The West as Metonym
Within medieval European teleology, the North was Heaven or the eternal, the pole-star or North Star; the South was Hell or the fantastic other; the East was the primordial birthplace, Jerusalem; and the West was the apocalypse or death. Within the modern US we can recreate a similar teleology, with the West, meaning California, representing death in its variations, the terminus beyond which there is no further beyond. Leon Altman notes, “To go west is derived from an early American colloquialism, gone west (into unexplored territory), hence absconded, disappeared, or died.”
California occupies a unique position in such a geographical death nexus as the beyond of the “Wild West” of the Western novel, typically referring to Wyoming or Texas or even Dodge City, Kansas (not the West but the geographic center of the US); the West of California in contrast by extending to where the shore meets the ocean recalls Theodore Roosevelt’s comment that “When I am in California, I am not in the West. I am West of the West.” The “West’s West” can therefore be analyzed as “Death’s Death” or the obverse of death, what to Laurence Rickels refers to “the phenomenon of the unmournable death” or “the refusal to mourn.”
Whereas Rickels treats California as “death cult,” we can analyze his and other critiques of California via Lacan’s work on metonymy to expose a hysterical desire to interpellate pleasure’s dark seamy underbelly (the jouissance of a cultic, mindwarped LA which, like Jan and Dean’s Stingray on Dead Man’s Curve, takes the pleasure principle too far) for its own pleasures, echoing the narrator of DeLillo’s White Noise who wants to “relax and enjoy [earthquakes and mudslides] because in our hearts we feel that California deserves what it gets.”
Rickels argues quoting the Frankfurt School that the culture industry perpetuated by California is “psychoanalysis in reverse” and that California occupies “the missing place of our death cult” (coextensively with childhood and psychoanalysis) ; “on the social, outward, happy-face level, it distributes pleasure via sadomasochism, the adolescent group, or friendship,” in other words, the Manson family and The Anniversary Party, if not the Donner Party (to whom Rickels subsequently refers).
California is simultaneously “that surplus of everything which begins with feeling good about oneself,” an altar at which the metaphysical body is worshiped, a body so malleable(1) we can barely speak of pain and pleasure with regard to it; and “the place that performs the refusal to mourn or acknowledge death at the same time that it depends totally on media-technological structures of ‘liveness’ to support the unstressed-out or friendly intentions it advertises.” Rickels quotes Mark Twain’s “The Californian’s Tale” about a widower in a post-Gold Rush ghost town to exemplify the denial of one’s own mortality enacted as the denial of the other’s (actual) death.
Ultimately, Rickels admits he chooses the philosopheme of California because it “compellingly marks and situates values of postmodern technicity in relation to a hermeneutics of pain and mourning;” thus, the metonymy of West-meaning-California-as-Death is now juxtaposed with the metonymy of California-meaning-refusal-of-death/refusal-to-die. The two metonymies, however, are in opposition to each other. How can the California of refused death overlap with the California of certain death, when what is inherently refused in the former is automatically assumed in the latter?(2)
Metonymy itself cannot explain the gap between the two opposed California metonymies yet it can explain the effect. In Seminar III: The Psychoses, Lacan defines metonymy as “the opposite of metaphor. It involves substitution for something that has to be named—we are in fact at the level of the name. One thing is named by another that is its container, or its part, or that is connected to it.” He uses the example of the infant Anna Freud’s sleep talk of “strawberries, raspberries, cakes, porridge,” desired objects that are metonymously connected to her name, “Anna Freud,” itself, because it is Anna Freud who desires them.
Unlike metaphor, where “meaning dominates everything” and the signifier and signified relate dialectically to each other through identification (Lacan’s example of His sheaf was neither miserly nor spiteful from Victor Hugo’s poem “Booz endormi,” where Booz is not literally a sheaf but the sheaf represents that within Booz that is neither miserly nor spiteful(3)), metonymy works by contiguity, as word association.
If, using the technique of verbal association as it’s practiced at the level of the laboratory, you give a subject a word like hut, he has more than one way to respond. Certain responses will be in the register of contiguity. Hut—Burn it. Also, the subject may say hovel or cabin to you—there we already have the synonymous equivalent, a little bit further on we move into metaphor, in saying—burrow, for example. But there is also another register. If for example the subject says thatch, no longer is it quite the same thing. It’s a part of the hut that enables it to be designated as a whole—it’s possible at a pinch to talk of a village composed of three thatches, to mean three little houses. Here it’s a question of evoking. The subject may also say dirtiness or poverty. We no longer have metaphor, we have metonymy.
“The opposition between metaphor and metonymy is fundamental,” according to Lacan, as metaphor requires a signifier in order to operate whereas metonymy does not. “Metaphor presupposes that a meaning is the dominant datum and that it deflects, commands, the use of the signifier to such an extent that the entire species of preestablished, I should say lexical, connections comes undone,” he explains—which precludes the dysphasia of the psychotic because the user of metaphor must prima facie recognize preestablished connections whereas the psychotic per definitionem does not.
Metaphor thus corresponds in Freudian terms to condensation, whereby one dream image represents or is condensed out of multiple wishes or desires, whereas metonymy corresponds to displacement, whereby these wishes or desires cannot be represented directly but rather “censored” as or displaced onto symbols.
The opposition between metaphor and metonymy is fundamental to The Psychoses with regard to the case of Daniel Paul Schreber, whose writing is devoid of metaphor but rich with metonymy, recalling Lacan’s comment that children “detest surrealist poetry” because they’re “not yet up to metaphor, but only metonymy.” Both the children and Schreber exclude the big Other, the “truth behind,” that contains and defines them as subjects and prevents them from experiencing the world and others as mere manifestations of their own shadows.
Hence the woman who attempts to refer to her brutish male acquaintance as a pig by addressing him metonymically with the phrase “I’ve just been to the butcher’s” but is appalled when he responds, “Sow!” is per Lacan “strictly a paranoiac” because she is concerned exclusively with the “small other,” the brutish male, at the total exclusion of the big Other, the reality of language behind her comments whereby “I’ve just been to the butcher’s” can be read to invite the response “Sow!” Any order the paranoiac or the psychotic attempts to restore in a world where the Other is excluded can only be a “delusional order”—a world of metonymy without metaphor.
We cannot nor would we want to argue that Rickels and other critics of the “unmourning” and unmourned California are psychotic or delusional in their obsessive metonymy of California-meaning-apocalyptic-denial; however it is worth noting that the harshest denuncations of the deathhaunted West (whether California, Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Francisco or elsewhere) lack the rich identification of metaphor and are written in not merely metonymous but hysterical terms.(4) For example, Jesse, the overwhelmed and terror-fraught narrator of the “experimental novel” Suicide Blonde, who surrenders to her “bland suburban past” with the admission:
San Francisco confounded me. First it seemed utopian, with the blue skies, pervasive Mediterranean light, palm trees, organic vegetable stores that sold strawberry juice, the children in funky handmade sweaters. But all that was an overlay—misleading and cosmetic. Underneath was a history of decadence: the opium dens in Chinatown, the thousand whores who worked the gold rush, the voodoo and witchcraft shops. Even the fast-moving fog was nightmarish. There were leather monsters fucking dogs and each other in the alleyways of SoMa and the living dead haunting the Castro cafes. Sure, there were hippies gentle and peace-loving, but there was also the Manson family, the SLA and the Jim Jones Kool-Aid test. And California is the outpost of rigid conservatism…the home of Nixon and Reagan. Satanists are in the hills, chanting Latin, drinking urine, forcing candles into the tops of rotten deer heads. And of course, there was Hollywood, the mimetic desire capital of the world.
Rickels, who writes that “California is where unending mourning achieves its society-wide manifestation (or massification) as sadomasochism, where the death wish yields to death drive (which takes a detour via suicide), and where the femininity of mourning constitutes the group’s secret agenda, gender, and desire,” echoes Jesse’s worst fears (the novel of course ends with the suicide of her errant lover Bell, who dies for her sins) yet also underscores that the worst nightmare visions of California need not be made manifest—they always already are, where they can only be lived or refuted, mourned or celebrated, and the true secret underbelly of the metonymous west may be “the promise of escape, the chance to ‘light out’ and start life all over, to be reborn.”
(1) “Plastic” surgery derives its name not from its use of the synthetic material itself but from the Latin plasticus, “able to be molded.”
(2) Note for example Loudon Wainwright III’s “Hard Day on the Planet”: “In California the body counts keep getting higher,/It’s evil out there man, that state is always on fire.”
(3) Lacan allows that Booz’s sheaf could be metonymic were it to be objected that “underlying this magnificent poetry, and never named directly, there is Booz’s royal penis.”
(4) Worth mentioning here is the “Jumping Frog Contest” episode of the 1964 Jay Ward cartoon “Hoppity Hooper,” which contains the following exchange:
Hoppity Hooper: Well, here we are in California. Land of 10,000 Lakes!
Fillmore: That’s Minnesota.
Hoppity: Land of Enchantment?
Uncle Waldo: That’s New Mexico.
Hoppity: The Garden State?
Fillmore: That’s New Jersey.
Hoppity: Well, what DO people call California?
Fillmore: You’re too young to know the words, Hoppity.
the art3 idea, reception of the arts at penn state, http://art3idea.psu.edu/art3/lessons/lesson_8.html
Leon L. Altman, “‘West’ as a Symbol of Death,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 1959;28:236-241.
Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land. Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1979.
Laurence Rickels, The Case of California. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Don DeLillo, White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
Jacques Lacan, Seminar III: The Psychoses. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
Darcey Steinke, Suicide Blonde. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992.
Dennis Hale and Jonathan Eisen, eds., The California Dream. New York: Collier Books, 1971.