Signal to Noise

by Maria on June 6, 2017

On Saturday night, a couple of hours after the attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, I was on the Tube carrying a suitcase and backpack, trying to figure out the best route home that avoided the closed stations. A South African guy was sitting nearby. He inveigled an Italian man opposite him into chat. Within two stops, the South African was teaching a British woman some dancing steps while the Italian sang them some weird, sloppy waltz, a couple clapped not quite in time, the woman’s friends recorded it in hope of a viral moment, and the rest of us acted like proper Londoners and looked slightly irritated while also pretending nothing was happening.

It was kind of a nice moment, being light-hearted and international and the kind of thing we all say is so very London. The woman soon gave up in embarrassment and sat down in a trill of supportive giggles from her friends. The Italian got off and reminded us to get the very drunk South African as far as Collier’s Wood. With the state of him, though, he’s probably still sleeping it off at the end of the line in Morden.

On Sunday night, I checked email for the first time in two weeks and responded to a media request on Theresa May’s suspiciously prompt statement that the attacks were due to US tech firms providing “safe spaces” to terrorists. She’s made a career out of cutting police resources while increasing their powers. I guess this makes sense on some collectively sub-conscious level, like an anorexic I once knew who baked endlessly and gave it all away.

Twenty minutes after they’d phoned, an NBC news crew was setting up lights in the study, or book-womb, as one of my sisters calls it. I knew I was giving a pretty so-so performance in the interview, but couldn’t quite turn it around. Respect to people who are good at TV; there’s so much knowledge and feeling you have bubbling away underneath, and crafting it into what we patronisingly call a sound-bite – something a person who doesn’t know anything about your topic can intuitively grasp in a way that also accepts your framing – is bloody hard. When we were done and they were taking an establishing shot with the interviewer, he asked me a question so I would be talking as he nodded, and out popped the sentence they ended up using. It was about how wrecking human rights to protect our democracies is “burning the village to save the village”. Nothing earth-shattering, but it got the point across better than explaining how encryption back-doors work.

It got me thinking about how we reflexively use metaphor to get our heads around processes and information that are too complex or big to communicate directly. A couple of places yesterday, including one of my own interviews, I heard non-technology policy people describe mass surveillance as “looking for a needle in a haystack, and now you’ve just increased the size of the haystack”. It’s a metaphor I’d previously only heard privacy advocates use. A long-ago mentor told me that when other people start making your points for you, you should shut up because you’ve almost won. I wish!

Last night, feeling a bit fed-up with myself for spending too much time on Twitter on my first day back at work, I read one of Jung’s essays for a general readership; The Plight of the Individual in Modern Society. He said that a lot of what we think of as self-knowledge is just rifling through the obvious and knowable stuff that anyone would observe about us. “The ego knows only its own contents”. True self-knowledge, he implies, means plumbing the depths of the unconscious to try and figure out its contents.

This made a lot of sense to me. The fiction I enjoy the most operates on the level of the plotted obvious, but also contains ambiguous signals that resist noise-free transmission. The dressmaker’s dummies, or “forms”, in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, for example, play an obvious symbolic role as less imperfect and demanding substitutes for the women in the professor’s life, but that reading doesn’t nearly exhaust them. There’s something mysterious and compelling about those quite literal metaphors, if there can be such a thing, that sticks with you long after the book is finished.

Knowing our own unconscious isn’t just difficult, of course. It’s impossible. But we get the odd glimpse and can maybe use our front-brains to reflect on what we observe. We’ll always need novels and polling data and commentators because, individually and collectively, we mostly don’t know why we do the things we do. There’s so much data and behavioural murk underlying and manifesting in our actions, be they election results or bullshit security policies or just how we end up performing ourselves to our selves, that finding that one, vivid image or phrase that seems to make sense of it can seem heroically worthwhile.

Ignes Sodre, a Brazilian psychotherapist who often writes about literary characters, says of daydreaming that there are fantasies that lead to truths and fantasies that quite purposely hide them. George Eliot’s novels make a clear distinction between characters who aren’t wicked but can’t help lying to themselves in their idealised images, and those who use their day-dreams to better read the world around them and figure out how to, morally, be in it. So, a Rosamond Vincy never graduates from her gilded dreams of how life under patriarchy should be for a pretty, well-positioned woman; a Gwendolen Harleth sort of might, but is too weak and emotionally damaged – probably by her stepfather – to manage life beyond fantasy without the love of an unusually good man; and a true heroine like Dorothea Brooke ditches her day-dreams a third of the way through, but takes another five-hundred pages to work out how to live without them.

Why did that woman dance with a drunk on a moving train on a Saturday night? Maybe she dreamt of being sort of girl who dances on a train. Maybe she just wanted to dance. The joy of alcohol isn’t lower inhibition but getting a break from endlessly interrogating and mediating between wants and deeds.

Why did anyone believe Theresa May was “competent” and “sensible”, despite a long and profoundly unimpressive track record at the Home Office? Because her demeanour represented the maternal bossiness of matron, and not the brittle vindictiveness that seems to lie underneath. Sometimes the daydream channels the truth and sometimes it purposely obscures it.

Today, I’m back on a job that involves writing a couple of dozen near-future science fiction stories to illustrate or rub against the findings of a technology report. Client response to the stories I submitted before my holiday is that the ones that were quite literal extrapolations of current trends seemed less believable; too thin, somehow. The ones I started from just a strong feeling about something, or a hunch, or a sense of deep-seated needs as yet unmet by technology– those went down the best.

Over the past year, a lot of my work has involved technology and metaphor. That sounds really vague, a kind of high-end, late-capitalist job from the same stable as Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition. The assignments I do best on have ostensibly quite prosaic aims, but involve tapping into feelings and ideas about politics and technology, and helping organisations to explain themselves to themselves and, in this case, to imagine the future.

I may just be over-thinking it, but transmitting these signals from the vast amounts of what we do and don’t consciously know, via images and metaphors only barely adjacent to meaning, and somehow translating it into how we imagine ourselves and our futures seems increasingly strange, hard and necessary.



Ted Lemon 06.06.17 at 6:39 pm

Very nicely put, thanks. Connecting the deep ruminations of the unconscious mind to the world in a way that validates what has been said and communicates it effectively is eminently doable, but demands its own intuitive leaps: the quotidien mind isn’t up to the task.


harry b 06.06.17 at 7:38 pm

I thought you were good on tv!

I was once ambushed on TV. I was scheduled to appear on some BBC news show to criticize one of the hundreds of re-announcements of the Blair governments plans for Academies or whatever. I knew exactly what the government was going to announce (because they’d already announced it 4 times!) so didn’t listen to the news before going to the studio (which was at 8 am or something). Then, live, on air, the presenter asked me what I thought of Alastair Campbell’s use of the phrase “bog standard comprehensives”. It was the first time I’d ever heard that metaphor “bog standard”, and thought it was hilarious, and hilarious that Campbell used it. I had 2 minutes, and said what I had planned to say, and finally gave into the giggling when I got off air.

Analytic philosophers, who value precision above all else, nevertheless use metaphors all the time. Arguments have lacunae, reality gets ‘carved up’, possible ‘at the joints’. Lots of things would be just too hard to say — or even maybe to think — without metaphors.


JanieM 06.06.17 at 8:15 pm

Lots to ponder! I thought you were good on TV too. :-)

I especially like the George Eliot reference. Something I treasure about Middlemarch is the way Eliot manages to show Dorothea’s youthful (and rather idiotic) idealism without looking down on her for it. This is all the more moving to the extent that we can assume that Dorothea is in some ways a stand-in for Eliot’s own younger self. I wish I could love and forgive my younger self’s idiocies like that.


Layman 06.06.17 at 10:02 pm

Beautiful piece. And I thought you were good on TV, too. Well done!


TheSophist 06.07.17 at 3:25 am

On topic: is there a link to the aforementioned tv appearance?

Less so: I was 3/4 of the way through the book before realizing that Cayce’s name is not pronounced kc, but, of course, the same way as the protagonist of Neuromancer, Case.


Moz of Yarramulla 06.07.17 at 3:39 am

On other interesting things May has said about terrorism, her apparently unconditional support of Saudi Arabia is somewhat curious. And is being questioned…

The encryption and general police powers stuff seems to come from a deep certainty that SHE will never be subjected to any of it. Maybe she should look to the USA and see how that’s working out for her best mate there.


J-D 06.07.17 at 4:05 am

It got me thinking about how we reflexively use metaphor to get our heads around processes and information that are too complex or big to communicate directly.

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote in The Reader Over Your Shoulder that English uses metaphor more than other modern European languages, and much more than [classical] Greek or Latin. I am confident that their knowledge of other languages was greater than mine is, but less confident that it was as great as they thought it was. I would be interested in the opinions of people who do speak other languages (European or not, really).


J-D 06.07.17 at 4:06 am

Would you rather discover that you have grown wiser since you were young, or that you have not?


Peter T 06.07.17 at 5:19 am

On another post, someone recommended Iain Mc Gilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, which is an extended exploration of how metaphor and openness to mystery is an essential part of how the brain is. Just finished reading and still digesting (the book intestine?), but the meassage resonates here as well as there. Thanks.


Maria 06.07.17 at 5:44 am

Thanks – no, I think the tv thing was grand in the end. Just musing on it all.


Francis Spufford 06.07.17 at 9:23 am

TheSophist @5:
The world is everything that is the Cayce. Gibson’ world, anyway.


Neville Morley 06.07.17 at 2:32 pm

It’s a basic, obvious truth, recognised at least since Thucydides and the Attic tragedians, that people tend to have absurd over-confidence in their own knowledge and understanding; we are, as a species, not good at dealing with the world in which we find ourselves. Listening to modern politicians, especially but not only on the subject of terrorism, I can only wonder whether they are *especislly* lacking in epistemic humility, or feel they have to pretend confidence and certainty because that’s what (they feel) is expected of them – cf. the appalling conduct of John Humphrys interviewing Keir Starmer on Radio 4 this morning – or if they are as human as the rest of us.


Sebastian H 06.07.17 at 6:18 pm

JRR Tolkien, in his role as a philologist, thought that much of what his compatriots thought of as description was all along supposed to be metaphor–so that when the ancients used one word to describe a cluster of ideas, they were using metaphor to invoke all the ideas, not using the same word with different meanings. I’m only vaguely remembering the argument but I believe he used “light” as an example. In many ancient languages the same word is used for light and thought (if I’m remembering correctly). The argument of his day is that they split off a word for thought when they decided it was similar to lighting something (discovering the metaphor). He argued that the word embodied both concepts such that lighting something meant opening it up to thought. (They were well aware of the metaphor long before they split a separate word off). I read the book on it 25+ years ago so I’m probably muddling it.


Don't Eat at Taco Bell 06.07.17 at 7:35 pm

“Why did anyone believe Theresa May was “competent” and “sensible”, despite a long and profoundly unimpressive track record at the Home Office? Because her demeanour represented the maternal bossiness of matron, and not the brittle vindictiveness that seems to lie underneath. Sometimes the daydream channels the truth and sometimes it purposely obscures it.”

This is a genuinely brilliant observation–and we can substitute many political figures for Teresa May here.

My only suggested amendment is to alter the last sentence to ‘….sometimes….usually….’

You are a beautiful writer, a rare quality among academics.


peterv 06.07.17 at 10:46 pm

The events you witnessed on the London Tube are fairly common on late Friday and Saturday nights, and on the nights before major holidays – eg, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Whether due to alcohol or a selection bias, people are immeasurably friendlier to strangers and much more talkative after 11pm than before.


Paul Davis 06.08.17 at 1:19 am

On the metaphor thing … worth going deeper and one route to do so is via George Lakoff’s work on metaphor as a fundamental cognitive feature (possibly even represented by neural wiring). Google “lakoff metaphor” will point the way. I’m not 100% convinced by the neurological component of this work, but being presented with the extent to which metaphors underpin so many of our basic conceptual models and cognitive processes is … almost shocking.


Yankee 06.08.17 at 2:19 am

Knowing our own unconscious isn’t just difficult, of course. It’s impossible.

Why would you say that? It’s no more difficult than knowing any other person. You just have to listen.


JRLRC 06.08.17 at 3:52 pm

Precise metaphoring is a true analytic art.
Well done, Maria, as always!


Maria 06.08.17 at 8:47 pm

Harry b, funnily enough, regarding analytic philosophers, I’ve recently been attempting Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, and in it he follows Sidgwick by using George Eliot as an example of writers who act against their obvious or short-term self interest by making themselves miserable while trying to write better.

JanieM, I came way too late in life to Middlemarch and only read it for the first time 3 years ago. Then, soon after, I enviously read Rebecca Mead’s memoir of having it as a book to re-visit throughout life. Well, the second best time to start anything is now…

Re. Dorothea and the ignorance of our younger selves, for a personal project I’ve been working on for a while, I think a lot about this a lot. Actually, my gut sense is that each stage of life has its own wisdom which is inaccessible both before and after.

This isn’t remotely what you’re saying at all, but by way of example, do you remember those youtube videos that were about a while ago – ‘it gets better’ – from out and happy 20 or 30 somethings to their teenage selves? The idea was sincere and perhaps they did help, but they seemed to imply that pain now is worth it because the future will be better, somehow making younger people’s suffering less important because, hey, it gets better. I really didn’t love that idea, though I know the intent was sincere.

Youth’s idiocies aren’t completely idiotic and might be more easily forgiven if we don’t have a completely Whiggish view of personal developmental history…

Thank you to everyone for the book recommendations.

Yankee, indeed. I mean it’s not easily accessible or exhaustively knowable. If it was, we wouldn’t need art, etc.


JanieM 06.08.17 at 9:44 pm

Maria — I was lucky enough to read Middlemarch for the first time in grad school, have re-read it several times since then, and will surely continue to do so for as long as I last. I enjoyed Mead’s book — possibly heard about it here, from you, in fact — and envied her not the long acquaintance with Middlemarch but the ability to turn it into a book. :-)

Actually, my gut sense is that each stage of life has its own wisdom which is inaccessible both before and after.

That’s a nice way of looking at it…I’ll try to remember it when I get too harsh and judgmental about the past.

The idea was sincere and perhaps they did help, but they seemed to imply that pain now is worth it because the future will be better, somehow making younger people’s suffering less important because, hey, it gets better.

This is nothing like what I thought the videos were saying, although I didn’t keep up with that project after its earliest beginnings.

What I thought those videos were for was to give kids a lifeline, both to a bigger world and the hope of a personal future where things wouldn’t be as bad as they might be at the present. It wasn’t about the pain being “worth it” somehow, or about denigrating their current pain — it was more like “try to hang on because it’s not going to be like this forever,” from people who had experienced it themselves. I thought the idea was to try to counter the fact that the consequences of imagining that it never will get better are dire for a lot of kids.

I’m gay myself, but since I didn’t know, when I was a teeanger, that such a thing was even possible, I didn’t have a hard time with it. If I had known…well, I can’t even imagine how that would have gone in the world I grew up in. As it is, I think my life came out immeasurably differently from the way it might have looked had I lived in a world where it was no big deal to be gay. But we play the hand we’re dealt, right?


Meredith 06.11.17 at 4:54 am

I am never sure what a metaphor is supposed to be, because what seem to me to be metaphors, if I stop to think about them, are so everywhere all the time, even in discrete words. When I say “I see” to mean “I understand,” am I speaking metaphorically? And when I say “I understand,” what exactly am I standing under — what metaphor is operating? If I am thinking in Greek, am I seeing or understanding or knowing when I think “oida”? When I hear English “wit” or “vision” in “oida,” when I hear “know” in Latin (g)nosco (I do hear these things, all the time — though I am usually reading when I hear them), am I thinking in metaphors? Yes, I think I am. That’s just how we think, or how the language thinks us.

I’d love to hear and see Maria’s tv appearance. Call for a link!


Val 06.11.17 at 8:57 am

There is a link – look for ‘interview’. V brief tho.
Love what you said too – how I long to be multilingual! Not a talent I have I think.

Without being too pomo, words are never that which they try to convey, so always metaphors in a sense I guess. But it’s interesting, as you say, ‘I see’ for ‘I understand’ (won’t go further into that rabbit hole). Why is that? Maybe because we see someone’s face when they’re trying to communicate truthfully with us? (As to where that leaves online communication …. )


Lynne 06.11.17 at 11:39 am

Janie M, me too. Meredith, the link is in the word “interview”. Nice to see you both. ;)


Meredith 06.11.17 at 10:05 pm

Thanks, all. Actually, an interesting story — and Maria, though her appearance is brief, pretty much caps it (that’s a metaphor, I think). Hi, Lynne, Janie M, and Val, too.


JanieM 06.11.17 at 10:40 pm

Back atcha, Meredith. Long time no “see.” ;-)


JanieM 06.11.17 at 11:01 pm

Lynne too….I missed that one as I was rushing through…..for some reason, this hasn’t been a weekend of leisure for blog-reading.


Maria 06.17.17 at 9:33 am

Hi JanieM, I’m sorry I didn’t respond but very much take your point about those videos – my reading of them was a bit thin, I see now.

And hello, too, Lynne, Meredith and Val! x

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