Understanding visual metaphor: the example of newspaper cartoons

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  • http://vcj.sagepub.com/Visual Communication

    http://vcj.sagepub.com/content/2/1/75The online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/1470357203002001755

    2003 2: 75Visual CommunicationElisabeth El Refaie

    Understanding visual metaphor: the example of newspaper cartoons

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  • A R T I C L E

    Understanding visual metaphor: theexample of newspaper cartoons

    E L I S A B E T H E L R E F A I E University of Plymouth

    A B S T R A C T

    Using Austrian newspaper cartoons as examples, this article explores thegrammar of visual metaphor. It is argued that visual metaphors cannot bedescribed adequately in formal terms only. Rather, they must beconsidered as visual representations of metaphorical thoughts orconcepts. A cognitive definition of metaphor must not, however, distractfrom potential variations in meaning and impact arising from the mode ofcommunication through which metaphors are expressed. This studysuggests that many of the dissimilarities between verbal metaphor and itsvisual counterpart result from differences regarding what the two modesare able to express easily and efficiently.

    K E Y W O R D S

    Austrian newspapers cartoons cognitive metaphor theory refugees visual metaphor

    I N T R O D U C T I O N

    The aim of this article is to explore the ways in which metaphors areexpressed in the visual mode, more specifically in newspaper cartoons. I usethe analysis of caricatures from Austrian daily newspapers in order todemonstrate three central arguments, each of which forms the basis of one ofthe articles three sections. First, I suggest that visual metaphors are bestdescribed in terms of their underlying metaphorical concepts. This view ofvisual metaphors as the pictorial expression of a metaphorical way ofthinking is congruent with the main tenets of cognitive metaphor theory.

    My second argument is that such a definition of visual metaphors incognitive terms is not as straightforward as it seems, because the boundariesbetween the literal and the metaphorical are fuzzy and highly context-dependent. This means that metaphors must always be studied within theirsocio-political context.

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  • Finally, I argue that the specific form in which a metaphor is expressedmay have an important influence on its meaning and impact. Therefore, anemphasis on the conceptual must not distract from the potential significanceof the grammar of visual metaphor. Using the cartoons as examples, severalbasic differences between verbal and visual metaphors are suggested.

    In spite of some research activity on visual metaphor in the lastdecade (Carroll, 1996; Forceville, 1994, 1995, 1996; Morris, 1993), there isstill no fully coherent account of how it can be understood and how it differsfrom its verbal counterpart. As I show in the first section, most recentapproaches tend to focus on the formal level of visual metaphors and toneglect the important conceptual level. This means that they are generallyquite restricted with regard to the type and genre of visual metaphors aboutwhich they are able to make any meaningful statements. In contrast to this, Ibelieve that a definition of visual metaphor must be based on the conceptsunderlying a particular depiction and that the analysis of visual metaphorscannot be complete without detailed reference to the cognitive level. Thisarticle incorporates elements from the studies mentioned above and fromsocial semioticians work on visual grammar (Kress, 1994; Kress and VanLeeuwen, 1996), while also drawing heavily on cognitive metaphor theory.

    The view of metaphor as a cognitive phenomenon became popular inthe early 1980s (Gibbs, 1994; Lakoff, 1987, 1993; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980;Sweetser, 1990; Turner, 1998). Prior to this, a metaphor was seen as the poeticway of saying or writing something that could also be expressed in a literalway. Consequently, most authors ignored the possibility of metaphors beingrepresented in other modes besides the verbal. Cognitive theorists, bycontrast, proposed that metaphor is a property of thought rather than oflanguage and that it is about understanding and experiencing one kind ofthing in terms of another (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980: 5). According to thisview, the mechanisms underlying metaphor exist in the mind independentlyof language, and what used to be referred to as a metaphor is now consideredto be simply the surface realization of a particular way of thinking. Hence,any form of communication can be seen as an instance of metaphor, if it isable to induce a metaphoric thought or concept. The view of metaphor as acognitive rather than a merely linguistic phenomenon is now also supportedby an impressive array of empirical evidence (Seitz, 1998).

    While the assumption of a cognitive basis to metaphor justifies andgives new relevance to the study of visual metaphors, it also throws up a rangeof theoretical and empirical problems, as shown in the second section of thisarticle. For one thing, researchers working within the cognitive paradigm tendto assume that some basic conceptual metaphors are influenced by our sharedphysical experiences as infants and that they can therefore be determined forall human beings (Lakoff, 1987: 265ff; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980: 226ff). It isnow becoming increasingly clear, however, that the extent to which metaphorsare connected to the way people think cannot be described universally, or evenfor a whole linguistic community, but must instead be explored in specific

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  • socio-political contexts. In fact, every individual reader or viewer is likely tobring his or her own experiences and assumptions to the interpretation process.

    As I demonstrate with reference to the four cartoons discussed in thisarticle, the way people understand these drawings is likely to be influenced bythe social and political circumstances at the time and by the expectationsreaders have towards particular newspapers. In fact, it is this concern withthe role of context that led me to choose these particular Austrian cartoons asexamples for the current discussion. My detailed knowledge of thebackground to the events depicted in the images and of the way in whichAustrian newspapers chose to represent these events (cf. El Refaie, 2001)allows me to draw some tentative conclusions about the possible influence ofdiscursive context on interpretation and meaning.

    Another difficulty with conceptual metaphor theory concerns the factthat some analysts seem to be so concerned with describing the cognitive basisof metaphor that they now tend to view the ways in which it is expressed assecondary. According to applied linguist Cameron (1999), the recent trend offocusing concern on the conceptual content of metaphors has under-emphasised the potential effect of form on processing and understanding (p.12). Recently, some researchers have begun to address this question withregard to verbal language, by exploring the effect of a metaphors linguisticform on its meaning (Goatly, 1997; Steen, 1994). However, the potentialinfluence of the visual form of metaphors has so far been neglected.

    To me, this is an inexcusable omission. The fact that one metaphoricalthought or concept can be expressed in many different ways does notnecessarily mean that there are no differences at the level of representation,especially with regard to the degree of implicitness of a metaphor and itsemotional impact. Section three thus focuses on the grammar of visualmetaphors and also explores some of the differences between verbal and visualways of expressing the same metaphorical concept. In the conclusion to thisarticle, I show how my findings might contribute both to a better under-standing of the visual mode of communication and to the critical reassess-ment of some of the fundamental assumptions of cognitive metaphor theory.

    W H A T I S A V I S U A L M E TA P H O R ?

    In one of his essays, the art historian E.H. Gombrich (1971) argues thatmetaphor is a common and expected device in political cartoons: it is one ofthe main weapons in the cartoonists armoury. The cartoons discussed inthis article certainly appear to be highly metaphorical. However, as I show,analytically the concept of a visual met