Metaphor and Metonymy

Metaphor and Metonymy

Across the last forty years, an almost fetishistic amount of attention has been paid to metaphor. As Jonathon Culler cleverly quipped in The Pursuit of Signs, “Why not organize a symposium on simile or synecdoche, on metalepsis or meiosis, or on such complex figures as anadiplosis, alloiosis, or antapodosis?” (188). Culler’s explanation of the privilege allotted to metaphor in the discourse of the human sciences is convincing—the ascendancy of metaphor is the key to the survival of the mode of knowledge promoted by these disciplines.

I am suggesting, in other words, that today metaphor is no longer one figure among others but the figure of figures, a figure for figurality; and I mean this not figuratively but quite literally: the reason why we devote journals and conferences to metaphor is that metaphor is not just the literal or proper name for a trope based on resemblance but also and especially a figure for figurality in general. Thus the term metaphor in discussions of “the nature of metaphor” or “the problem of metaphor” already poses some of the central questions at issue: Is it literal or figurative? How can we tell the difference? What is the status of that difference? (189)

Culler does not draw the careful distinction between resemblance and similitude which Foucault does, but rather uses them as synonyms. The key separation Culler makes is between metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is “based on the perception of an essential similarity; and metonymy, based on a merely accidental or contingent connexion” (190). Essential similarity is better labeled as similitude; resemblance is, in Foucault’s writing, merely a contingent connection.

The discourse of the eighteenth century, particularly in Locke and his progeny, is dependent on the literal—there should be a one-to-one correspondence between word and meaning. The myth of transparency is built upon this shaky foundation—upon the metonymic connection between word and thing. However, the instability of language does not by necessity invalidate the possibility of the literal, it merely complicates it.

Culler marks the trend in literary studies to subsume metonymy into the cloak of metaphor as an overarching figure. Metonymy is regarded as ineffective communicative practice unless this resemblance is also metaphorical, providing some essential similitude with the quality it seeks to relate. The measure of similitude can only be human and relative; machines don’t make metaphors. Scientific discourse seeks to remove the human fallibility by designing a logic based literally in metonymy—contiguity is absolute and testable, similitude is not. Culler observes:

Small wonder, then, that defenses of poetry have always appealed not to ends achieved by assonance, metonymy, hendiadys, etc., but to something much like the function of metaphor: poetry presents human experience to us in a new way, giving us not scientific truth but a higher imaginative truth, the perception of fundamental connexions and relationships. By taking metaphor as the representative figure one relegates to a problematical limbo the long list of figures with classical names that involve essentially formal processes of ordering, reordering, and repetition; and one thereby makes it easier to defend literature as a mode of vision whose language is functional. Modern interest in rhetoric is focused on metaphor because the value of rhetoric and literature itself are at stake. (192)

Foucault’s emphasis on the function of metonymic scientific discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth century occludes the privileges already afforded to metaphor. It is not revolutionary to rebel against strict resemblance as a criterion of authority; such resistance was in play and entirely functional in the period he describes, particularly in the realm of illustrated books and magazines. The usage of mechanical means to disseminate graphic content did not undercut the proclivity to accept more easily that “higher imaginative truth” over mechanically produced metonymies such as the photograph. The photograph was essentially, then and now, kept in its place as a sort of aide memoir in matters of resemblance thought to pose no threat to the work of “real artists,” who traffic in human similitudes.

This is not to say that institutions did not grow up around the photograph as a matter of evidence, of contiguity with a subject. The scientific value of photographs was seldom questioned, even by the staunchest of critics, until the advent of postmodernism. However, this does not mean that their arbitrary and contingent nature as metonymies was not suspect. Fakery was commonplace from the beginning, and like any scientific observation criteria were offered to authenticate their nature. Central to this is the role of the caption, which displaces the arbitrary nature of their creation by overlaying linguistic criteria that might be evaluated for truth-value. An image simply is; only a caption can be true or false.