Today we talked about some of the critical concepts we’ve already encountered and added a new term, metonymy, to the mix. Metonymy is a trope, a figure of speech, which very loosely describes the act of using a physical object to suggest a larger idea.
In the context of American Autobiography, we asked what objects might “stand in for” the socio-historical situations described by any of the works we’ve read for this course. For example, Jack Black’s description of Machine Age lowlife– a world of prostitutes, hop fiends, and crooks– could be distilled to a series of objects which invoke that social scene: an opium pipe, a set of burglar’s tools, a dark fedora.
You’ll note that this activity of creating metonyms bears a resemblance to Bakhtin’s chronotope, where a socio-historical situation is “embodied” in a specific space: the slave ship for the Black Atlantic, a pig sty for the later stages of the Cultural Revolution when Red Guards and other “sent down youth” migrated to the countryside in order to learn from the peasants, etc.
The critical-imaginative activity of soundtracking is also part of an effort to substitute a single term for a larger complex of social and historical forces, one which posits the reader as a kind of Foley artist: in what would the soundscape of the Cultural Revolution consist? A tractor engine, boots treading mud, the shrill cries of a million Red Guards in Tiananmen Square? Tweaking that concept slightly, you could ask what some period from your own life might sound like. For me, just out of highschool and working as a short order cook, the sounds of cracking eggshells and a steel whisk, the gentle whump of the gas burners igniting, the frantic babble of a full “floor” during the morning rush, the sizzle of raw onions in a puddle of grease on the flat top.
All three of these terms, then, operate according to a principle of substitution in order to evoke something larger than themselves. The last of the three, soundtracking, might be the strangest of them in that in employing it we are essentially asking what history (a specific historical period) sounds like– a synesthetic move. A deliberate derangement of our senses, I think, complicates and enriches what we think we already know. Push this critical task to the point of absurdity: what does the Jim Crow era south taste like? (Blood and collard greens.) What is the texture of the Cultural Revolution? (The coarse weave of military uniforms worn by young Red Guards, the roughness of work-hardened hands.)