Metonymy, NY

This is a concept I'm still hashing out. But I think it might be useful for understanding small-town organizing.

I rode my bike North on Tuesday, just to see what was there. A big sign said UNCLE SAM'S GRAVE, and I decided to see where it would lead me. A few twists and turns, and there was the Oakwood Cemetery, a peaceful little park on a hilltop. I biked in. There were old couples, parents and children, a runner stretching in black and neon pink spandex. I always have a slight feeling of out-of-placeness in graveyards; I don't know anyone who is buried in one, so I've never entered a cemetery to mourn. I always go to roam, to brood, to see pretty sights. Today it was to visit the grave of somebody who didn't make a lot of sense to me: Uncle Sam.

Samuel Wilson lived in Troy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was a meat-packer, and he packed meat for soldiers in the War of 1812. Some joke about abbreviations resulted in the U.S. stamp on his barrels of meat referring to Samuel Wilson: "Uncle Sam" rather than "United States." This dumb pun become important. These crossed wires of meaning have resulted in a sort of cultural synesthesia, a stereoscopic re-wreckoning of metaphor and metonym that allows Sam and States to become linked, detaches Samuel Wilson from the mortal coil and renders him avatar of the United States in Independence Day parades, a character in political cartoons, a propaganda tool.

Except that in Troy, NY, Uncle Sam has not completely sublimated from Samuel Wilson. Sam was a resident of Troy, and his remains remain resident here, on a peaceful hilltop overlooking the Hudson. The grave isn't impressive, even though there are arrows leading you there at every intersection in the cemetery (looking for grandma? I can't help you. But if you're looking for Uncle Sam, boy do I know where you need to go!). At the intersection of a mundane life of shoving meat into barrels, and a fabulous one of striped hats and stilts, there's an unassuming grave surrounded by trees that has signs pointing to it for miles around.

What's interesting about Samuel Wilson, and the reason I'd like to spin him out into a concept to think with, is that the city of Troy does a lot of work to turn him into not-just-Samuel-Wilson and not-just-Uncle-Sam. The city is stuck at that point of departure between real and cartoon, and the formation of an icon somehow obsesses Troy to the point where it names businesses and parking lots after a cartoon/person, and the downtown now has at least 11 Uncle Sam Statues (check on this).

Last night I rode my bike downtown and passed two Uncle Sam statues and then a person dressed as Uncle Sam and standing very still. I can't decide what was more real.

It's for this reason that I propose the concept of Metonymy, NY to understand Troy. Anywhere else, Uncle Sam is a metaphor, a representation that can be seen alternately as cartoonish shorthand or a personification with an origin story but no living substrate. In Troy, Uncle Sam becomes metonymy: he is a very real person who had a life, who packed meat, who now lies in a grave in North Troy. We own his bones. When Uncle Sam stands in for the US, it's a part representing the whole, at least in the Trojan mindset.

Like Wittgenstein's crying Virgin at Lourdes (the blood is "red ink in a sense, and not red ink in a sense"), these bones are Uncle Sam in a sense, but Samuel Wilson in a sense. Those are Samuel Wilson's bones sitting under a rose-pink stone in a cemetery on a hilltop, but they are also Uncle Sam's. This does not mean that the people of Troy are stupid, or fooling themselves, or even that everybody in Troy believes this apparent paradox. It simply means that there is a discourse of Uncle Sam that works to make an icon, a personification, into something that is also a person, in which a fixation on this really-quite-mundane life of a meatpacker and the fashion disaster of an icon can stand in for a national consciousness, in which contiguity with the life of Uncle Sam is a salient feature in understanding the rest of the country. [bring in Jakobson]

What I'd like to argue isn't about Uncle Sam or Samuel Wilson, though; it's about garbage. Of course. I think that the metonymic urge that turns Sam into States is the same urge that turns the trash of 50,000 into the trash of 313,000,000. I don't think Troy is special in having the capacity to project outwards, to think globally and act locally (to think States and act Sam), to picture (as Dorothy Smith puts it) their actions as coordinated and individual. But Troy has practice. It is, after all, Metonymy, NY.