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A Course in Pictorial and Multimodal Metaphor.

Instructor: Charles Forceville

Course Description


 "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 5). Lakoff and Johnson's description is an attractive one, since it suggests that what people do with metaphor is no less important than what it is. More­over it allows for non-verbal manifes­tations of this trope. A crucial element in the cog­nitivist approach to metaphor fathered by Lakoff and John­son (and anticipated in the collection by Ortony 1979) is that metaphor is primarily a matter of think­ing, and only derivat­ively a matter of lan­guage. But while much fine work has been done by Lakoff and Johnson and their followers, the vast majority of studies still only discusses verbal manifestations of meta­phor (see Kövecses 2002).

          In this series of eight lectures, the focus will be on appearances of metaphor that are not, or not exclusively, verbal. The emphasis will be on visual manifestations of metaphor, but since pictures, in whatever form, are more often than not accompanied by words, many "pictorial" metaphors are in fact hybrids invol­ving language. Moreover, once the discussion shifts to moving images (films, videoclips, commercials), a third chan­nel of information must often be taken into consideration: the aural, a heading under which both (non-verbal) sound and music will be considered. In effect, therefore, this course gradually broadens from verbal, via pic­tor­ial, to multimodal metaphor.



There are at least four reasons why the study of non-verbal and multimodal metaphor is a relevant pursuit.

1. A complete theory of metaphor cannot ignore the non-verbal.  The cognitivist paradigm insists that verbal metaphors are man­ifestations rather than reduplica­tions of thought, and there­by forcefully suggests that thought can give rise to non-verbal or multimodal metaphor. However, the cognitivist paradigm hitherto largely disregards the non-verbal. Examination of non-verbal representations should help further substantiate (or cast doubt upon) elements of the already extensive body of research based on verbal representations of metaphor. At present, metaphor theory’s excessive bias toward the verbal may inadvertently but systematically hide aspects of theory. A theory of metaphor that aims at completeness cannot afford to ignore pictures and multimodal representations.

2. Understanding culture requires studying information inhering in non-verbal form. The cognitive approach to metaphor has – in line with its nomenclature – primarily investigated the rela­tion between mind and language, and hence has tended to be prejudiced toward those aspects of metaphor that help lay bare mechanisms of thinking. Recently, however, more attention has begun to be paid to the interaction between metaphor and culture (e.g. Emanatian 1995, Shore 1996, Gibbs 1999). The cognitivist tradi­tion of metaphor has devel­oped the notion of Idealized Cog­nitive Models (ICMs, Lakoff 1987: chapter 4) or folk models, which reflect how communities make sense of their sur­roundings and endow them with meaning. Again, how­ever, there has been a bias favour­ing verbal repre­sentations of such ICMs. Examining multi-medial metaphors thus contri­butes to a better understan­ding of culturally embedded knowledge and beliefs.

3. The study of non-verbal metaphor provides tools for the analysis and production of pictorial representations. Applicable theories of the image, as opposed to learned reflec­tions on it, are still relatively scarce, par­ticul­arly in the area of static, non-moving images. (In the area of  moving images, film nar­ratology has contri­buted a growing body of very useful work.) Understanding multimodal metaphor provides a fruit­ful angle on the strate­gies that people employ to produce and inter­pret im­ages. multimodal metaphor is thus not only of interest to students concerned with meta­phor, but also to researchers and practitioners of non-verbal com­muni­cation.

 4. "The medium is the message." Michael Reddy's article "The conduit metaphor" (1979), which George Lakoff acknowledges as fundamental to the cog­nitivist theory of metaphor (1993: 203), argues that verbal communication in Wes­tern society is implicitly based on the notion that a speaker or writer "packages" her thoughts in words, which she subse­quently dispatches, as if by some sort of aerial cable-way, to the lis­tener or reader. The latter then only has to "unpack" the parcel to find the meaning put there by the communicator. Reddy shows that this conception of communication is not a neutral, objec­tive descrip­tion of what happens, but embodies a metaphor (the co­nduit meta­phor). Like any other metaphor, this conduit metaphor highlights some aspects of the topic under discus­sion (here: communica­tion) and hides others. Most people, however, are not aware of the metaphoric nature of this model of communica­tion, and thus mistake a necessarily partial description of the communication process for the whole story.

          In fact, Reddy's approach here reveals that the conse­quences of that cliché of communication studies, Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message," are still not suf­fi­ciently taken into ac­count. As Chesebro and Ber­telsen (1996) formulate the matter, in more general terms,

           Communication technologies and media are currently treated as neutral conduits through which ideas are expressed. The assumption here is that ideas can be adequately and comprehensively described, interpreted, and assessed independently of the channels used to convey these ideas. ... The unique mes­sage-generating capacity of each com­munication tech­nology or medium itself has been all but ig­nored (1996: 170).

They conclude that communication channels deserve sustained investigation because of their status as "message-generat­ing systems affecting our cultural, sym­bolic, and cog­nitive sys­tems" (ibid.). Investigating non-verbal metaphor thus also alerts us to how a change in medium will inevitably affect its alleged content. For present purposes, this can be rephrased as the statement that a pictorial or multimodal manifes­tation of a cognitive metaphor will not convey the same infor­mation and attitudes as a purely verbal manifestation of that same cog­nitive metaphor.



The eight lectures have been designed in such a way that they should be comprehensible to students without specialist background knowl­edge in metaphor. The information and understanding being presup­posed is that which has been offered in the pre­vious lectures of the course. The course aims to be as practical as possible. That is, there is a constant shift between theory and concrete examples. Where appropriate and possible, pictures are provided that embody the concepts discussed.

 Lecture 1. Preliminary concepts and terminology [LINK]

 A number of basic concepts and terms employed in discussions of metaphor will be explained. The framework that will be used is Max Black's (1979/1993) interaction theory, which will be com­ple­mented by other rele­vant studies. After the introduction of these concepts, they will be discussed with reference to some ar­ti­ficial, de-con­tex­tualized pictures in order to demonstrate how Black's theory works.

 Lecture 2. When is something a pictorial metaphor? [LINK]

We will now have a closer look at what forms a pictorial metaphor can actually take in static pictures. A fourfold distinction into hybrid metaphor, contextual metaphor, simile, and embodied metaphor is proposed, and an example of each is discussed. Two textual parameters governing the decision that a metaphor can/must be construed are briefly discussed: anomaly and similarity. But the construal of a pictorial metaphor is not only invited or forced by text-internal cues: authorial intentions and genres also play an important role.

Lecture 3. Pictorial metaphors in billboards and print ads

 The type of picture that is central to this lecture is the genre of print advertisements and billboards. The pictures discussed, it is claimed, contain a "pictorial metaphor." The basis of this lecture is Forceville (1996, chapter 6), but different examples will be discussed, while the analyses will reflect my post-1996 thinking. Some manipulated versions will be employed to elucidate the role played by various elements in the repre­sentations.

Lecture 4. Pictorial and multimodal metaphors in commercials

When the representations studied are moving images rather than static ones, the oppor­tunities for creating pictorial metaphor proliferate. For one thing, the information channels of the written word and the printed visual are complemented by aural information, in the form of music, spoken words, and sound effects. Moreover, the visual channel now includes camera move­ments while the various ways to link one shot to the next (that is, the "montage") similarly lead to possibilities for representing multimodal metaphors not available to pic­tures without temporal development.

Lecture 5. Pictorial and multimodal metaphor in artistic moving images

Advertising is characterized by straightfor­ward inten­tions (all variants of "buy me!"), which both explains the fre­­quency with which metaphors are used in it and the relative ease with which these can be interpreted. But pictorial and multimodal metaphor can also occur in artistic representations.   In this lecture, a number of fragments from mostly nar­rative films purportedly con­taining a pictorial or multimodal metaphor will be discussed and analyzed.

Lecture 6. Metaphor and blending theory

A fairly recent development in cognitive linguistics that is related in metaphor theory is "blending theory," an approach connected with the names of Gilles Fau­connier and Mark Turner (e.g., Turner & Fauconnier 1995, Fauconnier and Turner 2000, 2002). In this lecture, the connec­tions between metaphor and blending theory will be examined, and an attempt will be made to show what uses blending theory has for the analysis of (moving) images.

Lecture 7. Structural and ontological multimodal metaphor

In their classic Metaphors we live by (1980), Lakoff and Johnson have argued that many of our con­cepts are systematically governed in terms of other concepts, leading to such metaphors as IDEAS ARE PEOPLE (“The theory of relativity gave birth to an enormous number of ideas in physics”; “His ideas will live on for ever”) and ARGUMENT IS WAR (“Your claims are indefensible”; “You disagree? Okay, shoot!”). These so-called "structural" metaphors are deeply embedded in the conceptual framework of communities in Western culture. Even more "abstract" are spatial orientations such as the UP/DOWN, CENTRE/PERIPHERY and LEFT/RIGHT, giving rise to metaphors as GOOD IS UP, as in “we hit a peak last year” and  “he does high-quality work” (but also: RATIONAL IS UP, as in “he couldn’t rise above his emotions”; “we had a high-level discussion”) and BAD IS DOWN, as in “it’s been going downhill for weeks now” and “we’re at an all-time low” (and EMOTIONAL IS DOWN, as in “the discussion fell to the emotional level”). A third type of conceptual metaphors are the so-called “ontological metaphors.” These metaphors reveal that we understand many abstract experiences and events in terms of concrete entities and processes. Thus, underlying “we’re still trying to grind out the solution to this equation” is ultimately (via the structural metaphor THE MIND IS A MACHINE) the ontological metaphor THE MIND IS AN ENTITY. Similarly, “the ship is coming into view now” is a sentence we understand because we rely on the deeply ingrained ontological metaphor VISUAL FIELDS ARE CONTAINERS. Such structural, orientational and ontological metaphors contrast with the more "incidental" metaphors hitherto discussed by being already latently part of people's Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs). This lecture will focus on the question whether, and if so in what manner, these more fundamental metaphors find their way into visual and multimodal representations.

Lecture 8. Loose ends: suggestions for future research 

In the course of the preceding lectures, while hopefully much has been clarified, many questions have surfaced as well. In this last lecture, some of them will be inventoried and tentatively dis­cussed, where possible with reference to work done by others.


AUTHOR’S E-MAIL: c.j.forceville@uva.nl



Black, Max (1962). Metaphor. In: Black, Models and metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 25-47.

Black, Max (1979). More about metaphor. In: Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and thought, Cambridge: Cambridge UP,19-43 (second edition: 1993).

Chesebro, James W., and Dale A. Bertelsen, Analyzing media: communication technologies as symbolic and cognitive systems. New York/London: Guilford Press, 1996.

Emanatian, Michele (1995). Metaphor and the expression of emotion: the value of cross-cultural perspectives. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 10:3, 163-182.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner (1998). Compression and global insight. Cognitive Linguistics 11, 283-304.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner (2002). The way we think: conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Forceville, Charles (1988). The case for pictorial metaphor: René Magritte and other Surrealists. In Aleš Erjavec, (ed.), Vestnik IX: 1, Inštitut za Marksist­ične Študije, Ljubljana, 150-160.

Forceville Charles (1996). Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising. London/New York: Routledge. [Paperback published in 1998].

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr. (1999). Taking metaphor out of our heads and putting it into the cultural world. In: Raymond Gibbs & Gerard Steen, Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 145-166.

Kövecses, Zoltán (2002). Metaphor: a practical introduction. Oxford: Oxdford UP.

Lakoff, George (1987). Women, fire and dangerous things: what cat­e­gories reveal about the mind. Chicago: U of Chicago P.

Lakoff, George (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In: Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and thought (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 202-251.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Reddy, Michael (1979). The conduit metaphor. In: Andrew Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 284-324. (A revised and expanded edition of the book appeared in 1993).

Ortony, Andrew (ed.). Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP (2nd edition 1993).

Shore, Bradd (1996). Culture in mind: cognition, culture, and the problem of meaning. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turner, Mark, and Gilles Fauconnier (1995). Conceptual integration and formal expression, Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 10, 183-204.

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copyright 2004, Charles Forceville
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