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The thing is not itself: artefactual metonymy and the world of antiques.

GENERAL SEMANTICISTS routinely draw attention to the non-identification between the symbolic realm and first-order processes of reality. This distinction underlies many different expressions within GS: "Whatever I say a thing is, it is not," "The map is not the territory," "Symbols are not what they symbolize," "Representations are not the things they represent," and even Alan Watts' comical refrain: "The word is not the thing, the word is not the thing, Hi Ho the Derry-O, the word is not the thing" (Watts, 1974, p. 8). Not only do GS scholars commonly note the differences between the realm of words and the realm of first-order processes of reality (i.e., realm of not-words), they also commonly acknowledge that words operate at multiple and varying levels of abstraction. Consider, for example, a few illustrations from Irving Lee's Language Habits and Human Affairs:

These illustrations are clear and helpful, and they are representative of the images throughout Lee's book. At many different places Lee illustrates not only varying levels of abstraction, but he demonstrates the kinds of confusion that emerge from failing to stay vigilant in these distinction. He advocates a careful practice of moving from observation to description to inference. All said, Lee differentiates many layers of abstraction: an event-process level, an objective level, a descriptive level, and finally, an inferential level (cf. 1941, p. 204).


For all that Lee's depiction does in clarifying the nature of abstraction, it unfortunately seems to suggest that inferential aspects should or ought enter with speech and description. First order abstractions are cast as sheer processes of sense organs and the nervous system transforming the silent eventfulness, the electronic dance, into a stable appearance of things, objects, and the world more generally. In this account, people use language too inferentially and too commonly fail to take the opportunity for careful observation and description prior to making their inferences. Stated a bit reductively, Lee's program seems to suggest that semantic confusions can be alleviated by always ensuring that description precedes inference.

If at first this appears to be little more than a residual difficulty, it grows into a pernicious one as we consider the degree to which we remain unable to bracket out all of the aesthetic connections within our social and physical worlds. Part of the problem with the many means of human abstraction is therefore not merely that "the word is not the thing." It is that even things are never simply themselves.

The issue is not merely that the word "apple" is not an apple or that we can't eat a picture or painting of an apple. It is that everyday objects transcend themselves, and when we attempt to describe them prior to making any inferences about them, we are, ironically, attempting to de-contextualize and de-realize the ways that items of the world actually show themselves. Aren't there, for example, inferential relations that are nearer to the objective level than to the verbal descriptive level? In such cases (perhaps the average and most likely case for everyday household artifacts), items are contextually imbued and transformed into vestiges of unseen relations. It is not then, as Lee suggests, that we jump past the descriptive level to the inferential level: on the contrary, it is rather that we jump over the non-verbal inferential level when we attempt to liquidate something into a careful objective verbal description that would precede all inference.

It might help to consider the ways that sets and verbal classifications are easily recognized as multi-leveled but too commonly are contrasted with a kind of unified What Is Going On or WIGO. The process-level of reality, the unspeakable-only-showable, the immediate, all of these seem to imply that the phenomenon of levels is largely an issue of the verbal realm. That is, I can hold an object such as an apple in my hand and then show how all of the verbal classifications of it operate at different levels: "organic matter," "edibles," "fruits," "apples," "granny smiths." At no point, we commonly say, are we ever able to say the thing itself, the actual item I can hold, eat, etc. Then, we may even point to one given apple and start to show how even this one apple is ever changing, and we index it by henceforth calling it, "[apple.sub.1]," "[apple.sub.2]," "[apple.sub.3]," etc. The subtle difficulty is that we seem to unify or totalize into a non-leveled phenomenon all that is not verbal. It is as if reality itself is all of the same level, and then the senses filter and engage in a kind of first-order abstraction, and then language breaks the sensory world into a hierarchy or ladder of abstractions for everything else.

Wendell Johnson's notable book, People in Quandaries, offers a discussion of levels of abstraction that advances but moves beyond the account found within Lee. Johnson identifies multiple levels of abstraction already at the level of "not words" and thereby helps to illustrate how we routinely fail to register the many different levels within the silent operations of the senses. Johnson writes, "... ordinary food dislikes are as good an illustration as one could want of the contusion of one level of abstraction with another--of the failure, that is, to differentiate the levels, and to act as if one knew that the sense-data levels were different from the inferential-data level" (1946, p. 108). His point is that our food preferences (as well as the reasons we like or dislike food) often have less to do with the physical or actual properties of the food than they do with other matters such as associations and inferential data to which we all too commonly act as if we were reacting purely to sense data or first-order reality. He accordingly opens resources for dealing with the many different levels of abstraction that occur even at nonverbal levels. Indeed, for Johnson, there are many different levels of abstraction within the not-words process-level; as he maintains, "Abstractions on all these levels are unspeakable"(p. 109).

I am belaboring and haggling about this rather nuanced point because codifications of reality--and management of different levels of communication--are to be found at various levels below the verbal, that is, within visual, vocalic, and non-verbal realms (also cf. Gregory Bateson, 1972). To help to clarify this difference between Irving Lee and Wendell Johnson--and to help fortify Johnson's line of argument, we might turn to the ideas of Suzanne Langer. Langer outlines modes of abstraction and forms of symbolic inference that operate prior to (or beneath) any verbal description. She documents the many ways that human life blazes with aesthetic character according to presentational forms and participative processes.

In Philosophy in a New Key, Langer accounts for how metonymy operates at the presentational (i.e., non-verbal) level; she basically discusses the forerunner of articulate speech and addresses what she calls "artefactual metonymy." Putting the beginnings of the operations of language into the pre-verbal or silent realm, Langer writes:
  ... 'the tendency to see reality symbolically,' is the real keynote
  of language ... presentational forms are much lower than discursive,
  and the appreciation of meaning probably earlier than its expression.
  The earliest manifestation of any symbol-making tendency, therefore
  is likely to be a mere sense of significance attached to certain
  objects ... It is like a dawn of superstition--a forerunner of
  fetishes and demons, perhaps. (1942, p. 110)

Further clarifying her ideas, Langer states, "One of my earliest recollections is that chairs and tables always kept the same look, in a way that people did not, and that I was awed by the sameness of that appearance." In this particular example, Langer is suggesting a kind of symbolic transformation nestled within vision itself, and she is not taking this visual significance from inferring out of verbal descriptions. On the contrary, if we were to attempt to suspend all symbolic transformations and presentational forms, as if objects could be isolated and rendered as merely available for objective description, we actually neutralize and sever them from the countless relations implicated by their participations in particular situations and engagements.

At one point Langer discusses the ape named Gua, and the manner in which Gua was anxious and alarmed when her trainer left the area, but also how Gua could be pacified fairly quickly by being given the trainer's overalls. The overalls, Langer suggests, served as a kind of artefactual metonymy: they stood in as a kind of surrogate. Gua would drag them around as a fetish of protection. Langer writes, "Gua was using the coveralls even in his presence as a help to her imagination, which kept him near whether he went out or not" (p. 114). To better understand the artefactual metonymies all around us, we can consider how everyday objects are often more than the material items that they seem to be. In fact, if we were to limit our experience of objects to what could be had solely by observation and description, we would actually de-world them as we break them from their dense and largely aesthetic participation in lived existence. As a point of comparison, we might turn to the human world of antiques and antique collecting.

In the world of antiques, we find a kind of non-identity at the nonverbal level but one that is at a different level of abstraction than any previously mentioned. For example, consider the difference between walking into a grocery story and walking into an antique store. In each case, we might simply look at (or even carefully observe) all of the different items and be tempted to reduce them to one level: the level of immediately available objects within one's perceptual field. For all the objects, aesthetic qualities might be recognized and judged bereft of any historical awareness.

But, to recognize an antique as the particular antique it is, we need to change the way we look at things. We come to see the object in terms of what is no longer here; the item itself hints and alludes to a mysterious otherworldliness. Indeed, what makes an antique an antique is not merely how old it is, as if antiqueness were a property or quality of the object itself. Antiqueness is a register of the change in the world around the things; the world in which they were designed to fit is now absent and this change in the larger world changes the things themselves. It is, again, the changes all around an item that make the item an antique; the antique is made into an antique when its world disappears. And so, even if the thing seems to be fully intact and functional--and by that I mean nearly unchanged from its original condition, the thing is thereby even more other than itself, for in such cases we speak of an antique in mint condition. Antiques, and ancient relics even more so, are things that represent worlds that have long since passed away, and it is this representing whereby things transcend their merely physical properties and become, at another level, surrogates or stand-ins for times now gone.

In contrast to all of the ways that the word is not the thing, and the ways that inferential statements get inattentively carried over into observation and our reactions, I think that Johnson's (and Langer's) important contribution to our understanding is that even at the level of the not-words we always already have introjections of inferential data. This means that items of the human world are not simply themselves. They inevitably get transformed into nonverbal metonymies in accordance with the situations in which they are embedded and in which they have participated. (1) To say that even the thing is not itself is to recognize that many forms of inferential symbolism occur below the verbal and prior to the descriptive realm.

In this very brief paper I have tried to draw a rather fine and nuanced line between the ideas of Irving Lee and Wendell Johnson. While granting to Irving Lee a great deal of practical wisdom concerning the relations between the verbal and the non-verbal, it is Johnson, I have suggested, who most helps to clarify the inferential levels of abstractions even within the world of non-words, particularly as exemplified in antiques. (2)


(1.) Well beyond the scope of the present paper, future work might explore how sexual desires and fetishes, various kinds of bodily appetites, emerge as artefactual metonymies.

(2.) Part of this point can be driven home if we go comparatively to the spoken word for just a moment. One of Walter Ong's contributions was to recognize how the language we use everyday, our mother tongue, is overpopulated with meanings, so much so that the meanings of words come into play beyond speaker intentions. Of the penetrating examples offered by Ong is the fact that Sir Isaac Newton wrote his major works in Latin. Ong further contends that the historically developed scientific distinction between knower and known critically depended upon Learned Latin. He writes:
  It would appear likely that a textualized chirographically controlled
  language such as Learned Latin aided greatly in establishing the
  distance between observer and observed, between the knower and the
  known, that science and especially modern science, required. No
  longer a mother tongue, Learned Latin left all its users free of the
  rich, emotional, unconscious, but often confusingly subjective
  involvements of a language learned orally from infancy, where knower
  and known, subject and object, formed a kind of continuum that could
  be broken up only gradually and perhaps never completely. (1984, p.

(3.) The words we use hold subterranean significations: many words are ineluctably over-populated; they surpass and overflow the original intention. Graphic illustration of this fact can be seen on the television show, Bevis and Butthead, where the two main characters twitter and laugh any time someone says a word which has even the slightest or remotest, association with sex or sexual encounters: "crack of dawn," "screwdriver," "wood," or even "penetrating." Words themselves cannot be expunged of all of their repressed meanings, suggestions, innuendos, and past associations and involvements. Many words even hint at the words with which they rhyme, and so, tongue twisters such as, "Mother hen pheasant plucker, plucking mother pheasant hens" can be quite humorous even when correctly pronounced.


(1.) Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

(2.) Johnson, W. (1946). People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment. New York: Harper & Brothers.

(3.) Langer, S. K. (1942). Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art. New York: Mentor Books.

(4.) Lee, I. J. (1941). Language Habits in Human Affairs: An Introduction to General Semantics. New York: Harper & Brothers.

(5.) Ong, W. J. (1984). "Orality, Literacy, and Medieval Textualization", New Literary History, 16, pp. 1-12.

(6.) Watts, A. (1974). The Essence of Alan Watts. Millbrae California: Celestial Arts.


* Corey Anton is an Associate Professor in the School of Communications, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI 49401-9403. Email:
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Author:Anton, Corey
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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