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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Framing for “radicals”

A view I often encounter is that Lakoff’s Frame Semantics is not politically “radical” enough. Take this review of Lakoff’s book, Whose Freedom? (from CounterPunch), which argues that Lakoff ignores “any facts or analyses that suggest the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states”.

CounterPunch’s reviewer, Robert Jensen, seems (to me) hostile towards Lakoff throughout, and I see indications that he hasn’t read Lakoff’s book very thoroughly (for example, he claims incorrectly that Lakoff “makes no mention” of the distinction “between negative freedom […] and positive freedom”).

But, putting that aside, what is Jensen’s main problem with Lakoff’s approach? Jensen first makes some good points about the US Democratic party, but Lakoff’s book is not really about the Democrats (except for the illustrative examples cited). Jensen then returns to the same criticism that he started his review with:

Though this critique may seem harsh, it is a friendly one. I agree with many of the policy prescriptions that Lakoff labels as “progressive,” though I would want to push his analysis to the left and move past the predictable and uninspiring liberal ideology. I would highlight the more fundamental issues around illegitimate systems and structures of power, primarily the corporation in capitalism and the nation-state in the imperial era. (Outside the Frame, Robert Jensen)

So: “structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, the “nation-state” – these are the “fundamental” issues/systems for Jensen (and for many others who use the same terminology). Jensen writes that Lakoff’s approach is “shallow” for (allegedly) not addressing these fundamentals.

But, to my reading, Lakoff does address these issues – repeatedly and “deeply”. Except, he doesn’t do it in Jensen’s preferred terminology. For example, Lakoff goes to the roots of conservative (including corporate) beliefs in the so-called “free market” system (more on this below). He analyses how states and state power are conceptualised in terms of cognitive frames, and provides a more thorough account of the ideological underpinning of rightwing (including “imperialistic”) policy than any other researcher I’ve come across.

It’s worth pointing out that Jensen’s “fundamentals” (“structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, “nation-state”) are abstract nouns. They seem useful abstractions to me, but we should always remember that they are words, pointers. The realities they point to – unimaginably huge, complex aggregations of countless human actions – can be “addressed”, “mapped”, “encoded”, conceptualised in many ways. Pluralism demands that they are, so let’s not restrict ourselves to any particular lexicon. (Another author who explores Jensen’s “fundamental” issues in depth and detail – but without adopting, or relying on, the lexicon of “imperialism”, etc – is Greg Palast. See, for example, his excellent book, ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’).

So, where does Lakoff’s work come in? For a start, it gives us a better understanding of our own cognitive mapping of this fundamental stuff. We become more adept at distinguishing the “map” from the “territory”. We see how our views (and those of people who oppose us), on a range of diverse topics (eg economics, international conflict, various social issues, etc), fit together from an internal “moral logic”. One example Lakoff provides to illustrate this is the question: Why, in the US, do conservative positions on, say, abortion, correlate with support for “punitive war” or capital punishment or opposition to social programmes for reducing child mortality? There’s no obvious, “rational” explanation – and no other field of research has seriously attempted to provide answers (especially not empirically-based ones).

Frame Semantics, metaphorical framing, the cognitive-linguistic mapping of “political” views (whatever you want to call it) gives us rich insights into how our “moral” and “political” concepts form and function at the “deeper” levels of what the researchers call the “cognitive unconscious“. To me, there’s a beautiful irony in Robert Jensen’s evaluation of this approach as “shallow”.

As noted above, Lakoff’s book deals directly with types of framing relevant to Jensen’s “fundamental” issues. Take the section on ‘Economic Freedom’ in which Lakoff writes at length on frames which form the ‘Economic Liberty Myth’ – ie the metaphorical rationale “behind” what Jensen calls the “structures of power” and “corporate capitalism”.

For example, this myth unites the following ideas in a complex moral frame:

  • “Free markets are natural and moral”
  • “Competition naturally maximises efficiency”
  • “Private industry is more efficient than government”
  • “Regulation reduces market efficiency”
  • “Everybody with sufficient discipline can succeed”
  • “Market discipline is natural; regulation is unnatural”

Lakoff shows how these moral-economic frames tend to accompany other ‘conservative’ positions on seemingly unrelated matters (eg foreign policy, war, “domestic” issues such as welfare, etc) in a systemic way. Unlike the rhetoric-heavy “radical” churnalism which is so often found on the pages of CounterPunch, it’s based to a large extent on empirical work, eg research in conceptual metaphor – a truly “radical” field (in the sense of new, original, groundbreaking and “getting to the roots” of things).

Perhaps if Lakoff hadn’t done this pioneering work – perhaps if he’d just stuck to repeating reified abstract terms (“structures of power”, “Power-elites”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, etc), and citing evidence which “confirms” the destructiveness of whatever we assign to these loose categories (not difficult to do) – then perhaps smart, radical guys like Robert Jensen would welcome him with open arms: One Of Us.

Written by NewsFrames

July 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm

20 Responses

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  1. Counterpunch has had some pretty diabolical pieces lately. The one you write about is full of adjectives such as “sloppy”, “superficial”, “weak”, “shallow”, which seem a more apt description of the CounterPunch article itself than of Lakoff’s tome. Pretty lame stuff, and only $35 for a subscription!

    Alex G

    July 5, 2012 at 1:50 pm

  2. I haven’t read Lakoff’s book, so I don’t pretend to comment on it. I will say, though, that I also perceive a lack of depth of critique of the present capitalist social system on the part of Lakoff (and those who understand his work much better than I do). A simple example would be “exchange value”. Does Lakoff talk about this frame? Does he address the fact that only some people need to exchange the value of their labour? Or is this evident inequality just another frame of equal truth value as any other? To me this is the crux of my issue with Lakoff – a frame is just a frame, just as a thought is just a thought – there seems to be no topology of frames, no way of deciding which frame has a truth-value and which doesn’t. I trust you see these works neither as an ignorant attack on Lakoff nor as me clinging to such concepts as “exchange value”, “truth value” or “equality”.

    • You say you haven’t read the book in question (‘Whose Freedom?’). Which of Lakoff’s books have you read? Or are your perceptions based only on reading articles, etc?

      I don’t know what to make of your comment, since my own perceptions (after studying Lakoff’s books in detail) bear no resemblance to yours. Lakoff does write at length about frames regarding “labour”, “work”, “value” and “exchange” (in various combinations, and even down to the nitty-gritty basics of ontological metaphor).

      In ‘Whose Freedom?’ he writes about ‘the cheap labor trap’, the labor-as-resource metaphor, etc, etc. Whether he writes about “exchange value” specifically in the manner and terminology that you have in mind, I don’t know (since I’m not really sure what you have in mind, beyond your phrases and terms). I suspect not.

      All I can do by way of response is to recommend that you read his books (eg ‘Moral Politics’, ‘Metaphors We Live By’, ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’, etc) if you haven’t already done so.

      Perhaps you might also quote a few paragraphs of what you *do* consider to be a “deep” critique of “the present capitalist social system”, so I can see what your idea of “depth” is.


      July 6, 2012 at 10:01 am

      • I haven’t read any of Lakoff’s books, although I have read a number of articles written by him.

        I suppose what I consider a “deep” critique of “the present capitalist social system” is one which critically analyses the conservative-progressive dichotomy, something which I have never seen Lakoff do +in the articles of his I have read+.

        Does he do this?

  3. Vajramita Kundalini comments: “To me this is the crux of my issue with Lakoff – a frame is just a frame, just as a thought is just a thought – there seems to be no topology of frames, no way of deciding which frame has a truth-value and which doesn’t.”

    At least you’ve exposed, in an honest and open way, what seems to be your almost total ignorance of Lakoff’s oeuvre on such matters. Lakoff addresses these (and much more) in Philosophy in the Flesh. He weighs in on cognitive relativism and epistemological relativism, etcetera, in other works too. He doesn’t claim what you assert he claims.

    Karl W

    July 6, 2012 at 10:36 am

    • Indeed, if I had ever seen Lakoff address these issues in the articles of his I have read then I would not hold this perception of mine.

      Is this an easy thing to explain from a Lakoffian point of view? Is there an online article I can read which outlines how Lakoff is able to assign more truth/reality to the progressive view than to the conservative one?

      • Vajramita Kundalini:: A large part of Lakoff’s political-frames oeuvre covers *precisely* what you call “the conservative-progressive dichotomy” (eg, his book, ‘Moral Politics’) and why progressive frames empirically tend to yield less destructive outcomes, and are more “grounded” in empirical “truths”. Lakoff comes down very firmly on the side of progressive frames, and expresses horror at where conservative framing is taking us. (This comes through clearly in ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’).

        Might I respectfully suggest that you do the minimum amount of homework on a topic before you express opinions on it (especially critical ones which imply that you think you know what you’re talking about). Otherwise you’re just wasting people’s time.

        There are plenty of online Lakoff articles which summarise his work in ‘Moral Politics’ (ie analysis of conservative-progressive dichotomy) – there’s even an excellent online book, ‘Thinking Points’. But I’m not going to do your homework for you. I suggest you start by reading his bestselling (and short, easy-to-read) book, ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’.

        Karl W

        July 6, 2012 at 11:13 am

  4. Wasting people’s time. One of my favourite of NewsFrame’s articles talks about the frame of time as a commodity to waste. Many apologies in any case, although I do reserve the right to critique Lakoff based on my (clearly specified) limited understanding of him. I often find I learn by the patient response by others to my ignorant questioning.

    Thank you.

    • Glad you find something here that’s not too shallow. 😉

      I took it very personally when you wrote: “I will say, though, that I also perceive a lack of depth of critique of the present capitalist social system on the part of Lakoff (and those who understand his work much better than I do).”

      LOL, etc.


      July 6, 2012 at 11:46 am

      • Without wanting to lose our senses of humour, I still think it would be interesting for us to talk, to dialogue, about why I should have such a perspective. I’m not entirely sure that being asked to read the entire Lakoffian oeuvre before being qualified to enter such a dialogue does much to ameliorate the dogmatic “one of us” position.

        As to a text, then a very interesting one I read recently (from 1962!) can be read here:


        I especially like this:
        “In the West, Marx is accused that his theory is premised on subjective-proletarian class consciousness. This is precisely what is not meant. Liberal theory is confronted with its own claim with regard to the act of exchange. “You say that equivalents are exchanged, that there is a free and just exchange, I take your word, now we shall see how this works.” This is immanent critique. That man becomes a commodity has been perceived by others. Marx: “These petrified conditions must be made to dance by singing to them their own melody.” (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) Not: to confront capitalist society a different one, but: to ask if society conforms to its own rules, if society functions according to laws which it claims as its own. Now, Marx does not just say, no, this is wrong, but he takes dialectic seriously and coquets with its terminology. In an exchange, something is the same and simultaneously not the same, it is and at the same time is not above board. The theory of liberalism conforms to its own concept and by conforming it also contradicts its own concept. The relation of exchange is in reality pre-formed by class relations: +the heart of the theory is the assumption that there is an unequal control of the means of production+ (my emphasis). This question is of almost no importance in today’s discussion of Marx.”

        It is precisely this kind of “immanent critique” I see as “deep” and which I +have the impression+ is absent in Lakoffian analysis. Maybe I am quite wrong, maybe frame semantics is all about, “to ask if society conforms to its own rules, if society functions according to laws which it claims as its own”. If it is then either the articles I’ve read of Lakoff have not touched on this subject or I have not enough understanding of Lakoffian dialectics to recognise any oblique references to it.

  5. I’ve seen rightwing critics of Lakoff put him in the same boat as the Frankfurt School. But Lakoff’s analysis is about framing & conceptual metaphor – based to a large extent on relatively recent empirical work in cognitive linguistics. I don’t recall Lakoff writing at length about Marx, etc. The “absence” of any/all of this in Lakoff’s work says nothing to me about “depth” (the metaphorical criterion raised by you – and also by CounterPunch’s reviewer, above, who described Lakoff’s book as “shallow”).


    July 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    • Yes. Not sufficiently “deep” or “radical” – vague criteria which seem to serve the same function of dismissing what one doesn’t like. I think you’re right that if you use certain “passwords” (eg Marxist or Chomskyite terms) then subscribers to those tribes/worldviews/terminologies +will+ welcome you as sufficiently “deep” and “radical”. But if you use different terms/framing, then it’s “shallow”.

      And if you ask for examples or explanations of the “depth” implied by those passwords, you either get no reply, or you just get quoted some text with more of the same passwords-signifying-depth.

      Karl W

      July 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      • “So another way of framing Lakoff’s “frames” is language as class warfare.” (from link given to me by NewsFrames).

        Language as class warfare. However, as “Marxist terminology is something Lakoff shies away from” one can see why those well versed in Marx see this as lacking “depth”.

        I would say that shifting the concept of class from the concept of class to the concept of language-use is reducing the depth. But then what do I know? 😉

      • Sigh… Vajramita, this is the most tenuous “logic” applied to barely understood snippets (concerning conceptual metaphor, etc). Or that’s how it reads to me. What you say just doesn’t follow. You certainly don’t need to read Lakoff’s entire output to enter into informed debate, but it might help if you familiarise yourself with the basics of his work first. Sorry.

        Karl W

        July 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      • Sigh indeed. Vaj, I appreciate your reading this blog and promoting it on Twitter. But reading some of your comments here, I feel as if you’ve not actually read anything I’ve written. I think many people “well versed in Marx” would indeed appreciate the “depth” of much of what Lakoff has written (assuming it’s not some narrow, vulgar-tribal version of Marxist thought that they are well-versed in). Take Lakoff’s notion of the ‘Economic Liberty Myth’ which I mentioned in my piece above (remember that?). Lakoff may not use Marxist terminology, but it doesn’t therefore follow that his economic-framing ideas are not resonant in important, useful ways to how many Marxists conceive of economies.

        As for that final paragraph of yours – how exactly does one “shift” “the concept of class from the concept of class to the concept of language-use”? (Your exact words!) And do you think anyone (Lakoff or anyone else) is actually suggesting such a “shift”? I’m not surprised this doesn’t sound “deep” to you, if you think of it in that way. There is no “concept of class” independent of conceptual metaphor.


        July 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm

  6. Check out this piece for a much more knowledgable take on Lakoff’s approach than the one provided by the above CounterPunch review: http://overweeninggeneralist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/george-lakoff-and-metaphorical-framing.html


    July 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm

  7. Karl W and NewsFrames – thank you both for your time and energy in replying to me. You’re both quite right, the next time I want to discuss Lakoff’s ideas, having only vague impressions of them myself, I shall make sure I do so having a much clearer idea of them.

  8. I’ve just read some of what Vajramita Kundali has posted on Twitter (https://twitter.com/vajramrita) about Lakoff – following his comment above. Here are some examples:

    — hardest for me is his politics – dumb citizens swayed by strict or nurturing parental frames, forget explaining “facts”.

    — it’s the idea we should, in politics, jump onto this propaganda bandwagon to achieve the liberal progress we desire. Nasty.

    — it does have explicative power but seems designed more as communications strategy for Democrats than as immanent critique

    What stands out here is:

    a) These are not just ignorant misrepresentations of Lakoff's views – they are largely the *opposite* of what Lakoff writes (particularly the "dumb citizen" and "propaganda" lines).

    b) Lakoff himself has gone to pains to correct these widespread misrepresentations of semantic framing work as applied to politics. But the same misconceptions keep appearing from people who are too lazy to actually read what he's written.

    c) Even this blog, News Frames, has cleared up some of these misconceptions (eg the notion that unknowingly using strict or nuturant frames is due to lack of intelligence – the "dumb" line), or that it's just liberals getting onto the "propaganda bandwagon". So if Vajramita is an avid reader of this blog, what excuse does he have for spreading these ignorance-based distortions of Lakoff's work?

    The fact that V would rather read hatchet-job blogs (one of which he quotes: "Lakoff’s reply is one of the most intellectually dishonest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a cognitive scientist") than go to the source material first says something about V. (Or perhaps it just says something about the culture of laziness & ignorance one sees on Twitter at times ;))

    Whatever, it's a poor show.

    David Brasch

    July 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    • Yes, I’ve addressed the notion that it’s merely about “spin” or “propaganda”, here: https://newsframes.wordpress.com/cognitive-unconscious/

      And on the question of intelligence/stupidity (regarding metaphor/framing) I comment here: https://newsframes.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/contested-concepts/

      And here: https://newsframes.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/new-unconscious-1/

      Here’s what I write in the latter piece: A common criticism regarding “framing” analysis is that it assumes people are “stupid”, susceptible to “spin”, that they can’t think for themselves, etc. This criticism typically comes from tabloid newspaper editors when confronted with the charge that their headlines induce fear and hatred.

      Cognitive science tells us that these reactions of fear and hatred have little to do with the relative stupidity/intelligence of readers. In fact, a high IQ is no defense against having such reactions, since the cognitive processes which underlie them are mostly unconscious. What’s required as a defense is knowledge of these processes, which comes from empirical research. That’s what the field of “frame semantics” is about.


      July 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    • The vitriol from that ‘scienceblogs’ blogger, (quoted by Vajramrita), towards Lakoff, starts in the first paragraph (he describes Lakoff’s books as “bullshit”) and then doesn’t let up. It’s strange, as he gives the impression of being fairly knowledgeable on the topic, and his earlier ‘mixingmemory’ blogspot blog often seemed sympathetic to Lakoff’s theories – even promoting them at times. But even then he vastly overstated the arguments against Lakoff’s notion of conceptual metaphor, and at one point he suggested that “you can just throw it [conceptual metaphor theory] out entirely, and keep his discussion of frames”:


      That seems nonsense to me, since Lakoff’s discussion of frames begins with, and depends on, his notion of conceptual metaphor. The Lakoff notion of framing *is* metaphorical framing – conceptual metaphor is a central part of this.

      But why the emotional vitriol towards Lakoff? Perhaps a clue is his attempt to defend Steven Pinker’s rather nasty, misrepresentative attack on Lakoff. The most he will concede is “I will admit that Pinker has worded this poorly.”

      But Pinker is not in the business of “poor wording”. In this instance he just seems far from his own specialist sub-area of expertise, and it shows. It’s not poor wording, but poor understanding (assuming it’s not intentional misrepresentation – something Lakoff in fact wonders about, such is the stark nature of the misrepresentation).

      Given the knowledgeable-sounding jargon from this blogger, I wondered who he is, but he seems anonymous. He goes only by the name of “Chris”, and his profile gives no details or personal photo. I’m speculating here, but I thought the hostile tone suggested some kind of perceived personal ‘investment’ for Pinker, or against Lakoff, for some reason.

      Karl W

      July 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm

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