Tag Archive: cognition

My article “From Frames to Resonance Machines: The Neuropolitics of Environmental Communication” is coming out in the next issue of Environmental Communication. Here’s the abstract:

George Lakoff’s work in cognitive linguistics has prompted a surge in social scientists’ interest in the cognitive and neuropsychological dimensions of political discourse. Bringing cognitive neuroscience into the study of social movements and of environmental communication, however, is not as straightforward as Lakoff’s followers suggest. Examining and comparing Lakoff’s “neuropolitics” with those of political theorist William E. Connolly, this article argues that Connolly’s writings on evangelical-capitalist and eco-egalitarian “resonance machines” provide a broader model for thinking about the relations between body, brain, and culture. Environmentalists, it concludes, should pluralize their “frames” and pay greater attention to the micropolitical and affective effects of their language and practices on the communities within which they act, communicate, and dwell.

And a couple of excerpts from the article:

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climate change supermodeling?


Also published at Indications.

Having just written a piece for Environmental Communication about the promises and pitfalls of cognitive science-based approaches to communicating about issues like climate change, I can’t help commenting on this video and blog post that arrived this morning on my blog reader from identity campaigning, re-posted from Cognitive Policy Works. The piece both captures and fails to capture salient issues in this debate…

The author, Joe Brewer, gets it right in arguing that the video successfully applies the following “lessons” from cognitive science:

1) That our thinking works in visual and embodiment-based metaphors: Yes, the video employs the graphic physical embodiment of such metaphors portrayed through movement, gesture, dress, etc.

2) That it “makes climate change sexy”: Yes, it does this through the way it elicits, solicits, and interpellates the viewer in a process of desire, a directional build-up whereby we want to “finish the job” of stripping the supermodel. It’s left up to us to do that in our imagination. It’s now in our hands, like a video-game joystick. (Take that where you will…) This point is made by Brewer’s second (“sexy”) and fourth (image schemas) arguments. (The latter, his “balance” and “source-path-goal” schemas, are a fancy way of saying that the metaphors are based in the capacities of the body — for movement toward a goal, for balance, etc.)

3) That it’s effective marketing. Indeed. At 160,000 views as I write, it’s now had 50,000 more views since he wrote his piece.

But his point that it “deconstructs the fashion industry” is wishful thinking on Joe’s part. It plays along with that industry, adding fuel to its workings. (Underwear ads are just as much a part of the industry as are ads for jeans and fur coats, and provoking viewers’ desires to see naked bodies doesn’t take anything away from clothing manufacturers’ ability to sell those bodies clothes.) It adds to the normalization of a certain body image for women: all the models are unhealthily tooth-pick thin women, and all follow the script of how sexy women are supposed to look at their audience of unseen voyeurs. (And did anyone else notice that the more they strip, the more they look 15 years old?) Of course, there’s nothing to stop others from doing alternative versions of this featuring non-white models, male strippers, transvestites, or anything else — which is the argument of the pro-porn feminists, the green fashionistas, et al.

But another thing that strikes me is that the final take-home verbal message — “If you want to see 350, our natural state, you have to get your politicians to act now” (emphasis added) — is not conveyed in a visually or metaphorically effective way. When it comes to graphically embodying any kind of action (other than stripping, or being stripped), our cognitive (embodied, visual, metaphorical) mind is left at the door.

The first text comment below the video when I watched it was dagrimreefah’s “This media cartel sure is doing a great job on all of you livestock” — which is probably intended as a witty interjection of climate denialism, but there’s a more general point that could be made with that. A quick glance at the rest of the comments tells us a few interesting things:

(1) Most of them refer to the physiques of the models (some of them, wisely, asking to see more — not less clothing, mind you, but just more healthy flesh covering their bones);

(2) Of those that refer to the science of climate change, a large number deny it and/or politicize it with anti-Obama rhetoric (or with critiques of his compromises); and

(3) Not a single one seems to get the metaphor of “supermodels” being both the women displayed and the ways — the only ways — in which we actually know about climate change itself and the role “350 parts per million” plays in it.

Climate change models are highly sophisticated, complex pieces of science that deserve a bit more discussion. Riffing on that, however, would take away from the project of making hegemonic (“common-sensifying”) the message about climate change. But I would argue that part of making that message broader is playing up its science (just to raise awareness of how we know about climate change) and, secondly, playing up its ethics and politics: its potential (and already claimed) victims, its costs, and the vested interests on both sides (“old energy” on one, new entrepreneurialism on the other).

Okay, I’m asking too much of a simple 90-second ad. But discussing the ad seems useful, even if it contributes to the viral spread of something I’m ambivalent about…

from Huxley to Obama & NLP

I’ve mentioned Aldous Huxley here before. This 1958 interview with Mike Wallace shows him to be as broad-rangingly perceptive as anyone at the time – with insightful comments on persuasion techniques, Foucauldian surveillance and control (before Foucault wrote a word about the topic), television (which he thought was already “being used too much to distract people all the time”), population growth, mind-altering drugs (which, of course, Huxley thought could be used for good, as he did, and for ill), etc.

The following line in Sentient Developments‘ George Dvorsky’s summary of the interview stopped me in my tracks for a moment:

“Today’s elections have become very much like this — nothing more than massive advertising campaigns. And whereas Huxley and his contemporaries were worried about subliminal messaging, today we worry that leaders like Barack Obama and other politicians are using novel persuasion techniques like Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).”

Obama and NLP… wow. That must account for the recent terminological shifts Jon Stewart made fun of the other day — Obama’s apparent renaming of the “war on terror” “overseas contingency operations,” etc., and his recent shifts in tone from giddy in the CBS 60 Minutes interview (which the right-wing press went nuts over) to overserious in his public speech on the economy a few days later, etc. (My response is still “give the guy a break.”)

NLP is useful for thinking about framing and reframing (one of the terms used in NLP discourse), which, if fans of George Lakoff are correct, helped Obama win the last election. Lakoff focuses more on metaphors, while the NLPists focus more on visual and gestural cues and such things – the microphysics of framing, you might say – but in fact, in Lakoff and Johnson’s “embodied mind” perspective, the two are closely linked, if more generally (language, cognition, and embodiment). (Chet Bowers has an interesting piece critiquing the Lakoff/Johnson model from an ecocritical perspective.)

This is a summary I provided to a grad student who was starting to get into this area. It’s very introductory and far from complete in its coverage, but since there’s so little out there on this topic, I thought it would be useful to post it. It’s also a bit biased towards literature that’s relevant to religion and religious experience (since this is what the student was working on). Comments are welcome.

The topic of the imagination had been out of fashion for a while in the humanities, especially as textual and semiotic approaches (structuralism, poststructuralism et al) came to dominate cultural theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Gradually it’s been coming back, but without any consensus on what it means or how it should be dealt with. The following are some of the threads of thinking that, to my mind, need to be drawn together in a coherent way in order to make contemporary sense of ‘the imagination’ or, as I prefer to call it, the imaginal. They are pieces of a much larger puzzle that is far from being solved.

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