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28 April 2010

Frames, Movements & the Eco-Egalitarian Resonance Machine


I recently received a copy of Adrian Ivakhiv's article in the recent issue of Environmental Communications in which George Lakoff and Robert Brulle have articles as well discussing ways of reaching out to a broader public to gain support for environmental issues. I just want to summarize the three perspectives here and give some thoughts of my own.

Ivakhiv's and Brulle's articles are both critiques of Lakoff's, so I'll start with his. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who gained some notoriety in the early 2000s for his book Don't Think of an Elephant. In it he explained his theory of frames, demonstrated how conservatives have been successful at utilizing frames to gain support, and offered advice to liberals on how they could do the same. In a prior book, Moral Politics, Lakoff delved further into the theory of frames and explained how different frames can shape the character of liberal and conservative movements. Frames are cognitive linguistic features, based on metaphorical associations which help us to understand the world around us (in this sense, they're reminiscent of Cultural Models, but I'm not familiar enough with either theory to explain the similarities and differences). Lakoff claims that the liberal frame metaphorically associates the government with a nurturing mother family, while the conservative frame associates the government with a strict father family. These frames express and determine the differing characters and expectations of liberals and conservatives and can be activated through language to convey messages and gain support.

In his article, Lakoff offers his advice on frames to environmentalists. He says that there is a general lack of frames for understanding environmental issues. Often times these frames must be created on the spot and don't connect very well with those held by the general public. As a result we must choose our words properly so that we activate the proper frames, and, over the long run, we need to build new frames within the population for understanding and acting on environmental issues. He offers a number of tips - both short-term and long-term (e.g. talk about values not policies, tell stories don't give laundry lists, contextualize messages) - and gives examples of emerging frames that we might build upon (e.g. the regulated commons). He concludes by saying that effective social movements need frames, and without them "the moral compromise behind the political compromise can be hidden."

Brulle critiques Lakoff from a social movement stand point. He says that, while messaging campaigns of the kind suggested by Lakoff might provide some short-term benefits, in the long run civic engagement is required for successful social change movements. Because it is derived from cognitive science, Lakoff's approach lacks the theoretical context of research on social movements and social change, and because of its professionalization it ends up being elite-led and impedes greater democratic participation.
Social movements expand the potential range of ideas by "advocating alternative worldviews." However, the development of social movements requires an open public sphere where they can "identify problems, develop possible solutions, and create sufficient political pressure to have them addressed by constitutional governments." Existing institutional power structures limit potential actions, and environmental actions that interfere with these institutions will not be accepted within market or state dynamics. According to Brulle, Lakoff's approach limits democratic participation by embedding environmental actions within existing institutions such as the market and government policy, and through an emphasis on the professionalization of messaging, which creates a situation where elites are influencing and potentially manipulating public opinion.
I think the one shortcoming of Brulle's argument is that he downplays the importance within social movements of reaching out to broader constituencies through communicative strategies in order to build a broader support. The conservative revival of the 90s, for example, didn't come from nowhere. It was the result of a concerted effort by conservative leaders to reach out through mailers and church groups to get people to vote for a particular agenda. Some PR is necessary, though we should do our best to avoid having it be driven by professionalized elites.

Ivakhiv provides an alternative critique of Lakoff, focusing on the limitations of his cognitive theory and proposing William Connolly's "resonance machines" as an alternative to "frames." Ivakhiv argues that Lakoff's approach focuses too much on linguistic features and not enough on affective (emotional) forms of cognition. He points out that a major part of the early emergence of the environmental movement was affective communication including concepts of the "whole earth" including the first photo of the earth from space (as described in the recent Earth Days documentary), and landscape paintings which inspired the national parks movement.
Ivakhive also critiques Lakoff for relying too heavily on the family metaphor, and points out a number of other metaphors that may be at work given different circumstances. In place of "frames," Ivakhiv supports the concept of the resonance machine - which utilize affective forms of communication and cognition to build a more plural environmentalism. In his book Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, Connolly describes the conservative revival of the 90s described above as a capitalist-evangelical resonance machine. At that time, and through the concerted effort of the Christian Right, the evangelical movement became closely tied to neoclassical (laissez-faire) economics. He proposes as a remedy using campaigns designed to reach out through churches, and other mediums, using affective strategies to build resonance with a broad constituency in order to develop an eco-egalitarian resonance machine - one that would promote the values of environmentalism as well as a more open democratic system.

I think all three approaches have part of the idea. Ivakhiv's argument, being more encompassing than the other two, appeals to me most. But I think that it is important to foster an open democratic system in which social movements can grow as well as to reach out both linguistically and affectively to broader audiences. The key, I think, is Connolly's pluralist approach - one that recognizes different ways of being which may resonate with one another in certain aspects. Too often environmentalists have constructed a battle ground in which certain people are against nature and the environmentalists claim to speak for a nature which can't speak for itself. Instead, I think we need to reach out to all sectors, recognize ways that we are all environmentalists and build on those commonalities to create a more sustainable, livable, and egalitarian world. I'm currently working on a paper, which I'll publish here when I'm done, on Richard White's admonition (in the article "Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?" in Cronon's Uncommon Ground) that environmentalists need to come to terms with work. I think that may be part of the answer to building a more plural (cosmopolitical?) environmentalism.

1 comment:

michael~ said...

I need to get my hands on that article! Adrian's work is fascinating and so very relevant to my prospective PhD dissertation.

Although I have some problem with the way the Deleuzian notion of 'machines' is used by Connolly, or anyone else for that matter. We could do a lot of theoretical work the notions of resonance as it relates to affect, but a post-industrial theoria must tap into a more post-industrial language.

Perhaps, we could talk, rather, about resonance assemblages, or resonance mediums, or something more organic?

Maybe Adrian can coin some new term that draws from both Lakoff and Connolly, but using a more fluid terminology? Just my thoughts.

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