Understanding visual metaphor: the example of newspaper cartoons

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<ul><li><p> http://vcj.sagepub.com/Visual Communication</p><p> http://vcj.sagepub.com/content/2/1/75The online version of this article can be found at:</p><p> DOI: 10.1177/1470357203002001755</p><p> 2003 2: 75Visual CommunicationElisabeth El Refaie</p><p>Understanding visual metaphor: the example of newspaper cartoons </p><p>Published by:</p><p> http://www.sagepublications.com</p><p> can be found at:Visual CommunicationAdditional services and information for </p><p> http://vcj.sagepub.com/cgi/alertsEmail Alerts: </p><p> http://vcj.sagepub.com/subscriptionsSubscriptions: </p><p> http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.navReprints: </p><p> http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.navPermissions: </p><p> http://vcj.sagepub.com/content/2/1/75.refs.htmlCitations: </p><p> What is This? </p><p>- Feb 1, 2003Version of Record &gt;&gt; </p><p> at TEXAS SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY on December 6, 2014vcj.sagepub.comDownloaded from at TEXAS SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY on December 6, 2014vcj.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p>http://vcj.sagepub.com/http://vcj.sagepub.com/content/2/1/75http://www.sagepublications.comhttp://vcj.sagepub.com/cgi/alertshttp://vcj.sagepub.com/subscriptionshttp://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.navhttp://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.navhttp://vcj.sagepub.com/content/2/1/75.refs.htmlhttp://vcj.sagepub.com/content/2/1/75.full.pdfhttp://online.sagepub.com/site/sphelp/vorhelp.xhtmlhttp://vcj.sagepub.com/http://vcj.sagepub.com/</p></li><li><p>A R T I C L E</p><p>Understanding visual metaphor: theexample of newspaper cartoons</p><p>E L I S A B E T H E L R E F A I E University of Plymouth</p><p>A B S T R A C T</p><p>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.</p><p>K E Y W O R D S</p><p>Austrian newspapers cartoons cognitive metaphor theory refugees visual metaphor</p><p>I N T R O D U C T I O N</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>Copyright 2003 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi: www.sagepublications.com)</p><p>Vol 2(1): 7595 [1470-3572(200302)2:1; 7595;029755]</p><p>v i s u a l c o m m u n i c a t i o n</p><p> at TEXAS SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY on December 6, 2014vcj.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p>http:\\www.sagepublications.comhttp://vcj.sagepub.com/</p></li><li><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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).</p><p>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</p><p>V i s u a l C o m m u n i c a t i o n 2 ( 1 )76</p><p> at TEXAS SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY on December 6, 2014vcj.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p>http://vcj.sagepub.com/</p></li><li><p>socio-political contexts. In fact, every individual reader or viewer is likely tobring his or her own experiences and assumptions to the interpretation process.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>W H A T I S A V I S U A L M E TA P H O R ?</p><p>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 metaphor is an extraordinarily difficultand elusive one to deal with.</p><p>Ever since Aristotle, theorists have grappled with metaphors, trying tounderstand how they differ from literal language, how people recognize andinterpret them and what role they play in language. The contemporaryscholar is confronted with a daunting range of contradictory theories,</p><p>E l R e f a i e : U n d e r s t a n d i n g v i s u a l m e t a p h o r 77</p><p> at TEXAS SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY on December 6, 2014vcj.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p>http://vcj.sagepub.com/</p></li><li><p>developed mainly within the disciplines of cognitive psychology, semanticsand pragmatics (Gibbs, 1999).</p><p>In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importantrole played by the visual mode in contemporary Western society, which hasalso prompted an interest in the nature of pictorial metaphor. A number ofstudies have explored visual metaphors in very diverse genres, such asadvertising (Forceville, 1994, 1995, 1996), films (Carroll, 1996), cartoons(Kennedy, 1993; Morris, 1993) and visual displays for training and controlpurposes (Dent-Read et al., 1994). In spite of this growth of publications,there is still little agreement among researchers even over basic terms anddefinitions. In my view, the main problem with much of the extant literatureis that most researchers still define visual metaphors in terms of their surfacerealization or formal characteristics, rather than trying to understand themas visual expressions of metaphorical thoughts or concepts.</p><p>The film theorist Carroll (1996), for instance, restricts his definitionof visual metaphors to cases where there is a visual fusion of elements fromtwo separate areas into one spatially bounded entity. He gives an example fromFritz Langs film Metropolis, in which the transformation of a gigantic machineinto a monster is represented through the superimposition of two images:</p><p>The machine, or at least parts of it, have been transformed into parts</p><p>of a monster, Moloch. Nevertheless, the machine is still recognizable</p><p>as a machine. The monster elements and the machine elements are</p><p>co-present or homospatial in the same figure. (Carroll 1996: 810)</p><p>Exploring the use of metaphor in portrait caricature, Gombrich(1971: 134) describes a similar form of visual fusion, for example, when theface of a particular politician is visually amalgamated with the body of ananimal. While fusion is certainly one of the forms a visual metaphor can take,I argue that this definition is much too narrow. Take, for instance, thecartoon from the Austrian tabloid Neue Kronen Zeitung1 (Figure 1).</p><p>This drawing, entitled Die Alternative [The alternative], depicts afamily standing in the middle of EU-Europe, holding up a flag with theinscription Neu Kurdistan [New Kurdistan]. The cartoons discussed in thisarticle were all published in January 1998 and they refer to the landing insouthern Italy of two cargo ships with several hundred mostly Kurdishrefugees from Turkey and Iraq on board. Although the arrival of asylumseekers in Italy was and continues to be a common occurrence, thepolitical circumstances at the time meant that it was given significance overand above the actual numbers involved: Italy and Austria had just joined theSchengen Treaty2 and had begun to reduce border controls between the twocountries. Politicians in Austria and elsewhere in Europe warned of the direconsequences of allowing asylum seekers to exploit the new open borderpolicy and called on the Italian government to prevent the Kurds fromleaving Italy and heading north.</p><p>V i s u a l C o m m u n i c a t i o n 2 ( 1 )78</p><p> at TEXAS SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY on December 6, 2014vcj.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p>http://vcj.sagepub.com/</p></li><li><p>In the bottom right-hand corner of the image, a line of ships isbringing more people from Turkey to the Italian coast. The cartoon thusseems to imply that, if the Kurds (and other Islamic immigrants) are notprevented from entering the EU, they will occupy our homeland and declaretheir own nation in the heart of Europe.</p><p>Most people would probably feel that this image goes beyond a literaldepiction of events. According to Carrolls definition of a visual metaphor,however, Figure 1 would not be metaphorical, since it does not contain avisual fusion of parts from two separate areas of experience into one new,spatially bounded entity.</p><p>If we compare visual metaphors to verbal ones, then visual fusion inCarrolls sense would correspond to cases where both the figurative term, orvehicle, and the actual referent, or topic, of a metaphor are present, as inexplicit nominal metaphors of the form A is B (My belief is my rock, Herhusband is a big teddy bear). Just as such a high degree of explicitness isactually rather rare in verbal metaphors (Goatly, 1997: ch. 7), so manyinstances of visual metaphors are also based not on visual fusion but onmore implicit forms. As I show later in greater detail, most visual metaphorsdo not contain a fusion of two separate elements into one, because either thevehicle or, more commonly, the topic is not shown explicitly at all. In the cartoon from the Neue Kronen Zeitung, for instance, the vehicle of the</p><p>E l R e f a i e : U n d e r s t a n d i n g v i s u a l m e t a p h o r 79</p><p>Figure 1 Neue Kronen Zeitung, 14 January 1998: 3. Reproduced by permis...</p></li></ul>


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