This good site claims

Metonymy thus concerns the ways in which signifiers can be combined / linked in a single signifying chain ("horizontal" relations), whereas metaphor concerns the ways in which a signifier in one signifying chain may be substituted for a signifier in another chain ("vertical" relations). Together, metaphor and metonymy constitute the way in which signification is produced.

This seems to invert the two:


mɪˈtɒnɪmi/Submit noun

the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant

implying substitution

Our deployment of language takes place as if primary subject and secondary subject (Juliet and the sun) were one and the same

implying combination.

Indeed, metaphor, not metonymy, sets up an e.g. identity between (combines?) the two:

the metaphor itself may take the verbal form of an identity statement (X is Y) as with Romeo; a predication or membership statement (X is a G) as with Stephen Daedalus; or a statement of inclusion (Fs are Gs) as with Benjamin

Which is especially clear in direct metaphor, as then the identity is explicit:

A work is a death mask of its conception. (Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstraße)

And metonymy, not metaphor, erases mention (substitutes?) of one element.

The White House.

What is going on here: why is Lacan reversing the two?

  • something about the signified being a sign? – user6917 Apr 7 '16 at 10:09
  • i suppose the idea is that figurative language represents its opposite. so while linguistically a metaphor combines, what it combines is literally not – user6917 Apr 7 '16 at 17:19

Lacan's views are based on Roman Jakobson's analysis of language:

According to Jakobson:

Speech implies a selection of certain linguistic entities and their combination into linguistic units of a higher degree of complexity. At the lexical level this is readily apparent: the speaker selects words and combines them into sentences according to the syntactic system of the language he is using [...]. Hence the concurrence of simultaneous entities and the concatenation of successive entities are the two ways in which we speakers combine linguistic constituents.

Any linguistic sign involves two modes of arrangement.

1) Combination. Any sign is made up of constituent signs and/or occurs only in combination with other signs. This means that any linguistic unit at one and the same time serves as a context for simpler units and/or finds its own context in a more complex linguistic unit. Hence any actual grouping of linguistic units binds them into a superior unit : combination and contexture are two faces of the same operation.

2) Selection. A selection between alternatives implies the possibility of substituting one for the other, equivalent to the former in one respect and different from it in another. Actually, selection and substitution are two faces of the same operation.

Selection (and, correspondingly, substitution) deals with entities conjoined in the code but not in the given message, whereas, in the case of combination, the entities are conjoined in both, or only in the actual message. The addressee perceives that the given utterance (message) is a combination of constituent parts (sentences, words, phonemes, etc.) selected from the repository of all possible constituent parts (the code). The constituents of a context are in a state of contiguity, while in a substitution set signs are linked by various degrees of similarity which fluctuate between the equivalence of synonyms and the common core of antonyms.

These two operations provide each linguistic sign with two sets of interpretants, to utilize the effective concept introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce: there are two references which serve to interpret the sign - one to the code, and the other to the context, whether coded or free, and in each of these ways the sign is related to another set of linguistic signs, through an alternation in the former case and through an alignment in the latter. A given significative unit may be replaced by other, more explicit signs of the same code, whereby its general meaning is revealed, while its contextual meaning is determined bv its connection with other signs within the same sequence.

Thus, we have two "dimensions" : the "horizontal" one, i.e. the message (or context), and the "vertical" one, i.e. the code.

Jakobson maps the dicothomy combination (horizontal) - selection (vertical) on the dicothomy: metonymy-metaphor.

Metaphor works on the relation of similarity, while metonymy works on the relation of contiguity; see this example from Umberto Eco:

Granted that both the «dog» and the «friar» possess the same connotative marker of «fidelity» (to their master) and «defense» (dogs defend their masters and friars defend the principles of the religion) it was easy during the twelfth century to invent for an order of mendicant friars (the Dominicans) the metaphor “dogs of God” (domini canes). [... a ‘similarity’ between semantic markers]. On the other hand [...] substitution by contiguity is based on the fact that, given a ready-made syntagm, established habits will permit one of its elements to be substituted for another. Thus given the accepted semiotic judgment "the President of the United States officially lives in the White House" it is easy to use "the White House" as a metonymy for "the President of the United States".

Thus, in both cases, we have substitution; substitution of a signifier w with a new one w' which has a relation with w: a relation of contiguity (metonymy: w and w' are "usually" connected in a sentence) or a relation of similarity (metaphor: w and w' share some connotation).

Consider U.Eco's example of metonymy: if, instead of saying "President Obama declared ..." we say "the White House declared..." we have substituted the signifier "President Obama" (w) with the new signifier "the White House" (w') both denoting in this context the object: the President Obama. The substitution is grounded on a relation of contiguity based on the usual context: "the President lives in the White House".

In the case of metaphor we say "domini canes" instead of "Dominicans"; again we are substituting in the phrase a signifier w ("Dominicans") with a new one w' both denoting in this context the same object: the friars. The substitution is grounded on a relation of similarity between the two based on the fact that the «dog» and the «friar» possess the same connotative marker of «fidelity» (to their master) and «defense».

Finally, Jakobson consider also dreams:

A competition between both devices, metonymic and metaphoric, is manifest in any symbolic process, be it intrapersonal or social. Thus in an inquiry into the structure of dreams, the decisive question is whether the symbols and the temporal sequences used are based on contiguity (Freud's metonymic "displacement" and synecdochic "condensation") or on similarity (Freud's "identification and symbolism").

  • so similarity is substitution? – user6917 Apr 7 '16 at 16:48
  • your claim "Thus, in both cases, we have substitution." doesn't make any sense cos the quote it follows doesn't say metaphor is substitution. it just presents a metaphor. – user6917 Apr 7 '16 at 17:07
  • it could just be that the voting is confusing me, sorry – user6917 Apr 7 '16 at 17:40
  • the answer provides a lot of interesting info but doesn't really answer the question, so i can't accept it :) – user6917 Apr 7 '16 at 18:12
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    @MATHEMETICIAN - I'm sorry... this is Jakobson's theory, and Lacan seems to start from it. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 7 '16 at 18:35

Neither is direct substitution. Both create new rules or new interpretations, and substitution simply does not do that. But in both cases the new information is made out of old information, so you can look at it as a substitution under some kind of remapping or transformation.

The difference is that metonymy uses the properties of other words to change the meaning or interpretation of a word, and metaphor uses the actual properties of things referred to, instead.

An analogy from another discipline might help:

A type declaration in a computer language is 'metonymy' -- it combines words to change the behavior of other words for clarity or convenience. It controls how things get combined at a single level. It never generates any meaning at a more realistic or deeper level than the empty realm of algorithmic encoding.

The analogy between the class' use and the human process it represents is metaphor -- it means that when we think about the code, we are really thinking about the modeled behavior. It substitutes more realistic, more comfortable thoughts for more abstract and potentially disorienting ones. It channels meaning from another level into our thinking about our empty algorithmic encodings.

So Lacan is not reversing things: metaphors substitute earlier material for the new material, only under some transformation. Metonymies combine context into a new definition that does not really use other information, but only gives us better leverage over it.

But you are saying 'the metaphor combines information from the two different domains, whereas the metonymy just substitutes a simpler form for a more complex expression.'

This is akin to saying that if P is the set of possible worlds where p is true and Q is the set of possible worlds where q is true, then the set of possible worlds where both p and q are true should include both P and Q. Obviously, it doesn't. Language contents and their interpretations obey dual and not parallel rules. Interpretation dualizes notions like combination: the interpretations of p and q are the intersection of P and Q, not their combination.

So substituting interpretations from domain A into domain B combines the domains, and recombining interpretations within domain A can be done by literally substituting strings of words. You need to have a consistent perspective, and keep verbal content and interpretation in the appropriate relation.

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