When You Were Young and Your Heart Was a Comic Book

The notion of the heart as a private, internal book of accounts survives in our modern comic books and graphic novels. Instead of a book revealed on the chests of the souls awaiting judgment, we have iconic symbols visible on the chests of superheroes.

Your Secret Self

Superman’s chest emblem, roughly heart shaped, set a fashion standard for all comic book heroes. With great power comes great responsibility, including the need to hide your true self. This preoccupation in modern graphic novels with a secret identity shows a connection to medieval concerns and represents a further example of how the metaphor of the heart can reflect the influence of the medium.

The Heart of the Matter

In considering the metaphor of the heart as an example of content’s juicy meat that distracts us from the true impact of media, we should remember McLuhan’s (1964) other point: “The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content’." (p.18). We have seen that the metaphor of the heart derives its power from our cognitive inclination to convert a somatic experience into a culturally meaningful thought or meme. The power of the metaphor of the heart as content is augmented by the manner in which it can reflect and reinforce the biases of the current dominant medium of communication in a culture. As cognitive linguist Steven Pinker (2000) notes:

“Culture” refers to the process whereby particular kinds of learning contagiously spread from person to person in a community and minds become coordinated into shared patterns, just as “a language” or “a dialect” refers to the process whereby the different speakers in a community acquire highly similar mental grammars. (p. 427)
Following Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker has theorized that if there are structures in the brain that allow us to learn and use language, there may also be structures that account for the other things in our environment that we pay attention to. Pinker (2000) notes that:

Learning mechanisms for different spheres of human experience –language, morals, food social relations, the physical world, and so on – are often found to work at cross-purposes. A mechanism designed to learn the right thing in one of these domains learns exactly the wrong thing in others. This suggests that learning is accomplished not by some single general-purpose device but by different modules, each keyed to the peculiar logic and laws of one domain. (p. 426)
These mind “modules”, which may have developed for entirely different evolutionary purposes, may help explain why a members of a culture focuses on some things and not others. Just as Chomsky and Pinker argue that humans are “wired” to use languages, we may also be wired to use certain imagery, to create narratives and to value certain elements in our environment over others.

The somatic effect of emotion on pulse rate may act as a continuing encouragement to reify the concept of the heart as a thinking organ. Even if we are not so wired, the inherent conservatism of cultural traditions encourages us to formulate new thoughts by employing old modes of expression.
Hidden in our language, folded into common beliefs and expressions, sanitized by depiction as a valentine, the metaphor of the heart spreads automatically throughout our culture, and this unconscious process guarantees its continuity. Constant exposure to the metaphor of the heart reinforces its message, but also renders it invisible. We don’t think about it or what it might mean, just as we numb ourselves to the biases of the medium used to propagate the metaphor.

The Beat Goes On

We are now deep within what Ong (2000) called a period of secondary orality. How will the retrieval of speech as a dominant medium of communication once again transform the metaphor of the heart? I have suggested that the metaphors in our language not only reflect deep seated beliefs about such things as the seat of consciousness and the nature of memory, but as transformed by the dominant medium of communication, shape public discourse concerning such topics as cognition, individuality and intellect. In spite of our contemporary obsession with computer-centric metaphors of consciousness, the heart metaphor remains powerful. If there is a connection between speech dominated communication and locating aspects of consciousness in the chest, will we continue to act as if knowledge originates in the brain, or will the notion of a deeper wisdom emanating from somewhere in the chest gain ascendancy?

If I Only Had A Heart

It is not an accident that many portrayals of mechanical men in our media are concerned with their acquiring feelings or a heart. The Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz (1939) searches for a heart. The android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) searches for his creator’s “emotion chip” in order to become more like humans. Enhanced by aural electronic media in our era of secondary orality, the portrayal of the heart as the site our deepest knowledge may explain why the scene between Gandalf and Aragorn cited from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King works for us. Lacking concrete objective evidence one way or the other, Gandalf “knows in his heart” that Frodo is still alive. The implicit message is that having knowledge or intellect isn’t enough to be fully human, you have to have the right “gut instinct.”

What is Your Gut Reaction?

What appeared to classical societies as a characteristic of human anatomy has slowly, over the ages, become a metaphor. No one today believes that the seat of consciousness can be found in the heart or lungs, and yet the references persist. In primary orality people assigned different aspects of cognition to different organs. We are content in most cases to let the heart represent all feeling or emotion. When placed in opposition to the head or intellect, the heart prevails in modern cultural references as the deeper source of wisdom and the more reliable arbiter of reality.

The metaphor of the heart is changing to reflect contemporary beliefs at some level about human cognition and emotion. Even the term “at some level” implies that there are different ways of knowing and believing and these levels may be within the mind, or at differing locations within the body.
If there is a deeper seat of wisdom that we all possess, and if this notion, dormant in the era of literacy becomes dominant in the era of secondary orality, why should anyone listen to academic experts or subject matter experts of any type? Much of our current public debate between a faith-based vs. reality based orientation may be a manifestation of this heart/head split. This illustrates the danger of a hidden metaphor like that of the heart. If a country can be governed “from the gut”, what need is there for subject matter experts on foreign policy, economics or political agendas?

Media Cardiology

Perhaps students of Media Ecology can provide a means for addressing the influence of conceptual metaphors like that of the heart. Any transition period between dominant media brings into view, for a short time, the hidden metaphors that have influenced thought and social order. Adoption of new technologies or media of communication don’t eclipse true conceptual metaphors, like those of the heart, although, as we have seen, they can modify them. Shaped by the service environments of the dominant media of communication, these hidden metaphors reinforce attitudes and beliefs, justify public policy and support political and social movements. One could look at other pervasive metaphors in a culture, including those having to do with male/female relationships, attitudes towards rich and poor, racial biases and beliefs about youth and aging. By attending to the mechanisms which help perpetuate the cultural metaphors we can begin to understand how media content has the ability to distract us from media biases.
As we move deeper into the era of secondary orality, Media Ecologists must become adept at making manifest what lies hidden in the language, stories and beliefs of a culture. Understanding the particular use of conceptual metaphors as content in the dominant media of a culture can provide signposts to how the “service environment” that surrounds a medium is shaping thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. By becoming aware of how persistent beliefs, like the metaphor of the heart, work within the communication media service environment to influence our culture, we can decide which influences to accept and which to reject. The role of the Media Ecologist in this new era should develop in a manner McLuhan (1962) suggested for public intellectuals:
…the intellectual is no longer to direct individual perception and judgment but to explore and to communicate the massive unconsciousness of collective man. (p. 269)