Wednesday, March 09, 2011


In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things George Lakoff argues: first, that emotions are concepts, that they do a form of cognitive work and constitute “an extremely complex conceptual structure” (380); and, second, that these “emotional concepts are embodied, that is, that the actual content of the concepts are correlated with bodily experience” (408).

To prove his argument, he presents dozens of idiomatic sayings or expressions, taking the particular case of anger. Anger, he shows, is conventionally associated with heat (“hot under the collar,” “hot and bothered”), pressure (“burst a blood vessel”), and agitation (“hopping mad,” “quivering with rage”). Such idioms correlate, Lakoff suggests, with a “folk theory” that imagines anger in terms of a contained liquied, an imaginary that enables a whole series of “metaphorical entailments” (384). So anger produces steam (“all steamed up”), can at least temporarily be held back (“bottled up”), but, if it does not find relief (either “vented” or “channeled”) is liable to lead to explosion (“flipping her lid,” “blowing his top”).

Lakoff goes further: he presents a sort of basic narrative of anger in terms of this metaphorical structure. An offending event excites anger, which the victim of the event fist tries to control but then fails, until he or she can enact some retribution for the purported wrong-doing (397-98). This is the embodied folk theory of anger.

Where Lakoff goes out on a limb, however, is with his claim that “the conceptual metaphors and metonymies used in anger are by no means arbitrary; instead they are motivated by our physiology” (407). If we think through the body, it is because somehow the body knows best; the verbal idioms and linguistic categories through which we understand emotion in common parlance are rooted in a primary corporeal experience that is transcultural and transhistorical: “if we look at metaphors and metonymies for anger in the languages of the world, we will not find any that contradict the physiological results” (407).

It is therefore all the more startling that Lakoff moves immediately to a discussion, in very similar terms, of idioms of lust and ultimately the language used to justify rape. Though he is careful to note that he himself in no way condones violence against women, he seems very close to naturalizing and so legitimating the fundamentally sexist “folk argumentation” that claims that (in his words) “a woman with a sexy appearance makes a man who is acting morally less than human. [. . .] To be made less than human is to be injured. [. . .] The only way to make up for being injured is to inflict and injury of the same kind” (414).

If language is only an expression of a somehow more fundamental set of embodied concepts, then those concepts are put beyond reach and thoroughly naturalized. It is surely better to see the body as an always contested (or contestable) point of contact between conceptual schemes of diverse origin, between affect and emotion, and between a social order and a corporeal experience that is never anything other than social. The body, in short, is the site of a habituation whereby (in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms) an arbitrary symbolic power is made, quite literally, to feel timeless and necessary.

Bourdieu tries to capture this notion with the concept of “bodily hexis, which he defines as “a political mythology realized, em-bodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking” (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 92-94). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, in an only very slightly different context:
The practical acts of knowledge and recognition of the magical frontier between the dominant and the dominated that are triggered by the magic of symbolic power and through which the dominated, often unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly contribute to their own domination by tacitly accepting the limits imposed, often take the form of bodily emotions--shame, humiliation, timidity, anxiety, guild--or passions and sentiments--love, admiration, respect. (Masculine Domination 38)
The very fact that we seem to be betrayed by our own bodies, by a logic that precedes or undercuts rationality, can seem to legitimate the structures of power that the body thereby apparently confirms. But it is what Slavoj Zizek, in turn, would call the ideological structure of social reality (which is far from ideology as it is usually conceived) that has itself to be interrogated and overthrown.


John D. French said...

Very sharp and useful Jon!

posthegemony said...

Thanks, John!

wgw said...

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One comment on Lakoff, before looking at Bourdieu (if I can)....
<p><span><span>You say: "Though he is careful to note that he himself in no way condones violence against women, he seems very close to naturalizing and so legitimating the fundamentally sexist “folk argumentation” that claims that (in his words) “a woman with a sexy appearance makes a man who is acting morally less than human. [. . .] To be made less than human is to be injured. [. . .] The only way to make up for being injured is to inflict an injury of the same kind” (414)."</span></span>
</p><p><span><span>Poor old Lakoff! Now I understand better why he is so excruciatingly clear. Even so, it is so easy to get off track when we are dealing with such highly charged subjects!

There is indeed a study to be done here about the tendency to misread charged texts. If I understand correctly, that is a suggestion you made about the misreadings of Freud. (In the Interpretation of Dreams there are few dreams with a latent or manifest sexual content, but we are very ready to read them that way). Maybe we could say that some texts have static cling, like saran wrap; you try to read them and they get all tangled up because they are just too sensitive.

With this Lakoff passage, we are tripped up when we attribute to Lakoff the words and concepts of the librarian-subject. Also, there is that slippery slope that goes from description, to explanation, to justification, to apology. (The French say: I don't want to understand -- to understand is the first step to excusing.) I think Lakoff goes nowhere near excusing.

You have raised a very interesting point about whether on a theoretical level Lakoff's approach will end up suggesting that rape is natural. He certainly doesn't conclude that himself. At first glance, I don't think his theory leads us there, but I need more time to think about it. An interesting, important question. (A bit more later....)

On the other hand, I think your quote is incomplete and leads us to misunderstand the researcher Lakoff, which I suppose is Lakoff the man. If we want to understand him in that quote, we have to start earlier in the text in order to pin down who is saying what.

"The humiliation he [the librarian-subject] feels is part of his sense that he has become less than human ... The reason for that is that he [librarian] assumes that SEXUAL EMOTIONS ARE PART OF HUMAN NATURE and therefore that TO INHIBIT SEXUAL EMOTIONS IS TO BE LESS THAN HUMAN. Since she forces him [librarian] to turn off his emotions, she makes him [librarian] less than human."

Lakoff is explaining the librarian's logic, so when we continue with that quote, we know it is still Lakoff parroting the librarian's concepts: "A WOMAN WITH A SEXY APPEARANCE MAKES A MAN WHO IS ACTING MORALLY LESS THAN HUMAN. [. . .] To be made less than human is to be injured. [. . .] The only way to make up for being injured is to inflict an injury of the same kind” (414).

I added those capitals back in (they are in Lakoff's text) because they are important: they make the words represent concepts, those the *librarian* uses to explain his view of rape. Anyone can know what that concept is without ever condoning it -- just as I can know the concept EVIL, understand it, explain it, without ever justifying it as a good thing, or ever being it! (Ok, maybe occasionally...)

So, it is a slippery slope to quote Lakoff by saying: " that claims that *(in his words)* “a woman with a sexy appearance makes a man who is acting morally less than human"

The concept is not in his words; it really shouldn't be in words at all. That is why he puts it in capitals: [...]

wgw said...

<p>(One last remark... I see I am not blogging appropriately because this is too long...)
</p><p><span><span>He does not believe rape is universal (412), and so we must conclude that he does not believe it is something that is naturally generated. He sees the problem (to the degree it is affected by language) in the overlap between the models for lust and anger. And without saying so directly, he seems to suggest that the overlap could be corrected. It might be something a society can consciously change by replacing the negative metaphors with positive ones: "I [Lakoff] find it sad that we have no metaphors for a healthy, mutual lust." (415) If there were that positive metaphorical sphere, it could be that the negative one would be seen as such, and the linguistic support for a "justification" for rape would erode, until finally the concept, and the act itself would become alien, completely unthinkable. </span></span>
</p><p>On to Bourdieu (if I can! I have to do some background reading to follow you here...)
</p><p> </p>

posthegemony said...

Bill, thanks for this.  I don't, however, see a misreading.

Lakoff is, as I point out, careful to say that he does not condone rape.  So why do I say he comes close to doing so?

Because he has no means (bar the empirical, at best) to distinguish between folk theories (such as the folk theory about anger) that he claims are rooted in the body, and "by no means arbitrary" on the one hand, and folk theories (such as that presented by the librarian, about rape) that he regards as particular, rather than universal, on the other.

I'm not at all denying that he believes there is a difference; it's just that he is absolutely unable to explain that difference.  This is why I find his account unsatisfactory.  However clear his prose may be, it doesn't compensate for a fundamental theoretical confusion.

Given that he treats these two cases so differently, but with no theoretical grounds to explain the difference, he simply invites confusion.

posthegemony said...

Oh, and I don't see that this is "off track."  This is a problem that lies at the very heart of what he is trying to say.

wgw said...

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“Off track” -- no, not the second part, about where his theory leads. That is indeed entirely on track. And in the end you may be right: his theory might lead us to say that violence against women is "natural" (and we agree there is a really big problem with that word "natural", because what is human is by definition not natural, generally speaking...). I can’t say yet where his theory leads.
What I am quibbling about is how the quote is presented. It becomes a stepping stone to a conclusion about his theory (and about him). But the quote really has nothing to do with where his theory leads, nor with him in fact. It is simply a description, in formalistic terms, of the data Beneke collected. The data is good, the ideas they represent, bad, but in either case, the quote doesn’t give us any basis to decide where the theory goes, because it is just data.
So for me there is misreading only if we see that quote as “in his [Lakoff’s] words”. It isn’t; it is Beneke’s data that Lakoff reproduces, albeit “in his [Lakoff’s] format” (I.e. with capitals and so on).
<p>The real issue is the one you very rightly point out: what is natural (transcultural) and what is ideological? I know Lakoff definitely does not see violence against women as transcultural in any way (412). He sees it as specific to certain societies. That is an empirical question; I don’t know the answer, but I suspect Lakoff is right on that point.
</p><p>But if he sees ideas as arising out of the body, then why wouldn’t all culture and language be the same?
</p><p>He has clear empirical evidence that cultures are not the same, and therefore whatever his theory might say, Lakoff could never claim that culture is totally determined by biology. In fact, his real goal (in the 600 pages of the book) is to argue that cultures are varied, and therefore are not determined by a disembodied logic which would tend to generate only one “right” culture.
</p><p>I think Lakoff would say that there is an ecology of metaphors. In some ecologies, such as in the US, things get ugly. In such cases, you have to change things from top to bottom. From laws to language. How that could ever be done is a big question.
</p><p>And of course, we still have that big question of where his view of language fits in.</p>

wgw said...

Folk theories: yes, there is a problem, and you have got him in a crossfire. He wants to say: we are not only minds, but bodies also. Bodies have their say as much as the mind. Then you rightly point out: then we must assume these negatives practices are the fault of biology.

I think he would respond: yes, many folk theories are anchored in the body, and even all are in some remote way. But something like violence against women is at several levels removed from physiology, and generated linguistically more as a pathology than as a necessity.

An analogy: traffic jams are in some sense a "natural" effect of driving cars, but in a proper environment they might never happen at all. In other environments, they will happen all the time. The traffic jam is not an unavoidable fate, even if it is a "natural" potential of driving.

I hope I will have the time to re-read the book with your question in mind. It is a good one!

posthegemony said...

OK, this may be a side-track (and I don't see it as a big deal; though I could be wrong): those are indeed Lakoff's words, though I don't want to suggest he agrees with them.  The point is that they are not simply data, or rather at best they are second-order data: they are the conceptual structure that Lakoff has elucidated from the data.  If you like, they are his interpretation of the data.

For this is what his methodology claims to do: elucidate a conceptual structure or narrative from linguistic data. 

So, from the idiomatic expressions concerning anger, he elucidates the folk theory or emotio-cognitive struture that states that "anger is an excitement or agitation that has somehow to be appeased or to seek retribution, if it is not to cause some kind of explosion."  And from the data on lust, he elucidates that folk theory that "pretty women humiliate men and deserve to be punished."

In the first of these cases, he argues that this conceptual structure is "by no means arbitrary."  In the second, he suggests that it is culturally specific and (in one way or another, without using the term) ideological. 

But he has no real way of distinguishing between the two types of conceptual structure or folk theory (besides the empirical, and in fact his empirical investigations are gestural at best), and more to the point no theory to account for the differences. Hence the confusion that he encourages.

wgw said...

Ok, I think we have found one point where we agree: that some big questions ("confusions") lurk in the shadows of what is a seemingly unambiguous application of his theory. I too would like to know whether his theory will allow us to distinguish empirically between basic-level concepts (hot around the collar) and something that is not basic at all, like the stereotype of "the butler" in a crime film. He does deal with the question of levels elsewhere in the book, but until I re-read, I'm not sure I could explain the empirical distinction. (Theoretically, it is much like the difference between words and sentences: one may be made up of the other, but they are not at all the same.)

Another good point: is it only his interpretation? That too is a fundamental problem, but one I don't think any theory could ever avoid. Much of his book does cite psychological experiments that make the framework more than simply interpretative opinion. But I do agree, this case study has the flavor of literary analysis, where we can always counter with: “That is just your (twisted!) way of seeing the text”. So again, yes, while empirical results can be more than gestural, in this particular study it is only gestural because he hasn't done a corpus study, with the proper statistics. (But maybe, because he is proposing an alternate rationality, he doesn't believe in statistics!)

On the other hand, the best anyone can possibly do is give that "second order data". We can't fault him for being up front and saying: “this is what I see in the text”. Looking at the librarian's text, I agree with his formalization of the passage. I don't see how we can dispute it. He’s not misrepresenting the librarian's text to make it fit his theory. (Of course, we don't see the whole corpus, and he may well have chosen the only text that fit his theory.)

Your point is, I think:

1)Don't put the two analyses (anger, rape) side by side if they have different foundations.
2)Implicitly, Lakoff is suggesting that both anger and rape are "natural" because they put ARE side by side.
3)He is not only confusing, but seems to justify violence against women by making it natural in point 2.
1 seems like a good criticism, but about 2 and 3 we will have to agree to disagree. He is so explicit everywhere that it seems unfair to focus on what is implicit (our interpretation!), especially when he says explicitly that he believes rape is not natural, because it is not universal (412).

But the main question, and it is a big one, remains intact: understanding the interaction of nature and nurture.  I have to go back to the other 600 pages to figure out whether the theory does deal with point 3 in any direct way. Ours is but an excerpt.

(I finally figured out how to get rid of what was coming to be my trademark signature: p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }...)

(PS. I think this will be the topic of my final paper.)

posthegemony said...

No, my point is simpler.  I have no problem with his dealing with the two types of folk theory (to use his words) side by side: what he calls the non-arbitrary and what he deems arbitrary.  The problem is that he has no way to differentiate between the two, or to explain the differences.  This (and not the fact that the analyses are side-by-side) is why he invites confusion.  He has no coherent account of the production of folk theories.

wgw said...

Ok, so I have a mission: find out how those two dimensions can be distinguished....