Why no political orientations protect groups

Orientation or manipulation - metaphors in political communication

Share prices are falling in the murky habitat of the financial crisis. In contrast, the crisis gives political imagery a virtually lush, rampant growth.

The state puts together 'rescue packages', puts up 'protective screens', gives 'financial injections', while the 'meltdown' in the banking system continues, the financial 'cycle' 'breaks down' one after the other. From '11. September ‘there is talk of the financial markets, of masses of 'toxic' securities that are stored in the basement of the banks, and in many caricatures you can see the Tower of Babel with a bank logo on it. The linguistic images do not have to fit together, but in their entirety they form something like glasses through which the media user outlines events that would otherwise be difficult to understand. These are images of denormalization, which make even the most unusual actions of the states stand there as necessary and without alternative, while the audience can only wait, watch and hope for the best. What does such rampant imagery in political communication stand for?

All or nothing?

Leonard Bloomfield, the founder of American linguistics, wrote the provocative sentence that in natural languages ​​either everything is metaphorical - or nothing. What do you mean with that? Every time we talk about something, we consider it in the light of the cumulative meaning of linguistic signs that have been tried and tested many times over and over again. We immerse what we are talking about in the light of the overall experiences that tradition and usage have linked to our language signs. Such fusions between extra-linguistic reference and the cumulative sense of sign take place all the time while speaking. You are speaking. It does not matter whether we call a house a 'house' (and thus use an opaque, non-metaphorical designation according to conventional understanding) or, for example, the continent of Europe as 'our common house' - which, according to conventional understanding, is a political metaphor would be. This latter case may be a more interesting subject of study, but the need to associate 'old' signs with 'new' objects goes much further than the traditional understanding of metaphors would like to be true. That is the punch line to Leonard Bloomfield's puzzling claim. We'll need them later.

In contrast, the view that the invention and use of metaphors is associated with either cognitive coercion or cognitive freedom is much more widespread. That is in politics as well as in science, in which discoveries and innovations - so the assumption - come about primarily through bold and unexpected projections between the image and structure donating source and the respective target and transmission sphere. Linguistic metaphors - according to the cognitive understanding - enable a new and different view of the target sphere - or they force us to take such a look. In one case they are considered creative, in the other they are manipulative. Of course, it remains a matter of opinion which metaphor is considered creative and which is manipulative. To this day, many Christian fundamentalists consider it unreasonable and manipulative that they should see the emergence and differentiation of species in the light of genetic variation, selection, verification and reinforcement (and not as the “intelligent design” of a creator). That Darwin, conversely, also had the rampant competition of British capitalism in mind when he wrote 'The Origin of Species' is now considered a commonplace. Likewise, that the trivialized figures of evolutionary thinking that have been bent back to human society (competition between peoples and nations, survival of the fittest, etc.) have long been powerful political filters of view and interpretation (i.e. metaphors in the cognitive sense). Of course, it is not acceptable to simply view scientific metaphors as creative and political as manipulative. Especially not since political programs of whatever color claim scientific necessity. So what does linguistic orientation filters do politically?

Political metaphors

It goes without saying that politics is not a well-defined subject area. Rather, a topic becomes political by the fact that it commands a high degree of approval (or rejection) from the general public. Ecology used to be a quirk of nature freaks. Ever since there has been a general sense of threat from human-made environmental disasters, ecology has been a central political issue. Political status does not necessarily have to be related to the real meaning of an issue. Even the spelling reform has generated so much public excitement and rejection for a number of years that it can be considered a temporary political issue.
The economy is undoubtedly a central political area. We can therefore expect that the economy, on the one hand, is particularly in need of a picture, but on the other hand, is also a popular donor sphere for other, non-economic areas of society. The invasion of economic language images and interpretation patterns in university politics should not have escaped anyone. It will keep us busy in a moment.

The power of politically successful metaphors lies in the bundling and reinforcement of experiences and models that are spread across society and have an almost unlimited, open target area that is completely incomprehensible in itself (such as economic business cycles, for example), but with help Simpler images can also be made plausible because in the sphere that donates images simple, ad nauseam plausible conditions prevail: The economy is like road traffic. It flows up to a certain limit, then it overheats and jams, after a certain time the jam dissolves and the traffic begins to flow again. Sometimes, when some of them are going too fast, there is a crash. Thereby, more or less numerous actors fall by the wayside. That sounds nice and almost looks like an economic theory. But it is only a self-plausibility metaphor that everyone believes they understand because they are only too familiar with the image donor sphere: a collective symbol (Link 2006). Collective symbols connect well-known donor spheres with almost any target spheres. They are by no means always linguistic. Statistics, curve landscapes, pie charts can also be used extensively, common in all target spheres of which an orientation-relevant image is to be conveyed. The curve pointing steeply downwards or upwards is just as much a collective symbol as the reassuringly 'normal' up and down of a statistical zigzag line. We limit ourselves to the linguistic and ask about the metaphorical 'Master Terms', the key words and basic orientation patterns of the political present. Wherever we look, we cannot escape one linguistic figure: globalization.


As we all (must) know, it is not just the economy that has long been globalized. It is terrorism, too, and popular culture, and music, and migration, and the university, and the climate catastrophe, and, and, and. The military strategists of NATO see the world threatened by countries and regions with “globalization deficits”. The linguistic image is so ubiquitous that one would like to recommend to advertising strategists to give it a try with the slogan 'not globalized'. The attention value would be enormous, the joke considerable.

Globalization is a pass-partout metaphor with a high degree of everyday plausibility. On their vacation trips, the residents of the metropolises learn that no matter where they go, McDonald, Beneton, Shell and the Internet are always there. Third world residents experience the same in their own homes. The world has become smaller and the density of communication has increased. What is plausible to this extent and saturated with experience is suitable for viewing everything else in the light of this familiarity. It becomes something like a final, even no longer questionable orientation pattern. Globalization explains everything - but who explains globalization? Well, since the word has been buzzing through the media (around the mid-1990s), there has been no shortage of non-fiction authors who try to explain to the willing audience what this 'phenomenon' is really about. The public dispute over its authoritative interpretation is part of every guiding political metaphor. It is easy to collect twenty views on globalization that are fighting for public recognition with more or less good arguments - including those who (appearing as 'opponents of globalization') refuse to obey the prevailing variant of the interpretation pattern and in the guiding metaphor only the euphemistic formula for something completely different: for the aggressive and global expansion of small finance capitalist power groups at the expense of solidarity, democratic and ecological economic methods. It is important that the opponents of globalization also use the metaphorical pattern. They give it a different, opposite value accent and a critical analytical content, but they also move on the terrain that is marked out by the guiding metaphor.

Globalization is an example of what term historians call a concept of movement. What is meant by this? Similar to democracy or progress, a concept of movement allows us to perceive and classify relationships that are simultaneous in the temporal sense as non-simultaneous. We live in a globalized world, but the economies or areas of society, for example, are more or less globalized, some not yet very, some very much. Concepts of movement indicate a direction and above all: before. An example that is as banal as it is everyday: Anyone who says that German universities are not at all prepared for today's global competition will inevitably mobilize political pressure for reform and adjustment. Although, of course, the following applies: Who wants to check this by what means? Couldn't it make its other form of organization particularly fit for global competition? Concepts of movement are useful for establishing a 'still' where a 'already' should be.

This brings us to the everyday business of the comprehensive use of such master terms across all topics and areas. In the case of globalization, it is obvious that this expression is used everywhere where the pressure to change politics is built up as immune to objections as possible. Because 'we', unlike the generations before us, live in the age of globalization, we have to adapt to the new conditions indicated by the term. In everyday political life, the word marks a boundary between epochs. There is an old time before globalization. You can think back to her nostalgically, you can also invoke her as a role model, but she is definitely a thing of the past. Today no society, no area can escape globalization. In political communication, it constitutes a comprehensive practical obligation. The direction of development indicated by the expression is irreversible and inescapable. To want to withdraw from it would be sheer madness. What can be coded as a special national route (even protectionism) has a bad press. Globalization is a universal semantic rectifier.

Sure, you don't have to love it, globalization (unlike earlier programmatic guiding metaphors such as democracy or progress), but you can't ignore it either. And, despite all the economic and ecological threat, doesn't it also have a cozy connotative yard? Doesn't it unite us, underline that we all live in one world and have the same problems? You can even sell it as an increase in global justice when the domestic, but always homeless capital hops into low-wage countries, so that they can also earn money there if it leaves industrial and social ruins at home or can only be softened to stay, if A wage waiver or tax subsidy is granted beforehand - in the service of the business location, of course.

In fact, globalization is also an example of how political-discursive power can be based on 'inverted' counterpower. After all, the figure with which the lack of alternatives to a worldwide expansive growth economy is stamped into us today was, in its origins, a figure with which this supposed factual constraint was to be stopped and undermined. 'Global 2000' was the title of a cautionary study by the Club of Rome, which in 1972 wanted to draw the world's attention to the 'limits to growth' of resource-consuming economies. And it is no coincidence that the slogan of the early environmental movement was: “Think globally - act locally”. It is ironic that the pioneers of global thinking are at Attac today, while the capitalist growth economy has successfully adopted the slogan "think globally - act locally" when it comes to nation states, regions, cities (`` locations '') plays off against each other and drives them into a ruinous subsidy competition.

Consensus fictions

We know from sociologists that consensus is difficult to come by in reality. In a democracy it is not even desirable. It is all the more important that it can be successfully assumed in political communication. Among the political metaphors that have recently flooded university politics are numerous examples of what can be called consensus fictions or even performatively immune expressions. Despite the somewhat cumbersome terminology, it is easy to explain what is meant by it. Imagine a politician standing up and demanding that universities must be autonomous, efficient and globally competitive. Is it possible that another politician could demand the opposite of all of this? If not, then the respective program words are consensus fictions (cf. Habscheid and Knobloch 2009). The program associated with them cannot be publicly negated. You have to want autonomy, efficiency and competitiveness. Regardless of whether the target sphere is schools, hospitals or city administrations. Even prisons and employment agencies are not safe from these flag words. That is exactly what makes such expressions particularly stupid and particularly malicious metaphors. Anyone who speaks out publicly against something that is articulated in the name of such a consensus fiction is outside of any reasonable debate. Consensus fictions prevent the democratic articulation of alternatives, they expropriate the political opponent in the semantic run-up: “It cannot be that you are against more autonomy for the universities! Do you want outside control? ”Consensus fictions infect any target spheres with their accumulated values ​​and connotations. Their programmatic unconditionality stands in clear contrast to their nominative underdetermination. That is precisely why they can dock anywhere and be used on a large scale with some prospect of public approval. Anyone who wants to make schools responsible for themselves, activate the unemployed, free universities from detailed state control and make them excellent, is discursively on the safe side. He suggests to the audience that unity has already been achieved and that dissent is pointless. Such objectionable political metaphors are in quite interesting and paradoxical interrelationships with their target spheres. The fact that they are used almost everywhere protects them to a certain extent from being refuted (and perhaps even ridiculed) in certain spheres of purpose and application. In particular, paradoxical self-reinforcements can often be observed. The 'new academic' language of the university reform offers a wealth of illustrative material for this:

Is the university losing all room for maneuver in the reform process in the grip of the university council, ranking, state supervision and accreditation agency? That makes the demand for autonomy and freedom from higher education sound all the better! The bureaucratic effort in organizing a degree has multiplied? That is precisely why the reduction of bureaucracy and deregulation at universities is the most plausible of all programs. In order to avoid the possible octrois, do the universities amicably forging the chains that will hold them in the future?
All the more beguiling is the melody of the unleashed university, which is voiced by Bertelsmann's Center for University Development (CHE). Future academics should be flexible, creative and independent? This demand will only really find a response when the modularized and school-based study has driven out the last remnants of these virtues.Political program metaphors, which stand for unconditional values, are not only protected against dissent and objections. They cannot actually be refuted even by contradicting experiences. On the contrary, the bad reality also underlines its justification (Knobloch 2008).

The language of higher education reform

The language of higher education reform also catches the eye in that it is an area in which there has been a complete semantic change of scenery over the past fifteen years. All metaphors and key terms have been exchanged, so that an observer from the 80s could hardly be convinced that it was still one and the same area. Permeability, openness, educational opportunities, democracy, social relevance - all of this sounds pretty strange now. Almost as foreign as the comprehensive university in the age of the elite university. Fifteen years after the beginning of the market and manager revolution, we have got used to the fact that excellence, competition, flexibility, customer orientation, evaluation, quality management, location are not only part of the economic vocabulary but also of university policy. Society has also metaphorically colonized the central economic area.

On the other hand, the story of another political metaphor is surprisingly continuous, both inside and outside university politics. It is the reform that seems to be necessary always and everywhere and that has come upon us almost without a scratch from the 1960s and 1970s. However, slight connotative shifts cannot be overlooked. The former word of hope has taken on an overtly threatening undertone in public. Those who have their wits halfway together know that they have to dress warmly if a reform threatens to discharge in their environment. Nonetheless, general political and economic uncertainty and rampant denormalization fears have reached such an extent that the permanent necessity of reforms still does not need to be justified. In a sense, it goes without saying, like all consensus fictions. In view of the completely chaotic reality at the universities, anyone who wanted to call for an “end of the reforms” would in the best case cause a lack of understanding in the media public.
This closes the circle and we have reason to come back to Leonard Bloomfield's strange thesis that in natural languages ​​either everything is metaphorical or nothing. Who would dare to distinguish between the actual and the metaphorical use of the flag word reform today? Was the reform of the 1960s metaphorical or is it that of the present? The connotative charge that linguistic signs carry with them in current use is always a mélange of accumulated old meanings, which are to a certain extent firmly attached, and new target references that are currently more or less firmly connected with them. In any case, in the area of ​​political program words, there is no limit between actual and metaphorical meaning. The transitions are fluid. Before our eyes, the connotative charge of reform is changing. What makes an expression appear metaphorical is always only its perspective deviation from an already established and thus inconspicuous utility model.

Power makes metaphors

In the last instance, it is always about the relationship between the “old” meaning and the “new” designation. In itself, the word expropriation is very clear and unmetaphorical. However, it becomes a funny metaphor when it is used these days for the state takeover of Hypo Real Estate - Bank (HRE). The fact is that it costs just 300 million euros on the stock exchange, after the state has already raised 100 billion from the tax fund to save it. Now everyone screams expropriation! When the state wants to have a say in business policy, while the owner of the worthless shares declares that he is the actual owner - and is threatened with expropriation. And the bank has already expropriated the taxpayer by more than thirty times the amount. Or, coded differently: the state has already bought the bank for thirty times its market value. Which, however, has not been coded as an action by the bank, but as their support by the state. Also a metaphor! And when the state tries to protect itself against the accusation of expropriation by selling the HRE special law as a financial market stabilization supplement law, in which the word expropriation is meticulously avoided, then the linguist has nothing more to say. Except that the use of metaphors reveals the real power relations for the knowledgeable.

Finally, we turn to the important linguist Lewis Carrol with the question of what the real meaning of linguistic expressions is. He, better known as the author of idiosyncratic children's books, delights us with the following dialogue (from 'Alice behind the mirrors'):
"But 'bell' doesn’t mean 'one-time proof'", Alice objected. "When I use a word," said Gogglemoggel in a very haughty tone, "then it means exactly what I think is right - no more and no less". "The only question," said Alice, "is whether one word can simply mean something else". “The only question is,” said Gogglemoggel, “who is the stronger, nothing more”.

Author: Clemens Knobloch