Using visual metaphor to explain how stuff works: what theorists can learn from beatboxing?

In this video the Beardyman, UK beat boxer renowned for his use of live looping, collaborates with the visual artist mr_hopkinson to visually describe the practice. As someone who is fascinated by this kind of music but had never understood how it works, I was incredibly impressed by the articulacy of the visual message. The video communicates embodied practical knowledge through a metaphor which communicates the essence of the practice: using the technology at a given moment to assemble and coral an army of performance fragments (fragmented performers?) which can be arranged into a performance over time which is much more than the sum of its parts. While I’m obviously not suggesting that social theorists try and take up beatboxing (the image makes me shudder) I do think there’s a prodigious creativity in this video’s use of visual description which can, in an indirect way, be learned from.

Although vivid metaphorical language can be found in some areas of social theory, it is far from consistent and, in my experience, there’s little reflective dialogue about how such communicative techniques can and should be used effectively. Too often visual metaphors in social theory simply don’t work. Likewise, when they do the lack of deliberate reflection about the pedagogical dimensions to their use often means that their success in illuminating ideas to people already inhabiting that conceptual landscape goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of further barriers to people outside that approaching coming ot understand the ideas within it. Which I write having finally got my head around Deleuze after years of being scornful. Given the increasingly imperilled place of theory in the academy, there’s an important conversation to be had about rhetorical and pedagogical innovation.

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