Musing on Metaphors and Models

My sweetheart, an engineer who works with a lot of models, likes to quote the statistician George Box, who says, “All models are wrong. Some are useful.”

At the WisCon panel “Change Happens at the Edge of Chaos,” the writer and theater professor Andrea Hairston made a point of reminding us that everything we do is metaphor, including mathematical equations. (She also has a background in math and physics.)

I think of metaphors and models as more or less the same thing. Perhaps metaphors are more of a way to express abstract ideas, while models deal with the concrete. But both are approximations, and some work better than others.

Words in general are always an approximation. Stories are long metaphors. Humans are storytellers; that’s how we teach and how we learn. All stories are wrong. Some are useful. Some (and this is also true of models) are so wrong as to be dangerous.

I suspect the way we move and interact physically with each other is not a metaphor. If we turn that movement into dance or other performance, it probably becomes metaphorical, and certainly our efforts to explain our body knowledge in words is necessarily metaphorical and frequently wrong.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to translate body learning into words, a task made more difficult by the fact that my understanding of what I know with my body is incomplete. At the moment, I am dealing with knee pain and restricted movement and am struggling to both understand what is wrong and how to heal it.

I am familiar with different kinds of pain around joints and muscles, but this one feels different. After some experimentation, I think the most accurate word/metaphor/model is a sprain caused by hyperextending my knee while taking a large step down. Being very careful not to either hyperextend the joint again or to put too much body weight on it when it’s bent, along with rest, seems to be the proper way to deal with it.

But the experience reminds me that while I am pretty attuned to my body, there are still large pieces of what movement and pain and other physical reactions are communicating that I do not understand in part because I haven’t come up with an accurate model or metaphor.

It has been said that gender is a construct and that it is performed. Assigning gender to people, not to mention to their activities and their things, is metaphorical, and frequently those metaphors are wildly inaccurate and dangerously wrong.

I find myself very pleased and even excited by people who decline to claim a place on the gender binary and define themselves as nonbinary. While this is likely also a metaphor, a way of using words to interpret body knowledge, it appears to me to be a useful and more accurate one.

Meanwhile I continue to define myself as a woman in part because of my physical body and the fact that I love it, and in part as an act of defiance against those who tell me that my physical self means that I am supposed to act and be in certain ways that are, in fact, alien to my self.

What understanding I have gleaned about trans people is that they are women or men for reasons that are not related to their physical bodies, meaning that their experience, and perhaps their metaphors, are different from mine. That does not make either of us wrong.

Hard core misogyny and insistence on restricted cultural roles based on examination of a newborn’s genitalia mean that the world is in desperate need of new ways of looking at gender. New metaphors. New stories. Better models. Multiple true ones, some of them contradictory, all of them less wrong than the gender binary.

We writers are always searching for the right way to say something to convey an important idea or image or reality. Metaphors. Models. Wrong, but sometimes useful.

We must always check our words and our metaphors and figure out if they’re still accurate, or if there’s more truth out there.

In our current time and space and place, I don’t think we get to use the shorthand metaphors that were common in the past. “Woman” and “man” don’t mean much these days without added information.

Perhaps once we humans go through these unsettled times, we will end up in a time and space and place where we can simplify our metaphors and models so that we have easier ones that are less wrong. Now is not that time.

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