Žižek on Lakoff
Aug 13, 2013 – Chomsky and Žižek, two giants of the intellectual “left”, had a public spat recently. It was covered by national newspapers, and commentators commented on it. Indirectly, it led me to something Žižek wrote about George Lakoff, and so I thought I’d CASH IN* on the Žižek interest with my own blog post…
In the same way that Chomsky dismisses Žižek’s output after (apparently) reading little of it, Žižek is fairly dismissive of Lakoff’s work on framing – based on what seems to be a limited knowledge of it.
One can understand this. If you’re dismissive of somebody’s ideas (Chomsky repeatedly says Žižek’s amount to “posturing”) then it’s unlikely you’ll invest much time on reaching a fuller understanding of them – unless you make a career of “critiquing” them. Apparently this kind of (inevitably somewhat ignorant) dismissiveness affects even the smartest and most erudite thinkers.
“Superficial” Lakoff detour
Žižek writes about Lakoff in the middle of a long article. And it’s a bit of a detour from the piece’s main topics (eg Žižek’s criticisms of political theorist Ernesto Laclau):
The interest of [Lakoff’s] project for us resides in the fact that it shares a series of superficial features with Laclau’s edifice: the move from political struggle as a conflict of agents who follow rational calculations about their self-interests, to a more “open” vision of political struggle as a conflict of passions sustained by an irreducibly metaphorical rhetoric. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
I think the key words here are “superficial features”. Lakoff certainly warns against the belief that people vote from “rational calculations about their self-interests”. But does he instead see “political struggle as a conflict of passions”? Not to my reading. Lakoff writes that separation of emotion from rational mental activities is due to a false distinction. Rather, “rationality requires emotion” (The Political Mind, p196-197). Lakoff’s work is more about the role of unconscious frames, narratives, conceptual metaphor, prototypes, etc, in creating moral worldviews and political ideologies. (Drew Westen, a fellow neuroscientist, places more of an emphasis on emotion in politics than Lakoff does).
Next up from Žižek:
Lakoff’s concrete analyses oscillate between amusing apercus on how everyday rhetorical phrases are bundled with unspoken assumptions […] and rather primitive pseudo-Freudian decipherings – say, apropos 9/11, he wrote: “Towers are symbols of phallic power, and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power.” […] Lakoff reaches here the high point of the absurdity of his pseudo-Freudian symbolistic reading… (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
(An “apercu” is an outline or insight).
Žižek makes a big issue of this Freudian stuff. But I’ve read many of Lakoff’s books, and this is the only example of a Freudian description I can remember. And Lakoff provides it as just one example (“Phallic imagery”) in a list of different types of metaphorical thought. That’s all. So I think Žižek is wrong (and perhaps unfair and disingenuous) to claim Lakoff “oscillates” between “pseudo-Freudian decipherings” and other stuff. Žižek continues:
In view of this naïve Freudism, it should not surprise us that, for Lakoff, the central organizing metaphors go back to warring visions of “idealized family structure”: conservatives see the nation as a family based on the “strict father model,” […] As it was already noted, both the “strict father” and the “nurturing parents” model are family models, as if it is impossible to detach politics from its familial fantasmatic libidinal roots. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
Okay, so after exposing Lakoff’s “naïve Freudism” (by quoting, out of context, a single, uncharacteristic Freudian example from Lakoff), Žižek would have us believe that Lakoff’s Moral Politics thesis is down to his “pseudo-Freudian symbolistic reading”, etc. Well, the best I can do here is to recommend that you read Lakoff’s Moral Politics for yourself (as it seems that Žižek hasn’t read it). Or, alternatively, you can read my summary of it here.
Fast and Loose
Žižek next quotes Senator Richard Durbin (a supporter of Lakoff), via a New York Times article, which states:
Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff’s work, that the Republicans have triumphed ”by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,” the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language. (The Framing Wars, New York Times, 17/7/2005)
Žižek then comments that “Insofar as he endorses such a reading of his thesis, Lakoff doesn’t take seriously enough HIS OWN emphasis on the force of metaphoric frame, reducing it to secondary packaging”.
But it’s clear from the next paragraph of the NYT piece that Lakoff doesn’t endorse such readings. (Žižek unfortunately doesn’t include the NYT source reference in his footnotes – his readers would have to find it themselves). Here’s that next paragraph which Žižek presumably overlooked:
The question here is whether Lakoff purposely twists his own academic theories to better suit his partisan audience or whether his followers are simply hearing what they want to hear and ignoring the rest. When I first met Lakoff in Los Angeles, he made it clear, without any prompting from me, that he was exasperated by the dumbing down of his intricate ideas. He had just been the main attraction at a dinner with Hollywood liberals, and he despaired that all they had wanted from him were quick fixes to long-term problems. ”They all just want to know the magic words,” he told me. ”I say: ‘You don’t understand, there aren’t any magic words. It’s about ideas.’ But all everyone wants to know is: ‘What three words can we use? How do we win the next election?’ They don’t get it.” (The Framing Wars, New York Times, 17/7/2005)
“Shallow sentimental rhetorics”
There’s one aspect of Žižek’s take on Lakoff which I half-agree with, sort of. When Lakoff does succumb to pressure to supply short progressive slogans (which isn’t often), the result sometimes seems, subjectively, fairly “weak” and “sentimental”. (However, in certain cases, Lakoff’s framing suggestions have been shown, by polling results, etc, to be successful). Žižek’s explanation for this “weakness” is interesting:
… the liberal formula consists of general feel-good phrases nobody is against […] – what only happens is that violent-passionate engaging rhetorics is replaced by shallow sentimental rhetorics. What is so strange here is that Lakoff, a refined linguist, specialist in semantics, can miss this obvious weakness of his positive formula […] it lacks the antagonistic charge of designating a clear enemy, which is the sine qua non of every effective mobilizing political formula. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
A wider, deeper reading of Lakoff’s work would show Žižek that political sloganeering is but a small part of it, reluctantly offered. As for “designating a clear enemy”, Lakoff is clear: the enemy is the giant, massively-funded rightwing messaging machine, acting through the mass media, to saturate our brains with hard-right/conservative frames, narratives, metaphors – repeatedly for years, repeatedly for decades – on almost every issue. The enemy is ignorance of how much this takes place outside of our awareness due to the largely unconscious aspect of conceptual frames.
Don’t Think of an Inadequate, Dismissive, Partial Reading
I often see views attributed to Lakoff which seem very far removed from my own readings of his work. In most cases, I assume it’s due to a quick and/or partial reading of ‘Don’t think of an Elephant‘ (or a few of Lakoff’s online pieces) which, to the restless/careless reader, confirms their preconceived notions about what framing is “all about” (ie “spin”, “quick fixes”, “superficial wordplay”, “playing the conservatives at their own game”, etc). And, naturally, having determined how “shallow” it all is, they don’t read or reflect further.
Lakoff’s conclusion is that, instead of abhorring the passionate metaphoric language on behalf of the couple of rational argumentation and abstract moralizing, the Left should accept the battle at this terrain and learn to offer more seductive frames. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
* I’m joking. Not only do I not get paid, I pay WordPress so that you don’t have to see their ads.