Which Comes First: The Metaphor or the Metonymy?

The Theory Toolbox asks the important question of how we read: is it, as the book says a dig through the “social meaning to get to the real…essence of the word” or is it the way we take into account other aspects of a work and how we use that work in different ways? Interestingly the author argues that it is the “collision or production of meaning within the context of certain sets of signifiers” that determines how we read. He uses the example of Beavis and Butthead to show the distinction between a metaphor and a metonymy. This is important because if we say that we read into metaphors it means that what matters is to trade a signifier, a word as explained in the book, for a signified, which is the meaning. A metonymy is the opposite; it is the trading of one signifier for another. The Beavis and Butthead episode where they obtain five dollars for destroying their town while trying to clean one yard shows the difference in thinking that the Theory Toolbox is trying to argue. Butthead, perhaps correctly named based on his unrealistic expectations of five dollars, imagines that he could get a car, hot tub, and guitar with his measly five dollars. Beavis on the other hand, though not shown below, pictures in his mind an actual five dollar bill. Butthead is the metaphor and Beavis is the metonymy.


     (Butthead and his unrealistic idea of the dollars worth)

So, the question is, which is the right way to read? Do we use metaphor to derive meaning or do we use metonymy? The answer is surprising. Metaphors seem like the holy grail of “close reading” in literature. Teachers like to pound into us how important metaphorical interpretations of texts are, but as the book points out, metaphors are really “a species of metonymic substitutions”. So the question of which came first is simple: the metonymy is needed in order to have the metaphor. We can not have the latter without the former. Abstractions are built from concrete meanings, no matter how far they stray. I believe this is an important idea to understand in reading because without meaning nothing would be accomplished. Meaning is the most important aspect of reading because of how it changes under different contexts and different circumstances.

One Response to Which Comes First: The Metaphor or the Metonymy?

  1. Prof VZ January 24, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    Great overview of this example and the role metaphor and metonymy play in this conversation, helping to clarify what it means to commit to reading as a negotiation amongst contexts rather than as a search for some abstract and secure meaning. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read with close attention to metaphor; it just means that we have to understand the ways in which metaphors often raise as many questions as they answer. In the McKay poem, for example, we can just end the conversation by saying that the author uses Christ’s crucifixion as a metaphor for the suffering of the lynching victim. Instead, we have to ask ourselves how this metaphor functions in a way that explains this tragedy, or maybe even absolves the crime as something brutal but somehow necessary (as the Crucifixion was necessary in the context of salvation history). The metaphor, in other words, is a question rather than an answer. A claim made by an author that requires close scrutiny, or, rather, curiosity.

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