Metaphors to Die By


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

Correspondences between a Collapsing Civilization, Culture or Group, and a Dying Person

Produced on the occasion of the G8 Dementia Summit (London 2013) attended by world leaders after participating in commemoration of the death of Nelson Mandela.


Person vs. Collective: There is an instructive possibility of exploring correspondences between how individual dying is framed (by those variously faced with it) and how groups and cultures “die” (by those faced with this collective phenomenon). Of necessity, there is much reflection on the first case. The case of groups is now evident in terminal bankruptcies, corporate downsizing and community decline. It is more tragically experienced as the loss of lifelong working relationships, estrangement from relatives and friends, the “death” of a language, or the dissolution of centuries-old cultural identity — and especially of genocidal massacre. The familiarity with individual death is readily used to provide a metaphorical framework for understanding that of any collective. Much more challenging is how the nature of the “dying” of an empire, or even of a global civilization, is to be sensed, experienced and comprehended. How might a mighty civilization have a “good death”, and “die gracefully” — with dignity?

Dying vs. Living: There is an extensive literature on framing the dying process, whether for those who are dying or for those left to grieve. The much-cited study by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Metaphors We Live By, 1980) has evoked a wide variety of studies and commentary on “Metaphors We Die By”. As with the original study, these focus predominantly on the case of the individual. Jared Diamond has provided several studies of relevance to the collective case (Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, 2005). The framing adopted (whether unconsciously or not) by those embedded within those collectives, as implied by Diamond’s reference to “choice”, is necessarily absent from studies about macrohistory. Hence the challenge of deriving meaning from the larger pattern of living and dying, as previously discussed (Engaging Macrohistory through the Present Moment, 2004)

Collective decline: Despite the extent of the phenomenon, there are relatively few studies of the metaphors used by groups, villages and corporations to frame the process of their own demise. Exceptions include Howard F. Stein (Death Imagery and the Experience of Organizational Downsizing: or, is your name on Schindler’s List?). Simon Crean, as Australian Trade Minister, gave support to the idea that the Doha Round is on “life support” but not yet as “dead as the dodo” (Aust and US call for revival of Doha Round negotiations, Correspondents Report, 9 March 2000). According to Crean: The metaphors of death and crisis have become central to discussion of the world trade round involving 151 countries.

Sacrifice: More questionable is of course the use of metaphor to enable and facilitate self-sacrifice (suicide missions, self-immolation, etc) or the sacrifice of groups and cultures — often by those incapable of any sacrifice themselves, as argued by George Lakoff (Metaphor and War: the metaphor system used to justify war in the Gulf, 1991; Metaphors of Terror, 2001). Like jihadi suicide bombers, kamikaze pilots and Christian martyrs have a profound dependence on metaphor in dying for their cause — or enabling the death of others with detachment, as exemplified by drone pilots and gas over operatives in concentration camps.,

Dying collectivities: The effort here is to switch from the emphasis on the metaphors which already tend to be used by some — implied by “We Live By” or “We Die By” — to those unfamiliar metaphors which might be fruitfully used. Hence use of the title “Metaphors To Die By” — possibly better considered as “Metaphors To Die With”, “In”, “On”, or “Through”. This endeavours to extend the range of metaphors which could be of value in the individual case in order to encompass that of the group and civilizational cases. The approach thus challenges the variety of conventional approaches to dying by considering the implications and relevance for collectivities. The emphasis is however especially on the framing that the dying may find fruitful in some way — rather than that by which others may choose to frame it as “non-participants” in the experience itself (“as lived”).

Dying of global civilization: This shift in focus is of course of very particular relevance to the process by which the current global civilization is “dying” as has been variously claimed (notably in the many articles referenced on the “Die Off” website). Many current global initiatives are usefully to be understood as “palliative care” and a form of “life support”. The issue has recently been given particular focus by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich (Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 7 March 2013) with the introductory comment:

Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size… All those previous collapses were local or regional; elsewhere, other societies and civilizations persisted unaffected… But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization — the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded — is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems… The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption.

Or, as asked by Rosalie Bertell (The Future of Planet Earth: are we the last surviving generations? Radioactivity and the Gradual Extinction of Life? Global Research, 12 December 2013).

Mapping decline: In exploring this phenomenon, whether framed metaphorically as a “collapse” or not, it could be said that humanity as a whole is effectively threatened by a disempowering “lifestyle disease“, as variously argued (Cognitive Implications of Lifestyle Diseases of Rich and Poor: transforming personal entanglement with the natural environment, 2010; Mind Map of Global Civilizational Collapse: why nothing is happening in response to global challenges, 2011; Mapping the Global Underground, 2010; Convergence of 30 Disabling Global Trends: mapping the social climate change engendering a perfect storm, 2012).

The difficulty for “participants” in the process of decline — possibly framed metaphorically as a “journey” — is that the “map is not the territory”. A “map” is then just one of the metaphors which may be of use. Explanations, from whatever perspective, may not be helpful — as succinctly framed in the movie As Good as It Gets (1997): I’m drowning here and you’re just describing the water.

Global dementia: The preoccupation of this argument acquires a particular focus with the death of Nelson Mandela, following an extended period in intensive care. World leaders assembled to praise his life achievement, notably including the leader of the country that had maintained his status as a terrorist until 2008 — long after his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 (US government considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist until 2008, NBC News, 7 December 2013). Leaders travelled from the memorial event to a G8 Summit focused on dementia — the serious permanent loss of cognitive ability. A briefing by Alzheimer’s Disease International to the G8 indicated that global dementia is set to treble by 2050 to affect some 135 million people — one in three seniors (The Global Impact of Dementia 2013–2050, 2013).

Given its track record, the G8 can however itself be usefully explored as a valuable metaphor for progressive loss of cognitive ability of the “global brain“. Those assembled at the Summit focused on remedial research and palliative care to postpone the inevitable — both metaphors for past strategic failure. Missing is any consideration of the metaphors through which the tragic experience of the dying can be fruitfully reframed — including that of cultures and civilization itself. As the current enabling metaphor, global sustainability is as illusory as individual immortality (In Quest of Sustainability as Holy Grail of Global Governance, 2011). Ironically it is South Africa that remains the country with the highest mortality rate in the world — far greater than when it was first the focus of development.



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Dec 2013.

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