Notes on Metaphor and Metonymy
Lacan summarizes his concept of the function of metaphor in Hugo's line, "His sheaf was neither miserly nor spiteful." As you think about what Lacan has to say about the Hugo metaphor "sheaf" it may be helpful to think of "Manderley", the patriarchal estate which is the setting for Hitchcock's Rebecca based on the Daphne Du Maurier story. Thus, Booz's sheaf is structurally analogous to Maxim's Manderley. In the story it is one of the "names-of-the-father", representing the symbolic, yet Manderley is also eroticized for Maxim and, differently, for his nameless wife. To say that the sheaf is neither miserly nor spiteful is both a filling out of the metaphor and an ambiguous characterization of the object of identification which the sheaf stand's for. On the one hand, Lacan may be saying that the "gifts" of the symbolic are indeed the terms with which any fullness of life must begin. Thus in one sense the symbolic is neither miserly nor spiteful in what it makes possible as speech opens up its signifying chain. On the other hand, to say that Booz's sheaf is neither miserly nor spiteful is a feint, a mask of the repressive and punishing aspects of being subject to the signifier, "the name-of-the
father." We can perhaps see the same ambiguity in Maxim's Manderley which "is all that anyone cares for down here." He saves Joan Fontaine's character from Mrs. Van Hopper; smothers her with flowers; gives his servants extra pay in celebration of his new marriage; etc. etc. Yet all this "generosity" masks the repressive subjection which Manderley represents. Metaphor is Lacan's way of analyzing Freud's notion of the condensation of the symbol. It provides the anchor for the agency of the signifier's projection of meaning, while metonymy which is not strictly a metaphor in that it does not work on the basis of similarity, is the mode in which Lacan accounts for what Freud calls displacement, the movement from one object to another which is in some way closely associated with it. Yet live metonymy is also a figurative work in the signifying chain. For metonymy reshapes the teleological or purposive dynamics of the meaning which the metaphor anchors. Thus within the field of the agency of the letter, "Manderley," FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF MAXIM'S DESIRE, a number of different objects may be said to take the relay of dominating the projection of meaning from one episode of the story to another. There are the portraits; there is the ball which he gives; Frank who manages the estate, and so on. Metaphor and metonymy may be read from both the side of his imaginary as well as from the side of the real. In the Hitchcock setting, as in so many of course, the functions of metonymy and metaphor are embedded within patriarchal forms. It is important, though, to see the logical structure of these functions as much more universal. For Lacan, whatever the form of the symbolic and the imaginary's relation to it, the social order and the individual's relation to it will have this conflictual, "dialectical," form.
We have been speaking of a poetics of everyday life which psychoanalytical discourse helps us see. With metaphor and metonymy we are talking about what might be called the basic rhetorical dimensions of the signifying chain which enable something of that dimension of "truth" to come to the fore. Metaphor and metonymy. Lacan introduces it as what he sometimes calls the paternal metaphor for the agency of the letter. The father represents the symbolic order, represents not in the sense of identity, such that when L speaks of the father he is speaking of the symbolic. Rather, it is a matter of the one who stands in for, gives voice to, enforces the symbolic order. As there will be many fathers with many names, the symbolic will be over time given many names. But the mother may also represent the symbolic in particular as we think about her dominant role in intitiating the child into language. The crucial thing for us beyond Lacan's gender stratification is that someone must speak for the symbolic. In Saussurian terms, the agency and originary claim to authority of la langue, must be recognized. Otherwise there will be no speech at all; human life as we know it could not exist. But by the same token the human will not come to life except as each generation reenacts the mythical murder of the father, the one who (however good a father) would make this law of the symbolic determinate and fixed. [On the other hand, if one must in some sense murder the father in order to truly live, one must live with having sacrificed the voice of the father in order to assert one's own.] And yet to speak of this father Lacan chooses Booz (Boas) of whom Hugo says, his sheaf was neither miserly nor spiteful.
What is the original and initiatory function, in human life, of the existence of the symbol qua pure signifier? This question will be answered by asking another question. "What is a metaphor?" Notice that there is an interesting shift here. For on the one hand when we talk about the symbolic order we are talking about the function of speech as law. And yet to speak about the way in which this symbolic initiates us Lacan speaks not about rules, explict commands, etc. He speaks about metaphor.
What defines a metaphor? It is not, as Aristotle or Bossuet say, a latent simile, comparison. Somehow this doesn't do justice to the creative aspect of a metaphor. For if metaphor were just a latent simile, it would always be something secondary, merely a tool, emotionally toned no doubt, for exhibiting preexisting facts about the world. Still, a metaphor does appear to involve comparison in some way. If one says "the mind is a computer," there is something stronger than comparison going on. There is an identification that one attempts to effect, the success of which, however, depends upon one's ability to bring features of computers to bear on what we think we know about the mind. The scary thing may be that a metaphor like this one may become so "successful," in reconstituting what we think of mind, that the metaphor becomes a kind of law. Nothing will hereafter be recognized as legitimate theory, research, about the mind unless it pursues the project of identifying it with a computer. Notice the masked way in which the representative of the symbolic thus conceived does its work. It /he appears to provide a freedom with one hand which it takes back with the other. You are free to deposit your own signifier in the field so long as it does not kill the father. So metaphor which we think of as such an agent of creativity may in the very spell which it seeks to cast come to effect a kind of repetition, a death instinct, which may be escaped from only by killing the father. No, the earth is not the center of things, says Copernicus, it is the sun. [Metonymy?] Other examples: nature is an organism. The just state is a contract. Let Russia and its confederates become a union of soviets, a worker-state. Students are consumers. Psychoanalysis is a poetics. The subject (Booz) is a sheaf. Maxim is Manderly. Rebecca is . . . We might say that in presenting itself as metaphor, the symbolic law presents itself ripe for imaginary identification, as that which is capable of satisfying desire, as phallus.
So the subject, Booz, is a sheaf (this "is" is the basic "is" of identification); and the sheaf is neither miserly not spiteful. Note that one of the meanings of "sheaf" is phallus. So not only does the letter present itself, its law, as phallus, in so presenting itself, it presents itself as neither miserly nor spiteful. The symbolic is generous and not vengeful. Rather like the father who gives Ovaltine to his daughter (the Clarice Lispector story, "Sunday After Breakfast"). Of course he does not often need to be vengeful because she has already learned that there is a price to pay in not smiling at the father's gifts. His love is conditional upon those gifts being accepted. (He is not the ideally good father in whom the ideally good mother participates.) In presenting itself in the person of the father as this generous and not vengeful phallus, the symbolic masks the violence which it does when it institutes itself in a new metaphor. It represses the murder it took upon itself in order to establish itself as the new representative of the symbolic, the new name of the father.
Now what about metonymy? Let's try to speak of if apart from metaphor for a moment and then we will see how the two may be blended, but also, conversely, separated. Metonymy is a figurative use of signfiers but it is not strictly a metaphor which, while it attempts to effect an identification, is successful only as certain similarities are said thereby to exist between the two terms. The metaphorical identifcation, "The mind is a computer" works only if we can go on to sustain a similarity between the way the mind works and the operations of a computer. But metonymy is rearranging the purposive relationships, the teleological shape, of things. Take the ambiguous figure of the duck-rabbit that Wittgenstein makes so much of in the Investigations.
If one first sees this as a duck, to then see it as a rabbit takes something like an exercise of metonymy. What one sees as contiguous and as parts, the way in which they relate to the whole, must be rearranged. This actually provides a good analogy for seeing how metonymy and metaphor are related to each other for Lacan. It is in virtue of seeing parts and whole differently related that a figure/subject that is first identified with a duck comes to be identifed with a rabbit. Take what comes closer perhaps to a pure case of metonymy. If one takes a leather mitten that has been waterproofed to keep out the moisture and turns it inside out to expose, to make salient, the soft cotton lining (a contingent contiguity), one shifts the relationship of container to contained and recasts the "meaning" of the object and its relationship to other objects. (One can imagine such a mitten within the context of a fetish.) Children, Lacan argues, are very good at this kind of play. (Artists too.) But we can imagine the play continuously displaced without there being an identification with one particular shape of things, without the identification that says, finally, "It's a mitten" or "That [e.g. Manderley, a philosophy professor, an advertising producer, a man, a woman] is me."
In metonymy one plays with articulation, the relationship between meaning and reference with a view to significance, looking at contiguities and making of them something purposively different. A name for a part or contiguous object is made to re-present the whole, not just stand for the whole but in some way to refigure the whole. And if we go back to our duck-rabbit example, it looks as if metonymy might be the wedge that opens the door to the possibility of metaphorical reidentfication. One plays with the contiguities and suddenly what was duck may be seen as rabbit. The contingency with which the world is given to us in life constantly forces us into such play. In North-by-Northwest Roger Thornhill first takes himself to be an advertising executive. He arranges the contiguities of his life with reference to this imaginary figure. Suddenly he is taken for George Kaplan, a ficticious government agent. He spends most of the movie in the liminal space, the terrifying space in which the accomplished and taken-for-granted meaningful articulations of his life are shaken up. Late in the movie, under the pressure of circumstances and his love for Rose he grudgingly becomes himself an American agent. One could hardly say that it is a role that he strongly identifies with. Indeed the film ends with him saving Rose from falling on the precipice of Mount Rushmore, which is transformed into him pulling her into bed with him, once more on a train, going where we don't know. One might say that in the end they finally escape from the determination of their desire by the various regions of the symbolic that capture them throughout most of the film. The illusion of pure metonymy? In a number of his books Baudrillard makes the argument that we have lost the depth which comes from metaphorical identification, that we are left to the play of metonymical displacement, endless substitution of signifier for signifier. Under the mechanisms of an economy of simulation, we lurch from one image to another like the constant change of manniquins in a store window. Indeed, capitalism under an economy of simulation and simulacrum grows at rates which are exponential with respect to earlier phases of capitalism. Superficiality is profitable. Metonymy without metaphor.