Day 31. Sonic Duck-Rabbit

The duck-rabbit is fairly sure that it gets some of its best ideas while driving to work listening to Taylor Swift. It’s the combination of Sunset’s smooth, familiar curves and Swift’s soothingly poppy melodies that lulls the duck-rabbit’s mind into a blank space, as it were, enabling it to hop-sail-and-skip on the surface of its consciousness in a most delightful way.

We’ve already discussed, at some length, the Starbucks lovers / long list of ex-lovers lyric in “Blank Space,” have we not? Well, today I want to comment upon another aspect of the case of the misheard lyric.

Here’s the question: is a misheard lyric a kind of sonic duck-rabbit? [1]

This question occurred to me on my drive today when “Blank Space” came on and I realized that I could no longer hear the lyric as containing the phrase Starbucks lovers, I could only hear it as “long list of ex-lovers.” Whereas, previously, I could only hear the lyric as containing the phrase “Starbucks lovers.” I think if I concentrated hard enough I could probably think myself back into hearing it as “Starbucks lovers.” But it’s one or the other, right? You can’t hear both at once, just as you can’t see duck and rabbit at once.

Here I would argue that a misheard lyric is a duck-rabbit in a way that a metaphorical sentence is not, at least not in terms of the phenomenological experience it produces. Consider, as an example of a metaphorical sentence, another lyric in “Blank Space:” “I get drunk on jealousy.” In his book The Structure of Metaphor, Roger M. White suggests that we may regard a “metaphorical sentence as a ‘Duck-Rabbit’; it is a sentence that may simultaneously be regarded as presenting two different situations; looked at one way it describes the actual situation, and looked at the other way, an hypothetical situation” (115). I think that it’s right that a metaphorical statement refers to two situations (being drunk; being consumed by jealousy) but I think that the way that one experiences a statement such as “I get drunk on jealousy,” is not one of gestalt-switching between those two situations. Rather, the impression is one of what Richard Wollheim calls “twofoldedness,” in which figurative and literal are bound together.

If anything, I’d say that a figure like zeugma is more accurately characterized as a duck-rabbit. Think of all those lines from The Rape of the Lock like “stain her honour, or her new brocade.” A line like that foregrounds both the figural and literal situations in which “stain” signifies, confronting you first with one and then the other, in quick succession. And (maybe this is just me, I am biased, clearly), I do think that there’s something about the pleasure of zeugma (or at least Pope’s sort of zeugma) that is comparable to the pleasure of viewing a duck-rabbit or certain other sorts of ambiguous figures. I’d characterize the affect that both produce (and sorry to be technical here), as delighted surprise. 

But, I digress. Let’s get back to the sonic duck-rabbit. Consider another, slightly different example. Remember my chum Stacy, the Trader Joe’s peanut butter connoisseur? How could you forget, right? Well, there we were again, Stacy and I, at the faculty center, eating lunch, and I was telling her how, last week, an American woman who was seated next to me at a work lunch was convinced I was American and expressed deep skepticism at my frosty insistence that actually, I did still have an English accent, thank you very much. But then the tables turned, as Mr. Wordsworth or Ms Swift would say. I uttered a single phrase (I can’t remember what it was but “could I have a glass of water, please?” would be a safe bet), and she gasped, “Oh, there it is!” This example prompted Stacy and I to recall that when we first met, Stacy herself, who is also English, thought I was Australian.

“Isn’t that funny?” Stacy mused, “because now I don’t hear any Australian in your accent, the very idea seems absurd, and your accent sounds completely English.”

Maybe, the duck-rabbit got to wondering, accents are also duck-rabbit like in nature. Like the ambiguous song-lyric, it’s either one thing or the other. And once you’ve classified someone’s accent, as, say, Norf London, you can’t go back to hearing it as Sydney, no matter how much you might like a sunny little burst of Bondi Beach in your life every now and then. No, once you’ve clocked the accent as Norf London, Norf London it remains, with all of its questionable charm, innit?

Now, could I be completely and utterly wrong about all of this? It’s highly likely. In fact, I’m striking an overly confident tone simply because I want someone to argue with me about this. How is it that that song goes?

“All I wanna do is argue about words,

I got a feeling, I’m not such a rare bird.

All I wanna do is argue about words,

Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.”


[1] Important: a sonic duck-rabbit bears no relation to Sonic the Hedgehog.


2 thoughts on “Day 31. Sonic Duck-Rabbit

  1. Donald Duckvidson says:

    But metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation, mean, and nothing more. And as to experience, well, there’s no language of sensory experience: figurative and literal are misapplied here (cf. Quine’s first dogma empiricism). Any experience of a statement is anomalous vis-à-vis its meaning; it cannot be given a unified shape, and what’s twofold for one is three-ply for another. Roger is a dear old rabbit, but he misconstrues my essays on metaphor and meaning in his book.

  2. That’s all very well, Duckvidson, but the real question is, do you hear “Starbucks lovers” or “long list of ex-lovers” when you listen to Ms Swift’s Swedish-tastic “Blank Space”?

    Well? Which is it?

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