Theories of People

When I teach my course on the history of consumerism, commodification and advertising, I often like to talk at some point about my favorite paradox about choice and agency in liberal democratic societies. From the last quarter of the 19th Century to the present, advertisers have periodically been assaulted by accusations that they somehow subvert or distort the ability of people to freely make their own choices. The more sophisticated version of this attack followed on Vance Packard’s famous The Hidden Persuaders: an assertion that advertisers had happened upon a technology of human consciousness that allowed them to not only understand but alter the way people thought, change their minds in some way that subverted conscious will. Packard’s reliance on particular forms of psychological thought has faded, but the accusation remains as a kind of substructure of popular culture.

To accusations like Packard’s, which really do run in cycles in most liberal democracies, advertisers habitually reply that they’re just providers of information, that nothing they do can subvert the essential autonomy of people to decide for themselves what they do or do not want. I have to say the advertisers had (and still have) a point: one of the startling things for me in researching the history of children’s television was having to acknowledge that the advertisers often had a vastly more sophisticated understanding of both children’s culture and children’s consciousness than various parental advocates and associated promoters of moral panic.

Still, there’s an amusing paradox here. Every once in a while, manufacturers go through a rather different cycle of skepticism and anxiety in which they ask themselves (and then ask others), “Do we really need advertising? Is there any proof that it really makes a difference, or that particularly good campaigns reliably yield superior results?” To which advertisers usually reply, “Oh, my, yes, you need us. Look, we can prove it: our particular campaigns can make people want your product more than they want the other guy’s product, regardless of whether your product is in any objective sense the better one.”

A modest contradiction. But one really not all that unique to advertisers. I was struck by this reading about the attempts of Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority to restrain alcohol advertisers from implying that getting drunk with their product leads to a greater chance of getting sex. The request of the regulators? Show the sexually attractive “Lambrini girls” snagging an old unattractive balding guy rather than a young hunk. Now like many people I suspect that even if you thought advertising illegitimately subverted the will of sovereign individuals, this would merely lead to more ugly old balding guys drinking Lambrini. I’m more interested though in the fundamental incoherence of the idea behind the entire regulatory apparatus.

You start either with an assumption that people are sovereign, consciously choosing individuals or that they’re not. If not, a whole boatload of things fall away: democratic elections, legal contracts, and all advertising, not just some of it. You can chart a bit of a middle course by talking about transparency, that sovereign choice can be compromised by the lack of information. But there’s no respect in which an advert with a young guy being caught by young women is more parsimonious in informational content than an advert with an old, fat, balding guy (except maybe that the second ad is a more accurate portrayal of how powerful senior men secure sexual services entirely without the aid of alcohol). You can only sustain this regulatory gesture by arguing that young men are systematically less able to exercise sovereign individual judgement than old men, and cannot read themselves out of a visual representation, that they are helpless before it.

This all has a lot to do with why I absolutely loathe George Lakoff’s crippling talk about “framing”. It’s a fatal dalliance for the Democrats, an invitation to think that the only reason they’ve lost elections is that they don’t subvert the will of the proles as effectively as the Republicans. This is fatal partly because it feeds into some of the subsurface elitism of some Democrats, and invites them to destructively Olympian and vanguardist attitudes. But it’s also fatal as a more general conception of politics: you can’t believe in the ability of people to choose (with whatever provisos and limits you want to put on that) while also preaching corrosively that it’s just a matter of slickly framing things to divergent communities’ prerational and ahistorical way of being in and seeing the world. Now I happen to think and hope that this will someday also be the downfall of the Republicans, that eventually some of their voting base will see that they’re being played. But if I want to understand why that hasn’t happened yet, I need to be just as interested in what it is that the voters see from within their social and personal worlds as I am in the kinds of rhetoric and appeals that is connecting with their vision. I need to assume that somehow a genuine connection has been made even if it’s one that is not in the ultimate interests of many Republican voters.

The same way that anybody sensible would concede that if a lad in England assumes getting drunk with women may help him score that weekend, he’s probably right in some respects. Maybe not with the “Lambrini girls”, but the regulators are stupid in assuming that the average lad thinks that in the first place. If you want to say, “Look, I’m not sure that turning your brains into porridge every weekend in order to score is the world’s smartest choice,” you can’t start by “framing” the issue, or by regulating it into nonsense.

Update: I’ve got the sexualized hook (literally as well as figuratively in this case) backwards: the targets of the campaign are women. Lots of other good and persuasive objections to my thoughts here in the comments as well.

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20 Responses to Theories of People

  1. dominic says:

    “You start either with an assumption that people are sovereign, consciously choosing individuals or that they’re not.”

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true – “sovereign” consciousness isn’t necessarily atomic, it might be composed of a number of subordinate functions, any one (or several) of which might be compromised without knocking out the whole system. Advertising doesn’t have to commandeer your entire consciousness to compromise some parts of it.

    Drunkenness is a case in point: drunk people are incompetant drivers, tend to make worse decisions about certain sorts of things than sober people, but are still morally answerable for their actions whilst drunk. Alcohol doesn’t wipe out sovereign consciousness all at once, unless you drink a lot of it very quickly, but it does suppress some mental functioning and put that consciousness off-balance in various ways.

    Is advertising (or “framing”, for that matter) a consciousness-altering stimulant? Can one be “under the influence” of it? Maybe not – maybe that’s the wrong model. Exposure to advertisements doesn’t directly alter the chemistry of the brain (the brain chemistry of people watching advertisements might still be altered, but as part of a mental reaction to the content of the adverts – sexual arousal, say – rather than through the back-door of direct intoxication).

    And, as with alcohol, even if one’s sovereign consciousness were compromised in some way by exposure to advertisements, some of the key attributes of sovereign personhood would still remain. Even a person “under the influence” of mesmerisingly persuasive advertising would not be able to use that as an excuse to wriggle out of the bank charges when they spent beyond their means in the pursuit of consumer gratification.

  2. dominic says:

    Oddly enough I was reading a short story of J. G. Ballard’s this morning, The Subliminal Man, which presents a society in which “mesmerisingly persuasive” advertising is indeed used to drive inexorable consumer demand, for the sake of an economy that depends on constant growth. The conceit of the story is that subliminal advertising is able to do what ordinary advertising cannot and cause people to act involuntarily, without the basis for their decisions being brought before the tribunal of conscious judgment. The irony behind the conceit is that, according to The Hidden Persuaders, “ordinary” advertising was already doing this. (Packard’s book was first published in 1957; The Subliminal Man was written in 1963).

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Ah, but this is the point: while we concede degrees of drunkeness (and a linear increase in the probability that someone will be unable to successfully operate dangerous machinery as drunkeness increases), we still maintain that someone has legal and moral responsibility for the state of drunkeness, that we choose to drink. Even the medicalization of alcoholism doesn’t unseat that construct, nor should it.

    More importantly, advertising (or political presentation) is categorically different: it’s a communicative act. As soon as you conceive of a communicative act as one which potentially compromises your sovereign choice, the breakdown of most of the basic assumptions of liberal democratic life cascades rapidly. If advertising does that ever in a way that requires regulatory micromanagement, then so too does ordinary visual representation of all kinds, all political communication and indeed all interpersonal communication. It’s true that communication operates all sorts of cognitive levels, some of which I don’t commonly access consciously, some of which I simply can’t access consciously. But as soon as you let in the door a regulatory conceit that some class of communication can be micromanaged so that it is cleansed of nothing but pure stuff of rational persuasion, you’re operating with a hopelessly muddled concept of human agency (both in terms of your assertion about what human agency can do to communication and in terms of what human agency is done to by communication).

    Framing has the same problem: it asserts that something more real and true in terms of explaining the outcomes of communication is happening below the surface of communication, and that we can know what that reality is in a way that the audience does not know, and and that we can accurately design such subsurface frames to create precisely the intended effects in an audience who remains largely unaware of the subsurface communicative activity. Essentially that’s a giant pacifier for educated liberals, promising that they can have their politics completely intact while somehow mobilizing audiences with some communicative veneer that has nothing to do with the deeper substance, and that only the political class will know the difference. “We’ve replaced their resonant red-state thematics with Folger’s crystals. Let’s see if they know the difference!”

  4. dominic says:

    This takes me back to a range of long-in-the-tooth arguments, still gurgling and flailing in mutant form, about porn.

    Let’s play structural homologies for a moment…

    “Advertising is the theory; consumerism is the practice”.

    In Only Words, Catherine MacKinnon makes a somewhat Lakovian argument about pornography as a framing mechanism – I don’t remember (and don’t have a copy to hand), but would be surprised if the words “frame” and “framing” did not actually occur repeatedly in the text. The argument in any case is that pornography persuasively (and by subliminal, or at least not purely rationally argumentative, means) naturalises, legitimates and promotes particular perceptions of women, heterosexuality etc., that are inimical to actual sexual equality.

    The problem, in MacKinnon’s view, is that porn is typically defended as an instance of sovereign speech, but contaminates and compromises the sovereign personhood of men (in whom it inculcates misogynistic attitudes) and women (who suffer the consequences of male misogyny, and who are denied the opportunity to articulate a version of their own sexual personhood that is not framed by that misogyny – of course MacKinnon has no time for the currently popular notion that one of the ways they might do that is by making porn of their own).

    Hence the call for a regulatory framework (laws identifying harms to sexual equality brought about by pornography as tortious, and as requiring redress) that is paradoxical in the same way (preserves/violates sovereignity) only upside down, so to speak.

    One might respond that Mackinnon herself was “operating with a hopelessly muddled concept of human agency (both in terms of [her] assertion about what human agency can do to communication and in terms of what human agency is done to by communication)”. I would suggest, though, that an “unmuddled” concept of human agency is unlikely to be a simpler model, and might still find room somewhere in the ever-multiplying folds of its complexity for recognition of forces like the “sublime” power of oratory, or the “subliminal” power of “viral” marketing.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, yes, in a way: I can easily concede the nearly infinitely complicated nature of human agency at its most granular, individual level. That’s not just a matter for social science or policy, but for novelists. We’ve spent our entire existence as a species pondering the mystery of how and why people act in a particular fashion in response to a particular aspect of their environment. At this end of history, it’s clear that genetics, cognition, randomness, conscious will and so on are all in play, some of them available to our reflective awareness of self, some not. But what makes Mackinnon hopelessly muddled is not just the simplicity of her understanding of the relation between representation and action (far simpler, I think, even than a classically liberal understanding of communication between sovereign individuals) but the movement of her understanding into legal constraint and state action, plus her assumption that a combination of her own subject position plus artifacts of social science allow her a clear insight of a relation between representation, consciousness and action which the audience with whom she is concerned is categorically unable to achieve.

    The first mistake is the really dire one here, and it’s the same mistake that the British advertising regulators are making (they at an elevated level of micromanagerial silliness). The actual phenomenon of the intertangling of representation, consciousness and agency is hugely complex, and within it, there is plenty of room for recognizing the sublime power of oratory, viral marketing, memes, frames, habitus, and so on. But the legal and social construct of the subject is of necessity and by design not complex in this way, because it is not and should never be intended to mimetically resemble the actual diversity of how particular individuals act in the world. The moment you attempt to modify the legal and political idea of a rights-bearing, consciously choosing citizen to piecemeal accomodate one or two modest bits of empirical observation about how representation and consciousness interact, you’ve taken a long step onto a slippery slope, several of them. You’ve taken a fundamentally egalitarian conception of the human subject and amended with with historical particulars like identity or you’ve shoehorned one end of a cognitive bell curve back into a legal corset that identifies one possible kind of subconscious response to communication as the only response which matters and indeed the response which typifies the way humans react to a particular kind or strategy of communication.

    The moment I force law and regulation to serve as a sociological mirror of the diversity of human experience of communication and consciousness, I’m committed to a constant abrasion of the liberal subject. No implied representations of young men securing sex through alcohol! No representations of people consuming alcohol which do not mimetically resemble the medically legitimated one-drink-with-a-meal, because to show unsituated pleasure on a human face associated with alcoholic drink is potentially to serve as the “tipping point” in some alcoholism-prone viewer. And so on. The only way to keep from sliding down that slope once you start on it is by appeal to social scientistic measurements of typicality and a utilitarian logic: that X representation is too powerful because it trips too many viewers into antisocial action, but Y is acceptable because its contributions to undesired action are far less. That’s not as scary as the kind of rampant loathing of representation or the iconic that someone like Mackinnon threatens to unleash; it’s merely absurd in the way that the British advertising regulators are absurd, a kind of Ministry of Silly Edits.

    But the second problem is a real one, too, and it worries me a great deal when it comes to Lakoff. An account of “framing” or of communication that argues that one institutional party is able to transparently understand what they’re doing below the surface of communication and to reliably, accurately understand what is going to happen once their intended communication reaches an audience is an account that divides humanity into two species: the manipulators and the manipulated. It’s an account that somehow has to be able to give an account of the genesis or the foundations of its own superior understanding of communicative action and its own superior capacity to act communicatively. It’s possible with study (of various kinds) to have a superior understanding of why a particular communicative act or representation had the effect it did on its audience–a particular one. I don’t believe it’s possible to consistently, theoretically, generically, predictively understand how an entire class of representation will consistently act upon the consciousness of other people without somehow believing yourself to be structurally, fundamentally different from the other human agents under consideration. It’s one thing to go to people and say, “The Republicans are saying X to you, but do you know that they’re also doing Y?” with the thought that you’re revealing some information that you have and the others do not. It’s another thing to say, “The Republicans consistently win because they’ve learned how to say X and do Y in relation to a class of persons who will autonomically respond to X and never notice Y. So we can also say X to them and then do Z, because we have also learned the secret trick of framing.”

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    By way of addendum to the last point, I’ve always liked Raymond Williams’ comment that advertisers are “magicians who don’t know how they do their own magic tricks”. Any account of advertising that represents advertisers as having a superhumanly differentiated ability to match several levels of communication with a transparent perception of the predictable responses or actions on the part of socially particular groups of humans is an account that has nothing to do with the historical reality of advertising or the ethnographic reality of how advertisers actually go about their labors.

  7. bbenzon says:

    Where’s this framing stuff come from in the first place?

    I’m familiar enough with Lakoff and I’m skeptical about his bonafides as an advisor to political campaigns. But he didn’t invent the concept he’s using. Independently of the word, it’s an utterly familiar notion to anyone with a modicum of experience in literary or rhetorical analysis, among other things. All Lakoff brings to the table is his over-stated and over-hyped theory of cognitive metaphor.

    Marvin Minsky published a notion of semantic “frames” back in, I believe, 1974 and some such notion’s been kicking around in linguistics for a while (e.g. the notion of a case frame for a verb). I’d guess that Lakoff usage descends from Minsky’s and perhaps from the case frames notion as well.

    Meanwhile, Erving Goffman published book on Frame Analysis back in 1974. I never read the whole thing, and all I remember of what I did read was his discussion of Orwell’s (in)famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.

    So the term’s been out there for awhile.

  8. dominic says:

    This sovereign subject appears to be a kind of politically indispensible fiction: “the legal and social construct of the subject”, or, “the legal and political idea of a rights-bearing, consciously choosing citizen”, or, “a fundamentally egalitarian conception of the human subject”. Especially as it is emphatically not “intended to mimetically resemble the actual diversity of how particular individuals act in the world”.

    Slavoj Zizek writes rather scathingly in The Ticklish Subject about attempts to replace the subject-as-rights-bearing-autonomous-agent with the subject-as-potential-victim (of techniques for manipulating political consciousness, in this case), but tries to find a metaphysical basis for the former as a way of staving off the empirical baseness of the latter. That may be a non-starter; from what I remember of the book, Zizek tries to make the impossibility of tethering the subject to some stable metaphysical reference point the very basis of a negative conception of subjective freedom, which is clever but perhaps not terribly helpful (and also, when you put it that way, sounds a lot like Sartre).

    It might be that the choice is in a sense arbitrary – a society can have any conception of the human subject it likes, but will be simply better off with a “fundamentally egalitarian” one than a systematically patronising one. But if it is fictions we are dealing in, then we should perhaps keep an eye out for techniques of coercion and manipulation that are feasible given “the actual diversity of how particular individuals act in the world” even though our fictional image of personhood doesn’t really register them as possible threats.

    Obviously it’s preferable to try to do so without turning into Chomsky and seeking to identify every successful application of persuasive force as the direct and catastrophic subversion of cognitive sovereignty, invalidating everything the afflicted person subsequently says, thinks or does…

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Lakoff is repackaging ideas that have been around for a long time. It’s the repackaging that’s noxious, not the deeper substrate of the ideas themselves.

  10. joeo says:

    Lambrini is apparently a girly drink. They are advertising to women. The guys are just props.

    I do tend to agree with you that the british rules on advertising don’t make too much sense. I think they want to outlaw the type of early nineties beer commercial parodied by SNL’s “Schmidt’s Gay Beer” ad. I don’t think they fully thought through the sexual politics; attractive women drinking alchohol, amazingly enough, are able to pick up young attractive men.

    Restrictions on advertising do make sense in some contexts. I don’t think drug advertisments on TV are a good idea. I don’t think companies should be able to lie about their products. AM radio is supported by insane ads for products making insane claims.

    Some restrictions on kids advertisments are probably a good thing. They tend to advertise shitty food and perfectly good toys on tv, so I personally want a ban on food advertisment to kids and don’t particularly care about the toy ads.

    I don’t worry so much about paternalism. Some products are scams. They don’t work. If the goverment knows that they don’t work they should shut down the advertising.

    I think democrats should be quietly reframing things, like republicans do, rather than talking about reframing things. But, I am just talking about talking about reframing things, so what do I know.

    And reframing is secondary to making a clear stand. Guaranteed. Health Insurance. For All.

  11. Sean McCann says:

    “The only way to keep from sliding down that slope once you start on it is by appeal to social scientistic measurements of typicality and a utilitarian logic: that X representation is too powerful because it trips too many viewers into antisocial action, but Y is acceptable because its contributions to undesired action are far less.”

    That doesn’t seem like inherently such a bad way. I agree that Lakoff is a misery, and McKinnon, too, but I think Dominic’s right that we correctly assume that the autonomous self is a fiction and that we commonly and rightly assume that rational decision making is hedged in by all sorts of vulnerabilities that sometimes require political or legal regulation–and in those cases we assume correctly that there’s a political question of balance involved, as there is with any kind of governmental regulation. So, no right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater or to spout fighting words and (I think) no terrible injustice in limiting tobacco or alcohol advertising. Even though with alcohol the long-standing limit in the U.S. was an industry-accepted informal one, I don’t think it would be an insult to the first amendment if there were a statutory limitation (although current law I imagine would say otherwise). Isn’t the problem with the British example simply that it’s very bad regulation rather than that it’s regulation per se?

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Except the badness of it in this case strikes me as a consequence of a more general desire to regulate than it is a mere specific poor choice–a hubristic take on the possibility of managing reception. I even think that about advertising for kids, which is the classic case where most people bow and say, “Ok, it’s ok to regulate in that case”: most of the regulatory gambits promoted by parental groups and such viewed in retrospect appear equally troubled (and often remarkably distant from any kind of ethnographic insight into how children view media). There’s a kind of extremely limited false-claims regulation that strikes me as sound under any banner (say, in the case of toys, don’t show the toy doing something that it’s not capable of doing). I think media-specific bans on certain kinds of advertising is reasonable–no drug advertising on television, for example. In the case of drugs, you might even reasonably claim that there is no way in an advertisement to convey sufficient information about the drug and the medical condition and all such ads are false-claims by definition, I suppose (particularly because we generally do not directly purchase pharmaceuticals). So I don’t want to be too bloody-minded here, but neither do I want to say that bad regulation is merely bad policy in this case: it comes from some deeper conceptual misfires about communication, personhood and agency.

  13. joeo says:

    I agree with Sean. The problem is bad regulation rather than regulation by itself.

    And, bad regulation isn’t even all that bad in the context of advertising. So the Lambrini guys need to come up with a new ad. Big deal. This isn’t going to cause a major misallocation of resources which is the real problem of bad regulation.

    Furthermore, Lambrini ads really are not the type of speech we need to worry about chilling.

    This fits more into the category that the goverment should avoid doing stupid things because it looks bad.

  14. sharon says:

    Sorry I don’t have anything deep to add to a really fascinating topic, but as an aside, I think you’ve misunderstood the Lambrini ads slightly. I haven’t seen these new ones yet, but Lambrini is a drink that’s always been marketed to young (independent) women. It seems very unlikely that they’ve suddenly changed tack and decided to try to sell it to men. I would imagine the message was actually meant to be: ‘Girls, if you drink Lambrini, it will make you more attractive and you will net yourself a hunky guy.’ In the real world, of course, Lambrini is cheap and pretty naff and everyone knows it. But it doesn’t really matter: Lambrini (and alcopops and the rest) sell largely because they’re cheap and easy to drink, not because the drinkers think it’ll make them sexier. (And the strictness of the alcohol advertising rules probably needs to be understood in the context of a growing trend of ‘binge’ drinking amongst young people and an even faster growing trend towards moral panic about binge drinking amongst young people.)

    Cheap alcoholic drinks are interesting (I think) as the sort of mass produced product that’s marketed in certain ways: hardly even bothering to try to say that X is a ‘better’ product than the rest, it’s all about producing striking images that (they hope) will make an ad and its brand more memorable amidst a lot of competition that in truth is all much the same very average stuff. Actually, in that respect, the ‘pulling an old ugly guy’ scenario will probably work quite well as an ironic joke. I don’t know about America, but a lot of British alcohol ads rely on comedy. Some are better than others.

  15. joeo says:

    > I want to say that bad regulation is merely bad policy in this case: it comes from some deeper conceptual misfires about communication, personhood and agency.

    I don’t think the deep conceptual misfires matter.

    I used to think that homeopathy was the worst possible alternative medicine. Homepathic remedies are diluted to the point that there they are nothing but water. It shows a deep contempt and misunderstanding of science to use homepathic remedies. There is no possible way for the homepathic remedies to act as a drug.

    Some guy on the radio convinced me that homeopathic remedies are the best possible alternative medicine. They are just water. How can that hurt people.

    Similarly, bans on kid’s advertisments, even supported by a deep misunderstanding of communication, personhood and agency, just aren’t a big deal. Kids in Sweden endure. The real test of regulation is the consequences of the regulation not the impetus for the regulation. I just with 1 corinthians was about single payer health care.

  16. joeo says:

    I just looked up how they do things in sweden. The ban on advetising to kids started in 1991. It only applies to to stations based in sweden. Cable stations based outside of sweden but available in sweden in swedish have kid’s advertising. Sweden has proposed an EU wide ban but has been unsuccesful.

    Humourously, Sweden forced the pokeman show to change its theme song because of the “gotta catch them all” phrase. They have also banned the marketing of war toys.

    Sweden has recently rolled-back restrictions on print ads for alchohol. This seems to suggest the slippery slope isn’t as slippery as it used to be.

  17. Thought-provoking, as usual.

    On advertising, I agree that the Pavlovian view should be rejected. (An interesting book in this regard, if you haven’t seen it, is Where the Suckers Moon by Randall Rothenberg, telling the story of a troubled advertising campaign for Subaru. Its thesis is that advertising agencies are really in the business of convincing their clients that advertising works.) I’m not sure, though, how your willingness to ban TV advertising of drugs is consistent with your main argument. Surely consciously choosing sovereign subjects should be aware that drugs have side effects, and be able to research them for themselves? And if they’re unable to take this into account when making decisions, then haven’t we already lost democratic choice, and legal contracts, and the other good things you want to preserve? (Actually, all the drug ads I see on TV have droning voice-overs endlessly listing possible side-effects, which I presume is an FDA requirement.)

    On the question of politics and framing, your argument runs into the problem that what you say Lakoff wants the Democrats to do is precisely what the Republicans have been doing for the past five years. To be sure, some Bush voters — those for whom social conservatism is decisive — do genuinely connect with Bush’s policies. But I would argue that most of Bush’s voters were indeed manipulated. The compassion in Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” for example, never existed outside of his speeches. But it convinced a lot of voters that Bush was different from old-style conservatives. In 2004, the major factor behind Bush’s win was moderate voters who believed that Bush was better on domestic security than Kerry. But Bush had a lousy record on security, both before and after 9-11; his only major success in the “War on Terror” has been the War in Afghanistan (setting aside one’s opinion of this war overall), and the gains from that war have been largely squandered since then. Granted, there are issues on which the majority of voters are probably closer to Bush than to the Dems — taxes, for example — and it would be a mistake for the Dems to disregard this. But had the voters judged Bush by his policies rather than his rhetoric, he would not have been “elected” in 2000, and certainly not in 2004.

    As for your hope that the voters will get wise to Bush’s brand of Republicanism, I too hope and expect that they will eventually. But before that happens, Bush, and perhaps his successors, will have had plenty of time to reward his corporate friends and entrench his views in the judiciary, and to do damage to the U.S. and the world.

    More broadly, there is ample evidence that most voters simply aren’t the well-informed citizens that much democratic theory requires them to be. On the contrary, they tend to have a very hazy grasp both of the issues and of candidates’ positions on them. You can’t blame this on the media, bad though they are: there’s plenty of better information available — even for free in libraries — but people don’t use it. There’s even enough in newspapers to get a good idea of candidates’ actual programs, if you’re willing to dig for it. And I’m not posing an us vs. them dichotomy: I’m a “bad citizen” myself. The disproportion between the amount of work needed to become genuinely well-informed and the likelihood of one’s individual vote (or volunteering, or contributing money) affecting the outcome of a federal election is simply too great. I like the idea of democracy, and want to believe that people are capable of effectively governing themselves; I wish I knew how to reconcile my preferences with the empirical evidence.

  18. The bottom of this post has an excellent round-up of blog posts about “framing,” including some pretty trenchant critiques.

    Personally, I believe that Republican’s have done so well “framing” issues, not because they have good “frames” but because they have managed to get a fair degree of control over the institutions which generate, produce, and disseminate the message they wish to have out there. This includes the smallest local level institutions (Churches), as well as large national ones (Clearchannel).

    One blogger (Kevin Drum?) recently argued that what the Democrats have really learned from all the discussion about framing isn’t actually how to frame their message – but simply to *have* a unified message and to stick to it. They did this well on Social Security (message: “there is no crisis”). But they didn’t do this particularly well on CAFTA (read Mark Schmitt for why such lack of unity might be a good thing).

    There is another level on which I wish to respond: I’d like to criticize the whole notion of discourse as being a message that gets decoded by the receiver and then becomes a thought in their head. Instead, I think discourse should be thought of as a social process in which messages are used by people for various ends. So, we might drink a beer to convey the impression that an advertiser wishes us to convey, because we feel it is in our interest to do so, without necessarily being “duped” by the advertiser into actually beliving their message. Young lads don’t think the beer will help them get laid, but they think drinking a beer with that message associated with it will mark them as someone interested in getting laid (which might in turn help).

    Similarly, we might deploy Republican or Democratic talking points in a conversation, not because we have been tricked by clever marketing, but because we wish to express our solidarity with people we respect, who share the same political loyalties that we do. In this context, framing remains important, not because people are zombies, but precisely because well framed messages provide them with better discursive tools to do all the things they like to do with discourse. Frames are important precisely because people recognize them as such, not because they are invisible to the uninitiated. At the same time, it isn’t enough to have a good frame if you don’t create the institutional conditions in which people would wish to use it.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a good point, Kerim, and again ties back to Goffman: discourse as performance. I completely agree, but the point is that it goes back to a knowing subject acting with some intent in the world. But I think this is a very good way to understand what’s going on with something like “intelligent design”: the content of ID is less important to some than its use as a synecdotal marker of social identity and social antagonism.

  20. Tommy says:

    Heard George Lakoff on NPR and I think he should be given big credit points for speaking out in such specific terms to publicly denounce the incoherent war-making effort of Bush-Cheny. As Lakoff points out, this country has committed NOT to any actual “Iraq War” – and which is
    “undeclared” anyway, and where there is no annexing of territory – but only a tedious invasion & and occupation scenario and, as Lakoff suggests, you can’t “win” an invasion & and occupation. All you can do is leave – eventually – and so its just a question of what the timing of that event is going to be. Lakoff is right, so, thanks for the memories Bush-Cheny! Lakoff is marking territory by pissing on all the many Bush-Cheny category mistakes. Perfecto!
    Lakoff seems less believable when he sez that details about systematic frame analysis can be taught as easy as the ABCs in grade school, and as a way of “re-educating” the neural pathways of kids who always dress in gang colors. Believe Lakoff would have better results teaching “abstinence” in school! Yeah, good luck with all of that.
    And it is puzzling that Lakoff must be urged to cite the early work (1974) of Erving Goffman whenever that matter may be brought up. And Lakoff makes it sound like Goffman is either some early-adopter amateur, or that Goffman is down some deep well and where no ordinary person can read Goffman and understand what he is talking about.
    Goffman is so iconic precisely because he strikes gold with his insights, and it’s always entertaining to take his provocative ideas and then to immediately start to apply them in your own probing frame analysis of whatever it is you may be observing. Naturally, the method is effective only for certain persons, and where they may be properly predisposed.
    And I detect, also, in the work of Lakoff a debt that may be owed to many other writers in the social sciences, and in psychology. I’m thinking of certain easily accessible writings by Eric Hoffer on mass movements, and also of Charles MacKay on popular delusions, and madness of crowds, and Martin Gardner, also. And also the marketing models of Trout/Ries spring intantly to mind. These are the people, among many others, who originally set the table in this subject area. Lakoff is – literally – a 21st century technician. But does he bring anything new to our perspective? I resist offering a hard opinion because I’m not the jury, and it’s still out. It seems to me, however, that what Lakoff may actually wish to do is to play “Ouspensky” to Goffman’s “Gurdjieff”, and without mentioning the G-Man by name. Goffman, of course, needs no “explainer”.


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