Beyond Like and As in Images:
Metonymy and Metaphor in Some Recent Art

by Mark Staff Brandl and Daniel Ammann

From Art Criticism Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 98–108, 1993

Editor Donald Kuspit
State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5400

The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively. In aphasia one or the other of these two processes is restricted or totally blocked. ... In normal verbal behavior both processes are continually operative, but careful observation will reveal that under the influence of a cultural pattern, personality, and verbal style, preference is given to one of the two processes over the other.Roman Jakobson 1

The linguist and literary theoretician Roman Jakobson most thoroughly described the central distinction between two modes of language information processing — metonymy and metaphor — in his essay “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” 2 

His establishment of this fundamental polarity in techniques of expression or utterance is based largely on his studies with people suffering from severe speech disabilities, that is “aphasia,” which often results from physical damage to certain brain centers. His primary discovery is that there are two basic types of this deficiency: either the major problem lies in the realm of substitution, with stable combination, or oppositely the problem presents itself in the area of combination with relatively stable substitution.

By way of illustration, an aphasic of the first order — in Jakobson’s terms with a “similarity disorder” makes expressions that are extremely dependent on context, contiguity. Such a person, when unable to recall a certain word, will select another term from the same context of reference. For example, such a potential mistake would be substituting “bulbs” for “chandelier” or “flame” for “candle.” An aphasic of the second order — with “contiguity disorder” — can only express things through similarity, making approximate identifications, e.g. “lamp” for “sun” or “bulb” for “head”).

Although substitutions of this kind are arbitrary and cannot be predicted, they fall into two clearly separable categories. Their selection is always dominated by a relationship of either similarity or contiguity. Metonymic substitutions for “candle” could also include “wax” or “wick” (component), “candelabra” (contact), “Christmas” or “Christmas-tree” (context, contact), “light” (causal effect) and others. Metaphoric substitutions, on the other hand, would be “torch” (similar function) or “stick” (similar shape).

In each case we could draw up a long list of possible substitutes. Of course, even though the categories are clear-cut, they may overlap in that the relationship is sometimes characterized by similarity as well as contiguity. Thus the wick of the candle is in fact similar in shape and at the same time part of the whole, sun and moon are similar opposites, but also part of the same context. Art may sometimes wish to exploit both aspects. Pre-permissive cinema, for instance, may show two lovers in embrace and then fade out on the empty bed in order to metonymically delete and yet represent the sexual act; or it may pan to the fireplace and metaphorically suggest the flames of passion. In this latter case we could speak of a metonymic metaphor, because the fire, which functions as a metaphoric symbol, is also part of the context and hence metonymic.

In fact, we are dealing with a polarity along a continuum in which either aspect can have more weight. Powerful metaphors combine elements both similar in one respect and yet radically different in another. In other terms, they can also be said to stress the similarity of things not normally contiguous. Thus the relationship would ideally result from a similarity with something in absentia. Metonymy, correspondingly, is more forceful when it tries to exclude similarity completely and by doing so emphasizes the close relationship with something (normally in praesentia but) deleted from the context.

Rather than as has here-to-fore been believed, namely that metonymic devices are a species of metaphor, Jakobson’s studies show that metonymy and metaphor are polar. They are in fact produced by opposing principles. On this basis he constructed two much more rigorous categories of contradistinction.