The Art of Metonymy

The Art of Metaphor
I am what is around me.

Women understand this. One is not a duchess
A hundred yards from a carriage.

--Wallace Stevens, from "Theory"

Hockey Moms and Pitbulls

In "Two Aspects of Aphasia," Roman Jakobson defined the two poles of language: Metaphor--communication by comparison, and Metonymy--communication by contiguity. He ended the essay by observing that Metaphor has received the most critical attention. It's the figure that is the great act of the poetic imagination.

Consider Aristotle's famous statement: By far the greatest thing is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others. It is a sign of genius, for a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of similarity among dissimilars.

Metonymy has no such glamour. Presumably it's a pedestrian figure that does the dirty work of straightforward prose communication. Many scholars have written about the art of metaphor, but evidently there is no such thing as the art of metonymy.

Since I'm a mother-fucker, redneck, big mouth, I am here to tell you ivory-tower half-wits that metonymy is where it's at on Main street. Metonymy man is my Marlboro man. He's the big brain who grasps details of any context and spins them out in such a way as to make us blind assholes see what's in front of our noses.

But seriously, folks, there is an art of metonymy. The gift of the metonymic imagination is just as great as the gift of metaphor, for it also "implies an intuitive perception"--not of similarity, but of contiguity--the fact that language and the world are made up of relations, things and words intimately connected to each other.

The metonymic imagination makes associations, sees lively connections between people and places, people and their activities. It grasps a detail and makes it represent some important issue in the context.

For example, in the recent electoral campaign, Sarah Palin was Ms. metonymy mouth. She latched on to "Joe Six-pack" and "Hockey mom" as the metonymies that effectively represented distinctive features of Main street--the working-class world that she wished to identify with. Palin didn't invent these metonymies, she just appropriated them. But Joe Six-pack and Hockey mom are witty and effective forms of metonymic communication.

Look how they work. Good metonymy is not self-evident truth. Good metonymy like good metaphor is always something unexpected. The mass of us ordinary folk look at the same world as metonymy-makers. The difference that they notice how certain details of the context can be used to represent the whole context and thus bring a moment of insight and understanding. So some anonymous main street metonymy-maker had a flash of insight. She latched on to the fact that her husband spends most of his free time drinking beer and yelling at the Steelers on TV. So one day she says to her sports widow friends , "I'm married to Joe Six-pack. " Suddenly a metonymy is born. Soon the other wives pass the clever expression around and over time it enters into the main stream of contemporary lingo and becomes a clever way of talking about the working class. So a detail of common working class male behavior comes to stand for, to represent "the working class."

Once upon a time, some metonymy-man observed that working class and middle class suburban mothers spend hugh amounts of time carpooling their kids to hockey practice and watching all their endless games. He wittily dubbed them: "Hockey moms"--defining them by a distinctive aspect of their behavior. Over time the expression caught on and became a popular metonymy that stands for working and middle class mothers expressing family values by nurturing their children through a fanatical commitment to their sports activities ( See the Wikipeia entry for the more common metonymy:Soccer mom).

Sarah Palin is a hockey mom. She understands and can represent middle-class women because she is one of them. She can talk the talk with Joe Six-pack and and walk the walk down Main street because that's the street where she lives.

So to restate. The difference between metonymy and metaphor is the way in which they "defamiliarize" a context. Metaphor illuminates a given context by an imaginative act of seeing a similarity between something in the context with something from a different context.

Let's stick with Sarah Palin. She characterized herself not only as a hockey mom, but as a "pitbull." The metonymy, "hockey mom" captures a quality about her because of her distinctive activity. To call herself a pitbull is to use a metaphor. She is a hockey mom, but she is not literally a pitbull dog. The force of the metaphor is to bring fresh understanding of Palin by this unexpected comparison. How is she like a pitbull? This startling claim of likeness in unlikeness nudges us into noticing aspects of Palin that are quite different from the metonymy, hockey mom.

A good metaphor is always a bolt from the blue. It imports an insight from a completely different domain to do the job of illumination: Love and roses, Juliet and sun, pigs and cops, Palin and pitbull. How do these things go together, how do these things belong?

A good metonymy creates arresting associations between people, places and things that are in relationship to each other--that are contiguous--parts of the dense fabric of our life worlds. A good metonymy offers a fresh perspective on the specific context in which it participates: Joe Six-pack and Hockey moms, Main street and Wall street; the White House and the Pentagon; mother fuckers and ass kissers.

Random Reflections on Metonymy, Symbol and Synecdoche

  • Metonymy

  • Batman Begins: Rachel explains Metonymy to Batman

                        I never quite gave up on you.
              Wayne looks at her.   Thinking.   Gestures towards the Bugati.
                        Rachel, all that... that's not me,
                        inside I'm... different. I'm-
                        The same great little kid you used
                        to be? Bruce, deep down, your friends
                        out there are great, too. It's not
                        who you are underneath...
                            (pokes his chest)
                        But what you do that defines you.
    In Batman Begins, Rachel gives Bruce a very precise definition of one of the central roles metonymy plays in our lives. She says that it's "what you do that defines you." In other words, we define ourselves by our characteristic activities. We are so associated with what we do--our actions in the world--that our actions metonymical define us. So we are drs. and lawyers, professors, filmmakers, husbands and wives, parents and children--we are our metonymies.

    As Rachel well understood, our actions are not necessary, they are contingent. We can change who we are by acting differently, by creating a different world of associations. Change your metonymies.

  • Symbol

    I think that most symbols are forms of metonymy. Symbols are socially constructed; they are created by usage and association. A detail, an action, a place over time comes to suggest other and larger meanings. The White House over time came to be a metonymy, a symbol of the President. What if the president's house had been pink? In the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, two Black athletes raise their black gloved hands over their heads in a gesture of defiance. That gesture became a symbol of Black resistance to racial discrimination and oppression.

    In fiction, writers create symbols by repetition of details. They consciously select details and by a range of techniques, make the reader notice the detail. After the detail has been repeated a number of times, it functions as a metonymy--it takes on representative meaning--it becomes a symbol. Examples: The eyes in Blade Runner. Hal's lens on the control panel becomes his Eye. The phrase, "it's Chinatown" is repeated a number of times in the film. The place, "Chinatown," which is a region of the city of Los Angeles, becomes a symbol. "You never know what's going on in Chinatown." Why? Because Chinatown is where the inscrutable Chinese live. The Anglo cops can't read and understand the culture and behavior of the Chinese. Chinese facial gestures and body language are alien, which only means that they aren't European. So by a complex process of repetition of this detail about Chinatown, Polanski makes "Chinatown" representative of the inscrutability of existence. Because in Chinatown you can never know what's going on behind that Chinese mask, it's impossible to know how to act. As Jake says about what he learned working in Chinatown, "Do as little as possible." By repeated references to Chinatown, which are masterfully integrated into the fabric of the story, Polanski makes it represent life in general. Jake tries to understand what's going on with Evelyn and her father, but all his efforts to help her end in disaster. The film ends with Jake mumbling, "as little as possible."-- and his buddy saying, "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

  • Batman Begins: Metonymies and Symbols

              Wayne GRINDS METAL at a lathe. Alfred approaches with a
              thermos. Wayne stops grinding, BLOWS on his handiwork...
                        Why the design, Master Wayne?
              Alfred indicates the steel carved into a BAT'S WING.
                        A man, however strong, however
                        skilled, is just flesh and blood. I
                        need to be more than a man. I need
                        to be a symbol.
                        And why the symbol of the bat?
                        Bats frighten me.
                            (slight smile)
                        And it's time my enemies shared my
              Wayne tilts the crude BATARANG, watching light dance across
              the brushed steel. He THROWS it WHISTLING into darkness...

    In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne's traumatic experience with bats as a child became his private metonymy for fear. He associated his feelings of fear with his bat experience. And on his maturation journey in Asia, he had to face and ultimately overcome his childhood bat experience because it was the embodiment of his fear.

    In this dialogue scene with Alfred, Wayne shows Alfred what he's been designing--a steel bat wing. He then explains why and what it means.

    He tells Alfred that being a mere man is not enough for fighting the kind of evil that is rampant in Gotham. He says, " I need to be a symbol."

    What's fascinating about his statement is that he goes on to explain how symbols are created. And his explanation is that symbols are metonymies. Wayne, of course, doesn't use these terms, but in fact that's what he's talking about.

    How is he going to create himself as a symbol? Alfred is puzzled because he sees that Wayne's symbol is a bat. He says, "And why the symbol of the bat?"

    Here's where Wayne articulates how symbols are created. He says, " Bats frighten me. And it's time my enemies shared my dread." Bats are his own private metonymy that stands for, represents his fear because of his actual experience with bats. In other words, bats are his private symbol of fear.

    His key statement which states how symbols are created is that "It's time my enemies shared my dread." What he's going to do is by becoming Batman and acting out the role of a bat that suddenly appears with frightening speed and scary sounds and brings criminals to justice, the criminal world will fear Batman even as he had feared those bats as a child.

    The key to creating Batman as symbol, is repetition. One foray in the city in his bat costume will not create him as a symbol. Only when he's successfully appeared out of nowhere and busted up robberies and drug deals and captured a number of criminals many times, will he become a symbol of dread to all the crooks in Gotham. By his repeated actions, Batman will make them associate their own fears of capture with the Bat-man.

    Bruce Wayne will become Batman. He will be defined by his characteristic bat-like actions that bring sudden destruction to crime and corruption. Because he looks like a bat and acts like a bat , the criminal world will see him as more than a flesh and blood man. He will make them share his dread of bats; his private symbol will become a public symbol--the Batman.

  • Synecdoche

  • Metaphor and Metonymy in David Lodge's, Nice Work (from Kate Broom's course handouts)

  • Definition of Metonymy in Wallace Steven's Theory

    I am what is around me.

    Women understand this. One is not a duchess
    A hundred yards from a carriage.

    These, then are portraits:
    A black vestibule;
    A high bed sheltered by curtains.

    These are merely instances.