Monday, April 23, 2012

Metonymic Formations

Rhetoric and OOO can at times seem polar opposites. While rhetorical identification is concerned with unification and signification, OOO seems to worry about the individual substances of objects, withdrawing from any totalizing unification or signification whatsoever. But as we’ve seen in the last two posts (here and here), the two “realms” may not be so divisive. In fact, as Diane Davis’s comparison of Freudian identification to that of Burke’s has shown us, there is a form of non-symbolic persuasion that is unaccounted for in Burkean rhetoric. My aim in the following post is to use Lacan to clarify this split between nonsymbolic and symbolic action.

To say that the Lacanian subject is complex would be an understatement. However, this shouldn’t deter us from examining at least some part of Lacan’s split subject in order to better understand identification. Identification for Lacan is a two-fold process: alienation and separation.  In Rhetoric and Culture in Lacan, Gilbert D. Chaitin clearly describes the way alienation works in terms of subject-hood:
Adopted from Hegel, Marx and their interpreters, Lacan’s alienation designates the birth of the subject of language, an occurrence that is more like a stillbirth. The subject comes into existence through the discourse of the Other, when the Other…imposes a signification upon the individual, calling her to take up a particular function, investing her with a certain position in the human family or society at large…At this point the subject is confronted with the forced choice of the Lacanian vel (Latin for ‘either,’ ‘or’), which results from the interplay of subject and meaning (attributes) in the functioning of language as predication: either he chooses being , thus loosing out on meaning entirely, or he chooses the meaning imposed on him, and thereby forfeits that meaning-less aspect of signification which constitutes the unconscious (183).
This forced choice of alienation can be boiled to down to the following: either choose meaninglessness and reject language and subject-hood, or you accept the meaning of the Other, and become an instrument of the Other and having subject-hood taken away from you. Either way, you will lose subject-hood. For Lacan, the only way out of this forced choice of alienation, is to recognize a third option, that of the choice itself.
Separation, then, is this way out of the forced choice of alienation. It opens up a space of unknown meaning in signification. If alienation offered the subject an “either/or,” then in separation the subject defines his relation to the Other as a “neither/nor.” As Chaitin understands it:
Either the subject refuses language (meaning) entirely, in which case the nonsubject of psychosis results. From this point nothing further can result. Or she accepts meaning, in which case her individual being is crushed by the universalizing function of the signifier. From this “all” [present in the all or nothing choice of alienation] there is a possible way out, provided the totality of meaning can be disrupted. And that is just what separation involves: opening up a space of non-meaning within language; that is, forming an unconscious. (187)
To open this space up, the subject begins to move between signifiers, neither this one nor that one. And for Lacan, the space between signifiers is also the space of non-meaning in the desire of the Other; that is, the object cause of desire—objet petit a.

Approaching this process rhetorically, David Metzger, in The Lost Cause of Rhetoric, puts alienation and separation in terms of metonymy and metaphor, respectively. What Metzger shows is that, for Lacan, “metonymy functions as a ground for metaphor” (69). One way to understand this is to recognize that the goal of separation (or metaphor) is to temporarily choose a signifier, completing subject identification. However, as we know, Lacan has a previous step before this choice is complete—alienation (or metonymy)—which can be understood as a meaningless chain of possible signifiers. For Metzger, language and the signification of separation forces the meaningless formations of metonymy to be repressed, or given up in favor of the signifier.

What Metzger’s formation should allow us to see, though, is that before identification, we are faced with a meaningless list of things, a metonymy of stuff if you will. So the problem for object-oriented rhetoric is not how then do we identify the object, but what meaningless lists came before such an identification? And instead of asking what is that object for me, we should be asking what metonymy can we provide in order to work in a less-symbolic manner, and describe the object-for-itself?

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