What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms… –Nietzsche (1)
Metaphor and metonymy are two types of trope, that is, “a word or phrase used in a sense other than that which is proper to it” (2), a non-literal application of language. In metaphor, “a descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” (2). In metonymy, “a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc.,” is functionally replaced with “a word or phrase denoting one of its properties or something associated with it” (2). These definitions come from the OED, and they are useful as an outline or introduction to these tropes, but like most figures, metaphor and metonymy are best understood as historical concepts-in-motion; our notions of each of them have always been central to our theories of language, and they have evolved within that study as it expanded from rhetoric, the art of persuasion, to semiotics, the study of signs, which in turn became central to much of continental philosophy and to disciplines throughout the human sciences, including, of course, media studies.
It is important to realize that although the history of these tropes is a history in language, they are pervasive in all communications media and sign systems. Any medium that bears an icon–take the women’s and men’s restroom signs, for instance–is inherently metonymic: these crude sets of lines–either triangular, for women, or rectangular, for men, eached topped by a circle–convey through logic not only the image of a woman’s or a man’s body, but also that the rooms behind them are full of toilets and sinks. Visual advertisements are always complex combinations of metonyms and metaphors; a simple brand symbol, like the Nike Swoosh, is made to signify a whole chain of associations for the viewer; exposure to advertisements generates desire in the audience by metonymically connecting the brand symbol to a series of athletic heroes and champions, and creating through their design a metaphoric image of a life lived clad in Nike products that transcends the beholder’s own. When looking for metaphors and metonymies it is important that one doesn’t limit one’s search to the visual realm either; the world of mediated sound is just as replete with the tropes. The bygone days of radio plays introduced the foley artist, that is, the sound effects artist, to the world of image-making. In a sense, the foley artist deals exclusively in tropes; sound effect produced on radio is at heart a metonymy; the audible parts–clapping hooves, or thunder–each signify a real whole: horses at a gallop, a storm blowing in. As a final example, consider the remarkable medium of perfume advertisements. In these, fragrance is given an image; a glamorous metaphor that gives shape to a fantasy world. What is noteworthy how faithfully the fantasy, when it is good, reflects the essence of the scent. As in any metaphor, the two entities, image and scent, are connected through similarity, and so the quality of one, the sexy allure of the image, must reflect a quality of the other, the musky scent, for them to be associated in the mind of the viewer. But to understand these applications of the tropes at hand best, we should first become familiar with their history.
In antiquity, there were twelve fundamental tropes identified, but modern thinking operates on a paired down theory of four, as introduced by Ramus (1515-1572) in Rhetorica–though the change is often credited to Vico (1668-1744). These four are metaphor and irony, which operate by similarity, and metonymy and synecdoche, which operate by contiguity. It is on the basis of the operative difference that in the 20th Century Roman Jakobson further simplified the distinction into a metaphoric/metonymic poles (3). Of these two, metaphor has historically garnered far greater treatment. On the one hand, this can be read as an indication of its greater importance–as we shall see, arguments have been made by both poets and philosophers that metaphor is the defining feature of language. This may or may not be accurate, but in keeping with our dialectical point of view, I suggest interpreting the volume of thinking on metaphor as a sign of its greater contentiousness, rather than its greater centrality. For while both tropes penetrate deeply into all sign systems, metonymy enjoys a certain stability because it adheres to a rigorous and extant set of logical principles. As Lakoff and Johnson recognize in their keystone study of these tropes, metonyms are “more grounded in our experience” than metaphors, since they “involve direct associations;” they don’t require the “transpositive leap” on the part of the interpretant that a metaphor does (4). Metonyms operate logically; in semiotic terms, they are based on indexical relationships, as in the substitution of cause for effect, or the evocation of a part for the whole, like using the White House to signify the entire executive branch of the US government. Moreover, a metonymic signifier naturally foregrounds the signified; a metaphoric signifier, on the other hand, foregrounds the signifier (5). A metaphoric signifier is iconic in the sense that it bears resemblance to its signified, but it is given the life of functionality through its capacity as a symbol. To describe your friend who always borrows money as a leech is not to say he looks slimy, spineless and oblong, but instead to associate him conceptually with the animal that draws your blood, which, in turn, you are associating with your money. To comprehend a metaphor, the interpretant is required to search for meanings not predetermined by language, logic, or experience (6). There is no connection through these channels to link money and blood, or your borrowing friend and an organism without a central nervous system. The association is reached by imaginative contemplation. This contingency requires effort on the hearer’s part, and it’s what lends an original metaphor its force. An inventive metaphor represents an inventive thought, a new connection discovered.
Aristotle, though not by any means the first to recognize figurative language as such, was the first to undertake a systematic study of it, in his works Rhetoric and Poetics(6). Classical thought considered figurative language to be on the one hand a powerful means of persuasion, but on the other hand, it was held to be decorative, ornamental, fundamentally an aspect of style. That this notion has been completely transformed, that figurative language has been revealed to be an essential aspect of conceptions of language as both a communicative tool and as a structuring principle of thought and consciousness does not render Aristotle’s original observations untrue. His notion of the metaphor as an “enigma that reveals a likeness,” or that which “gives a name to what had been nameless” are as functional now as they were when he conceived them, for the former is as we have seen; a fresh metaphor is a kind of puzzle for the mind. And the latter definition is also important; metaphors are often a way of describing an abstract concept with accessible tools. It is for this reason that a diverse array of scholars and thinkers have argued that, for one, language was first born as metaphor, and for another, that metaphor continues to be the life force of language, the thing that keeps it alive and useful for a species in the constant flux of advancement.
Rousseau (1712-78), in his Essay on the Origins of Languages, held that language, in its first steps, was metaphorical (a view maintained by many of the era, including Herder, Schelling, Shelley). “As emotions were the first motives which induced man to speak, his first utterances were tropes (metaphors). Figurative language was the first to be born, proper meanings were the last to be found” (quoted in 7). The quote foreshadows important 20th Century conceptions of metaphor’s place in language. Richard Rorty’s essay, The Contingency of Language, reflects on the Romantic discovery of the essentiality of metaphor. “What the Romantics expressed as the claim that imagination, rather than reason, is the central human faculty was the realization that a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change” (8). Rorty cites Donald Davidson (1917-2003), a prominent philosopher of language who highlighted language’s contingency, rather than fidelity to the reality it claims to describe. Using Davidson’s observations, Rorty demonstrates that “a recognition of that contingency leads to a recognition of the contingency of conscience, and how both recognitions lead to a picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors, rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are” (8). Rorty’s essay is from 1989, and it must be recognized that it is informed by more than the work of Davidson. The notion of language as contingent–which, to reflect on the OED definition, problematizes the very notion what it is to be literal–is an idea introduced by Nietzsche in the epigraph to this essay (though the seed grows from Platonic soil). It is also a Structuralist precept, as is the formalized theorization of metaphor and metonymy as fundamental to the groundwork of language, rather than ornamental tropes.
We return to Roman Jackobson, linguist, literary critic, and founder of the Russian Formalist movement, as the locus of that restructuring. Jakobson viewed all discourse as taking place “along two semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or their contiguity,” that is, metaphorically or metonymically (3). Jakobson (along with many scholars) shares Rorty’s view of Rousseau and the Romantics, but he ascribes to it less monumentality. In his view, “there are various motives which determine the choice between these alternates,” metaphor and metonymy; the Romantic preference for metaphor is not a matter of revolutionary discovery, it is rather one of disposition. Literary Realism, which proceeds Romanticism, is “predetermined” by metonymy, but then the subsequent Symbolist movement oscillates again towards the metaphoric pole. Jakobson’s balance of the importance of both tropes is supported by both preceding and subsequent accounts of language as born in and/or built around metonymy, rather than metaphor.
Quintilian (35-95), a Roman rhetorician whose works were essential scholarship up through the Renaissance, wrote the history of language and civilization in terms of the four tropes in The New Science, but crucially, he describes the earliest phases of history as inherently metonymic. “In the age of gods, metonymy ruled: lightning and thunder were a great effect of unknown origin and mankind imagined the agent of Jove the cause. The age of hero’s was one of synecdoche: men who held themselves to be sons of Jove embodied his abstract attributes. The age of men is that of metaphors, in which likenesses are taken from bodies to signify the operations of abstract minds;” and philosophy–or rather to modernize it let us say science–gives rise to what we call literal meaning (quoted in 6). Foucault also thought language developed from a metonymic (in his case synecdochic) base as well. First, in his view, came the naming of unique objects, then that name was extended to all objects that shared traits (metonymy); finally the object’s traits were invested in its signifier and that signifier was used to describe similar traits of other sorts of objects (metaphor):
- Originally everything had a name – a proper or peculiar name. Then the name became attached to a single element of the thing, and became applicable to all the other individual things that also contained that element: it is no longer a particular oak that is called tree, but anything that includes at least a trunk and branches… Finally, it attached itself to analogies: everything was called a leaf that was as thin and flexible as the leaf of a tree (9).
The costs and the dangers of these tropes have had their champions as well. Plato thought rhetoric to be deceptive, a persuasion leading man astray from his quest for ideal truth. Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704) each warned of the danger of figurative speech in leading minds away from literal truth. Rhetoric, in Locke’s words, was “for nothing else but to insinuate the wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment” (10). Plato was defending pure philosophy, Hobbes and Locke were defending the purity of science, but Derrida, in his essay “White Mythology,” for example, demonstrates metaphysics’ dependence on metaphor, and other thinkers have shown the same to be true for science–all with the effect of moving figuration increasingly to the center of thought and expression. Metonymy has long been valued for its power to reduce redundancy, acting as a kind of universal shorthand, but in recent discourse this has been exposed to criticism. “When we think of a Picasso, we are not just thinking of a work of art alone, in and of itself. We think of it in terms of its relation to the artist, this is, his conception of art, his technique, his role in art history, etc” (4). This substitution doesn’t hold up under post structuralist critique; Barthes elaborated his theory of the “metonymic fallacy” in his book S/Z (11). For one thing, the author must first be excised from the work of art, that is, the “text,” before a proper interpretation can be made, and for another, there is a danger in taking a part to be representative of the whole. A criticism of difference has arisen in the identity theory of the 1970’s and 80’s which makes explicit the implications of this second danger, the danger of assumption.
Finally, it is Jakobson once again who opened the field of figurative language to encompass all sign systems; to illustrate, he makes examples from the culture in which he was writing. In the plastic arts, Cubism is “manifestly metonymical,” whereas Surrealism is “patently metaphorical” (3). The medium of cinema, Jakobson writes, is inherently metonymic; he points to the work of D.W. Griffith, “with its highly developed capacity for changing angle, perspective and focus of “shots,”” as proof. Though these techniques were soon “superseded by [the] novel, metaphoric “montage,” with its “lap dissolves,”” in the work of Charlie Chaplin. As the art of cinema has bloomed in all its complexity, each of these tropes have become part of its second nature, and found new expression. Metaphor can be made, as Jakobson notes, by the dissolve or edit, whereby one object is visually substituted for another, but it can also be inserted in the relation of sound to image. In the opening scene of Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola); the image of a spinning ceiling fan is paired with the sound of a military helicopter, a complex metaphor that hazily leads the viewer to identify the wartime preoccupations of Captain Willard, the film’s hero. As in language, the use of visual tropes is far more prevalent than one might guess. What representational image–in advertising, cinema, or art–doesn’t allude to that which is outside of itself? The idea of a completely literal visual field is just as fantastic and impractical as that of an exclusively literal language. More so, because the very act of constructing visual narratives, of transmitting messages through mute images, must inherently be one of figuration; at least we must call it so for so long we base our analysis in semiotics.
1. Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics for Beginners (http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/
2. Leithart, Peter. Derrida and Metaphor (http://www.leithart.com/archives/
1. Schrift, Alan D. Nietzsche and the question of interpretation: between hermeneutics and deconstruction (London: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc. 1990).
2. Oxford English Dictionary Online (http://oed.com).
3. Jakobson, Roman Critical Theory Since Plato. ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, 1132-1135. (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth 2005).
4. Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980).
5. Lodge, David The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature (London: Arnold 1998).
6. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Alex Preminger, editor ; Frank J. Warnke and O. B. Hardison, Jr., associate editors. (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1974).
7. Berger, John About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books 1980).
8. Rorty, Richard Critical Theory Since Plato. ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, 1458-1468. (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth 2005).
9. Foucault, Michel The Order of Things (London: Tavistock 1970).
10. Locke, John Essay Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Penguin Books, 1997).
11. Barthes, Roland S/Z (London: Cape 1974).