Universal Acid as a Metaphor

ccrichar's picture

UniversalAcid as a Metaphor

            Accordingto the Oxford English Dictionary Universal Acid means: Universal: 1. a. Extending over, comprehending, or including thewhole of something specified or implied; prevalent over all. And Acid definedas:  1. a. In general use: sour, tart, sharp to the taste; tasting likevinegar.  If we put the two wordstogether we get Dennett’s definition: “Universal Acid is a liquid so corrosivethat it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in?  It dissolves glass bottles and stainless steel canisters asreadily as paper bags.  What wouldhappen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid?  Would the planet be destroyed? Whatwould leave in its wake?”  (Dennett63)  I think the problem withmetaphors is that there can be too many definitions or interpretations to ourideas of the usage of the metaphor. The oxford English Dictionary defines metaphor as:  1.A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferredto an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it isliterally applicable; an instance of this, a metaphorical expression.

            Ithink these multiple definitions give rise to all kinds ofmisinterpretations.  For example ina recent New York Times article Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton useda metaphor to translated into Russian but misinterpreted the translation in agreeting to the Russian foreign minister “Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreignminister, presented him with a plastic button emblazoned with the English word“Reset” and the Russian word “peregruzka”.  The gift was a play on Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’scall in Munich last month for the two countries to “press the reset button” ontheir relationship.  “We workedhard to get the right Russian word,” Mrs. Clinton said to Mr. Lavrov.  “Do you think we got it wrong?” Hereplied, explaining that the Americans had come up with the Russian word forovercharged.  “We won’t let you dothat to us,” she said quickly, with a full-throated laugh…” This example is anexample of the kinds of things that can go wrong with the use ofmetaphors.   How do we knowthat we have understood Universal Acid when in the 21st century ourown Secretary of State misinterpreted the use of a metaphor?

Dennettuses Universal Acid as eating through:  “Darwin’s idea-bearing an unmistakable likeness to universalacid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in itswake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks stillrecognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” (Dennett 63)  Just like in the earlier New York Timesarticle that I quoted, Universal Acid ate through Hillary Rodham Clinton’smetaphor so that metaphors are not immune to the universal acid.

“Itis not unusual to find such metaphors, redolent or capitalism, in evolutionaryexplanations.  Examples are gleefullyrecounted by those should we say betraying – the social and politicalenvironment in which Darwin developed his ideas, thereby (somehow) discreditingtheir claim to social objectivity.” (Dennett 68))  Hillary Rodham Clinton made a mistake, a faux pas thatanyone could have made but the point being is that anyone could have found thecorrect person with her status to find the correct metaphor to use for herpurpose and she did not.  Noteveryone has her kind of access to information that the everyday kind of personhas with “google” internet support.

Inconclusion, universal acid not only burns through glass as Dennett’s states, italso burns through language and metaphors.  











Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea Evolution andthe Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.


Landler,Mark. "Lost in Translation." New York Times [New York City] 07Mar. 2009,            Saturdayed.: 1+.


Anne Dalke's picture

on the dangers of metaphorization

I’m a little confused by your example—that Clinton used the Russian equivalent of “overcharge” when she intended to say “reset”; I don’t see what metaphor you think is operating (or rather: misfunctioning!) in that mistranslation.
But your larger point—if I’ve gotten it right?—is that the act of metaphorizing itself puts a “universal acid” of misinterpretation into play, and so inevitably leads to misunderstanding, to mistranslation, not just between languages (as in this Russian-English example) but among people who assume that they are speaking the “same” language. Once you start representing one thing w/ something else (anything w/ the word that stands in for it?) then you are activating a chain of signification that can “break down” or “dissolve” (=acid-like!) @ any point.

That’s a very important idea, in the history of representation. My big question for you, though, is what is the alternative? You write about the action of the universal acid that is metaphor making as if these sorts of misunderstandings constitute a terrible tragedy. I understand them rather as the very condition of language, of communication: that we never, EVER understand exactly what another is saying; our representations are always inexact. And since that’s what keeps the conversation going, I think it’s a good thing!

See for much more on this, see Why Words Arise…

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