Trope and Epistemology

The idea that tropes comprise an epistemology (how we know what we know) takes many forms. By this understanding, tropes are the ‘rules’ by which we figure our speech, and constitute the limit of what is seeable, sayable, and knowable. Taken to the extreme, this theory of trope argues that humans are fundamentally rhetorical beings because what they can know depends on the formal juxtapositions they invent to construct the world around them.

What is a trope? A trope is an artful deviation from the ordinary or principal signification of a word. It is one of two general categories for figures of speech, along with scheme. Trope literally signifies "turn" in Greek (e.g. heliotrope), but as a rhetorical term of art signifies when one turns a word or phrase from its conventional use to a novel one for rhetorical effect. Trope also signifies ‘turn’ in the sense of a change of direction in space or a change of fortune in the course of events. Each turn traces a figure – of speech (or conception), of experience (or perception), of inquiry (or question), even of conduct (or action). Adapted from John Nelson, “Tropes of Politics”

There are at least three options for framing tropes in the rhetorical tradition of American communication studies.

  • The first option frames tropes as ornaments, or as a particularly artful way of saying something that could otherwise be said in direct, denotative language.
  • A second option understands tropes as a range of associations that cohere around a signifier, usually indicated by the formulation ‘‘the trope of X’’ (where X represents a specific set of discourses, for example, the trope of ‘‘war’’). ‘‘The trope of X’’ marks some prominently figured language as intervening in a field of otherwise denotative discourses, implicitly marking some language as particularly tropologically saturated when compared to other presumably more direct employments of discourse.
  • Finally, following Kenneth Burke’s codicil on the ‘‘four master tropes’’ in the appendix to A Grammar of Motives, one might frame the trope as an epistemological category, seeking to account for the ‘‘role’’ of tropes ‘‘in the discovery and description of ‘the Truth.’’’

Copied from Christian Lundberg, “Enjoying God’s Death,” p. 389

One way that this argument has been made is by arguing that tropes are a historically-situated epistemology, meaning that they were more important at one, earlier time in history (i.e. the Greek sophists) as a framework that made the world intelligible. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault opens by demonstrating how, in the classical episteme, rhetoric was a fundamental way of understanding. Rhetoric consisted of four similitudes, which describe relations or spatial orientations such as the relation between the earth and the heavens. The four similitudes -- Emulation, Convenience, Analogy, and Metaphor -- are the “master tropes” of resemblance because they draw ‘natural’ connections between (for instance) the walnut and the human brain, the world of the gods and the world of human affairs, the actions of animals and humans. After this episteme, the dominant way of organizing the world moves away from rhetorical resemblances and toward grammatical representations. Rhetoric ceases to be the primary mode of knowledge-making, which transitions from rhetorical similitudes to grammar. Foucault writes: “...grammar presupposes languages, even the most primitive and spontaneous ones, to be rhetorical in nature. (84) Rhetoric -- and the fundamental tropes -- were shifted to a category ‘under’ grammar, which always assumes that the language whose rules it seeks to describe must be rhetorical, tropological.

Adapted from 2019 presentation by Natalie Warren, available in the undead document.

Burke’s Tropes  (from A Grammar of Motives)

Kenneth Burke’s Four Master Tropes include metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. His framework is an example of how 20th century rhetorical theorists conceived of tropes as epistemological, or as “seeking to account for the ‘‘role’’ of tropes ‘‘in the discovery and description of ‘the Truth.’’ (Lundberg p. 389)’

The following passage is copied from Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives:

“And my primary concern with them here will be not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of “the truth.” It is an evanescent moment that we shall deal with – for not only does the dividing line between the figurative and literal usages shift, but also the four tropes shade into one another. Give a man but one of them, tell him to exploit its possibilities, and if he is thorough in doing so, he will come upon the other three. The ‘literal’ or ‘realistic’ applications of the four tropes usually go by a different set of names.

  • For metaphor we could substitute perspective;
  • For metonymy we could substitute reduction;
  • For synecdoche we could substitute representation;
  • For irony we could substitute dialectic;

Metaphor (Perspective)

“Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this. If we employ the word “character” as a general term for whatever can be thought of as distinct (any thing, pattern, situation, structure, nature, person, object, act, role, process, event, etc.) then we could say that metaphor tells us something about one character as considered from the point of view of another character. And to consider A from the point of view of B is, of course, to use B as a perspective upon A.”

Metonymy (Reduction)

The basic “strategy” in metonymy is this: to convey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible. E.g. to speak of “the heart” rather than “the emotions.” If you trail language back far enough, of course, you will find that all our terms for “spiritual” states were metonymic in origin. We think of “the emotions,” for instance, as applying solely to the realm of consciousness, yet obviously the word is rooted in the most “materialist” term of all, “motion” (a key strategy in Western materialism has been the reduction of “consciousness to “motion”). In his Principles of Literary Criticism, Richards is being quite “metonymic” in proposing that we speak not of the “emotions” aroused in the reader by the work of art, but the “commotions.”

Synecdoche (Representation)

Now, note that a reduction is a representation. If I reduce the contours of the United States, for instance, to the terms of a relief map, I have within these limits “represented” the United States. As a mental state is the “representation” of certain material conditions, so we could – reversing the process – say that the material conditions are “representative” of the mental state. That is, if there is some kind of correspondence between what we call the act of perception and what we call the thing perceived, then either of these equivalents can be taken as “representative” of the other. Thus as a reduction (metonymy) overlaps upon metaphor (perspective) so likewise it overlaps upon synechdoche (representation). … For this purpose we consider synechdoche in the usual range of dictionary sense, with such meanings as: part for the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made (which brings us nearer to metonymy), cause for effect, effect for cause, genus for species, species for genus, etc. All such conversions imply an integral relationship, a relationship of convertibility between the two terms.

Irony (Dialectic)

Irony arises when one tries, by the interaction of terms upon one another, to produce a development which uses all the terms. Hence from the standpoint of this total form (this “perspective of perspectives”), not of the participating “sub-perspectives” can be treated as either precisely right or precisely wrong. They are all voices, or personalities, or positions, integrally affecting one another. When the dialectic is properly formed, they are the number of characters needed to produce the total development. Hence, reverting to our suggesting that we might extend the synecdochic pattern to include such reversible pairs as disease-cure, hero-villain, active-passive, we should “ironically” note the function of the disease in “perfecting” the cure, or the function of the cure in “perpetuating” the influences of the disease. Or we should note that only through an internal external experiencing of folly could we possess (in our intelligence or imagination) sufficient ‘”characters” for some measure of development beyond folly.

Tropes and Psychoanalytic Truth

Tropes have also been taken up by psychoanalytic theorists in ways that complicate their relationship to the categories of “epistemology” and “truth.” This is because psychoanalytic epistemology differs from other kinds of scientific epistemologies, and the idea of “truth” that emerges out of psychoanalysis is specific and particular to the situation out of which it emerges. A psychoanalytic epistemology is modeled after the therapeutic session in which a patient speaks to an analyst, and the meaning of the patient’s speech is unconscious insofar as it has a secret signification (i.e. it means more than it literally says), sometimes hidden even from the patient themselves. This epistemology presumes, in other words, that what is said is always at odds with a literal or taken-for-granted meaning, and that ‘truth’ arises from a shifting of one’s perspective toward the previously unrecognized significations of their own speech. The “truth” of an analysis only arises through repetition, and through that repetition, the recognition that the subject has attached an unconscious weight to some signifiers, and that these signifiers mark an important site of investment for an individual subject. The language of the subject’s ‘investment’ in the signifier has made the phrase “tropological economy” popular, inviting associations with arrangements of capital.

For example: One way to think about the patient’s specific ‘truth’ is as the punchline to ‘a joke’ that the patient heard and which cannot stop telling -- and this even though they can neither remember the punchline nor the reason why the joke is funny.  The fact that they cannot stop themselves from telling the ‘joke’ is a sign that it is a point of deep personal investment; perhaps a trauma or a loss. When the patient tells ‘the joke,’ they do not seem to ‘hear’ its punchline, even though they are the ones saying it out loud. The analyst’s job is to show how the act of retelling ‘the joke’ over and over again fulfills a purpose for the patient (e.g. Look at how funny I am! Pay attention to me!) that it seems like they should have outgrown long ago. Analysis consists in “remembering” the force of ‘the joke’, in other words in recalling words for their impact and not ‘merely’ repeating them. This is what makes the joke retroactive: it doesn’t truly mean until after its been told to death, repeated several times over and over again. If you replace ‘the joke’ with ‘the signifier’, you have a sense of what analysis tries to accomplish by juxtaposing the discourse the patient supplies in an analysis. The “truth” that the subject discovers about the signifier is deeply personal -- it is not just the general meaning of the joke, but why it was significant to them specifically, and why it remains a fixation. For that reason, the joke and the signifier are both instances of the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire.

Rhetorical scholars invested in the psychoanalytic tradition have used the vocabulary of “tropes” to describe the logic of such investments. Rather than addressing an individual patient’s investments, rhetorical theorists tend to occupy the position of an ‘analyst’ to describe a specific public as if it is the ‘patient’ whose discourse they are analyzing.

Why trope? Trope is a rhetorical structure picked up by structural linguists like Roman Jakobson to describe general, grammatical features of language in contexts of language disability. Jakobson’s syntagmatic axis (combination, the horizontal sequence of terms such as in a sentence) and paradigmatic axis (substitution, the vertical options that allow related parts of speech to stand in for one another) of language is developed out of a study of aphasia, or of neurology-linked language loss. Psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan adapts Jakobson’s terminology in light of Sigmund Freud’s earlier distinction between condensation and displacement in dreams. He assigns the names “metonymy” and “metaphor” to describe how language speaks an individual and a social unconscious into existence.

Links to corresponding readings on Freud, Jakobson, and Lacan

When we arrive (finally) to Lacan’s understanding of tropes, metonymy and metaphor describe the signifying operations that a public (no longer just an individual) will use to code its social world. It seeks to capture the arbitrariness of a public’s symbolic substitutions, as well as the signifiers that hold a certain set of rhetorical substitutions in place, as if one signifier functions to ‘knot’ or ‘tie together’ a wide array of other connections. Like the individual subject, these tropes describe how language is generative of subjectivity through repetition -- but rather than repeating to an analyst, this happens in/as a public.

This approach views the notion of trope as generative, rather than simply ornamental, and understands all signification as tropological, rather than understanding the trope as a specialized form of discourse or mode of knowing. The two tropes that arrest Lacan’s figural imagination are metonymy and metaphor:
Metonymy describes any contingent connection between a sign or representation and its intended referent, between series of signs, and, more broadly, any point where signs and representations are articulated to one another as a point of investment producing a meaning for a subject. In this conception, all signs and representations are tropes, metonymically connecting a signifier or representation with the thing that the signifier or representation stands in for (a word with a thing) and with other signs or representations (a word or concept with another word or concept) that sit together in a field of discourse.
Metaphor describes a function whereby certain metonymic connections become particularly significant points of investment, exerting a regulatory role on a chain of signifiers by retroactively organizing the series of metonymic connections within which the metaphor is nested. Put differently, a metaphor is an affectively saturated connection that rearranges a field of metonymic connections around a central figure with substantial gravity.  from Lundberg, “Enjoying God’s Death,” p.389

I am tempted to claim that a public is a metaphor in the proper Lacanian sense of the term: that is, an organized site of investment that produces practices of affinity, in this case by organizing texts, investments, and affinities around a specific social relationship.

What is “Enjoyment” in Psychoanalysis?

One term that arises over and over again in the psychoanalytic tradition is “enjoyment,” which has a special meaning. A key distinction is that enjoyment (also jouissance) is not the same thing as pleasure.

  • Pleasure (or the pleasure principle) is the principle that a subject (modeled after the infant) will seek out stimuli that will reduce “excitation,” meaning feelings of distress or anxiety. The pleasure principle is the idea that human action is motivated by the need to reduce the intensity of such feelings, and therefore to seek out pleasurable experiences/feelings/sensations instead.

For example: The infant experiences hunger as stomach pain, and so they cry out because repetition and habit dictate that crying leads to feeding, and with it a reduction in the painful feelings of hunger. This is the pleasure principle: action is motivated by the desire to reduce painful excitations.

Enjoyment is the way that a subject attaches to the object and cause of their desire, which may be either pleasurable or painful. Rather than seeking out a stimulus that will keep the bad feelings at bay, enjoyment refers to the relative comfort attached even to ‘bad’ feelings because they give a subject a sense of coherence, wholeness, or fullness; it is like ‘going through the motions’ of a feeling even when it is destructive because it provides that subject with a sense of familiarity or normalcy.

For example: In college, a student receives a piece of devastating feedback that causes them to dramatically change how they plan out the writing process. Decades afterward, they find themselves implementing this feedback in a knee-jerk, almost automatic fashion when writing, even after their work has developed well beyond the point where that feedback was needed or required. As a point of fixation for that subject, this feedback is the “object” that this former student always returns to and the “cause” of a continual and unending writing anxiety. In fact, they find themselves having to go through the motions of following the old feedback (e.g. eliminating all instances of “that” or “because”) before sending their materials out for other peoples’ inspection. Implementing the feedback, no matter how outdated or unnecessary, fulfils the function of assuring the writer of their identity-as-writer even if carrying out these instructions reminds them of the stress they experience when they first received this feedback.

Joshua Gunn, “Maranatha,” 7-8

“Although his stated purpose is to explain the labor of violence in the film for the constitution of a public, his analysis points us in a helpful direction: the Lacanian notion of jouissance or enjoyment, ‘‘which both names the process of producing a subject, and the set of habits, investments, and relations that orient a subject to its world.’’ Enjoyment, which has the connotations of orgasm in the original French, is an indescribable compulsion toward painful pleasure or pleasurable pain, and in some sense Lundberg’s reading of a given spectator’s active ‘‘investment’’ in The Passion depends on the compulsory character of cinematic enjoyment. Grounded in a (seemingly) ineffable, affective experience, the film articulates the spectator to a subject position over and through the suffering body of Christ in a way that repeats not only ‘‘the greatest story ever told,’’ but also the larger, cultural experience of feeling like an underdog in a presumably agnostic and cynical culture.

Lee Edelman, No Future, p.21 & 25

On every side, our enjoyment of liberty is eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of a Child whose freedom to develop undisturbed by encounters, or even by the threat of potential encounters, with an “otherness” of which its parents, its church, or the state do not approve, uncompromised by any possible access to what is painted as alien desire, terroristically holds us all in check and determines that political discourse conform to the logic of a narrative wherein history unfolds as the future envisioned for a Child who must never grow up.
Queerness, therefore, is never a matter of being or becoming but, rather, of embodying the remainder of the Real internal to the Symbolic order. One name for this unnameable remainder, as Lacan describes it, is jouissance, sometimes translated as “enjoyment”: a movement beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the distinctions of pleasure and pain, a violent passage beyond the bounds of identity, meaning, and law.

Barbara Cassin, Dictionary of Untranslateables, p. 796

In an initial step, [Lacan] distinguished it sharply from pleasure, placing jouissance at the foundation of his theory of perversion, understood no longer in the classic and pejorative sense of'sexual perversion," but instead as one of the three major components of psychic functioning alongside neurosis and psychosis. The perverse structure is characterized by the subject's obedience to the command of a law that he mocks while at the same time annihilating himself in this submission.

Using Trope in Rhetorical Criticism

Listed below each of the readings are the rhetorical tropes centered therein. Foley and Stahl have in common that they are interested in the figuration of rhetorical time, whereas the last two articles, including my own, are chiefly interested in the psychoanalytic interpretation of rhetorical trope.

Foley, “Serializing Racial Subjects

Chronos/Kairos. Megan Foley’s analysis consists in a thick description of narrative, where rhetorical trope functions as a way to distinguish and organize time in and across a media-story. Serialization refers to the unique combination of kairos --”the time of contingency, a sense of time as occasion, time at an episodic point, or timely, opportune moments, the special position an event or action occupies in a series” -- and chronos -- ”time as duration, time in a sequential line, rhetoric’s historical contextualization, a conception of time as measure, the quantity of duration, the length of periodicity”--. Foley’s argument addresses the ways that a “serial” or “chronic” temporality, coupled together in the “serial” form of the news coverage of O.J. Simpson, supported racist appeals and normative whiteness.

The serial form stagnated the Simpson saga, fatiguing its audience through unremitting repetition. At the same time, that serial form created suspense by continually deferring the case’s resolution. While the repetitious stagnation of the case normalized discourse that initially had been criticized as racist, the unresolved suspense of the case amplified the popular investment in that racist discourse. The serial form thus combines two seemingly contradictory maneuvers in the rhetoric of whiteness: the normative disavowal of white privilege and the passionate attachment to white privilege. (70)

Stahl, “A Clockwork War: Rhetorics of Time in a Time of Terror

Metaphor(ic Criticism). Roger Stahl’s analysis of Iraq War news coverage is similar to Foley’s because of its emphasis on time, but differs in the way that the focal trope, metaphor, is not a trope of time but substitution or comparison. Stahl’s analysis proceeds by locating the ways that time is figured -- from television programs to broadcast schedules to “countdown clocks”. These are what Stahl calls “tropes of time,” ways that time is described, represented, accounted for, to create a larger picture of the chronopolis in which “time replaces persuasion as the main political currency.” (p.77) The larger essay describes ‘signs of time,’ ‘deadlines and countdowns,’ ‘infinite and infinitesimal war,’ and ‘fatal time and the ticking clock,’ as so many metaphorical renderings of time across wartime media discourse. These collectively point to the way that our mediated reality in times of war is constituted: as the ever-more expansive occupation of our attention as time becomes the territory upon which political and wartime battles are waged. The passage below, in the conclusion of the essay, gets to the way metaphor is central to this style of criticism:  

In a sense, the petroleum wars offered the ideal battleground for the overthrow of ‘‘time’’ by ‘‘real time.’’ The symmetries of the scene seem to contain a code for unraveling history itself. How curious that this futuristic cyberwar fought at the ‘‘end of history’’ should be waged in a vast white silica expanse that shelters the black prehistoric fossil crude beneath. The sheer blankness of the glaring desert canvas perfectly accommodated the ability to construct the television war from the ground up -- to paint the screen, so to speak. And perhaps it is a fatal motive of time itself that the real-time war’s most spectacular moment was the ‘‘zero hour’’ blitz of Baghdad, a city in the region of Sumerian Babylon, the birthplace of the base sixty-number system that rings every clock. (91)

Lundberg, “Enjoying God's Death

Metonymy/Metaphor. This essay deals primarily with the psychoanalytic adaptation of trope as a kind of ‘rule set’ for language. By this understanding, rhetorical tropes function in the register of the symbolic order, which defines the ‘rules’ of symbolization. There is by this understanding no instance of language which is not tropological. Every word relies on a structure of reference to another word that precedes it, and this structure of reference and citation is indefinite. Tropes according to Lundberg fall into one of two categories: metonymy, which describes displacement, substitution, and association and metaphor, which describes the condensation, concretization, and limitation of a set of metonymic associations. Metonymy and metaphor word together and against each other; together they form a system by which a public can form a set of symbolic associations that are the basis for their group’s coherence. Lundberg’s graphic example is of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which presents imagery and an experience that connects white Christian viewer’s narrative of self-victimization to a visual representation of this experience as torture inflicted on Christ’s body.

If an evangelical viewer’s manifest discomfort and equally intense attraction to The Passion is paradoxical, it is productively so: pairing the emotional experience of revulsion with practices of public devotion activates a core component of evangelical public affinities. Though in the register of emotional experience, the violence of The Passion repulses evangelical viewers, it inspires affective investment in an evangelical identity organized around a metaphor of victimhood. As I argue later, despite a profound, often visceral revulsion towards the film, the evangelical viewer ‘‘enjoys’’ The Passion because it articulates a mode of public identity and affinity that activates a core element of the affective economy of evangelical publicness: evangelicalism under siege. (390)

Gibson’s cultivation of the imagination as a faculty for receiving the brutality done to Jesus does more than display the violence of the passion narrative: it articulates conditions of public affinity in figuring evangelical sociality through the metaphor of the victim. Read against the organizing metaphor of the ‘‘Body of Christ,’’ Gibson’s Passion is, on his account, an intervention into the heart of the battle over the cultural imagination, organizing evangelical affinities through an oppositional relationship to ‘‘secular’’ culture as a source of injury; as such, it identifies almost seamlessly with conservative, evangelical Christian discourses about the culture war. (397)

Hallsby, “Imagine There’s No President

Repetition/Caesura/Synecdoche. This essay argues that psychoanalytic tropes are similarly capable of constituting public audiences around the exigency of a secret. Secrets are shared sites of public fascination and create the possibility of resignification -- the meaning of a signifier changes when its ‘secret’ is uncovered or revealed. The tropes of the secret described are repetition, where missing links occur and recur, caesura or the conspicuous ‘blank spots’ within public discourse, and synecdoche, or the shift in perspective that comes in the aftermath of the secret, which is described as anamorphosis, a shift in the coherence of the subject’s (visual) field. Importantly, the tropology of the secret has everything to do with the unfolding of information but nothing to do with its particular contents; one aspect of the Valerie Plame case study is that the person who was charged in the government investigation -- Scooter Libby -- was not the person who disclosed the information; the disclosure itself ended up being an accident.  

The secret — what subjects know that they do not know — is prefigured as trope. The theoretical upshot of my argument is to resituate rhetoric as the way that subjects figure the secret. In other words, rhetoric’s role in this essay is to describe how subjects establish that they don’t know something, and how such not-knowing resonates across political discourse. From this perspective, rhetoric is ontological: it figures “what the presidency is” prior to an overt act of revelation. The title of this essay illustrates the difference between the traditional and rhetorical secret. The traditional view might interpret the phrase “Imagine there’s no President” to suggest that, from 2000 to 2008, mastermind Vice President Dick Cheney secretly wielded power in the White House. Conceived as the rhetorical secret, by contrast, “Imagine there’s no President” insists that George W. Bush was prefigured as a non-existent president through tropes of repetition, caesura, and synecdoche. Rhetorically, the secret is the discursive reminder that President George W. Bush will have been missing in action. (355)