August 23 by ccarey
Keys as Media and Metaphor
Keys contain multitudes. Few things provide access to the physical and symbolic world in such an immediate and unconscious manner. Keys twist and turn their way through the history of storage, media, writing, architecture, privacy, slavery, and so much more. They are the portals to our dream worlds, the objects that we use to open and close doors, conceal and shut out, enslave and punish, hide and reveal.
This morning I walked out to my car with my bag, my lunch, my coffee, and no keys. My wife had taken the car last night to run an errand and had left the keys in her bag. I only realized this when my fingers extended to the door. The absence of the keys revealed their presence. Usually they operate in the background, but here they were brought to the foreground, revealed anew by the fact that I had lost them. Lost and found – even the central metaphor of human experience is beholden to the key.
As media, keys are inseparable from metaphor. It is impossible to write about them without calling to mind symbolic associations. I’m reminded of McLuhan’s insight into the relationship between media and metaphor: namely, that “all active media are metaphors in their power to translate experience into new form.” Keys do exactly that: they translate experience into new forms, opening door A and closing door B; revealing this treasure and concealing that; enslaving this person in chains and freeing another with the generous movement of a twist and turn. They are the stuff that narratives are made up.
(Thoughts inspired by Hannah Stephenson’s wonderfully poetic and playful essay Let Us Now Contemplate the Key: An Object Lesson in Nine Parts.)