Sunday, November 28, 2010

Are We There Yet?

What are those ants up there in the header doing?  I never get tired of looking at them.

When I was making art, I was fascinated by metonymy, a figure of speech that substitutes one word for another word that it's closely associated with.  Over time, the crown comes to stand for the king.

It is metonymy that gives documentary film and other forms of sympathetic magic their power over us.  And it is metonymy that connects the unseen and unseeable theoretical concepts of science to their manifestations in the realm of the senses.

In the physical world, films and photographs are instantly metonymic.  The weaver ants in the header stand for actual ants in a completely realistic and convincing way.  The ants in the header may be suspended in time and space, immutable, undying, but, to our minds, they are real.  And they are doing a real ant thing, a thing they were caught in the act of doing by the biologist who snapped their picture and generously gave us permission to use it here.  They will continue to do that one ant thing and nothing else as long as the photograph lasts.  They will not sting us to move us off their trail, they will not turn around and head in the opposite direction, and the major worker will not put the minor worker down.  They will move forward together, always tending toward some place outside the frame of the photograph, but never getting there. 

Now the scientist who took the picture of these weaver ants, Bert Hölldobler, knows as much about ants as anyone alive, and he tells us that what is literally going on in that picture is an example of the division of labor.  What Professor Hölldobler's photograph shows is a major worker carrying a minor worker "to a place where the minor worker is needed for special work, such as attending honeydew-secreting homoopterans or nursing small larvae."

That's the observable fact of the picture.  The denotative meaning of it.  But we do not live by metonymy alone.

Beyond metonymy, there is metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word that literally denotes one thing or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness.  As metaphor, the picture of our ants points to something beyond itself.  It refers to other things that it is like.  And, as a picture that is a metaphor for something else, the more things it refers to, the better it is.

As metaphor, Professor Hölldobler's weaver ants are amazingly polyreferential.

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