Food Chains II

I shall begin this post where I shall end it: Oligopolies and monopolies do not a food-chain make. What would be the biological or zoological counterpart to economic oligopolies and monopolies? I do not know.

* * *

Before we get to what leads up to that assertion, that question, and that confession of ignorance, let’s return briefly to the previous post.

As Wild Bill noted in that post, he and I take Orwell’s advice . . .

. . .“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print” . . . .

. . . with a grain of salt, which is a figure of speech we are used to seeing in print. Before I get to additional analysis of the “food chain” metaphor, I will write in favor of such expressions as “take with a grain of salt” to this extent: they save time.

Orwell’s advice is good because when writers or speakers use familiar figures of speech without thinking, or without thinking much, the figures of speech may not serve the writers well, or readers and listeners may simply not pay attention to the familiar figure, or in fact the figure may turn out to be an embarrassment for the writer or speaker—or all three.

Working from the assumption that context counts for much, however, one can make a case for using “take it with a grain of salt,” even if we no longer know literally what that phrase means. In a brief email or a conversation in passing, one’s audience may know exactly what one means by the phrase, and one hasn’t had to spend time thinking of a fresh metaphor. The same might be true for the response, “I can’t complain,” said when someone asks you how you are doing. Of course, you can—you are able—to complain, but the familiar phrase is useful because a) it lets the person know you are not in a crisis and b) it lets both of you get on with your day. Such familiar figures of speech and prefabricated phrases serve as low-level rhetorical currency; they are like pennies one gets and gives at cafes. Few of us pay attention to those pennies, but we know they represent “change back for a dollar.”

Nevertheless, Orwell’s advice obtains for most other rhetorical situations. Now on to the food chain.

To Wild Bill’s excellent deconstruction of the “food chain” metaphor as applied to large newspapers and other media, I will add only this:

A “food chain” in a particular environmental niche (already we are mixing metaphors, with chains and niches) works well when it persists indefinitely. That is, in the Western United States and elsewhere, deer and coyotes as groups once co-existed in the same territory well, even as individual coyotes killed and ate individual deer and individual deer outran individual coyotes sometimes.

Another problem with the food chain metaphor as applied to media outlets, then, is that in many instances, individuals are not consuming individuals, but whole groups are devouring whole groups, and the devoured group changes in character. Thus NBC is now owned by General Electric, for example. If there were multiple GEs, as there are multiple coyotes and multiple coyote-packs down through the eons, and if there were multiple NBC-herds, and if both could exist indefinitely in an adversarial food-chain relationship, then all would be well economically, metaphorically, and rhetorically. But when enormous corporations become even more enormous by devouring smaller corporations (including media), the relationship is not like that between different creatures in a food-chain. I forget who now owns CBS, but I do remember that after the meal was concluded, the eater decided to make CBS News part of the “entertainment division.”

Oligopolies and monopolies do not a food-chain make. What would be the biological or zoological counterpart to economic oligopolies and monopolies? I do not know.


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