Breaking Down A Writer’s Block
Monday, 27 March 2006
From mental walls through computer firewalls…
My fatigue surrounds me, becoming the mortar that keeps these notes in place. I am walled in – fortunately by enviable tasks: I truly love metaphor, and therefore avoid letting it down by churning out soulless pap. For you, the reader, to whom I am indebted for patiently sitting as audience, I must perform at my best, however limited by my walls that may be.
“Wall, I’ll be darned!”
The metaphoric use of the word “wall” as a mental barrier with negative implications began in 1967, according to Douglas Harper, of the precious “Online Etymology Dictionary“. Use has developed to include phrases like “build a wall around oneself” and movie-music themes such as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall“. In fact, music and poetry covers wall metaphors well, creating extended systems that have insides, outsides, putting up and breaking down. Due to its popularity, the metaphor is currently on its long deathbed, destined for the dictionary – the crowded graveyard of metaphor.
In its most common form as metaphor, a wall is essentially an impenetrable two-dimensional perimeter around one’s mind or some portion therein. If it is somehow incomplete, and we try to further block another’s efforts to scale or circumnavigate it, it is said that we are “building the wall higher” or “building more walls“. It is not always clear if the wall is transparent and denying admission of the obvious, or if the wall is opaque and veiling a secret. Once we get in or through another’s wall, it is believed that we share the same mental space.
The mind is frequently considered a space by metaphor. This seems appropriate: if data makes the mind, and the data is stored in the brain, the neuron-held data itself and the physical area they take can equally be considered space.
Our second head agrees, with its hard drive taking up physical space in three dimensions, while it envelops data stored in bytes that are two dimensional. The mind of the computer is as boxed in as the mind of the human.
Facts are bricks. We ask for the “hard facts” we state that an argument does not hold together. The mortar of fact is then presumably reason, with imagination now behaving as the solvent of reason. We need time for a structure “built” of cohesive facts to “set in” or “congeal“. When we “digest” a given set of facts, we are actually placing them in some form of order, having already taken them in, but not yet forming an opinion. A bricklayer exists in every mind – and some are not so good as others at engineering or construction (building a hypothesis or argument). Some have no solvent, perhaps forming irrevocable fieldstone structures or relying on outside help – help which may build to its own design in order to seize mental real estate (a cult’s grooming process, for example).
The solid nature of these fact-structures has its limits: a fortress is a prison – a box. When we are driven to escape the barriers of knowledge or assumption it is said that we must “think outside the box” (circa 1975, referring to a specific puzzle). The box metaphor brings to mind the unimaginative flat sides of efficiency, and no style. However, physically, its shape more likely resembles a neurological tree, with a thick bark of inhibitory neurotransmitters. Breaking through this bark – possibly the very essence of the chemical process of lateral thinking – leads to “turning over a new leaf“, “finding another avenue of thought” or “making a leap“, all of which imply a controlled relocation of a solid in a space – otherwise known as transportation.
Cadillac marketers first captured the power of this metaphor system in 2002 for its CTS sedan. The campaign, centred on the slogan “Break through” has enjoyed notable success and staying power, targeting and skewering the boomer skew with its meisterfully pointed schtick. This multimedia prison-break of technological, age and class barriers uses an energetic horizon of music from target-viewer’s days of youthful, riotous freedom a lifetime ago. “Been a long time since I rock and rolled…” is heard. What is not always heard, but is quickly summoned to mind are the lyrics and middle-age melancholic mantras “let me get back, let me get back, let me get back” (as if a barrier prevents this) and “…carry me back, carry me back, carry me back” (as if a vehicle is desired).
The Great Firewall of China
Earlier this year, when Google was forced to choose between filtering worldliness out of Chinese-based search engines or walking away from its vast market, the media promptly e-quipped itself with the headline “The Great Firewall of China”. If you know what Google is, you probably know what a firewall is. An architectural wonder that is visible from space makes for an easy target, and the fact that the Great Wall was a Ming Dynasty equivalent to today’s virtual firewall made this headline a smash success.
Thinking inside the box office
Not quite the same smash success was had by the celluloid “Firewall”, released earlier this year. This blockbunter movie, starring two versions of the firewall metaphor (computer and human), was originally titled “The Wrong Element”, but its name was changed before hitting the theatres. The new title may be signalling increased popularity for this metaphor, making it a potential candidate for this year’s Top Ten. Had the movie been the talk of the town, so too would the firewall metaphor.
A grueling six-week assault on my writer’s block is coming to a close. As this long period ends with a period, I am forced to ask “Did I finally have a breakthrough?“. I can’t tell, though. I just can’t quite wrap my mind around it.