Spies aren’t known for their cultural sensitivity. So it was a surprise when news broke last month that IARPA, a US government agency that funds ‘high-risk/high-payoff research’ into areas of interest to the ‘intelligence community’, had put out a call for contributions to its Metaphor Program, a five-year project to discover what a foreign culture’s metaphors can reveal about its beliefs. Take the concept of ‘democracy’. If, say, Pashto speakers in Waziristan tend to describe democracy in terms of a tool used indiscriminately by a predator to beat its prey into submission, then this might help intelligence analysts understand their point of view. I admit I don’t know if that is how Pashto speakers do describe democracy. On the other hand, IARPA’s Office of Incisive Analysis doesn’t know either, which is why it is offering to pay many millions of dollars to teams of academics and private corporations that promise to find out. Successful applicants will be mindful, when putting together their proposals, of IARPA’s overall mission statement, which is to invest in research which has ‘the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries’.
LRB 30 June 2011 | PDF Download