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    The Four Most Dangerous Figures


    Quote:  “Partly by happenstance, the case brought the metaphor of terrorism as a war into an American courtroom.”  Reporter Adam Liptak on Attorney General nominee Michael B. Mukasey, in the New York Times.

    Figure of Speech:  metaphor, the sleight-of-tongue trope.

    Figaro has been thinking a lot about tropes lately, partly because he loves them, and partly because they’re bollixing this country to a fare-thee-well. Tropes are figures that make us see things differently.   They’re essential to humans’ understanding of the world, and it’s no exaggeration to say that civilization would be impossible without them.  But tropes can turn evil when we take them literally.  Rhetoric recognizes four big ones:

    Metaphor.  This trope transforms something into something else.  Life is a bowl of cherries.  I’m getting out of the rat race.  Few people would mistake their lives for fruit and competitive rodents, but some metaphors are harder to distinguish from reality.  Take the war on terror.   Some people prefer disease to war as their metaphor of choice:  Terror is a cancer in society.  That’s a great metaphor, and even a useful one — until you take it literally.  Mistaking terrorism for a medical ailment leads us down weird curative paths. But terrorism isn’t war, either. Americans’ first instinct in time of war is to sic the armed forces against the enemy, bomb the hell out of it, then give the loser a consolation prize of billions in restoration funds.  But how do we do that against terrorists?  When we take the war metaphor seriously, it’s hard to resist declaring another country a “terrorist state.”  That gives us something to bomb and restore — an army to attack and defeat, a dictator to depose, and an economy to prop up.  Iraq fit the metaphorical description perfectly.  And so, before we had finished clearing out the actual nest of terrorists in Afghanistan, we attacked a metaphor.

    Irony.  Ah, irony.  It  says one thing while meaning the opposite.  Oh, great, another assignment — thanks a million. Figaro loves irony with unironic ardor. As his book says (chapter 19, “The Mother in Law Ruse” ), you can use irony as a code to bring a group together.  Irony is especially cool when you and your posse are in a crowd of people who don’t get it.  Only you few have the secret trope decoder ring!

    But what if your group lacks the decoder?  Jon Stewart’s TV show is the number-one source of news for Americans under age 25.  Yet Stewart is a comedian posing as a journalist. He’s on the Comedy Channel, for crying out loud. So the rising generation of citizens keeps current with a daily dose of irony.  Figaro is just thrilled with what that portends for our republic.

    Synecdoche (sin-EC-doe-kee). This scale-changing trope takes a part of something and makes it represent the whole, or it takes a species and makes it stand for the whole genus.  (It works the other way around, too.)  All hands on deck.  I am the lawThe welfare mother.  The synecdoche turns sour when it makes a single individual represents an entire class of citizens.  The Pentagon tried to make Jessica Lynch stand for all brave soldiers with  a story about her that was mostly untrue.  Yes, the real problem is here is lying, not figures. But the synecdoche can lead to a fallacy: one anecdote does not a reality make.

    Metonymy (meh-TON-o-mee). The trickiest of tropes, the metonymy takes a quality or aspect of something and makes it stand for the whole shebang.  The White House.  The Crown.  Bluehairs.  It’s the stem cell of figures; take the rhetorical DNA from a thatch of dyed hair, and ZAP! A whole gang of elderly women!  While bluehairs might not appreciate the label, it’s hard to see the metonymy as something evil (unless you’re trying to pronounce it).

    As with the other tropes, however, beware of following the metonymy off a figurative cliff.  Take money in politics, for instance.  Without thinking, we make dollars represent a whole host of political baddies — special-interest donors, crooked fundraisers, elected officials forced into fulltime fundraising. Whole campaigns hinge on who raises the most. 

    But money doesn’t actually buy elections; Figaro, at least, has yet to be handed a check before he enters a polling booth.  Money buys advertising, not votes, and then we citizens do the rest.  Through the magic of tropes, money transmogrifies from a fistful of Benjamins (that’s a metonymy too!) into an electorate drooling mindlessly at its collective TV set (synecdoche!).  Which explains why campaign finance “reform” fails to reform politics.

    And you thought figures were just figures.

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    Reader Comments (20)

    To forestall the finger-wagging: Yes, I did call "bluehairs" a synecdoche. I now believe it's a metonymy. And, yes, I did say I was going to combine synecdoches and metonymys into a single trope called "metonymy." But I believe I was wrong there, too, for reasons that today's long post should make clear.

    September 20, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Hey Figaro,

    Whenever I click on the link that sends users to your Web site, I always get booted to a page that claims its not found. I don't know how irritated it makes others, but for me, this is on the scale of the moth flying around the room.
    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarco
    Oh, I forgot to mention: the link I'm referring to is the link you send in your e-mail.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.
    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarco
    Is there a name for using or taking tropes literally?
    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMari
    Not that I know of, Mari. Classical rhetorical terms seem to apply to the rhetor, not the audience. Which leaves the field open to our own inventions! How about the simple term "to fig"? As in, "Man, you got figged," or "The figging of the electorate over finance reform continues."

    Please don't consider it an eponym. Unless you want to. Oh, and feel free to come up with something more scholarly.

    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Marco, I'll look into that link problem. Figaro is no genius at HTML. He's more of a classic than a new model.
    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    These four categories are the ones Vico called the big four, right? Why do you think he picked two as similar as metonym and synechdoche instead of just using metonym as a metonym for synechdoche?

    It's true: we are overindulging in the pleasure of elliptical statements. Loved the Greenspan one too! Keep it up!
    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSpencer
    Yep, Vico and Kenneth Burke as well. While my poor autodidactical brain struggles to separate those two kissing cousins (synecdoche and metonymy, I mean), those ingenious rhetoricians were onto something. Each one transforms reality in a different way, creating a representational state that makes the real world vibrate. Metaphor lets us look at one thing and see something else. Irony lets us say one thing and mean something else. Synecdoche lets us look at the elephant's tail and see the whole pachyderm. And metonymy lets us hear "green" and think "Earth."

    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    I'm a little confused by your description and example of irony ("Oh, great, another assignment — thanks a million"). How does this differ from sarcasm?

    Or is irony simply one form of sarcasm? Luigi Vercotti seemed to think so, citing irony of one of the methods of sarcasm used by Doug Pirhana, but I'm more inclined to take your word for it.
    September 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarkSouthFL
    This is in response to Mari's question about the "name for using or taking tropes literally." It is a superb question, and quite a trap with far-reaching implications. It points to the intertwining of literal and figural dimensions of language; and they are by no means rigorously distinguishable. For it is an irony, perhaps, that we all "use" tropes literally to produce a figuration. We might ironize an irony, but how can we be so sure that we're doing it figuratively or literally? As to "taking" tropes literally, this points to the problem of reading or interpretation. Taking tropes literally or taking literal statements figuratively both point to the same problem. One could call it "catechresis." One could even call it...irony. Harold Bloom, a former Yale literary theoretician, appropriated a term, "misprision," which is itself a "metaphor" for taking metaphors literally or for taking literal statements metaphorically. But I should stop now, for I am getting confused...
    September 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPermanent Parabasis
    Figaro just smacked his figurative forehead, Perm Par. I forgot about Bloom, who was a big trope man. But if I were to list the more dangerous trope to take literally, I'd say it's the metonymy--in part because of its awesome morphing power and because few people can spot it.

    September 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    South Florida Mark, I'd flip your terms: sarcasm is a form of irony.

    September 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Maybe this will help with separating synecdoche from metonymy:


    But it's difficult; the Burkean "master tropes," as even Hayden White learned from Vico, come off in a "New Science" as rather too "poetical."
    September 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStyles
    Thanks, Styles. It's difficult indeed. I'd like to see the synecdoche limited to genus and species--one standing in for the other. Let the metonymy be the stem cell of tropes--a piece of something standing for the whole shebang.

    That wouldn't eliminate all the confusion, but it would go a long way.

    Or would it? What do you think?

    September 22, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    If you laugh at Jon Stewart, you‘re probably not an idiot and will get news from other mediums as well.

    (Here, I am using “you would” instead of “one would,” which is so awkward. I think that’s weird grammar, not a weird figure of speech.)
    September 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAvi
    actually Avi, figaro probably WOULD and, as I know for a fact, DOES get his news from other mediums...because figaro has no working television.

    (speaking as figarospawn #1)
    September 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDjr
    While Dorothy Jr. is technically correct, Figaro does watch TV. He travels frequently (in the last three days he's been in Toledo, Las Vegas, and Dallas), and he turns the tube on in hotel rooms. Very instructive.

    September 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    I've heard sarcasm referred to as the lowest form of humor. I've always separated sarcasm from irony by intention. With sarcasm the intention is usually to belittle or simply hurt the target.

    Good going, genius.
    You're a real Einstein.
    That was graceful.

    Irony deserves better company.

    My 2 cents.

    August 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
    That's true for the most part, Paul. But sarcasm is in the mind of the beholder.
    August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    If sarcasm is one form of irony, it would be helpful to hear some examples of irony that are not sarcasm - all the ones listed here would seem to be.

    I may be struggling with this because I think of irony not as a construct of speech but rather an observation about the nature, sometimes seemingly paradoxical, of external events. E.g., "It seems ironic that Alabama passed a state constitutional amendment prohibiting lawmaking based on foreign systems of law (generally agreed to be intended to prevent Sharia law sneaking into their state) and now the Alabama Attorney General is defying Federal gay marriage law by citing Biblical law. The Bible having been written in the middle east, and all."

    That may not be the best example, but reflects a certain common use. If irony is actually implicit in the *verbal construction* of a sentiment, and not in the external events or situations observed themselves, can you provide some clarifying examples of irony that are not sarcasm?
    February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAllen

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