored], my third novel. Mrs. Ruth, a middle-level bureaucrat in a heaven which is a hell to the beleaguered soul of Dr. Raleigh, is trying to explain to him an aspect of heaven’s purpose. He hasn’t understood her reference to memes in evolution:

“Why, a meme is an idea. A nest, a stack of them: but having a single coherence in a complex environment. Of course a gene is an idea too. As is the entire universe. Though a gene has a certain permanence. As does more-so the universe of which it is a part. A meme is a gene that can only be transmitted from individual to individual and across generations by cultural exchange. Or at least, that’s the primary way. You know what a gene is, don’t you?”

“Um , sure.” Though Dr. Raleigh really would have felt sure only in conversations other than this one.

“Take a non-human example. Caterpillars* climb toward the light. It isn’t the light though that they eat. It’s leaves. But on our planet Earth, the leaves too grow toward the light. If a caterpillar found himself in a system where the leaves were in the ground and the roots in the sky, it would be in big trouble. For caterpillars, the idea, although it’s merely a synecdoche, is a good one. And caterpillars have been around, feeding themselves, for a long time. The species haven’t taken chances with parental instruction or school systems or anything so unreliable. The caterpillar is born to climb toward the light.
“Yet what about before there were caterpillars? There had to be a meme stage.”

“But, Mrs. Ruth: caterpillars don’t think. They don’t have ideas.”

“No? Maybe not as individual organisms, the way you and I do. But their numbers do. Statistically they do. Do you imagine that caterpillars aren’t interested in being alive?”

She didn’t wait for him. And, anyway, Dr. Raleigh made no move to answer.

“Caterpillars aren’t my responsibility in this section, but I had dinner the other evening with … I was about to say ‘person’. With a being … I’m sorry: that’s not your business. Very interesting though. They’ve been on my mind.

“No, it’s people we’re primarily interested in here. You and I here. But wait. One more example. One which comes close. Territory is important to many types of life. Ruminants for sure. Typically, among such mammals, territory is the male’s concern. They practice head butting when young, and when mating time comes, those that are ready, battle for harems. The scope and health of the territory determines the number of harems and so the number of males who will mate that year. Terrific. The survival of the fittest, right? But what about the young buck whose strength and determination, given another year, would be just as great or greater than his senior rivals? If the victor kills him, his genes will be lost. What if the victor killed all the males and then died himself? La! A hero: and a dead herd.: soon, or late, a dead species: a dead order. But the species can’t have started out with the ritual battles that were the saving solution. Can they? Memes became genes.

I may add more. Meantime see that we may think that caterpillars climb for food: what they’re actually climbing for is light; what they find is food. You show the girl your ‘Vette: what you’re actually showing her is your ability to support wife and child while at the same time suggesting that you’re not altogether tame, not your run-of-mill castrati citizen. She wiggles her ass: what you see is getting laid; what she’s actually showing you is childbearing capacity. (I don’t say that any of these messages are true: only that that’s what the message is. You may have borrowed or stolen the ‘Vette; you may have no family intentions; maybe she’s full of silicone and, on the pill, doesn’t want a family any more than you do. The message is still the message.)

Meantime, you may also want to check out my synopsis of Dark Beacon [Link to be restored].

In case I don’t get back for a while, here’s another point — the point of the point: we join a church because … we want to blend in, our friends belong, might as well do something on Sunday … we want to be saved, the truth will make us free … or we want to appear to think so. Are these things the “light”? Or are they the “food”? Do we get saved? Do we find the truth? Does it make us free? You can’t rationally prove any of those things, but one thing is unmistakable: it gives the group “groupness,” social cohesion. Salvation is the “light.” I don’t mean spiritual illumination; I mean the thing, the radiant energy, the caterpillar climbs toward. Social cohesion is the “food.” It’s what we really need regardless or what our instincts deluded us we were actually looking for. Without social cohesion large numbers of Homo sapiens could never survive occupancy of the same territory.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Up to a point: only. It’s gotten us here. Ten million Muslim maniacs on jihad: ready to kill, ready to “prove” their “truth.” Two hundred sixty million American Christians, ready to nuke the gooks back into the stone age: we’ll show them what democracy means.

It was a good thing when we fought with stone axes, wooden clubs, copper knives. What difference did it make which group won? No objective difference. But the victors could make a bigger group, then a bigger. Large groups need politics and political success requires a core consensus. It doesn’t matter how mythological, how hypocritical, how insincere. But I fear we’ve passed the point where success begins to turn fatal. If success means extinction, should we want it? I believe it’s past time to notice our mental habits and clean them up, time to notice our metaphors and distinguish them from our similes, time to see which part of the “sail” is canvas and which part wood, to distinguish “light” from “food.”

Unfortunately, that requires intelligence: something that mankind, despite his self-applied appellation, doesn’t have much of. I’m trying to provide it for you. (For my sake? Certainly not. I’d be much better off if I were one of the lemmings smack in the center of the race toward the cliff.) Is it because I believe that intelligence ought
to be a permanent characteristic of our species? No. Intelligence is a pain in the ass, to the group and also to the intelligent creature. Bruce Sterling’s short story, Hive, shows the colony to develop intelligence only for emergencies, then to get rid of it. So: I am neither worker, nor soldier, nor drone, nor queen; I am the temporary mutant, not the father of the future, just the necessary freak, the prophet, seer, Cassandra. What healthy society would want a Cassandra around all the time? It’s only the sick society that needs one.

Of course you don’t want a Cassandra around any of the time. And you didn’t let me save you. I worked at it with everything I had. Until I saw it was too late. Converting is useless once you’re already in hell. We’re irreversibly on the long slide. Of course you’d have to be intelligent to see it: you think you’re on line for the lottery. Now I spend what’s left of my ability amusing myself with iterations and variations of “I told you so.” Half translate as Nyeh nyeh!

But even an intelligence can be wrong. What if it’s not too late. What if I confuse my own exhaustion with the pulse of the group? Why then, there still may be a chance. Quick. How about a social coherence based on rationally verifiable reality? How about distinguishing between a carrot and a carrot held out of reach on a stick? between intelligence and deviousness? between education and conditioning … Quick. See it. Distinguish between appearance and reality, words and deeds, character and mask, ersatz and genuine … Distinguish between light and food.

*I don’t recall Korzybski discussing synecdoche, but the caterpillar example is his.


Synecdoche Scrapbook

2004 06 17

face lips, flower lips: Liz Hurley

Elizabeth Hurley at Royal Ascot

To be here at all I’m stealing time from a dozen other priorities, so for now I’ve got to be quick. Reviewing paleo-physiology as I’ve picked it up from Morris, Johansen, Lovejoy …

Humans are vertabrates, mammals, primates … Mammals, like reptiles, like amphibians, mate with the male mounting the female from the rear. After all, for a very long time we were most of us on all fours or on our bellies most of the time. We’ve got openings at both ends: just like the hollow bodied worms we come from: mouth here; anus etc. there. The reproduction stuff is at the hind end. Food, water, air … go in at the mouth; gorp, babies … come out the other way.

In reptiles, amphibians … mammals, primates … the vaginal channel is parallel to the ground most of the time: standing, sleeping, running … The zebras mate, the lions come, the zebras run. Zebra survival is served if the physiology of the zebra holds the love potion where it belongs while the zebra is running for its life. Thus, conception can take place simultaneous to escape.

All this applies as well to primates: except for us. Female homo stood up the better to do a few things: see above the grass, gather food, hold onto it … and, of the greatest importance, hold more than one child at a time, nurse more than one baby. After all: two breasts, might as well nurse two kids: if your diet can support it. Apes were waning away: till Homo. We are the ape that breeds like rabbits. We are also the ape whose kids need extra nursing. That’s ’cause we’re social: therefore, big brained: lots of complicated rituals to master.

The baboons mate, the lions come, the baboons run … Fine. They’re built for it.

Problem: the Homos mate, the lions come, the Homos run … Whoops. Out spills the love potion! Fewer conceptions. Unless something is done. So we did something: the human female angled her vaginal channel so that some fluids would hold: at least a little bit.

Just reading Leonard Shlain on the subject I see that my description of this particular physiological realignment isn’t the best. See his Chapter Six, Periods / Perils, in Sex, Time, Power.

Change one thing, you got to change everything. Reangle the vagina, now you’ve got to reangle the penis, get the most effective penetration. To do that physiologically would take a long time. Goodbye species. But there’s a short cut: and women took it: get the male to come around to the front side. Stop fucking like dogs and start fucking like missionaries.

How do you do that? Especially when there are yet no missionaries! Now reptile, mammal … males respond to more than one female thing, but one corner stone is the inflamed vulva. Red and reeking, it’s a sign that cannot be ignored. Another cornerstone is the round buttocks. At the root of the buttocks is … No, not the anus; that’s irrelevant to this consideration. At the root of the buttocks, a centimeter from the anus, is the vagina.

The caterpillar follows light … and finds leaves: to eat. Synecdoche, evolution taking shortcuts, using association: just like a mind. The female pheremones of fertility turn the male’s head, body … elongate the penis … and the buttocks rivet him. The red draws him like a bull. Bingo! Conception: lions or none.

But not humans. Or, yes, humans too, but with a melisma or two, some filligree. The human female tricks the male into approching her from the front: face to face, belly to belly. Then they lie down: but must be ready to get up and run: still fertile, still holding the love potion.

Females did this by installing false buttocks on their front side. And by getting the mouth at the head end to imitate the “mouth” at the hind end.

It’s female tail, not head, that’s attractive to most males: reptiles, mammals … But to men, the head and the tail are attractive. Organize the females, form even more complex societies, add taboo, complexify to religion, add the DAR … and male men had better come to the head end: front to front. Like a jig. Marionette strings.

There’s a species of shrimp that mates in a crowd. Once the frenzy starts, the male doesn’t know whether he’s squirting a female, another male, a bit of seaweed, or a clam shell. Freedom isn’t always efficient. For the shrimp, it’s OK: the whole species is for that time in one continuous jissom soup. But not for man. The family. A more or less monogomy. The male in such a society must ride on rails. Impregnate, now. Go to war, now.

I’m getting ahead of myself but will fix it another time. Mammals. The cow’s udder hangs under the cow (female). Stuff gathers, hangs. The mammaries become convex. Not so primates that sit a lot. Female chimps are flat chested. There’s plenty of milk. (Hell, a male can produce milk!) There’s just no human female boobs. The nipple, the whole system, is for milk; the breast, the protruberant breast, is for show. For deception: the false buttock!

And, the human female alters her head-end mouth: layering it with features from the tail-end mouth. The lips become more fleshy, take on a reddish coloration: especially at puberty ….

Trick the stupid male, get him to do what’s unnatural: and call it natural.

Gilding the Lily

OK. Now please, look at Liz and her flower-hats again:

Liz and her flower-hats

OK. Elizabeth Hurley, even for Royal Ascot, doesn’t have the world’s fleshiest
lips.
note Neither is she showing a champion bosom. She’s not Serena Williams. But she doesn’t need to be. She’s one presentable female, is she not? especially when she’s put a big pink pussy right next to her face! or her decorator has. And not a false one: unless the flower is fake. Flowers are sexual parts: for the plant.

Some flowers, such as orchids, are not shy about proclaiming themselves. Thinking that it’s a coincidence that flowers can so well mimic the sexual parts of other (later) species is like thinking it a coincidence that Jesus has the same birthday as the Persian god Mithras: or that Mithras suffered the same torture, death, and resurrection as some still earlier god.

I’ve already spent more time on this than I’d meant for today. On the other hand, it’s ten years now that I’ve neglected this long favorite set of points at Knatz.com. Till I can return: you wanna see a good essay on the obscenity of displaying flowers? James Agee. From the New Yorker, 1940s (I think). I also think it was reprinted in one of his film criticism collections.


Notes

Elizabeth Hurley Lips:

And “Pink” is for Pussy.

Elizabeth Hurley is not a figure I’d seen much of prior to noticing the above photo. By a welcome coincidence I not only just [2004 07 08] got a nice introduction to her abilities via John Cleese’s BBC documentary series Faces, but saw her comment there on exactly this subject! Cleese was saying that women wear lip rouge to mimic the swelling of the lips common to sexual arousal. Elizabeth Hurley challenged him with exasperated indignation that she hoped he wasn’t bringing up that Desmond Morris business about human female lips mimicking the blood engorged vulvas of chimps in estrus. “Ballocks!” she said with a stamp-of-the-foot in her voice.

She offered no argument: only indignation and contempt. And Cleese let it go at that. Well, Elizabeth, I
assuredly was referring to Morris’ work. I accept it as the best explanation I’ve heard.

Now I’m enjoying guessing what Cleese was up to: it was his documentary after all. Did Elizabeth Hurley ad lib the reference? Or did JC write the ad lib for delivery by her: an actress (a robot, a mannequin)? Whose view did her contempt represent? Elizabeth Hurley’s own? John Cleese’s? A John Cleese presumption about the BBC TV public? The doc episode seemed to dismiss the point, but not without having raised it. I suspect that JC was endorsing the view as directly as he thought safe. Indeed, I see it as a prime suspect for a Cleese-written ad lib: the scientist says “c-“; the actress says “balls.”

(In British usage, ballocks is vulgar for “rubbish”: but literally it means testes.)

Anyway: I hope Elizabeth Hurley sees this module. (It’s possible: someone could call it to her attention, she could find it on her own: maybe searching the web for mentions of her name? or maybe researching synecdoche!) Yes, indeed you have a beautiful face: beautiful all over. And I’m glad to learn that you’re English, seem intelligent, show competence … aren’t just a pretty face. And I bet you never expected that hat for the Royal Ascot to be shown in this context!

Context

PS K. had a different Elizabeth Hurley image from Royal Ascot: here I’m using whatever is handily already online.

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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