Figures and Objects
In rhetoric, metonymy is understood to be a figure of speech based on contiguity or material affinity: causes stand for effects, materials for the things derived from them, names for works, places and times for the people connected to them. This is the reason for both the similarity between metonyms and metaphors, and the difference between them. Both create transfers and relate different areas to one another. Yet metaphors, rhetorically speaking, do this not on the basis of proximity, but within a spectrum of similarity and dissimilarity.
From a cultural studies perspective, however, both terms have long since detached themselves from their established place in rhetoric and expanded to much larger contexts: the structure of texts, the logic of cultures, the idiosyncrasy of cognitive processes. Metonymy is then taken to refer to general forms of sign and action, which are characterized by proximity (in the sense of contact or participation) and representation— not in contradistinction to metaphors, but rather to substitutions, in which one phenomenon is completely replaced by another. This expansion of the concept can go so far that metonymically influenced cognitive structures are ascribed to a whole epoch such as the Middle Ages. It can also, however, be restricted to shedding light on one particular feature of media forms and phenomena, which was touched on in the introduction: in the Middle Ages, such forms were understood not as a neutral “in-between,” but as substantively connected with what they mediate (and what they mediate between). With reference to this, the category of metonymy can give the option of drawing attention to general dimensions of contiguity, participation, and substitution, but at the same time linking these to the specificity of linguistic structures.
The prime example is relics and their relationship to texts. Epistemologically, the two things might initially seem to belong to different orders: on the one hand the order of objects, remains, traces, on the other that of signs, traditions, structures of meaning. On closer inspection, however, this categorization becomes questionable. Remains or traces also form a class of signs, that of natural signs, in which signifier and signified are connected by relations of contact, participation, and causality.