Metaphor, Metonymy, and Metanarrative Space: Negotiations of Truth in a Vlog
Essay by Josephine Hass
Art by Enid Au
Questions about the role of truth, authenticity, meaning, and authorial intent are not new to art and art criticism, yet the upswell of new forms made possible by new technologies cast these questions in a new light. One example are memes, where the relationship between an image or images and the text they are presented with construct meaning by evoking metonymic frames, metaphors, and viewpoints in ways not possible with just text. Another example, with more structural similarities to literary novels, are videos. In this essay, I will analyse a video blog, commonly referred to as a ‘vlog’, called YouTube: Art or Reality by YouTube vlogger Oliver Thorn, and use a cognitive linguistic lense to look at the way it constructs – and deconstructs – meaning, particularly in the meta context of the vlog assessing the appropriateness of a vlog as a medium to communicate authentic inner truth, which is the theme of the vlog. Specifically, I will analyze the self-conscious, intersubjective, and meta way this vlog employs metaphor, metonymy, and viewpoint while exploring this theme, and examine how applying this cognitive approach to meaning allows for a deeper appreciation and understanding of Thorn’s work.
YouTube: Art or Reality takes the form of a police interrogation, in which a “good” cop (Detective Strucci) and “bad” cop (Detective Ellis) question Oliver Thorn about his YouTube channel. They accuse him of performing and aesthetically manipulating his vlogs, and thus lying to his viewers, which in their eyes further exacerbates an already problematic parasocial relationship. Significantly, however, ‘their eyes’ are also his eyes, because not only has Thorn written and directed the whole vlog, he also plays all the parts – himself, and the two detectives. The first two-thirds of the vlog is comprised of dialogue between these three characters, in which Oliver defends himself against their accusations, to some success. Here is an example of an important exchange in the dialogue, where they debate whether or not embellishing a vlog makes it inauthentic:
OLIVER. The appearance, the aesthetic, it informs the ideas but it doesn’t distort them. Like I color grade my footage, okay this right now this is not how we really look and we’re all wearing makeup, but that’s not inauthentic, it’s not gonna convince anyone of anything that they wouldn’t believe if they knew otherwise, it’s just aesthetically better…
STRUCCI. No, that’s very subjective, isn’t it? You have one relationship to this media, you draw one conclusion, we might draw another.
ELLIS: Yeah, death of the author [gestures slitting his throat] (Thorn, 14:30 – 15:03)
|Thorn as Oliver||Thorn as Detective Strucci||Thorn as Detective Ellis|
Other important moments question whether talking to an audience through vlogs is “real” or performance and if the relationship is “parasocial” like some claim, as well as exploring the ethical implications of these questions. To briefly summarize this storyline, Oliver reveals that even in the emotional, self-disclosing segments of his videos, what he shares is scripted, rehearsed, and the results of many takes and edits. Under pressure from Detective Ellis, Oliver also concedes that although he likes to think that his vlogs are sincere and his relationships with viewers are technologically mediated and not parasocial – because although he is performing he becomes who he is performing and besides, everyone is always performing anyway – , his privilege as a straight white man allows him to romanticize this metaphor of performance and of life being a stage, while at the same time minimizing the suffering of people who are forced to be estranged from their true self and perform in certain ways because of their gender, race, or sexuality. The result of complicating metaphor and the devices of viewpoint and metonymy in these ways is that it establishes an intersubjective understanding between him and us as the viewers, where we know that he knows that we know these concepts are fraught in terms of their ability to completely communicate inner truth from vlogger to viewer.
It is within this established understanding that the last third of the vlog takes place. Here, the video cuts to colour, and we see Thorn talking with his video editor, where he asks “did I step on his toes at any point?” (25:33, emphasis mine), and then proceeds to wrap up, at which point the viewpoint cuts for the first time to a first-person view of him walking and taking the subway home, and then a last third-person view of him getting into bed, while all the while “fukin awesome synth-pop music” (as described in the captions, Thorn, 26:03, 28:44) plays in the background. With the conflicting perspectives on truth, performance, and aesthetics already hashed out and the limitations and abilities of vlogging to authentically communicate inner truth already assessed, this last sequence represents a synthesis, or at least a return from deconstruction with an acception of the paradox between the desire to “authentically” communicate inner truth, and the inescapability of forms that thwart this. As we see him afresh as he talks to his filmer, see his perspective walking home, and see him getting into bed, it is within an intersubjective understanding of the fact that his meaning is both enabled and limited by his medium of communication, and the implications of that. We are thus left to contemplate the futility of trying to judge the truthfulness of the vlog against a standard of purely authentic communication, since his ending suggest that other attempts to communicate inner truth depart from this ideal in their own way. With the meaning of this video established, let us now delve into how how this meaning is constructed, focusing particularly on metaphor, metonymy, and metanarrative.
|Thorn talking to his editor||Thorn’s viewpoint walking home||Thorn getting into bed|
As discussed previously, a large party of Thorn’s discussion of the ability of vlogging to communicate inner truth is centred around the idea that all self-presentation can be understood by the metaphor LIFE IS A PLAY. Importantly, though, throughout this vlog Thorn consistently employs metaphors to show, rather than just tell, this to his viewers. This is most apparent in the latter third of the vlog, where Thorn has “broken” character and is depicted as just himself living his life, but there is an intersubjective understanding between him and the viewer that he is also acting on the stage of life. However, metaphor is also present in another way. Since Thorn has established that his goal in his vlogs is to communicate an authentic truth with his viewer, the ending, as well the “video within the video,” can be viewed together as an attempt to fulfil his desire to communicate his mind with us, and our attempt to understand another’s mind. In this light, we are to understand his mind as conflicted and wrought with inner turmoil surrounding his relationship to his material and his viewers. Thorn conveys this through mapping his conflicting and paradoxical insights into the nature of truth and communication onto different characters and viewpoints, who argue with each other as a metaphorical representation of his internal debate. Just as Macbeth and other plays can be understood to be “primarily about the mind”, so too can this vlog (Dancygier). Similar to plays then, the discourse here is really represented thought.
Another central thematic concern for Thorn is metonymy, which he discusses and employs in the context of video editing and the hyperreal. Firstly, for example, he embellishes the video within the video by colour-grading it black-and-white. His character Oliver claims that this does not affect the vlog’s meaning and is just “aesthetically better,” while Strucci insists that the subjective background and experience of the viewer determines how embellishments such as this are interpreted. This latter view is more aligned with cognitive understandings of meaning construction, which emphasize how metonymy constructs meaning by evoking frames that then add another layer of meaning to the work by informing how information is interpreted. For example, I grew up watching old movies, and so for me, the black and white filter metonymically references a conceptual category of old movies, which influences the ways I interpret the setting, characters, and their interactions, and thus influence the meaning I give to Thorn’s video.Although the character Oliver that represents himself ultimately believes that metonymic references do not necessarily create new meaning, the fact that that both sides of the issue are presented illustrate Thorn’s awareness of the complexity of meaning construction and the possibility that aesthetic editing choices function as metonymy and thus do contribute to meaning.
Another way Thorn employs metonymy is in his evocation of the concept of the hyperreal, a concept developed by post-structuralists to describe the idea that sometimes signs (which can be understood as metonymy) do not reference a real world signifier, but rather reference just another sign. The question of whether, within the framework of cognitive linguistics, metonymy evokes “real world” frames and schema or whether the frames are just comprised of more metonymy, is a complicated one. Regardless of what the answer is, Thorn metonymically evokes concepts that complicate our understanding of metonymy and meaning. For example, he contests that acting is “becoming a mask” and insists it is rather “one kind of performance in a lifetime of hyperreal performances, copies without an original” (Thorn, 19:50; 24:50). Ultimately, he questions whether metonymy does contribute to meaning, and then questions whether the frames the metonymy evokes are real are hyperreal. Significantly, however, the fact that he orchestrates both these explorations through the use of metonymy shows the viewers that regardless of its complex status in conveying truth, metonymy does indisputably matter in meaning construction.
Most important for understanding how meaning is constructed in this vlog is the cognitive conception of narrative space, and with that, deictic ground. In this vlog, Thorn shifts in and out of narrative, metanarrative, and paranarrativeviewpoints, which accordingly guide the viewer into different roles and relations with him and with the story as discourse participants, thus greatly influencing the vlog’s meaning. As mentioned previously, much of the discussion of metaphor, metonymy and viewpoint takes place at the level of narration. Significantly, however, a good part of the discussion, especially the analysis of these devices effectiveness and ineffectiveness in real-time, takes place at the metanarrative or parranative level, resulting in these levels containing their own storylines. Even more significant than their delineation, however, is the merging of these distinct viewpoint perspectives. For example, when Oliver references his colour grading of the film, or his insertion of visible citations on the screen as he talks, he not only discusses his experience orchestrating these effects in his video (a metanarrative viewpoint), but also his own experience in seeing them take place (a paranarrative viewpoint). By engaging with the viewer from these different narrative perspectives, Thorn is blending the two input spaces of STORY and DAILY LIFE, ultimately collapsing the space between them and between the paranarrative, metanarrative, and narrative space. Combined with the idea that we perform in real life just as we do in forms of communication such as vlogging, an idea which is presented in all three levels of mental space in this vlog, Thorn’s manipulation of narrative space and deictic ground strongly advances the idea that the truth he communicates is as real as any truth can be.
Additionally, Thorn’s use of viewpoint allows him to highlight the discrepancy between what we experience phenomenologically in our inner life, and what we ultimately voice to the outer world. For example, in the first part of the vlog when the detectives interrogate Oliver about another video he made, he reveals how difficult it was for him to make the video because it deals with very personal topics. Although his emotional presentation in that vlog suggest this difficulty, he does not actually explicitly reveal his experience in language until he talks about it in a metanarrative way within the narrative of his Youtube: Art or Reality vlog. Also, when he ends the video within the video portion of this vlog, he shifts into a paranarrative and metanarrative mental space, in which he asks his video editor if he stepped on “his” toes at any point, with this person-deixis referring to detective Ellis. Although by this of course Thorn means “infringing on Ellis’ dialogic responsibility” rather than his physical toes, it still is significant that he refers to Ellis’s toes in a way that suggests his meta and paranarrative experience of this deictic ground is not through himself, Thorn, but rather through the character Ellis. Through this, Thorn suggests that his experience of his vlog as real contributes to its realness. For although the “death of the author” idea is brought upto suggest that the narrator’s intent has no effect on the meaning of the work, here Thorn is presenting himself not as narrator that relates to us and the vlog in a deictic ground where we are viewers, but rather presents himself as a real-world counterpart to his viewers, suggesting in a meta- and para-narrative way that we might draw the same conclusions about truth as he does.
Lastly, Thorn employs viewpoint to disrupt the viewers’ expectations in regards to deictic ground in non-vlog videos, thus highlighting the unique deictic ground afforded by vlogging. we then see to have both positive and negative implications for communication of truth compared to other forms. For example, several times throughout the video within the video, Thorn looks at and addresses the viewers directly. While this is completely normal and is reflective of the entirety of the deictic ground in his other vlogs, in this case it is unexpected because it subverts expectations we have of a typical video. By using this audience deixis to unexpectedly disrupt this deictic ground (from character to character with viewer as spectator, to character/narrator to viewer as addressee) and viewpoint (from narrative to metanarrative), Thorn encourages us to question our status as discourse participants in viewing videos and vlogs, and ask, “who is this talking to me, what is the nature of our relationship, and what are the implications?” When I answer these questions, I reach the conclusion that the unique features of a vlog – that we are communicated with directly as an addressee – can be both limiting and enabling in terms of communication of truth. Ultimately, in this example and the others, Thorn’s manipulation of viewpoint shows us that the vlog is as good – or bad – as any medium in terms of its ability to convey truth.
Thorn is not unique in drawing attention to the devices of metaphor, metonymy, and viewpoint in his work. In fact, it has been said that some poems, particularly older ones, are primarily “about the metaphors,”, meaning that they are explorations of the appropriateness of particular metaphors for understanding abstract domains of human life, while more contemporary ones are “about” discourse, viewpoint, and deictic ground. How this vlog differs is that rather than evaluating the efficacy of a metaphor at capturing abstract conceptualization through employing them and then following them to their logical or illogical conclusions, or making us question our assumptions about relationships through subversions of typical deictic relationships, it instead uses meta- and paranarrative space to directly dialogues with the viewer about the both the futility and power of these artistic devices and forms of meaning construction. Consequently, when these devices are evoked, it is within the context of an intersubjective understanding between the author and the viewer of their successes and failures, and authenticity and artificiality. Using such spaces therefore enables the meaning to go beyond just the efficacy of a particular device, and become more existential, and become about acknowledging together the ability and limits of language to mediate the communication of our inner worlds with one another. Ultimately, through drawing attention to how these metaphors, metonymy, and viewpoint are evoked in the metanarrative and paranarrative frame but then continuing to use them from a variety of other viewpoint perspectives, Thorn shows that though these means of communication are indeed “fraught”. However, he also shows that they are no less limited than other forms of communication, so though we are right to deconstruct them, ultimately we are left with no choice but to use them.
I have reached this same existential, epistemological, and metaphysical conclusion in my appraisal of other forms of communication. In writing, for example, the writer can employ techniques such as free indirect discourse to bridge the discrepancy between the inner and outer world of characters through reporting thoughts and feelings directly from the characters’ consciousness, at a level below their articulation. These forms of meaning construction are structurally not available to the vlogger, since like the actor, everything the vlogger communicates must be through discourse. However, the vlogger also has access to forms the writer does not, such as visuals, audio, and editing technology. In the end, both of these forms, as well as others, are weakened not only through their own particular structural Achilles’ heel, but they also fall prey to the trap of retroactive conceptualization, thus creating distance from ones’ actual phenomenological experience of being. Nonetheless, if we still remain in pursuit of raw access to the “experience of being,” I agree with Thorn that video blogging is as meaningful as any form can be to use language to bridge the gap between self and other.
Dancygier, Barbara. English 327: Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Meaning. 05 November. 2018, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Class lecture.
Oakley, Todd. “Conceptual Blending, Narrative Discourse, and Rhetoric.” Cognitive Linguistics, vol. 9, no. 4, 1998, pp. 321-360.
Thorn, Oliver. “YouTube: Art or Reality.” YouTube.com. PhilosophyTube, Dec. 7 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVav1ri65Ws.
This example is meant to show the impact even subtle metonymies, such as colour, have on meaning. More obvious examples would be his stylistic choice of a police interrogation (which assigns to the roles different assumptions of guilt, power, and dominant discourses) or of all parts being played by the same person, him (which, as explained, evokes frames of internal debate, split selves, etc.).
Drawing from Todd Oakley’s use of paranarrative space, I define this as when the narrator steps out of their official role as narrator and instead talks about their own experience as a listener to the story (in contrast to metanarrative space, where they talk about their experience narrating the story).
(in a really clever extension of the metaphor, with detective Ellis threatening literal death by gesturing slitting of his throat)
An example of the former that Thorn references is Shakespeare. The quote he closes with “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” comes from his play As You Like It, and are likely included due to Shakespeare’s own need to negotiate the truth of his plays, since like Oliver in Thorn’s video-within-a-video, he too was accused of lying through his productions.