Lakoff's Body Language
by Jon Beasley-Murray
Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things,
by George Lakoff,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 401 pp.
In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things George Lakoff argues: first, that emotions are concepts, that they do a form of cognitive work and constitute “an extremely complex conceptual structure” (380); and, second, that these “emotional concepts are embodied, that is, that the actual content of the concepts are correlated with bodily experience” (408).
To prove his argument, he presents dozens of idiomatic sayings or expressions, taking the particular case of anger. Anger, he shows, is conventionally associated with heat (“hot under the collar,” “hot and bothered”), pressure (“burst a blood vessel”), and agitation (“hopping mad,” “quivering with rage”). Such idioms correlate, Lakoff suggests, with a “folk theory” that imagines anger in terms of a contained liquied, an imaginary that enables a whole series of “metaphorical entailments” (384). So anger produces steam (“all steamed up”), can at least temporarily be held back (“bottled up”), but, if it does not find relief (either “vented” or “channeled”) is liable to lead to explosion (“flipping her lid,” “blowing his top”).
Lakoff goes further: he presents a sort of basic narrative of anger in terms of this metaphorical structure. An offending event excites anger, which the victim of the event fist tries to control but then fails, until he or she can enact some retribution for the purported wrong-doing (397-98). This is the embodied folk theory of anger.
Where Lakoff goes out on a limb, however, is with his claim that “the conceptual metaphors and metonymies used in anger are by no means arbitrary; instead they are motivated by our physiology” (407). If we think through the body, it is because somehow the body knows best; the verbal idioms and linguistic categories through which we understand emotion in common parlance are rooted in a primary corporeal experience that is transcultural and transhistorical: “if we look at metaphors and metonymies for anger in the languages of the world, we will not find any that contradict the physiological results” (407).
It is therefore all the more startling that Lakoff moves immediately to a discussion, in very similar terms, of idioms of lust and ultimately the language used to justify rape. Though he is careful to note that he himself in no way condones violence against women, he seems very close to naturalizing and so legitimating the fundamentally sexist “folk argumentation” that claims that (in his words) “a woman with a sexy appearance makes a man who is acting morally less than human. [. . .] To be made less than human is to be injured. [. . .] The only way to make up for being injured is to inflict and injury of the same kind” (414).
If language is only an expression of a somehow more fundamental set of embodied concepts, then those concepts are put beyond reach and thoroughly naturalized. It is surely better to see the body as an always contested (or contestable) point of contact between conceptual schemes of diverse origin, between affect and emotion, and between a social order and a corporeal experience that is never anything other than social. The body, in short, is the site of a habituation whereby (in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms) an arbitrary symbolic power is made, quite literally, to feel timeless and necessary.
Bourdieu tries to capture this notion with the concept of “bodily hexis, which he defines as “a political mythology realized, em-bodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking” (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 92-94). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, in an only very slightly different context:
The practical acts of knowledge and recognition of the magical frontier between the dominant and the dominated that are triggered by the magic of symbolic power and through which the dominated, often unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly contribute to their own domination by tacitly accepting the limits imposed, often take the form of bodily emotions–shame, humiliation, timidity, anxiety, guild–or passions and sentiments–love, admiration, respect. (Masculine Domination 38)
The very fact that we seem to be betrayed by our own bodies, by a logic that precedes or undercuts rationality, can seem to legitimate the structures of power that the body thereby apparently confirms. But it is what Slavoj Zizek, in turn, would call the ideological structure of social reality (which is far from ideology as it is usually conceived) that has itself to be interrogated and overthrown.
Crossposted with Posthegemony