Metonymy

Metonymy is an extension of the idea of a metaphor in semiotics, where metonymy covers a diverse set of strategies of association and meaning transfer between different signs.

With a metaphor, one word stands in for another word -  ‘love is a battlefield’ or ‘apple of my eye.’ One thing is the other thing. It is not like the other thing, it stands in for that thing.

With metonymy, one sign stands in for a larger concept or group of people, connected by a number of complex associations to become meaningful to different audiences.

We hear metonymy in music, where every Kanye West song is basically an onslaught of metonymic structures. Kanye West isn’t God or Jesus, outside of his own mind.  But his constant comparisons to religious figures in his music attempts to transfer the traits associated with religious figures- martyrdom, absolution, and reverence around the world- to apply them to Kanye West.

We often hear metonymy in political rhetoric, where a simple phrase stands in for a whole group of people, and means different things to different audiences. Phrases like Obama’s ‘ordinary Americans,’ to signify middle class families in the US, or ‘Main Street America’ to signify small business owners, or for us here in Australia the phrase, ‘real Australians.’

We know that a ‘real Australian’ in political rhetoric is not just a literal term for someone with Australian citizenship. Signs get their meanings from a limited set of options, where linguistically we are presented with a few possibilities. In order for there to be ‘real’ Australians there must be ‘fake’ Australians somewhere. 

On one hand, ‘real Australian’ is associated with right-wing nationalism, a connotation limited to white Anglo-Saxons born in Australia. For white Anglo-Saxon audiences, the metonymic use of ‘real Australians’ is supposed to be validating, while subtly discrediting other groups’ claims to Australian identity- namely indigenous groups across the country and non-Anglo immigrants.

‘Real Australians’ has been used for years by indigenous groups to ironically draw attention to their exclusion from a white supremacist myth of ‘Real Australia’ by citing their more than 40,000 year history on this land.

Still, to others, ‘real Australian’ can also refer to a rugged masculinity compared to urban cosmopolitanism and elitism. Real Australians live in the bush, real Australians work trade jobs. Here again we see inclusion and exclusion, one of the preservation of a masculine, working class Australian identity, while dismissing features of urban Australia- coffee shops in Melbourne, the Sydney Mardi Gras parade , and a condemnation of anything vaguely gender fluid.

‘Real Australian’ draws a line between white and not white, rural and urban, masculine and supposedly effeminate, working class and rich, by establishing a linguistic system of comparison that presents a limited set of options.

This comparison carries a wide range of complex associations and connotations for different audiences and contexts, a comparison that functions to both engage some Australian citizens while at the same time, clearly communicating exclusion to others.

Metonymy is layered with a number of cultural associations that have developed over time.  Signs position themselves amongst an established set of associations to be communicated and understood quickly.

The phrase ‘real Australian’ was taken up more recently by Adelaide artist Peter Drew as part of the ‘Real Australian’ campaign. With the catch phrase ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ the campaign advocates for immigration reform and acceptance of refugees.  

You’ve probably seen his visual work around the CBD- vintage style portraits of a man in a turban next to the word ‘Aussie.’ In a series of posters and street art across Australia’s capital cities, the campaign depicts non-Anglo Australians in the portraiture style that was popular at the time of Australia’s federation.

The campaign attempts to confront a number of signs both textual and visual.  Theuse of both the phrase ‘real Australian’ and historical imagery plays again with the metonymic meaning and connotations of ‘real Australians’ in an attempt to redefine, and turn the ‘real Australian’ myth into a new story of cultural inclusion.