Monday, 16 February 2009

Figures of Speech Part II

I've given a list of assorted rhetorical figures. Now the question is, so what?

This is what:

In one of my many English classes, I learned that in Shakespearean plays the figures of speech matter. For instance, characters who use metaphors may be trying to unify while characters who use puns (paranomasia) may be trying to show how language is inherently unstable. In an essay and in response to such discussion in class, I argued that in 1 Henry IV King Henry uses metaphors as part of his endeavour to rid the kingdom of internal differences. By the same but opposite token, Falstaff uses puns, which indicate how Falstaff and the tavern community in general can internalize difference. Metaphors are a yoking exercise, where two different things are equated. Metaphors attempt to negate difference or seperate identity. Puns, on the other hand, call attention to the differences inherent in them; they are words with multiple signifieds that seperate out these signifieds. Both, after a fashion, internalize difference, but while one tries to bring the two meanings closer together (metaphor), the other tries to call attention to their dissimilarity. This fit into my arguement that the court could not survive internal conflict while the tavern actually thrived on it.
That works for the tropes fairly well, since they have to do with transfering the values of one thing onto another. You can see how metonymy could be used for things like guilt-by-association, or synecdoche by those who value things by their parts. My previous post mentioned that calling a woman "a pair of legs" is synecdoche, and this certainly works ideologically: the sort of man to call a woman by her parts is likely to think of her as an assembly of parts that he desires rather than a whole which may, in fact, come together as a person who ought to be treated like one.

I ask, does it also work for the rhetorical figures? As a writer, could I use rhetorical figures as well as tropes to hint at the various politics and philosophies that my characters embody? Let's give it a trial run and see, shall we?

For my experiment, I'm going to use asyndeton, the deliberate omission of conjuctions to create a terse, concise, memorable phrase. The Bedford gave "Veni, vidi, vici" as an example, so I too will begin with a military general as my character. As a military general of the charimatic variety, he gives many speeches which are inhabitated with examples of asyndeton: "We live, we die by the sword"; "The enemy is cruel, untrustworthy, persistent"; "That soldier who is victorious will have riches, fame, women, glory"; "The fight is here, the fight is now, the fight is ours!" We can tell by his speech that he is more interested in impact than correctness. As a tactician he is concerned with frightening his opponents and heartening his men over using more pragmatic strategies, and so he has lots of shiny armour and medals on display, uses battle-cries and drums more than stealth, and goes for valiant and fool-hardy charges. His army is a collection of units under brave and generally autonomous generals; he lumps them together and worries little about providing support or communication between them. His organization is concerned more with shepherding them together. He does not care about structuring each unit's relation to other relations.

Do you see how the use of asyndeton relates to his martial style? The commander tends to think of each part of the sentence or army as impacting on it's own, and impact is his concern. He does not think about each part's relation to the other parts, as indicated by the lack of conjunctions. I'm going to guess that transitions between paragraphs are not his strong suit. Grouping the bits together is his best attempt at organisation. This being said, impressing people is his specialty.

You could do the same with a CEO who structures the company in uncommunicative but highly trained departments. A teacher who presents each class with lots of information, zeal, and memorable paedagogy but does not put the class into any general framework over the year, prefering to allow the student to infer the connections, would likely use asyndeton. TV shows like Friends which are very episodic in nature are more like asyndetons than TV shows like Lost which have tight connections from one episode to another.

Of course (you might object) it is unlikely that people who use asyndeton actually transfer their avoidance of conjunctions over to other aspects of their lives. This is likely true. That doesn't matter too much, since we're talking about literature. All we have is language, and so we're allowed to play with that as much as we like, either reading or writing. Of course, if what we surmise from a speaker's use of figures of speech is not born out in their behaviour, we discard that line of thought, or at least see where it derailed. As an author, though, I will keep an eye out for such things. No guarantees that every rhetorical figure will be a gold mine in pith, but it seems to be something to play with.

And a metaphor in one place (King Henry IV-->attempts at unity) does not always signify the same thing as a metaphor in another (gold mine metaphor above-->the assertion that fancy is truth). But it's something to look at.

That's all I've got for the moment. I will be back later for more discussions in literary theory!

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