Metonymy is a figure of speech that involves transferring a name from one thing to another on the basis of certain typical kinds of relations: designating the effect with the cause, the whole with a part, the contents with its container. An example would be "a sail on the horizon" for "a ship on the horizon."
Metonymy is a fundamental notion supporting Lacan's thesis that "the unconscious is structured like a language." It is analogous with the Freudian concept of "displacement" and refers to the problematic of desire and demand.
Lacan (2002, p. 155) proposed the following symbolic formula for metonymy:
This formula represents the fact that any new signifier (S 0) intervenes because it is contiguous with a prior signifier (S ). Metonymy is best illustrated by the kind of displacement that takes place in dreams.
The Freudian concept of displacement emphasizes the shift of value and of meaning. What usually happens is that words and feelings, in a distorted and disguised form, are transferred to nearby material. Lacan insisted that metonymy resists being meaningful by always producing apparent nonsense, as is usually the case with the manifest content of a dream.
Primal repression and the metaphor of the name of the Father impose the mediation of a signifier upon desire. The signifier of the name of the Father initiates the alienation of desire in language. Desire can no longer operate directly. Insofar as it takes the form of speech and is expressed as demand, desire becomes nothing more than a reflection of itself. Increasingly lost in the chain of signifiers, desire refers to an indeterminate series of objects, one after another, that are substitutes for the lost object (das Ding ), and thus it refers to an indeterminate series of signifiers that symbolize these substitutive objects.
Desire always refers to something fundamentally other than the objects it aims for or the signifiers that symbolize them. Thus desire inevitably follows the path of metonymy. Because desire is expressed by a symbolizing demand, it always designates a desire for the whole (the lost object) by expressing a desire for a part (the substitute object), just as the metonymic figure "a sail on the horizon" designates the whole (a ship) by a part (a sail).
See also: Metaphor; Want of being/lack of being.
Dor, Joël. (1998). Introduction to the reading of Lacan: The unconscious structured like a language. New York: Other Press.
——. (1998). Le séminaire. Book 5: Les formations de l'inconscient, 1957-1958. Paris: Seuil.
——. (2002).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.
me·ton·y·my / məˈtänəmē/ • n. (pl. -mies) the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant, for example suit for business executive, or the track for horse racing. DERIVATIVES: met·o·nym·ic / ˌmetəˈnimik/ adj. met·o·nym·i·cal / ˌmetəˈnimikəl/ adj. met·o·nym·i·cal·ly / ˌmetəˈnimik(ə)lē/ adv. ORIGIN: mid 16th cent.: via Latin from Greek metōnumia, literally ‘change of name.’