There’s no particular reason why most of you need an encyclopedic knowledge of classical rhetorical figures, though they’re fun. But some of them have gotten picked up for use in recent theories of representation; especially structuralist and deconstructive, and to some extent psychoanalytic, feminist, and postcolonial. Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics and On Deconstruction are good introductions to the first two of these areas. A good online introduction to classical rhetoric – along with an amazingly extensive list of definitions – is at humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/silva.htm.
Here are a few tropes that have turned up in literary theory, with definitions and thoughts on where and how they’ve proved theoretically interesting.
allegory: Gr. “speaking otherwise.” A sustained system or network of figuration continued throughout a work, producing separate and more or less self-consistent levels of meaning. (Examples: The Faerie Queene; Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.) The relation between the levels may be arbitrary, as in Proust when the church statues of the Virtues and Vices depict “vulgar and energetic” women who just happen to be bearing a basket (Charity), a snake (Envy), etc., rather than themselves looking charitable or envious. In the post-Romantic tradition allegory has been compared, to its disadvantage, with symbolism, which was seen as based on similarity, hence less arbitrary and artificial. But Paul de Man put these valuations back in play in “The Rhetoric of Temporality” (collected in Blindness and Insight), arguing for the interest of allegorical figures on just this basis. In his 1986 essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Fredric Jameson theorized that all “third world” literatures are necessarily allegories of nation-formation, which makes them uninteresting to the First World readers who prefer literary renderings of the private as opposed to the public experience.
anacoluthon: a-na-co-LU-thon. Gr. “lacking sequence.” A grammatical interruption or lack of implied sequence within a sentence. That is, beginning a sentence in a way that implies a certain logical resolution, but concluding it differently than the grammar leads one to expect – an interruption or a verbal lack of symmetry. It especially involves uses and violations of parallel-structure expectations. This term hasn’t been used theoretically as far as I know, but seems to have potential.
chiasmus: ki-AZ-mus. Gr. “a placing crosswise, a diagonal arrangement.” Repetition of ideas or grammatical structures in inverted order (AB-BA). “It is boring to eat; to sleep is fulfilling”; “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country.” Like anacoluthon, it generally presumes a context of parallel structure. Because of its criss-cross relation to temporality, a looser, narrative notion of chiasmus is often associated with the psychoanalytic notion of Nachtraglichkeit or deferred action (what Silvan Tomkins calls posticipation), in which experiences, impressions, and memory-traces may be revised at a later date to fit in with fresh experiences or with the attainment of a new stage of development (Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 111). In the Introduction to Between Men (13-15), I discuss a congruence between ideology (drawing on Marx and Juliet Mitchell) and sexuality, based on a shared chiasmic narrative structure, in which “the subject of the beginning of the narrative is different from the subject at the end, and … the two subjects cross each other in a rhetorical figure that conceals their discontinuity.” These senses of chiasmus also have an affinity with différance, a word coined by Derrida (in Writing and Difference) to link together the features of deferral and difference in the structure of language (i.e. the ways that meanings are not self-present in words, but depend on both a system of diacritical differences across the language as a whole, and also on the temporal displacements involved in iterative utterance and grammatical contextualization).
metaphor: Gr. “carrying beyond.” An implicit comparison made by referring to one thing as another on the basis of similarity. Sometimes contrasted with simile, which makes the same kind of comparison explicitly using words “like” or “as.” But since 1956, when the structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson published Two Types of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances, it has been more common to contrast metaphor with metonymy (see below).
metonymy: me-TON-a-me. Gr. “change of name.” Referring to one thing by means of another that is not linked to it by similarity (as in metaphor), but instead by spatial proximity or some other contingent relation. Thus, to narrate an announcement by the President, you could say “The White House announced…” (a metonymy) or “The smirking chimp announced…” (a metaphor). Based on Jakobson’s work, there was a lot of interest in classifying all forms of representation (or even association) in terms of metaphoric vs. metonymic, and an increased interest in metonymy. For example, de Man’s treatment of allegory vs. symbolism (see above) is derived by extension from the comparison of metonymy vs. metaphor. In psychoanalysis, the symbolizing function of condensation became associated with metaphor, and displacement with metonymy. (See Laplanche and Pontalis on these terms; Lacan depends on this association in asserting that the unconscious is “structured like a language.”) Because metonymic slippage is based on contiguity rather than similarity/identity, some postmodern approaches value it because it does not privilege a single center, being more weblike in structure (to use George Eliot’s image) or, in Deleuze’s term, rhizomatic (like a plant that propagates by sending down roots in multiple places). In French feminism, metonymy has been seen for similar reasons (decenteredness, slipperiness) as a characteristic of l’écriture féminine (feminine writing), as variously conceived by Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva.
mise en abyme: MEEZ-on-a-BEEM. Fr. “putting-in-the-abyss” (not classical – coined by André Gide in 1926). A concentric or recursive structure, like the Cracker Jack box with a picture of a sailor holding a Cracker Jack box with a picture of a sailor holding a Cracker Jack box etc., or like a novel within a novel within a novel etc. Postmodern fiction is fond of this structure, though it goes back at least as far as The 1001 Nights.
prosopopoeia: PRO-so-po-PAY-a. Gr. “giving a face; making a person.” In classical rhetoric this refers either to personification (speaking of an abstraction or object as if it were a person: “Fear convinced me to flee”) or, alternatively, impersonation (an imitation of a person, comparable to the modern dramatic monologue). Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller describe prosopopoeia as a kind of primordial figure of figures: prosopopoeia gives face to that which has no face, thereby creating a world within which, once it’s in place, one can distinguish the literal from the figural. De Man associates this figure with personal identity: “Prosopopeia is the trope of autobiography, by which one’s name […] is made as intelligible and memorable as a face. Our topic deals with the giving and taking away of faces, with face and deface, figure, figuration and disfiguration” (Rhetoric of Romanticism, p.76). In her Decomposing figures: Rhetorical Readings on the Romantic Traditions, Cynthia Chase especially attends to prosopopoeia as a trope of absence and mourning, as when it features on gravestones or invokes the voice of the dead. Judith Butler implicitly invokes such arguments in her discussion of gender identity as a form or effect of melancholia (Gender Trouble). A good queer-theory use of the concept is in Jonathan Flatley’s essay, “Warhol Gives Good Face,” in the collection Pop Out: Queer Warhol (ed. Flatley et al).