Roman Jakobson’s Concepts of Metaphor and Metonymy

In his 1956 essay, Two Aspects of Language and-Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances, Jakobson proposes that language has a bipolar structure, oscillating between the poles of metaphor and metonymy, and that any discourse is developed along the semantic lines of the metaphoric, where one topic leads to another through similarity or substitution, and metonymic, where one topic suggests another via contiguity (closeness in space, time and psychological association).

Jakobson holds that poetry is metaphoric, in that, it focuses on signs and on the principle of similarity, while prose is metonymic, as it focuses on the referent and is based on contiguity — an idea that was later taken up by the French Structuralists. Jakobson notes that in literary Romanticism and Symbolism, metaphor has been widely used, while metonymy has been predominant in Realism.

He further observes that in any symbolic process, there is always the competition between the metaphoric and the metonymic devices, Analysing the structure of dreams, Jakobson illustrates this conflict by highlighting the question whether the “symbols and temporal sequences are based on contiguity (Freud’s metaphoric dispensation or synecdochic condensation) or on similarity (Freud’s ‘identification and symbolism’). Here Jakobson anticipates Lacan’s analysis of Freud’s condensation and displacement in terms of metaphor and metonymy. His notion of the binary oppositions being the elements of structure, also informed Mikhail Bakhtin s dialogic criticism and Levi Strauss’ Structural Anthropology.

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