The Null Device

Weaponised sociolinguistics

Today in weaponised sociolinguistics: the US intelligence research agency IARPA is running a programme to collect and catalogue metaphors used in different cultures, hopefully revealing how the Other thinks. This follows on from the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who theorised that whoever controls the metaphors used in language can tilt the playing field extensively:
Conceptual metaphors have been big business over the last few years. During the last Bush administration, Lakoff – a Democrat – set up the Rockridge Institute, a foundation that sought to reclaim metaphor as a tool of political communication from the right. The Republicans, he argued, had successfully set the terms of the national conversation by the way they framed their metaphors, in talking about the danger of ‘surrendering’ to terrorism or to the ‘wave’ of ‘illegal immigrants’. Not every Democrat agreed with his diagnosis that the central problem with American politics was that it was governed by the frame of the family, that conservatives were proponents of ‘authoritarian strict-father families’ while progressives reflected a ‘nurturant parent model, which values freedom, opportunity and community building’ (‘psychobabble’ was one verdict, ‘hooey’ another).
But there’s precious little evidence that they tell you what people think. One Lakoff-inspired study that at first glance resembles the Metaphor Program was carried out in the mid-1990s by Richard D. Anderson, a political scientist and Sovietologist at UCLA, who compared Brezhnev-era speeches by Politburo members with ‘transitional’ speeches made in 1989 and with post-1991 texts by post-Soviet politicians. He found, conclusively, that in the three periods of his study the metaphors used had changed entirely: ‘metaphors of personal superiority’, ‘metaphors of distance’, ‘metaphors of subordination’ were out; ‘metaphors of equality’ and ‘metaphors of choice’ were in. There was a measurable change in the prevailing metaphors that reflected the changing political situation. He concluded that ‘the change in Russian political discourse has been such as to promote the emergence of democracy’, that – in essence – the metaphors both revealed and enabled a change in thinking. On the other hand, he could more sensibly have concluded that the political system had changed and therefore the metaphors had to change too, because if a politician isn’t aware of what metaphors he’s using who is?
The article is vague on the actual IARPA research programme, but reveals that it involves extracting metaphors from large bodies of texts in four languages (Farsi, Mexican Spanish, Russian and English) and classifying them according to emotional affect.

The IARPA metaphor programme follows an earlier proposal to weaponise irony:

If we don’t know how irony works and we don’t know how it is used by the enemy, we cannot identify it. As a result, we cannot take appropriate steps to neutralize ironizing threat postures. This fundamental problem is compounded by the enormous diversity of ironic modes in different world cultures and languages. Without the ability to detect and localize irony consistently, intelligence agents and agencies are likely to lose valuable time and resources pursuing chimerical leads and to overlook actionable instances of insolence. The first step toward addressing this situation is a multilingual, collaborative, and collative initiative that will generate an encyclopedic global inventory of ironic modalities and strategies. More than a handbook or field guide, the work product of this effort will take the shape of a vast, searchable, networked database of all known ironies. Making use of a sophisticated analytic markup language, this “Ironic Cloud” will be navigable by means of specific ironic tropes (e.g., litotes, hyperbole, innuendo, etc.), by geographical region or language field (e.g., Iran, North Korea, Mandarin Chinese, Davos, etc.), as well as by specific keywords (e.g., nose, jet ski, liberal arts, Hermès, night soil, etc.) By means of constantly reweighted nodal linkages, the Ironic Cloud will be to some extent self-organizing in real time and thus capable of signaling large-scale realignments in the “weather” of global irony as well as providing early warnings concerning the irruption of idiosyncratic ironic microclimates in particular locations—potential indications of geopolitical, economic, or cultural hot spots.
The proposal goes on to suggest possibilities of using irony as a weapon:
Superpower-level political entities (e.g., Roman Empire, George W. Bush, large corporations, etc.) have tended to look on irony as a “weapon of the weak” and thus adopted a primarily defensive posture in the face of ironic assault. But a historically sensitive consideration of major strategic realignments suggests that many critical inflection points in geopolitics (e.g., Second Punic War, American Revolution, etc.) have involved the tactical redeployment of “guerrilla” techniques and tools by regional hegemons. There is reason to think that irony, properly concentrated and effectively mobilized, might well become a very powerful armament on the “battlefield of the future,” serving as a nonlethal—or even lethal—sidearm in the hands of human fighters in an information-intensive projection of awesome force. Without further fundamental research into the neurological and psychological basis of irony, it is difficult to say for certain how such systems might work, but the general mechanism is clear enough: irony manifestly involves a sudden and profound “doubling” of the inner life of the human subject. The ironizer no longer maintains an integrated and holistic perspective on the topic at hand but rather experiences something like a small tear in the consciousness, whereby the overt and covert meanings of a given text or expression are sundered. We do not now know just how far this tear could be opened—and we do not understand what the possible vital consequences might be.

There are no comments yet on "Weaponised sociolinguistics"

Want to say something? Do so here.

Post pseudonymously

Display name:
To prove that you are not a bot, please enter the text in the image into the field below it.

Your Comment:

Please keep comments on topic and to the point. Inappropriate comments may be deleted.

Note that markup is stripped from comments; URLs will be automatically converted into links.