A guest blog by Major Tevina Flood, ILE Class of 12-02 Scholars Program, “The Local Dynamics of War”
The title of 25 July’s seminar is “Language, Narrative, and Framing in Politics and War.” To cover this rather broad ground, we read a book titled, Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership by Rogers Smith and three essays: Murray Edelman’s “Political Language and Political Reality,” Linda Zerilli’s “We Feel Our Freedom: Imagination and Judgment in the Thought of Hannah Arendt,” and Jason Glynos’ “Ideological Fantasy at Work.” There are several common threads through all four authors.
First, the stories that we tell about ourselves and the words we choose to use in those stories help frame the way that we perceive the world. They all seem to embrace the notion that our stories, as the word implies, are less than truth.
For Zerilli, the stories we tell need not and cannot be claimed to be true. She argues that political speech is “composed not of truths dressed up in rhetorical form but of opinions; ‘it appears to me’ (CH, p. 51) nothing more.” (Zerilli and Arendt in Zerilli, 166) Political claims are “reflective judgments” based on one’s perception rather than on anything inherent in the object or event perceived. (Zerilli, 159) When we try to convince others of the rightness of our stories, we must keep in mind that our arguments have “force” only insofar as we can convince our interlocutor to see things as we see them. The effectiveness of an argument is reliant on the person making it and the context in which it is made. (Zerilli, 171) It is the “images and figures” that our words evoke that generate belief which compel us to accept or reject an argument.
Edelman says that, through our stories, we attempt to create meaning in the world by constructing beliefs about the significance of events. He argues that the words we chose allow us to creatively interpret or invert the meaning of objects and events as when a “speaker who advocates “true” freedom is invariably arguing for restraints on some group’s freedom, just as the insertion of the word “true” before “equality” is a sign that some inequality is being rationalized.” (Edelman, 18) Additionally, the invocation of something higher in our stories (e.g. God or a cause) gives a particular relevance to the things we say which they would not otherwise possess. Edelman argues that you can tell a lot about the nature of a people based on the reasons it gives in its stories for its actions. He states that “What is accepted as a “good reason” tells nothing about the cogency of its argument but is a sensitive index to the problems, aspirations, and social situation of its audience.” (Edelman, 14)
Glynos says that stories can be laid out using three different logics which he labels social, political and fantasmatic. Social logics are the answer to “what” a people does; they explain practices of a people by laying out the people’s “rules, norms, and self-understanding.” (Glynos, 5) Political logics are the answer to “how” a people does what it does; they explain the historical origins of a practice with special attention to the conflicts and arguments attendant to the inceptions of practices. (Ibid.) Fantasmatic logics are the answer to “why” a people does what it does; they explain the compulsion that people have to engage in specific practices. (Ibid.) Glynos is most interested in the role of fantasmatic logics and believes that strongly held fantasies provide the lens through which people read events. These lenses allow people to eliminate existing ambiguity and ambivalence and prevent alternative readings of events. He describes a fantasy as providing a “narrative structure involving some reference to an idealized scenario promising an imaginary fullness or wholeness … and, by implication, a disaster scenario.” (Glynos, 10) A critical element of the fantasy is the existence of an obstacle which prevents the fantasizer from obtaining the object of her fantasy but which the fantasizer falsely believes to be surmountable. A true fantasy, of course, is actually unobtainable; if it were ever obtained, it would no longer be fantastic. Glynos seems to agree with Zerilli that the fantastic stories we tell about ourselves cannot be true.
Smith sees our stories as attempts to provide ourselves a sense of trust in and a sense of the worth of our political groups. He defines worth as the belief that the leaders and members of our group could actually give us what we want if they chose to. He defines trust as the belief that the leaders and members of our group want to give us what we want because they share our interests. Understandably, people want to belong to groups that they believe both want to and can give them what they want. Belonging to a group generates a feeling of obligation to that group and a belief that the group can legitimately exercise some level of authority over us. It is this belief in the authority of a given group that gives members a right and responsibility to deny the authority of other groups when they are in conflict. Interestingly, Smith points out that group membership does not have to either feel or be voluntary. Just as the identity, interests, and ideals inherent in group membership constrain the actions of members, they also constrain the actions of leaders via a process that sounds reminiscent of Connolly’s account of Hegel’s “expressive sovereignty.” Leaders’ decisions are constrained externally by what their group members are willing to accept based on their identity, interests, and ideals and internally by the leader’s internalization of the same identity, interests, and ideals. Because people are almost always members of more than one political group, they will feel allegiance to multiple stories with possibly inconsistent identity, interests, and ideals. Significantly, Smith says that political stories are inherently exclusionary in that they define who belongs in the group and, implicitly or explicitly, who does not.
Second, the authors all assert the importance of engagement.
Zerilli believes that judgment must be based on the incontrovertible fact of human plurality, on the existence of others who don’t all think like us. (Zerilli, 165) When we judge, we show those others who we are and build a relationship with them. (Zerilli, 164) Quoting Arendt, Zerilli writes that “’the rhetorical arguments of our fellow spectators free us’” (Zerilli, 172) because hearing their perspectives opens us up to the existence of ideas that are unlike ours and enables more “representative thinking.” Again quoting from Arendt, “’the more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinions’”(Arendt in Zerilli, 175) While Arendt likely would not place primary importance on actual engagement Zerilli certainly feels that it is important and says that it is through the exchange of arguments that we can lay bare the world that we have received through the lens of our language and concepts. (Zerilli, 166) It is through “representative thinking” and through the exchange of arguments that spectators “create the space in which the objects of political judgment, the actors and the actions themselves, can appear, and thus alter our sense of what belongs in the common world.” (Zerilli, 179)
Edelman presents a rather sour take on the outcomes of engagement, but his entire argument is premised upon the fact that it occurs and that, by occurring, it shapes political reality. In his words, “Meaning springs from interactions with others, not from inside an isolated individual’s head.” (Edelman, 12) He claims, for instance, that simply by engaging in dialogue and adopting one of the commonly used sets of statements and expressions to describe an issue, you are accepting a role, an ideology and a self-conception. (Edleman, 15) Presumably, this relationship between language and speaker extends to the level of institutions and political groups as well. For Edelman, language use is always purposeful and is how people, individually and collectively, are able to live with themselves and their actions and to generate support for their causes. (Edelman, 13)
Glynos describes fantasy as bolstering resistance to change and tending to make contesting dominant norms difficult. When shared and aggregated, fantasies at the individual level influence, and possibly generate, social structures at the collective level. When destabilizing events occur, fantasies are often responsible for the speed and direction of resulting changes. In order to combat deleterious fantasies, we must engage in what Glynos calls “reading for difference.” This means that we must dismantle the pieces of the fantasy and reassemble them in a larger context; we must complexify the problem. The danger of a fantasy is that, while, by its very nature, it can never actually be obtained, individuals and organizations believe that the obstacle in their path to obtaining it can be overcome and will often expend unreasonable and perhaps unethical effort trying.
Like Edelman, Smith’s premise is that engagement is how political communities or peoples are formed. He says that it is the “constrained, asymmetrical interactions between actual and would-be leaders and the potential constituents” that results in a political group. This engagement is carried out through either coercive force or persuasive storytelling and is a continuous process with both internal rivals and external rivals for power over the group. Smith’s argument is that “Enduring accounts of peoplehood inspire senses of trust and worth among the members of a people by weaving together economic, political power, and ethically constitutive stories tailored to persuade a critical mass of constituents while also advancing partisan elites interests.” (Smith, 69-70) Economic stories promise that supporting a given political group will produce increasing economic good for all members. Political power stories promise that supporting a given group will produce increasing political power for all members. It is significant that the aims of leaders and group members are often somewhat divergent in that leaders may seek great wealth while members simply seek economic security or leaders may seek group greatness which would expand their own power base while members simply seek physical security. This divergence makes stories more complex as it tries to incorporate both desires. Ethically constitutive stories describe who a people are and provide a sense of “meaning, place, purpose, and pride.” (Smith, 98) He doesn’t believe that it is possible for a people not to have an ethically constitutive story. He cautions that particularistic ethically constitution stories are often chauvinistic in some fashion and part of his prescription for countering this is to pursue a more universalistic ethically constitutive story that encompasses the entire human species. He also favors “a more open politics of contestation in which undesirable views are moderated through political engagements.” (Smith, 156) He believes that we should follow the Madisonian approach of multiplying the contesting parties by brining everyone into dialogue and trusting that the conflicting stories will eventually “check each other’s excesses.” (Smith, 159)
Finally, most of the authors seem to share a sense of the emergent causality presented by William Connolly.
Zerilli’s describes imagination as being free of the “law of causality” and as “generative of new forms.” (Zerilli, 163) She says that the sensus communis, communal sense, is a “creative force that generates our sense of reality” and is not based on any apodictic truth. (Ibid., 173) Imagination and the sensus communis are both involved in “opening up” the world so that perspectives we have always taken for granted may be altered and we evaluate things differently. (Ibid., 166) She contends that the emergence inherent in the “judging activity”, of which imagination is a component, “creates the public space.” (Ibid., 179) Since there is no way to predict when imagination will come into play or what form it will take, the associated opening up of perspectives and creation of public space is equally unpredictable and emergent.
Edelman speaks about language as the key creator of the social world people experience and says that “there is an important sense in which language constructs the people who use it.” (Edelman, 14) He claims that it is the beliefs that language evokes that shape our behavior and consciousness rather than anything concrete and measurable. It is “what must be supposed, assumed or constructed” that really matters. (Edelman, 11) Edelman ascribes agency to language which is arguably a nonhuman system, albeit of human origin. He also offers a thought from Jacques Derrida that “To speak or hear a term … is to experience the spoor of other terms while not necessarily recognizing them as present. Language therefore entails a wide range of resonances that are both present and absent.” (Edelman, 18) This is fully representative of Connolly’s idea that unknown, and perhaps unknowable, things from the past resonate with the present and flow together into the future.
Glynos refers to the “radical contingency of social relations” and suggests that social relations are influenced by “incomplete structures” and “collective acts of subjective identification”. He also discusses “counter-logics” which he describes as the “’potentialities’ that reside in the interstices of dominant practices and discourses” and which seem closely akin to Connolly’s “litter” (Glynos, 4; Glynos, 7). Counter-logics are the non-mainstream ideas that, under stable circumstances, can gain no real purchase in dominant social thought but that, in times of disequilibrium, may leap to the fore and be adopted as counters to previous commonly held conceptions.
Unlike the other three, Smith proffers a pairing of determinative and generative causality which can be expressed, respectively, as A causes B and A bounds choices to B, C, D. Hence, generative causality takes on the appearance of loose structuralism. Smith also discusses the possibility of unintended consequences from the institutionalization of stories of peoplehood, which is essentially an account of institutional logic. There is an apparent acceptance of nonhuman agency in his assertion that stories of peoplehood not only serve interests but also help to constitute them.