Resisting Metaphors: A Metonymic Approach to the Study of Creativity and Cognition in Art Analysis and Practice

A metonymic approach is a way of constructing meaning in creative thinking and art analysis. Little work has been done into how metonymy functions in an art work or how an understanding of metonymic thought processes might reveal new meanings in art analysis or offer new methods for artists.

We use metaphor to help us understand concepts. In fact 'our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,' Lakoff & Johnson (1980). However, metaphor can both highlight and hide meaning. For example, if we consider the metaphor 'argument is war', we attack the other person’s views and defend our own position, but we also hide the co-operative aspect of argument in which there is an effort to find mutual understanding, (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).


Susan Ryland PhD thesis 2011

Resisting Metaphors: A Metonymic Approach to the Study of Creativity and Cognition in Art Analysis and Practice
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Optimal Innovation in Creative Thought

Cognitive linguists have not concentrated their attention on creativity, in the belief that creative use of metaphor and metonymy is the exception to the rule, and they wanted to establish what the ‘rules’ were. This appears, at face value, to be an entirely logical assumption, but recent studies by Rachel Giora, a linguist working at Tel Aviv University, have challenged this approach.  By studying conventional metaphors and metonymy it would seem that we have ignored a basic, but highly important, function of the human brain, that of pleasure-seeking.  Pleasure is not a bonus experience but a fundamental human driver.  The limbic system in the brain is stimulated by innovation.  But, as Giora has discovered, there is an ‘optimal innovation’. Giora has demonstrated, in her  ‘optimal innovation hypothesis’, that it is some ‘salience imbalance: the surprising discovery of the novel in the salient or the salient in the novel’, (Giora 2002: 12), that provides the most cognitive pleasure.  As Giora explains,

Optimal innovations are also more pleasurable than pure innovations. It is the surprise experience in suddenly discovering some novelty where it is least expected, or the gratification in discovering the familiar in the novel…It is not the most familiar, then, that is least enjoyable, but rather the most novel that is least pleasing. Pleasure, however, resides half-way between high salience and high novelty, (Giora 2002: 14).


Giora regards salience as being meaning that has been coded in the mental lexicon and is foremost in our mind due to ‘conventionality, frequency, familiarity, or prototypicality’, [Prototypicality in semantics is an instance of a category or a concept that combines its most representative attributes, such as robin being a prototype of bird, unlike penguin].  It follows that nonsalience is novel and inferred, being either non-coded or coded meanings that are unconventional, infrequently occurring, unfamiliar, and non-prototypical thereby making them slower to understand. Giora’s approach is in itself novel, as cognitive linguists have not tended to measure ‘pleasure’ per se.  Aristotle, over two millennia ago, recognised the ‘optimal metaphor’ when he spoke in The Rhetoric of how metaphor makes language colourful, in that it ‘gives style, clearness, charm, and distinction as nothing else can.’  Interestingly, Aristotle uses ‘clearness’ as one of the virtues of metaphor in language. So, although he sees metaphor as an embellishment (charm), he also acknowledges its power to communicate new ideas in ways that we can quickly understand. He sums up optimal metaphor thus, 


Now strange words simply puzzle us; ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh. When the poet calls ‘old age a withered stalk’, he conveys a new idea, a new fact, to us by means of the general notion of bloom, which is common to both things….Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, ‘Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that’, (see Rhetoric, Aristotle, 350 B.C.E Translated by W. Rhys Roberts Book III 


I believe Giora’s research gives us a means of understanding not only creative metaphors, but also creative metonymies.  We use conventional metonymies in everyday speech, such as ‘give me a hand’, but can we create novel metonymies, that provide the ‘pleasurable’ stimulus that Giora refers to? I think so. Metonymic relations, that is, domain-internal elements, grouped together may not necessarily seem novel. In fact, the very fact that there are a number of related elements grouped together would tend to confirm their commonplaceness. But if the quantity of elements is further increased there will come a point, (a ‘tipping point’ or a ‘threshold’) whereby the differences between these elements begins to outweigh the fact that they are related. The frequency of the differences between them, will outweigh their preconceived frequency within the world. At this point, the differences between the elements is foregrounded and their relatedness backgrounded, enabling novel meanings to emerge.  There needs to be sufficient difference within a familiar grouping of entities or ideas for new meaning to be discerned. It is likely that this ‘sufficient’ or ‘optimal’ point will vary according to the material being used, and how easily difference is discerned.

You Move Me
A collaborative project led by artist Gemma Riggs working with Laura Murphy (choreographer), Jorina von Zimmermann (psychologist), Melanie Wilson (sound artist), Mary Paterson (writer), Susan Ryland (writer) and performers: Ikran Abdille and Benedikta Mcsharry.
See 'The Power of Proximity' by Susan Ryland (page 16)
You move Me_Publication_Final_with ISBN.[...]
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