Tag Archive: neuropolitics


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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Descartes3.jpg

In Why Environmental Understanding, or “Framing,” Matters, published today on the Huffington Post (and on AlterNet), liberal framing guru George Lakoff provides a useful critique of a forthcoming EcoAmerica report on the framing of environmental and climate change issues. While his conclusions are perceptive and make the article a valuable read — I’ll get to those — I find the assumptions underlying his critique worthy of examination. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist, and he contrasts his use of the term “frames” with sociological work on “discursive frames,” rather unfairly biasing the comparison in his favor by suggesting that the sociological approach is “superficial” while his is rooted in the neurobiology of brain functioning.

We think,” he writes, “mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called ‘frames.’ Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains [sic]. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity. In short, framing is a big-deal.

All of our language is defined in terms of our frame-circuitry. Words activate that circuitry, and the more we hear the words, the stronger their frames get. But if our language does not fit our frame circuitry, it will not be understood, or will be misunderstood.

In translating science for a popular audience, especially in a political context, one of course has to simplify. But I find Lakoff’s simplifications here a bit jarring. They remind me of those Cartesian diagrams of human mental circuitry by which a physical stimulus leads to a neurochemical response leads to a physical reaction (see illustration above), with no place for culture or for a feeling human agent in the middle of it. Lakoff reduces all of our understanding to words (“all of our language” works this way) activating distinct neural circuits called “frames,” which are “organized in terms of values,” with the latter in turn “determin[ing] our sense of identity.” It’s not clear where these “values” come from, or if values and identity have their own separate neural circuits or, if not, what exactly they are. According to Lakoff, “two competing value-based systems of frames,” and therefore two identities, are available “in our politics”: a conservative one and a progressive one. (See his Moral Politics for more on these.)

But my quibbles here are not so much with the simplification of our politics or of the “neural circuitry”; I’m content to acknowledge that a quick polemical Huffington Post article is not the place for articulating a thorough and coherent model of language, selfhood, and society. What’s more important to me, though, is that there seems little role in Lakoff’s model for affect, that is, for individual and collective emotional response, in people’s processing and use of language, concept, metaphor, and image.

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green frames & nudges

Last week’s “Green Mind” issue of the New York Times Magazine shows how behavioral science is making an impact on environmental policy and decision-making. In particular, Jon Gertner’s “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” provides a useful summary of how the trendy fields of behavioral economics and ‘decision science’ are being applied to thinking about climate change. Gertner discusses the differences between analytical and emotional responses to risk; how the ordering of options shapes our choices; the ways that “frames” and “nudges” can be used to shape policy debates; and the effects of group dynamics on shaping individual decision-making. (It’s not that hard to get random individuals to cooperate in groups, and individuals in fact find it easier to think about long-term impacts of decisions when they are in face-to-face groups; but the article doesn’t get into how individuals, in a highly individualistic society like ours, can be encouraged to follow up on what they agreed to when they were making decisions in groups.)

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I’ve been impressed and even moved by a few recent posts over at Larval Subjects. “Electro-Chemical Signifiers” describes the author’s transformation from full-fledged Lacanian (both theorist and analyst) to something that seems much broader and welcoming of the world. Not, of course, that Lacanians cannot be broad and welcoming of the world; I’m only judging LS’s movement based on his own narrative. That narrative concerns depression and a cure (not a talking cure) as well as, it seems, gardening.

In “Gardening”, LS mixes soil, happiness (the author’s, at watching spinach, romaine, and cucumbers “poke up from the earth”), science, and Alberto Toscano’s Theatre of Production (which I just ordered) and Susan Oyama’s Ontogeny of Information (which I found mesmerizing when I read it years ago and am now happy to hear referred to more & more as she belatedly finds a well-deserved audience).

In the (ex-)Lacanian confessional he writes:

“I think Guattari had the right idea in proposing a model in which we strove to think the intersection of regimes of signs, the biological body, economics, nature, etc… A highly complex ecological, networked model.”

Not only is Guattari wandering in this intersective middle-earth of bodies, neurons, cultures, politics, and economies, but so, I would add, are Deleuze, William Connolly, Francesco Varela, Eve Sedgwick, JK Gibson-Graham, Antonio Damasio (in some respects), and many others who’ve been inspiring my thoughts on this blog and in my writing. Thanks, LS, for your courage.

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.)