Dominic Lash ‘Inconclusive Paragraphs on Metonymy, Monochromaticism, Materialism’

Metonymy is a form of figurative language based on contiguity and causality, one that until recently has tended to receive critical short shrift when compared with metaphor, where the figuration depends on relationships of similarity. My PhD research (now available online at involved reexamining those aspects of metonymy customarily considered to be the source of its failings. Most prominent among these ‘deficiencies’ is the historically and socially limited nature of metonymic expressions. I contend that this can, on the contrary, be a powerful resource because of the way that it binds the metonymic expression to the real, which always lies beyond our control. This is in contrast to the way that metaphor risks making an idealist fetish of the individual imagination, viewed as an heroic striving to reshape the world directly through the acts of thinking and writing. I argued for the development of a concept of musical metonymy, characterised by linear dissimilarity, attention to the origins of and agency behind sounds, and an occlusion of the structural middleground.

Monochromaticism literally applies to paintings, the monochrome painting being a constant across the work of a great many twentieth century artists: Kasimir Malevitch, Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Robert Rauscheberg, Agnes Martin, Yves Klein, Gerhard Richter, Marcia Hafif, to name just ten. Monochrome also refers to work in shades of one colour (black and white film is monochrome) so resolute undifferentiability is not essential to the concept. I want to propose a metaphorical use of the term which is applicable to music, narrative, poetry and beyond. A fully ‘monochrome’ work is saturated, undifferentiated. Nothing is ever wholly so at all levels of magnification, and hence monochromaticism can best be understood as a tendency, a direction or a vector. There are two distinct ways of creating such a vector: by subtraction (a paring-down or wearing away of difference) or by addition (an accretion of detail so overwhelming that any division into parts becomes highly contentious). Seemingly overwhelming similarity is a challenge to our perception of difference.

In his short 2006 book After Finitude the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux coined the term “correlationism” to refer to any philosophical position whereby the existence of a reality utterly independent of any human access to it is rendered meaningless, ineffable or inexistent. Meillassoux argues that such positions are equally dominant in both ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions of philosophy (due to their shared Kantian heritage); thus for all their differences, the great heroes of each tradition – Wittgenstein and Heidegger – were both correlationists. Meillassoux’s work is often held to be emblematic of a new vogue for realism, or materialism, in contemporary philosophy. Nevertheless, as Adrian Johnston argues in his essay “Hume’s Revenge: À Dieu, Meillassoux?” (from the collection The Speculative Turn, available free as a pdf from, Meillassoux’s own route out of correlationism is ingenious but dubious, and leaves insufficient room for empirical enquiry. An aesthetics of metonymy and monochromaticism could contribute to the construction of alternative strategies.

Derek Bailey once wrote that for him his instrument – the guitar – was not just a tool but an ally. Limitations were not hindrances but consitutive of the field of activity. Bailey willingly submitted to a great many constraints – physical, historical, social, musical – such as playing posture and tuning (both of which were entirely conventional), while other grids were largely abandoned: regular metre and tempered tuning, for example. Form emerged through the activity of these constraints, in a manner well expressed by George Lewis, who described Bailey’s music as presenting “a flat, blank surface, a slow-motion white noise whose infinitely variagated texture is only revealed when a listener zooms in”. Poet and critic Simon Jarvis writes that “common sense and professional literary criticism alike have often tended … to operate an excluded middle between fantasy and intention. Either the poet intended an effect or the reader is making it up.” In fact, although the experience of form may be different for every listener, it is always constrained. It can even be a form of empirical investigation.

Composer/improvisor Simon Fell’s monochromaticism, as found in his large ensemble work Positions and Descriptions, is achieved through a sort of saturation of density and idiom, perhaps akin to the way that white light includes all other colours (or white noise all other frequencies). Fell somehow manages in this piece to pile on more of everything all at once than he has done before, and yet have the music end up both clearer and more cohesive than his previous efforts – this is effect of the monochromatic challenge to the perception of difference in action. James Saunders takes the subtractive rather than the additive approach; he is interested in penetrating into the superficially monochrome to tease out the multitude of vibrantly coloured threads that lie disguised within. His music, exemplified by the recording Divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole, is in a sense easily described, and yet to capture in words the myriad of variations and developments going on at the microlevel would be all but impossible. There is a beautiful disjunction between microstructure and macrostructure in this music.

Different strategies with regard to these concepts came to prominence in the work of painters in the middle of the last century. The work of Agnes Martin often presents grids directly, drawn freehand across muted monochromes. Unrepeatable richness of detail in the minutiae of line represent humanity’s relationship with the sublime in dialectic with the abstract geometry of the form. Martin’s line is an indexical sign of the artist’s bodily presence, while her compositions express the cool inhumanity of regular geometry. By contrast, Gerhard Richter’s photographically based monochromes begin with the projection of the image to be copied onto the canvas, an indexical sign of the image which is itself an indexical sign of a physical reality. His abstracts enable us to reconstruct various sequences of application of paint and its spreading with giant squeegees, but their very richness prevents us from being confident in the accuracy of our reconstruction. Richter’s later grid paintings eschew Martin’s line and explore John Cage’s methodology more directly than do the abstracts actually entitled Cage.

Orchestration conventionally aims at equality (all instruments distinctly audible) or functional hierarchy (parts and roles clearly distinguished). Metonymic constraints disturb such hierarchies; contingent factors may force one element to the front or to the background. The ancient Japanese court music Gagaku displays such disruptions. Once improvised and prominent, string parts are now played literally according to the score; only skeletal outlines remain. Flutes and double reeds play the same melody in close canon, the flutes all but obliterated by their belligerent partners. Scholars think that tempos have slowed down drastically, yet there is a performance tradition lasting hundreds of years. Many of the music’s most striking features have evolved contingently. How often do we attribute randomness to what is in fact contingent? The indexical sign has a direct material connection to that which it signifies, and thus both represents and is produced by contingencies, some of which may contain an element of randomness. It might be instructive to reconsider the music of John Cage in this light.

Herman Melville’s last novel, The Confidence-Man, supplies no secure place from which to judge its narrative. A sequence of confidence tricksters (or perhaps a single trickster in varied disguises) continually undermine interpretational security. As Peter J. Bellis has argued, we ourselves fall victim to a con if we assume that all elements of the work can be accounted for in a single consistent interpretation. But we are nonetheless constantly challenged to determine truth from falsehood, philosophy from sophistry. In David Lynch’s Inland Empire the first thing we see is the light from a film projector, and through the ancient filmic technique of shot and reverse shot Lynch repeatedly shows us characters seeing themselves – projecting hopes, fears, desires and fantasies into external worlds which then entangle with one another. Here too consistent interpretation is possible, but only by ignoring one or more element. Both Melville and Lynch move toward a narrative monochrome, where accumulation of detail overwhelms propulsive linearity, and clear articulation of parts can only be achieved via subtraction.

In Manfred Werder’s stück 1998 the part stands for the whole. The 4000 pages of its score represent a total duration of 533 hours and 20 minutes. It will only ever be performed once, having what the composer describes as “one successive and intermittent performance”: each new performance is only a part of the whole, moving a few pages closer to completion, but also represents the piece in its entirety. What is a musical piece a piece of? Werder’s score specifies precise pitches but is not a picture of the resulting music: the nature of the ensemble at any given moment, alongside acoustic anomalies and human frailties, give any performance a richness of detail as unique as any line by Agnes Martin, in the context of a temporal grid just as stark as any of her spatial grids (6 seconds of sound alternate with 6 seconds of silence). As with many other works by members of the Wandelweiser collective and their associates, repetition helps generate a musical monochrome which takes Cage’s insight about the inexistence of silence as its starting point to demonstrate the impossibility of repetition.