Image from the cover of the first edition of George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (Secker and Warburg, London, 1938).

Ecologizing the Political: Scapegoating, the Naturalistic Metaphor, and Propaganda

Metaphors reliant on "phobias" and "plagues" pass the buck to future generations, as if we have no control over our situations, when we in fact do.

The George Orwell of Homage to Catalonia, who wittingly depicts the Barcelona street-fighting right around 1937’s international Labor Day, reminds me of Bernard Rieux, the hero of Albert Camus’ The Plague, curiously set in the same time of year. Apart from being brothers in arms, the two protagonists are, to varying degrees, caught in metaphors.

According to at least one reading of The Plague, through the metaphor of a pandemic Camus narrates a situation in which the people of Oran face the social consequences of fascist occupation. Throughout the novel, the fascist ideology and its workings are respectively pictured by hordes of infected rats and the boils of bubonic plague. The opposite of being enforced from above, fascism is represented as a self-increasing and corruptive force spread from underneath, as something one must cope with. Coping is the headline: amidst chaos, the salesman sees an unsaturated black market where the city government clerk senses the need for volunteering in the sanitary groups. As for Rieux, his doctoral mind is set on finding the cure; on resistance against the unknown cause — the absurd, if you like.

Even though Barcelona was not haunted by concrete fascist presence during the spring of 1937, the ideology’s bastardizing veil still reached the Soviet-backed government. Through state-run media, the Spanish government declared the Trotskyist party with whom Orwell served to be a disguised fraction of Franco’s, and violent gun-fighting ensued. Peeking out from his sieged lookout, Orwell notes that “it — the fighting — was now thought of as some kind of natural calamity, like a hurricane or an earthquake, which was happening to us all alike and which we had no power of stopping [Emphasis added]”. Even if Orwell is a bit more selective than Camus — after all, Homage is a piece of journalism rather than fiction — the naturalistic metaphor is still there.

The two protagonists are up against the common enemy of fascism; Rieux’s attempt to cure the malady of the body is Orwell’s battle against propaganda and the malady of the mind.

Speaking of literary plagues: during an interview in the Paris Literary Review, Gabriel García Márquez confides, “Plagues have always been one of my recurrent themes… For many years I thought that the political violence in Colombia had the same metaphysics as the plague.” For an example, see the opening chapters of One Hundred Years of Solitude, where Márquez lets an insomnia plague loose upon the people of Macondo, causing them to suffer amnesia to the point of illiteracy. Here, the metaphor of the plague describes Columbia’s inability to remember and communicate its history without corrupting it: “…for there was no doubt but that the illness was transmitted by mouth”. When the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía (the family alchemist) spends his pre-illiteracy days and nights labeling the objects of Macondo so that their names are spared from the amnesia, he could be said to navigate through his country’s counterfeit past, taking up Rieux’s resistance against the absurd.

Plagues alone don’t quite cover the metaphysics of Colombian political violence, to use Màrquez’s phrase. In The Autumn of the Patriarch, the author invents a dictator in order to get inside rooms invisible from the street. Numerous shifting narrators carry the plot forward, taking turns reminiscing about the life of the patriarch (or, “the general of the universe”, as his official rank has it) after he’s found dead in his sacred presidential palace, surrounded by ruminating cows. Starting with the title, Márquez’s novel is rich of metaphorical content. This includes not only hurricanes, comets, and solar eclipses, but the general himself — or, rather, his power — as a force of nature. By giving him an age well past 100, cannibalistic dreams (one of which is realized), and the inability until late in life to read and write — capacities quite synonymous with culture — Márquez places his protagonist closer to nature than culture. This goes for the general’s exterior as well: his elephantine feet and (native) fig-sized testicle are mentioned every 20 pages. Like any force of nature, we want it contained. But in spite of feigned newspapers, edited TV broadcasts, and staged city streets were the general to take a stroll, the people remain captive under his power. After all, nobody would dare enter the presidential palace of the late patriarch until the vultures turn up. Only nature can end an autumn.

Whereas Camus mirrors the oppressive mindset in the decaying body, Orwell draws on ecological disaster, e.g. a hurricane or an earthquake, in portraying the confused and inevitable fighting in Barcelona. Márquez, with the plague-ridden One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Orwellian theme of The Autumn of a Patriarch, does both.

Stepping back, one finds this narrative device of the naturalistic metaphor used on every level of writing, perhaps most persistently by journalists throwing around dull slogans such as “right-wing wind”, “cancer on society”, “Arab Spring” (sometimes paired with an “Arab Autumn”), “Islamophobia”, or “political tremor”. (Granted, there are less dull ones; I recently heard the global middle-class being described as “a swarm of grasshoppers” turning the authentic into mass-products). Now, apart from their sheer sloppiness, the first thing to notice about such phrases is their way of sidestepping responsibility. Classifying undesirable political movements, trends, or insurgencies as cancers, earthquakes, phobias or any other part of the untamable nature, gives their causes an air of mystique. The implication is that the we imagined by the writer had nothing to do with it, couldn’t have foreseen it or let alone prevented it. It’s an easy trick, for what are metaphors if not augmented similes?

“Fascism is a plague” states that fascism is like a plague in some respects albeit, in an unmentioned fashion; for instance, both cause misery. But what’s pointed at above is that metaphors actually transfer meanings from one expression onto another; the Greek word, metapherō, translates “to carry over”. If this weren’t the case, metaphors would’ve been terrible at propagandizing: “What do you mean they’re cockroaches? They look just like us!”

This is an old tactic. If we believe Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, most political metaphors are lazy journalism buying into the propaganda of the time. According to his pamphlet, scientific and political writing at mid-century left the reader more perplexed than enlightened as the language drifted away from reality toward rhetorical abstractions. In this way, complicated topics were touched without anybody actually grabbing on to them. Summarizing the state of the art, Orwell concludes that “…prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”.

Such sections of hen-houses can look like this: “render inoperative”, “prove unacceptable”, and “exhibit a tendency to”. All of these phrases still have their work before them. In what way is a thing “rendered inoperative”? How can something be “proved unacceptable”? How is “exhibiting a tendency to” different from “tending to”? Seeing as our “right-wing wind”, “cancer on society” or “Islamophobia” are as emotionally impotent and void of content as Orwell’s examples, political writing hasn’t quite recovered from its old obsession with abstract rhetoric. These naturalistic metaphors rid us from responsibility. “Phobic” is saying “irrational — nothing to do”. “Wind”, “wave”, or “earthquake” say that whatever they are describing is “unpredictable — who could have known?”. For something to be “cancerous” is, frankly, to say that it’s “bad luck”.

The second thing to note about naturalistic metaphors is the difference between ecological (e.g., “right-wing wind”) and corporeal (e.g., “a cancer”) variants. Letting a disease-ridden body represent the state of society, in the style of Camus and Márquez, suggests a dogmatic mindset, at least if the British anthropologist Mary Douglas is right. Upon concluding her book Natural Symbols (Taylor & Francis, 1996), Douglas urges us to “Beware… of arguments couched in the bodily medium”, as those tend to be given from an eschatological standpoint, deeming the current social system sacral and, hence, self-justified.

Departing from the assumption that the physical body is the main symbolic locus for the social system, Douglas maintains that culturally specific conceptions of the body – foremost manifested in dietary and purity rules – provide a potent channel for understanding how people conceive of the social system in which they are enmeshed. The correlation that Douglas has discovered by comparing Nilotic tribes to the Roman Catholic Church of England to Caribbean sects and so on elucidates this argument: the stricter the ideas about physical health are in a certain society, the more pressure and coercion — be it direct or disguised — are exercised therein.

Now, isn’t the Westerner’s body a nice and clean machine, with manuals for how it’s supposed to look, behave and feel, and kept intact by a necessary dose of hypochondria? (At least, mine is.) That’s why Camus’s allegory and phrases alluding to physical decline works: in physical matters, everyone knows how to discern illness from health and when to be suspicious. Douglas’s warning is that this thinking carries over to the social body. Applying a particular vocabulary originally reserved for the physical (plagued, phobic, cancerous, etc.) to the social system (whether modern or tribal) is nothing but viewing something ephemeral and changing as absolute. The message reproduced by expressions such as “cancer on society” and “phobia”, then, is that the current social system (in our case: market-driven individualism) is the soundest available and its institutions are self-justified, much like the presidential palace of Màrquez’s patriarch.

As for ecologically inspired expressions such as “terrorist wave”, “right-wing wind”, or “Arab Spring”, nature seems to finally have had it. By now, must of us know that humankind is responsible for climate change. It’s quite contradictory, then, to evade responsibility for something by ecologizing it; surely, when springs turns to autumn, winds blow rightwards, or waves interrupt quiet waters, and thus, we probably have dirty hands from playing carelessly in nature.

Ecologizing the political renders it, if not man-made, at least law-governed, if weather-forecasts prove anything at all even foreseeable. Indeed, the generic newsroom has its workforce discussing poll results and hypothesizing about likely turns of events. For example, a journalist reporting for ABC News claimed that people from all over the world, are “flooding” into ISIS, which is “flourishing”. Later, we are told that Ma’an in southern Jordan has become a “fertile” ground for the Islamist cult to “grow” on. Of course, the reporter didn’t constrain herself from hypothesizing about the “root” of the problem; even if we’re not responsible for it, it’s predictable just as the weather is. Also like the weather, it’ll always be there for us to curse.

It’s ironic how our self-proclaimed irresponsibility for one thing is undermined by our very real responsibility for another thing. Metaphorically-speaking, after all, what’s the difference between cyclones and Zyklon B’s?

Viktor Lund holds a BA in theoretical philosophy and social anthropology from Lund’s University, Sweden. Academically, he takes a particular interest in themes such as symbolism and propaganda, but writes about most things relating to music and literature. Viktor Lund lives in southern Sweden and blogs here.