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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rhetoric and Framing

[Links fixed] Over at "Adventures in Ethics and Science," Janet Stemwedel has a post on the slippery concept of "framing" and how students understand their education. She links back to a larger discussion about framing -- including Coturnix's remarks on what it is, how it works, etc., over at "A blog around the clock."

This raises a big issue for me: the relationship between particular expressions and truth. When Lakoff starting making big noise in democratic circles during the run up to the 2004 elections (if I recall correctly) it was because he offered a neat way to explain the unity of the republican message machine versus the confusion of the democratic, as well as a "so easy, even a child could do it" method for fixing this problem: framing. Republicans, apparently, were good at it, Democrats were not -- but they could learn.

But if you read Lakoff's work, it's hard to tell what the difference is between Lakoff's framing and rhetorical tropes. There's little in his analysis that improves upon any solid 18th-C work on rhetoric, for instance, George Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric, or Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. In fact, Campbell and Blair, it seems to me, are more sophisticated, insofar as they give significant attention to immediate context and expression. Allow me to explain.

For Lakoff, the context and expression are not important -- it doesn't matter how the "frame" is expressed, or exactly where it occurs in a passage/speech. I'm sure he pays lip-service to at least the latter somewhere, but if you read his analysis, it is completely ignored. In my favorite examples from Metaphors we Live By (as I recall), Lakoff breaks down a joke which was apparently prevalent in the late nineties after the Lewinski/impeachment thing: "If Clinton were the titanic, the iceberg would sink." Lakoff breaks this down into a "frame" -- the Titanic and its crash with the iceberg, and its content, the Clinton scandal, with the impeachment process and associated events. He then maps the substitution between various terms; Clinton, obviously, fulfills the place of the titanic in the frame, the impeachment, the iceberg. But the pressure of the Clinton situation -- in which the impeachment failed -- makes the "iceberg/impeachment" sink within the Titanic frame. (As usual, there's nothing that kills a good joke like breaking it down.)

What I love about Lakoff's example, is that it ignores the necessary dependence of the joke on its humor, and the dependence of humor upon the particular expression. For instance, it's much less funny to put the punch line first: "The iceberg would sink, if Clinton were the titanic," or an even more tortuous, "The iceberg that sunk the titanic would sink if the titanic were Clinton and represented the impeachment." According to Lakoff's analysis, these all say the same thing, because they have the same content. But I think you'll agree that they don't work the same way. Moreover, it would make a huge difference what the larger context of the joke was. Is it a Democratic rally, in which it (presumably) inspires us with confidence in a manifest destiny of the Democratic party? Or is it a Republican fundraiser, calculated to inspire donors with the gravity of the challenge to be overcome through an equally deep digging into their pockets? Or is it a discussion between businessmen in Hong Kong, in which it might entail reference to his huge global stature, as well, perhaps, as an implicit commentary on the impending end of British rule? The last might be a stretch, but I think the significance of context should be clear here.

And that's why I think Blair and Campbell are more sophisticated in their thinking. They discuss metaphor, analogy, and simile, but balance this focused discussion of tropes with a heavy emphasis upon context -- how the tropes relates to what came before or after, when to use one, how to adjust it to the context of a specific speech or audience.

Lakoff's popularity is due, I think, to its translation into a pseudo-cognitive science vocabulary, our old rhetorical friend the trope. Whereas someone might off-hand dismiss tropes as "mere rhetoric," they are less likely to dismiss this totally new idea of "framing" that a professor of linguistics at Berkley developed. For one, I'd love to hear how "framing" is different from the vehicle/tenor distinction employed by earlier theorizers of metaphor. Of course, Lakoff does put far more emphasis upon metaphor than characterizes earlier rhetorical thinkers -- he sees thought itself as inherently metaphorical. (Although, again, I'm not sure how this is different from the analogical/associative underpinnings of thought in much enlightenment philosophy, from Hume on.) But Lakoff, it seems to me, misses the big picture insofar as he turns us away from looking at actual, particular language use.

The discomfort of many with the idea of "framing" is not, as some have suggested, that it gives us a sense of being forced into thinking a certain way ("framed"). It is rather the way in which Lakoff's framing invokes all of our deeply-held anxieties about rhetoric in language, anxieties rooted in (1) the belief that there is a division between "ideas" that are language independent and the language we use to "express" them, and (2) that this divorce between language and ideas equals a divorce between language and truth, and (3) that the divorce between language and truth means that some bad people might manipulate language to convince us of things that are not true. Regardless of the validity of these beliefs, all of them are the product of rhetorical models of language as they developed from the classical period through the present day (though that's an argument I can't make right now). And that means that Lakoff, by "framing" rhetorical tropes in a way that doesn't seem rhetorical, has brought us to revisit the conflicts between persuading, convincing, and communicating that led us to drop rhetoric in the first place. To analogize to Pepe le Pieu (for whom, btw, I have a fondness), you can repaint a skunk so it looks like a cat -- but it's still a skunk. [Correction: It's Pepe le Pew, and it was a cat who kept getting painted as a skunk, not the other way around.]


Bora Zivkovic said...

Good points (both links are bad, though - linking to pings instead of permalinks).

Anonymous said...

But people (I) might read Lakoff because he's recently published and probably written in a more 21st-century discernable prose vs. say Campbell or Blair.

Let me put it this way, Lakoff I've heard of, Campbell and Blair not so much. Of course, that's probably a problem w/me vs. w/Campbell or Blair and yet reaching the masses is part of the goal, isn't it?

The Steve said...

You can't read too many treatises on rhetoric before you start to find contemporary rehashings a bit shallow, even when they come from Departments of Linguistics (and this not a field known for, how shall I put it, exoteric analyses).

I think Lakoff has it wrong for two reasons. First of all, the problem he identifies is a false dilemma: Republicans vs. Democrats. This is a struggle akin to the endless Coke vs. Pepsi debate, manufactured by marketing firms who suppose for us, from the outset, that there are no other alternatives, that, indeed, the choices are evident, limited, and somehow transhistorical. Most Americans are still independents, even if most of them drink Coke (or is Pepsi back in the lead now?). I don't think I'm being merely cynical, either. There is surely more than a sarcastic analogy to made between Big Soda's recent efforts to reinvent itself for a (superficially) more health-conscious consumer market with products such as Coke One and Pepsi Zero and the major parties' attempts to transform into more cutting-edge versions of themselves (e.g. the New Democrats) for a (superficially) more politically conservative America. Americans seem to prefer Classic Coke, anyway, so perhaps what we need are Classic politicians (most Americans, when polled, also seem to have traditionally "liberal" or what I'd like to call Classic American values). There's probably a joke to be made about bad aftertaste, too, but I've tortured this comparison enough.

The second flag I'd like to throw is against the notion that rhetoric/framing is something you can be more or less good at in some general way. Is framing just a more vague way of discussing, in terms applicable to broad ideological stances, what is normally referred to in specific speeches? Rhetoric, in a particular speech, was defined by Aristotle as finding the means of persuasion. It's not so much goal-oriented (have I won the debate/election/court case?) as it is, I think, contemplative (how do I discuss the general in terms of the particular?). What we now think of as "mere" rhetoric is the product of a mistrust of speech or certain kinds of speech, usually colorful. Without a particular instance of speech to discuss in its context, what are we talking about except general trends in argumentation and opinion-making? Anyway, as I see it, the neat trick pulled off by the Republicans seems to have been an interesting sorites: you can't trust sophisticated language; the government hides its schemes behind sophisticated language; therefore, you can't trust the government; the Republicans are the anti-government party that doesn't use sophisticated language; etc. But the ancients were well aware, too, of this topos of plain speech. So the G.O.P. has managed to disguise a pedigreed rhetorical position as an opting out of the inherently deceptive rhetorical contest altogether. The "I'm going to give it to you straight" style of many Republicans seems to resonate with people who think such opting out possible (or even preferable). The very existence of Lakoff's book--which would strike some naive souls as quite cynical indeed--simply proves their point.

It must be an impossibly complex process that ends up being distilled into the results of election night. But those results are all we see and are the basis for any number of mandates or, for that matter, editorializing on the opinion (or wisdom or folly) of the American people. How much does Lakoff take into account voter apathy, gerrymandering, and the histories of affiliations that finely texture even the meanest of political districts? Can all of these local complexities be captured so easily? Simply by framing your argument more effectively? I suppose the argument could be made that our media-saturated political environment does allow for this kind of thing. But let's not allow the media-saturated political environment and commentaries on it like Lakoff's continue the illusion that American political life essentially boils down to a quadrennial, color-coded circus.

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