index.html  Toward a semiotic model of democracy

 

Peeter Selg


Tallinn University & Tallinn University of Technology

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

First, this article proposes a model of democracy, based on Roman Jakobson’s well-known functions of communication on the one hand and Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics and the Essex school’s theory of hegemony, discourse and democracy on the other. Second, using concrete examples and general insights from both political science (including political psychology, and political theory) and semiotics it proposes six ideal-types for analysis of democratic communication: 1) “authoritarian populism” associated with phatic public communication; 2) “democratic populism” associated with poetic public communication; 3) “clientelist democracy” associated with conative public communication; 4) “deliberative democracy” associated with referential public communication; 5) “radical democracy” associated with metalingual public communication; 6) “totalitarian populism” associated with emotive public communication. Third, it provides brief methodological guidelines for future research (including how the categories are to be utilized in contextual descriptions, classifications, and explanations of the tendencies in democratic public communication).

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Charles Tilly, the most influential democracy analyst of the preceding decades, sets an agenda for his last book Democracy, which he regards “as the culmination and synthesis of all my work on the subject” (Tilly 2008: xii). Locating himself among the camp of “process-oriented” rather than those of “constitutional”, “procedural” or “substantive” analysts, and pointing to the limits of Dahl’s (1998) approach among this camp, he proposes the following: “we want to do two… things: first, to compare regimes with regard to how democratic they are; second, to follow individual regimes through time, observing when and how they become more or less democratic (Tilly 2008: 10). Expressing the same point with well-known distinctions from the semiotic tradition, we could say that Tilly is looking for a model of democracy that could be utilized for both synchronic and diachronic analyses. Semiotic analyses are virtually neglected from political science, though current decade has witnessed some indications of their usefulness even in the most influential forums of political science (Wedeen 2002; 2004). In the field of semiotics it is worth referring to some recent works dealing with semiotics’ relation to politics and power (Monticelli 2008; Steedman 2006, Bolton 2006; Mandoki 2004) and the possibilities for “political semiotics” as a discipline (Volli 2003; Selg and Ventsel 2008; Ventsel 2009a; Drechsler 2009;) and the issue of semiotic social sciences more generally (Heiskala 2003); we could also refer to concrete analyses of signs in political propaganda, campaigns, projects, framing, advertisements, identities and ideologies (Xing-Hua 2005; Zichermanm 2006; Ponzio 2006; Petrilli 2006; Clark and Jacobs 2002; Mcilwain 2007); or several analyses of the semiotic environment of the over-politicized societies (see Lepik 2002; Babayan 2006; Buckler 2006; Ventsel 2009b). Yet in both fields there is clearly a lack of distinct models of political phenomena from the semiotic point of view. This article takes steps toward that direction, offering insights on the possibilities for applying semiotic models on the empirical studies of democray. However, the aim here is to provide a six-fold model of democracy and clarify theoretical foundations of its categories from both semiotics and political analysis. The model offered constitutes a research program (to be subjected to future scrutiny) and the examples provided are preliminary illustrations and do not form an elaborated empirical research. Since this is a journal of semiotics we will presume the reader to master general strands of the discipline and spend considerably more time in explicating the political analysis side of the model offered below. The latter is but one among many possibilities. Its foundations from Jakobson, Tartu-Moscow school and the Essex school by no means exhaust the possible routes for semiotic theorizing of democracy. Yet the limited space and the expansiveness of the task require setting some restrictions to the exposition.

 

 

 

General theoretical foundations of the semiotic model of democracy

 

Our problem could be illustrated as follows. Laclau and Mouffe’s work (1985) inaugurated one of the most influential strands of contemporary “discourse theory”, referred to as the “Essex school”. Denouncing sometimes explicitly ‘semiotic’ and ‘cognitivist’ approaches (see Laclau 2005: 110; Laclau 2004: 302, 320) and drawing from post-Wittgensteinian and post-structuralist philosophy and psychoanalysis, Laclau and Mouffe nevertheless seem to endorse the general view shared by many semioticians and cognitive scientists: “Synonymy, metonymy, metaphor are not forms of thought that add a second sense to a primary, constitutive literality of social relations; instead, they are part of the primary terrain itself in which the social is constituted” (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 110; cf Lotman 2001: 37; Lakoff and Johnson 2003: 144). This does not entail for Laclau and Mouffe any form of “idealism” that denies extra-cognitive or extra-discursive reality per se, since an event like earthquake “is an event that certainly exists, in the sense that it occurs here and now, independently of my will”, yet “whether their specificity as objects is constructed in terms of ‘natural phenomena’ or ‘expressions of the wrath of God’, depends upon the structuring of a discursive field (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 108). What is important, however, is that the “Essex School” lays special emphasis on the political logic operating in each construction of reality. Their theory of discourse using categories like “articulation”, “empty and floating signifiers”, “logic of equivalence and difference”, “antagonism” etc was developed to address political problems like the characteristics of democracy and the forms of power suitable and inimical to it. So, it is not just about how meaning shapes our world for this school – it is first and foremost how our world is constructed politically. Thus, were we to look for a theory of the political compatible with semiotic approaches, the Essex school would seem a fine starting-point to turn to. And it is exactly what we are looking for and this leads us to more general problems related to this school and its relation to semiotics.

 

The Essex school approach to political tries to acknowledge the post-structuralist ontology of “undecidability” and eternal “play of signifiers” (Derrida 2007: 385) without any “transcendental signified (Ibid, 354; cf Norval 2004a) on the one hand, yet, on the other, to provide conceptual tools for grasping how this flow of signifiers is temporarily articulated into a bounded meaningful wholes (“discourses”). The  logic of this undecidable articulation consists in placing a particular signifier – the “empty signifier” that is devoid of differential identity – to the status of incarnation of the whole system of signifiers, providing thus a precarious closure to this system. This way the approach differs from the particularism of postmodernism “which denies the possibility of any kind of mediating logic between incompatible language games” (Laclau 2001a: 5). But it also departs from universalist approaches that presume some “natural” or “universal” grounds for those language games (Ibid, cf Laclau 1999: 104). It affirms the constitutive role of “universals”, but sees their status as contingent resulting from balance of power/hegemony. Hence it conceptualizes them in terms of “empty signifiers” (a label already utilized but not developed into a concept by Barthes [1993: 114, 117, 134]) that are figurative constructions functioning as the ground-providing universals for discourses. In the last instance the “empty signifier” is none other than a name for a discourse, functioning as its unifying ground (Laclau 2005: 101-110). This way naming creates what Laclau (1996: 44) calls “chain of equivalences” (another label for “discourse”) between differential elements. Establishing relations of equivalences between differential elements modifies the identity of the latter by making their relation to unifying name an inextricable part of their meaning. In this sense constructing “discourses” is always a hegemonic unification of meanings, the hegemon being a particular signifier (like “justice”) that functions as a unifying name (i. e. “empty signifier”) for the whole chain (“welfare”, “civil rights”, etc). Laclau explains it through an example. When “workers’ mobilization succeeds in presenting its own objectives as a signifier of ‘liberation’ in general” (Ibid, 44) then “this is a hegemonic victory, because the objectives of a particular group are identified with society at large” (Ibid, 45). Yet he points out that:

in another sense, this is a dangerous victory. If ‘workers’ struggle’ becomes the signifier of liberation as such, it also becomes the surface of inscription through which all liberating struggles will be expressed, so that the chain of equivalences which are unified around this signifier tend to empty it, and blur its connection with the actual content with which it was originally associated (Ibid).

 

Thus hegemonic unification tends, first, to empty the signifiers that are used to identify central social struggles – “workers’ struggle” was originally a more concretely delineated endeavour, but it tends to mean “everything and nothing” when becoming hegemonic. Second, the different elements that are united through these names (“empty signifiers”) tend to be emptied of their differential identity and become “biased” so to speak toward being equivalent with the unifying name. Third, their identity that is based on their more or less clear difference from each other tends to be corrupted or subverted by their being also equivalent to each other (Laclau 2005: 70). In other words all elements that form a discourse are partially “empty” (equivalent) and partially “filled” (different) of their particular meaning. This constitutes an insurmountable tension in any discourse. Laclau coins a special vocabulary for conceptualising this tension. The discourse’s tendency to present its elements more equivalent than different is called “logic of equivalence”; the opposite tendency bears the label of “logic of difference”. There cannot be complete victory of either logic, but only precariously stable constructions of chains of equivalence between different elements. Each of those constructions “is necessarily tropological. This means that those discursive forms that construct a horizon of all possible representation within a certain context, which establish the limits of what is ‘sayable’ are going to be necessarily figurative” (Laclau 2006: 114). That is: discourses are articulated through rhetoric mechanisms. Yet this view poses for us a problem: how to distinguish different constructions, if each construction is rhetorical? Are there any conceptual resources available for claiming different types of “empty signifiers”? Is it possible to discern different types of political articulation? Questions like these point among other things to the need of clarification “of the relation between the logic of hegemonic practice and particular forms of political regime. For instance, in what way do democratic and authoritarian forms of hegemony differ?” (Norval 2000: 229).

Recently these problems have been interpreted with recourse to the Tartu School of semiotics (Selg and Ventsel 2008; Ventsel 2009a: 97-125). The central message of these interventions is that despite different labels the categories of the Essex school (discourse, logic of difference and equivalence; empty signifiers, articulation) and those of the Tartu school (text/semiosphere, discrete and continuous coding, rhetorical translation) play exactly the same functional role in both theories, enabling a mutual complementation of each other. The notion of translation in terms of discrete/continuous coding from the Tartu school and the notion of discourse in terms of logic of difference/equivalence of the Essex school form the most general basis for the semiotic model of democracy outlined here. We have already explicated the “Essex side” of the story and turn now to the “Tartu side”. According to Lotman every meaningful totality is at least bilingual, implying that meanings do not get their full constitution through correspondence to some monolingually graspable “reality”. Lotman speaks about discrete and continuous coding systems. According to him, the mutual untranslatability of those coding systems is due to their fundamentally different structuring principles. In a discrete system, “the basic bearer of meaning is the segment (= sign), while the text or the chain of segments (= text) is secondary, its meaning being derived from the meanings of the signs” (Lotman 2001: 36). The tendency towards discreteness could be found for example in written language or logical formulas. In a continuous system “the text is primary, being the bearer of the basic meaning” (Ibid). The meaning of such text “is organized neither in a linear nor in a temporal sequence, but is ‘washed over’ the n-dimension semantic space of the given text (the canvas of a picture, the space of a stage, of a screen, a ritual, of a social behaviour or of a dream)” (Ibid). As with the logic of difference and equivalence, the discrete and continuous coding are in constant tension in each meaningful whole (“text”) and there cannot be complete and accurate translation from one into the other but only semantic translation through rhetorical tropes, that are not “external ornaments, something applied to a thought from the outside – they constitute the essence of creative thinking” (Lotman 2001: 37). Thus  “all attempts to create visual analogues for abstract ideas, to depict continuous processes in discrete formulae with the help of broken line [ottochie], to construct spatial physical models for elementary particles, and so on, are rhetorical figures (tropes) (Lotman 2001: 37, italics added).

How do we approximate Lotman’s message more directly to that of Laclau? An important link for that is Roman Jakobson. Using his well-known distinction we could say that in the continuous linkage the paradigmatic pole of language prevails, and in the case of discrete linkage the same holds for syntagmatic pole (Jakobson 1998: 115-134). And this is a moment of our argument when we can draw a substantial parallel between Lotman and Laclau and Mouffe, since the latter state explicitly: “Taking a comparative example from linguistics, we could say that the logic of difference tends to expand the syntagmatic pole of language… while the logic of equivalence expands the paradigmatic pole (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 130, italics added). So “logic of difference” plays the same functional role in their framework as does “discrete coding” in that of Lotman. The same holds for “logic of equivalence” and “continuous coding” respectively (see Ventsel 2009: 97-125 for mote details).

Now, bringing in Jakobson is a useful step for two additional reasons. First, as semioticians know well, Jakobson (Ibid) identified the paradigmatic pole of language with that of metaphoric, and syntagmatic pole with the metonymic one. What is probably less known, is that the same logic is central for Laclau in theorizing of pluralist democracy and totalitarianism as the two poles of instituting social relations within the framework of “democratic revolution”:

I see the history of democracy as divided by one fundamental cleavage.  On the one hand, we have democracy as the attempt to construct the people as “one”, a homogeneous social actor opposed either to “power” or to an external enemy – or to a combination of both. This is the Jacobin conception of democracy, with its concomitant ideal of a transparent community unified – if necessary – by terror. This is the tradition that runs, with very analogous structural features, from Robespierre to Pol Pot. The discourses around which this democratic ideal is constructed are, obviously, predominantly metaphoric… On the other hand, we have democracy as respect of difference, as shown, for instance, in multiculturalism or in the new pluralism associated with contemporary social movements. Here we have discourses that are predominantly metonymic  Within this basic polarity there are, obviously, all kinds of possible intermediate combinations that we can start exploring through the variety of tropoi to be found in classical rhetoric (Laclau 2001b: 250, italics added).

 

Jakobson has even analyzed this distinction in view of two different forms of aphasia:

 

Every form of aphasic disturbance consists in some impairment… of the faculty either for selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. The former affliction involves a deterioration of metalinguistic operations, while the latter damages the capacity for maintaining the hierarchy of linguistic units. The relation of similarity is suppressed in the former, the relation of contiguity in the latter type of aphasia. Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder, and metonymy to the contiguity disorder.  (Jakobson 1998: 129).

 

Note that Jakobson explicitly locates the metalinguistic operations to the metonymic pole of language – the pole that is characterized as the “pluralist” tendency within the democratic tradition by Laclau. In addition: the “capacity for maintaining the hierarchy” is located to the metaphoric pole – characterized as the totalitarian tendency by Laclau. Of course, Jakobson adds (Ibid) that there cannot be absolute predominance of either processes, but we can identify prevailing tendencies and this paves the way for typologies of different communication styles – the contribution to which Jakobson (1960) has taken up elsewhere. Linking his insights with theory of democracy informs the rest of this paper.

Laclau explains the metonymy/metaphor relation to the extremes of the discourse of democracy (totaliarianism/pluralism, metaphor/metonymy). But what types of democracy are there between these theoretical extremes? In Lotman’s terms: what forms of democratic “texts” are there between completely continuous and completely discrete ones? Jakobson’s model of language functions combined with insights from political analyses could provide us with a coherent answer. The guiding insight about the “extremes” of democratic discourse is captured by Laclau and Mouffe in terms of “totalitarian” and “radical democratic” imaginary: “while the radical democratic imaginary presupposes openness and pluralism and processes of argumentation which never lead to an ultimate foundation, totalitarian societies are constituted through their claim to master the foundation” (Laclau and Mouffe 1987: 105-6). At first approximation (elaborated below) we could say the same idea in Jakobson’s terms applied to public communication: democratic practice is a tendency towards metalingual-referential public communication in a society, whilst totalitarian practice is a tendency towards emotive-phatic public communication. Connecting the insights of democratic theory and Jakobson’s model of communication – seeing latter and the Essex’ notion of discourse (via Lotman’s notion of translation) as congenial – we could provide a sketch for a semiotic model of democratization.  We propose six ideal types for conceptualizing democracy in terms of prevalent semiotic function in public communication.

 

The Categories for Democratic Public Communication

 

Some brief remarks before proceeding. First, we should point to Jakobson’s general remark concerning his “language functions” and their relation to other semiotic systems. Jakobson envisions a general view of communication studies in relation to semiotics associating the latter explicitly to “study in communication of any messages” (Jakobson 1998: 463, italics added). Our aim is to delineate possibilities for “political semiotics”, thus our focus is not on general, but political communication, that is, on different types of hegemonic forms of public communication. Second, since Jakobson never deemed the language functions he distinguished as possible in their pure form or monopoly “but in a different hierarchical order of functions” (Jakobson 1960: 353), when we speak of types of public communication we could in practice intelligibly speak of tendencies only. Thus, for instance, there is no “pure” “deliberative democracy” or “totalitarian populism” to be found in any existing societies. But nevertheless tendencies are discernable and analytically speaking, we could say that public communication can have tendencies ranging from phatic, emotive, poetic, conative, referential and metalingual form. In each of the categories below the general label (like “authoritarian populism”) refers to an ideal type in which a certain communication (referred to in the parentheses) is prevalent in the public sphere. However, we do not intend those categories to point to a certain diachronic “evolution” of democratization, but insist that these different “democracies” always function to a certain degree synchronically in different stratums of public sphere, and tend to intersect, “break down” and produce new combinations. Third, the terms “public sphere” or “public communication” are used in a wider sense than the Habermasian usages suggest. We speak, for instance, of “totalitarian” or “deliberative” public communication that are both but one form of the latter. We see “public” in a roughly Deweyian sense consisting “of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (Dewey 1988: 245–6). Constructing those “agents”, “transactions” and “consequences” is primarily a communicative problem for us. The stress on public communication should not be overlooked, since we do not claim that phatic communication, for instance, necessarily implies “authoritarian personality” per se. We do want to insist, however, that the public spheres in which there is an overwhelming tendency to address issues only for the sake of contact itself – in terms of stereotypes or “common places” – renders a good ground for suspecting democratic deficiency in the corresponding social formation.  Fourth, three of the labels provided for the categories below contain the term “populism”. Our general view on the underlying concept is Laclauian: “populism” is not a marker of certain political content, but of the logic of articulation of whatever political content (Laclau 2005: 117). In principle, you can articulate “freedom of speech” in a populist form as easily as “expropriation of the expropriators”. And in practice, there is an almost infinite array of variations on the content level. As Laclau points out: “in Latin American populisms a statist discourse of citizens’ rights predominates, while what we find in Eastern Europe is an ethnic populism trying to enhance the particularism of the national values of specific communities” (Laclau 2005: 193). The general logic of populism consists in the discursive simplification of social space into very few antagonistic camps (“people” vs “the establishment”, “proletariat” vs “capitalists” etc) through privileging logic of equivalence (continuous-metaphoric coding) in the construction of political discourse (Ibid, 81). The opposite political logic of difference (discrete-metonymic coding) tries to differentiate social elements or demands and hinders their simplification and becoming equivalent with each other (Ibid). We can see an important parallel between the totalitarian and democratic logic indicated above, but as Laclau points out: “the spectrum of possible articulations is far more diversified than the simple opposition totalitarianism/democracy seems to suggest” (Laclau 2005: 166). All the predicate markers contained in the labels of the following categories (“totalitarian”, “authoritarian”, “democratic”, “clientelist”, “deliberative”, “radical”) point to the form of political articulation, not to (ideological) content (“liberal”, “socialist” etc).

 

Authoritarian Populism (phatic public communication)

 

Contrary to Stuart Hall’s usages of the term for conceptualizing Thatcherist political discourse (Hall 1979: 15-17; cf Hall 1985) delineating the latter as an undemocratic ideological content, our approach tries to discern “authoritarian populism” as a form of articulation. Thus we should start with an effort to distinguish this political form from that which is usually deemed even more undemocratic: “totalitarianism”. The debate concerning the demarcation line between “totalitarian” and “authoritarian” political systems has been intense in past decades. Italian scholar and a major democratic theorist, Giovanni Sartori points out that the early literature on “totalitarianism” had “two paramount referents: Nazism and Stalinism” for the concept (Sartori 1987: 193). He highlights an “important mood… of outright dismissal” (Ibid, 195) of that very concept since the middle of 1960s on the grounds of its being “a cold-war propaganda tool biased by polemical overtones, and that communist regimes are by now different among themselves and from what they were in the 1950s” (Ibid). Sartori is far from allying with this mood concerning “totalitarianism” and provides conceptual tools for “transform[ing] totalitarianism as an object concept… into ‘totalitarian’ as a predicate” (Ibid, 203). What is important, however, is that this mood of reserving the referent of “totalitarianism” to one-party-one-ideology systems of the traumatic past, and recourse to the concept of “authoritarianism” in case of contemporary non-democratic systems has informed influential works in political science of the last decades. “Authoritarian regimes are political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism,” Juan Linz (1970: 255) announces; they are “without elaborate and guiding ideology (but with distinctive mentalities)” and “without intensive nor extensive political mobilization (except some points in their development); and in which a leader (or occasionally a small group) exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones” (Ibid). Similar orientations seem to inform other theorists of the same period who prefer to concentrate on a more “benign” forms of contemporary repressive regimes instead of Leninist-Stalinist like “totalitarianisms” (Kirckpatrick 1979); or on “the modern authoritarian model” referring to “an exclusive, centralist political organization populated and dominated by an oligarchic political elite” (Perlmutter 1981: 7, italics added). So the predicate “totalitarian” does not seem to have referents in contemporary political science, especially after 1989: even North Korea is an “authoritarian” regime according to the Economist’s Intelligence Units Index of Democracy (Kekic 2007: 5). Another “symptom” of such attitude is the “best-selling” work of a Zakaria (2007) concentrating on “illiberal democracy”. He only sporadically mentions “totalitarianism” in connection to Jacobin or third world regimes of the 1960s (Ibid, 65, 268), whereas reference to “populist authoritarianism” is ubiquitous in his writings, attributing the latter to third world countries including Russia and Venezuela (Ibid, 99, 259) or even China (Ibid, 269). Roughly the same tendencies are found in Robert Dahl’s works conceived both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall (Dahl 1989; 1998). We will return to the problem of “totalitarianism” later, but our question concerning “authoritarianism” is the following: what language functions predominate publicly in an “authoritarian” society, described roughly as “limited pluralism” or “opposite to democracy” on the one hand, but “non-totalitarian” on the other?

 

A first reorientation should direct our intention from institutions to that of agents. Now, this is the topic that has in fact historically inaugurated the whole discipline of political psychology. Usually the path paving work for the latter considered the Frankfurt School’s The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al 1950). Albeit the almost complete dismissal of the original research methods of this work and its psychoanalytic theory of personality, the partly pejorative label “authoritarian” itself is pretty much alive these days. In political psychology “authoritarianism” is the major reference point for explaining prejudice, dogmatism, closed belief systems and strong in-group identifications of people (for classic expositions see Rokeach 1960; Kelman and Barkley 1963; Lipset 1960; Sales 1973; more contemporary approaches include Duckitt 1989; Altmeyer 1996; Doty et al. 1991, Feldman and Stenner 1997). The point to make for our purposes from those markers above (“prejudice”, “dogmatism” etc) is that “authoritarian” agent is generally conceived as forming a “docile citizenry”. The latter is explicitly considered inconsistent with democracy by the aforementioned “democracy index”: “A culture of passivity and apathy, an obedient and docile citizenry, are not consistent with democracy” (Kekic 2007: 2). As is well known, the ethos of disclosing the discursive techniques of creating “docile population” in modern societies has informed all the works of Michel Foucault for whom it is “clear that we are living under a regime of a dictatorship of class, of a power of class which imposes itself by violence, even when the instruments of this violence are institutional and constitutional” (Chomsky, Foucault 1974: 170). Moving away from Foucault for whom “there isn’t any question of democracy for us” (Ibid) to his well-known critic Jürgen Habermas, we should point that in his early and strongly psychoanalytically oriented writings he touches the issue of this “docile” agent in question for whom the “dogmatic limitation of false consciousness consists not only in the lack of specific information but in its specific inaccessibility” (Habermas 1971: 229). The latter  “is not only a cognitive deficiency; for the deficiency is fixated by habitualized standards on the basis of affective attitudes. That is why the mere communication of information and the labelling of resistances have no therapeutic effect” (Ibid). We could use this hint from Habermas to indicate that the constellation in question is between “communicating information” (Jakobson’s referential function of language) and “habitualized standards on the basis of affective attitudes”. The key to the latter could best be captured by Jakobson’s phatic communication. Interpreting his and Habermas’ views interchangeably we could say that stating facts and arguments (referential function) within a communication predominated by phatic function (establishing and maintaining contact) would “have no therapeutic effect”. By the latter Habermas means: overcoming “the blocking force that stands in the way of free and public communication of repressed contents” (Ibid). Despite his well-known fundamental theoretical disagreements with “postmodernists” like Jean Baudrillard, Habermas would certainly agree with latter’s general diagnosis of the late-capitalist “tele-dimension of the communications networks”: “Contact for contact’s sake becomes the empty form with which language seduces itself when it no longer has anything to say” (Baudrillard 1991: 164). And Baudrillard explicitly refers to Jakobson’s phatic function of language in this connection (Ibid). Jakobson himself points to “entire dialogues with the mere purport of prolonging communication” (Jakobson 1960: 355) when delineating this function, indicating to the “emptiness” of this type of communication from the informational (discrete) perspective and pointing to its ritual or mythological character. The latter in turn is an important example of continuous coding in Lotman’s sense who characterizes the consequences of “mythological” coding as follows: it “makes one see manifestations of the One phenomenon in the various phenomena of the real world, and observe the One Object behind the diversity of objects of the same type” (Lotman 2004: 571). This is already alluded in Laclau’s view on the tendencies “to essentialize the link between the terms of the analogy” in metaphoric (antidemocratic) constructions (Laclau 2001a: 8) or Barthes’ conception of myth that “abolishes the complexity of human acts” and “gives them simplicity of essences” (Barthes 1993: 143). Classic works of political psychology have observed this tendency as well: Robert Lifton speaks of “thought-terminating cliché” through which “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed” (Lifton 1989: 429). Recent cognitive scientist political analysis of George Lakoff discusses the conservative metaphor “tax relief” that presents taxes as afflictions by nature and this way frames public communication on social policies from the conservative point of view. Lakoff points out that the Democrat’s arguments on taxation will not work as long as they adopt this metaphor (Lakoff 2009: 233-239; see 159-162 for discussion of the stereotype “welfare queen”, created by Ronald Reagan). We could say that he points to the same general logic: this “metaphor”, “myth” or “thought-terminating cliché” attunes us to be phatic on the “essence” of taxation and docilely neglect the bias in its construction. Likewise, in April 26th – 27th 2007, Estonia witnessed unprecedented street riots mostly in the center of its capital Tallinn related to the displacement of a Soviet WWII memorial (containing a bronze statue) from city center to military cemetery. As Wertsch (2008: 133) summarizes: “By the time these two days of civil unrest were over 1 young man had been killed, 100 people, including 13 police officers had been injured, and nearly 1,000 people had been arrested.” These events came to be signified by the name “bronze night” [pronksöö] in the Estonian media, its public usage originating from the editorial with the same title of Estonia’s most read non-tabloid newspaper Postimees on April 28th 2007. By now the “bronze” discourse concerning the events informs literally thousands of newspaper articles and internet entries in Estonia. The general “bronzing” of this issue functions exactly like the “tax relief” discussed by Lakoff: it produces the docile and passive attitudes towards the events and makes it almost impossible to critically discuss those events publicly in Estonia. The general carrier of this “bronze” discourse is the Estonian media from which the following selection from hundreds of phatic titles and leads are provided for illustrations (italics added, all translations by us):Bronze-night law returned with a slightly mended outfit” (Postimees [PM]), 15.10.2009); “Riigikogu [i. e. Parliament of Estonia] approved the bronze-night law” (PM, 15.10.2009); “The court shall pronounce today the full version of the bronze-night sentence” (Estonian National Broadcast, 06.01.2009); “The bronze-night sentence reached the foreign media” (Eesti Päevaleht, 06.01.2009); “Among the Finnish and Scandinavian editions that followed closely the events in Estonia during the bronze-nights, only the YLE Swedish and Helsingin Sanomat have paid attention to the ending of the bronze-trial” (Ibid); “The men who installed the security-fences at bronze-night receive the Civil courage badge” (PM, 30.11.2007). “Tallinn slept peacefully at the bronze-night anniversary” (PM, 27.04.2008); “The crisis of confidence that resulted from the bronze-events has turned out to be deeper and lasting” (A photograph signature in PM 08.12.2008).

 

But this kind of phatic communication does not always reveal itself so directly through repetition of a single metaphor or “myth”. As the example from Dorothy Parker’s play utilized by Jakobson (1960: 355-56) indicates it involves appeals to perceived “common places”. Phatic citizenry could be illustrated with these examples from the American public communication before the second war in Iraq: “Right now we have only opinions about the war. The facts will be known after Saddam is deposed and we find out exactly what he’s been hiding, if anything,” states Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly on March 3rd 2003. Notice how the question of “deposing Saddam” is not framed in terms of “if” or “whether”, but in terms of “after” – pointing to the perceived common place of conservative Fox news audience. Britney Spears   provides us with almost a paradigm of phatic citizenry: “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens” (CNN, September 3rd, 2003).

From these brief remarks we could provide an initial list of typological features for conceptualizing “authoritarian populism” in terms of phatic public communication: 1) Prevalence of metaphoric stereotypes and “common places” (“We all know that...”) in the public sphere. 2) Public orientation towards contacting the “us”. 3) The public “enemy” is constructed as passive (talked about, but never talks itself), “official”, and addressed indirectly and abstractly. 4) The reduction of “empty signifiers” into indexes of “common places” (“Heil Hitler!”, “9/11”, “Bronze night”). As for the fourth feature we should point that the “reduction into indexes” (in the well-known Percian sense) is more metonymic than the reduction into “icons” that we associate with “totalitarian populism” below, but more metaphoric than “reduction into symbols” to be associated with “democratic populism” in the next section.

 

Democratic  populism (poetic public communication)

 

What this category and its accompanying poetic communication (“the set (Einstellung) toward the MESSAGE as such” [Jakobson 1960: 356]) refer to are very familiar for each of those living in the context of relatively stable democratic institutions (including freedom of speech) and “catch-all” parties. Laclau provides us with a key for envisioning the form of populism of a “highly institutionalized society” in which “equivalential logics have less terrain on which to operate; as a result, populist rhetoric becomes a kind of commodity lacking any sort of hegemonic depth. In that case, populism does indeed become almost synonymous with petty demagogy” (Laclau 2005: 191). “Petty demagogy” is what in a modern Western country is received in abundance during election campaigns. This is a populism that emerges in a framework of complete formal freedom of speech acknowledged for each participant. So the general strategy of this populism is to prompt temporary memorizations through disrupting stable and routine communication with easily recordable tropes. “I like Ike”, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s camping slogan in 1951 US presidential elections, is an example used by Jakobson himself (1960: 357) for illustrating the poetic function of language. From contemporary times we can point to a slogan from the Democrats’ presidential campaign of 2008:  “No way, no how, no McCain!”[1]; or to Rush Limbaugh’s[2] typical eloquence: “Watermelons are environmentalists. They’re green on the outside, but red on the inside” (quoted in Pratkanis and Aronson 2001: 59). Thus, we propose the following typological features for “democratic populism”: 1) prevalence of “disrupting” metaphors in the public communication; 2) public orientation towards temporary memorization (“public relations management”); 3) The “enemy” is publicly heterogeneous and concrete, but passive (talked about, but never talks itself; often being “just stupid”); 4) the reduction of “empty signifiers” into symbols of “them” or “us” (“ecomaniacs”, “socialists”, “pro-choice” etc).

 

But, what happens after the elections, when voters have made their “choice”? According to Schumpeter “the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Schumpeter 2003: 269). This is the “procedural minimalist” definition of democracy accompanied by a vision of the role of citizens: “since electorates normally do not control their political leaders in any way except by refusing to reelect them or the parliamentary majorities that support them, it seems well to reduce our ideas about this control in the way indicated by our definition” (Schumpeter 2003: 272). Were we to adopt this view of democracy, then we would have to envision “parties”, or “party leaders” as the central agents of public democratic politics and would endorse what is usually referred to as “clientelist” system in political literature. But the public communication type characteristic to this system is best captured by Jakobson’s “conative” language function: “Orientation toward ADRESSEE… [that] finds its purest grammatical expression in the vocative and imperative” (Jakobson 1960: 355, italics added).

 

Clientelist democracy (conative public communication)

 

Drawing on a vast amount of literature on “clientelism” Hallin and Papathanassopoulos (2002: 184-185) discern the phenomenon as referring “to a pattern of social organization in which access to social resources is controlled by patrons and delivered to clients in exchange for deference and various kinds of support.” According to Laclau (2005: 123) clientelism, “is not necessarily populistic; it can adopt purely institutional forms.” For Hallin and Papathanassopoulos this political system is characteristic to countries in Latin America and Southern Europe for whom “the conflict between liberal democratic and authoritarian traditions continued through most of the 20th century” (Ibid, 175). This system “is a particularistic and asymmetrical form of social organization, and is typically contrasted with forms of citizenship in which access to resources is based on universalistic criteria and formal equality before the law” (Ibid, 185). Thus, we have reference to “asymmetry” and “particularism”. But what is even more important are the references to “verticality” concerning the phenomenon: 1) clientelism “seems to undermine the horizontal group organization and solidarity of patrons and clients alike – but especially of clients” (Eisenstadt and Roniger, 1984: 49); 2) it “cuts across and prevents the development of horizontal, class-type political organizations” (Mouzelis, 1980: 263). Referring to Putnam for whom the horizontal  “networks of civic engagement facilitate communication and improve the flow of information about the trustworthiness of individuals” (Putnam 1993: 174), Hallin and Papathanassopoulos (2002: 188) point out that in clientelism “information tends to be treated as a privately-held resource, to be exchanged only within particularistic relationships”. Thus we have a “vertical”, “particularist” and “asymmetric” communication, which, among other things “places a premium on public demonstrations of loyalty to the patron” (Ibid, 189). We could conceive this kind of democracy as a certain juristic “command politics” in which political problems are more or less decided in the “cabinet” or “parliament” by patrons and enter public communication in more or less formal pronouncements. I argue that what lies behind this model of democracy is an implicit notion of conative public sphere. The paradigm medium of clientelist democracy or conative public communication could be “State Gazette” (of, for instance, Estonia and Bulgaria) that announces what laws have been promulgated by the President. These announcements, though necessary for working democracy, lack any dialogic or horizontal dimension, but are strictly speaking just imperatives from above or “interpellations” in Althusser’s (1971: 121-176) sense entering not only the mediums of “repressive” but “ideological state apparatuses” as well, the latter being exemplified for Althusser (Ibid) also by media, and educational system. For example: “Lately, however, even the hearings of corruption-related crimes whose coverage would unquestionably be in the broader interest of society, have been declared closeted. This part of the bill should definitely be thrown out from the bill” (italics added, from PM 18.03.2010). This “imperative” editorial was part of the campaign (in March-April 2010) against a bill by Estonian government that supposedly deprived journalists of certain rights deemed necessary for their job by themselves.

 

We provide a list of typological features for conative-clientelist democracy (bearing in mind, of course, their ideal-typic character): 1) prevalence of discourse in terms of “interpellations” and “formal civil rights”; 2) public orientation towards “formal” citizenship (public administration); 3) the “enemy” is publicly heterogeneous and concrete, but addressed formally (in terms of “administration”); 4) the reduction of “empty signifiers” into symbols of competitive narratives (“thick state”, “thin state”, “public interest” and “sustainable development” etc).

  

If receiving orders between “petty demagogy” campaigns is the only function for citizens, many would still suspect democratic deficiency in this system. Schumpeter relieves what he has in mind in his model of democracy in which political parties are the only public actors: “Party and machine politicians are simply the response to the fact that the electoral mass is incapable of action other than a stampede” (Schumpeter 2003: 283). The  “stampeding citizenry” involved here, is of course the starting point for the most harsh criticisms of Schumpeterianism, the most elaborated among them being “deliberative” and “radical democrats”. We turn now to the former.

 

Deliberative democracy (referential public communication)

 

Jürgen Habermas’ theory of “discourse” is the most important resource for this model of democratic communication, despite the fact that his own mature work oriented explicitly on democracy (Habermas 1996a [1992]) came out several years after the term “deliberative democracy” started to gain wide acceptance (especially after Joshua Cohen’s (2005 [1987]) intervention). Habermas sees his discourse as working “with the higher-level intersubjectivity of communication processes that flow through both the parliamentary bodies and the informal networks of the public sphere” that “constitute arenas in which a more or less rational opinion- and will-formation can take place” (Habermas 1996b: 28). Public forums that are independent from both “economic system and the state administration, having their locus rather in voluntary associations, social movements, and other networks and processes of communication in civil society – including the mass media – are for Habermas the basis of popular sovereignty” (McCarthy 1994: 49). But what counts as a “rational will-formation” in these forums could be conceptualized in terms of Jakobson’s referential language function, “an orientation toward the context” (Jakobson 1960: 353) and could best be found in statements of propositions or statements of opinions. Yet here, an important question needs to be addressed that might strike those familiar with Habermas’ views: why conceptualize “deliberative democracy” in terms of referential rather than metalingual function of language, the latter being “speech… focused on the CODE” (Jakobson 1960: 356)? First, disparate schools of “deliberative democracy” tend to move more straightly into the direction that in our exposition is reserved for “radical democracy” which we prefer to conceptualize in terms of metalingual function below. In a way we could conceive “deliberative” and “radical” democratic views as partly overlapping despite the well-established frontlines between their exponents (for similar view see Norval 2004b; Knops 2007). Second, Habermas seems to be clearly indicating referential communication when he discerns his “rationality” in view of communicative action where someone is called “rational not only if he is able to put forward an assertion and, when criticized, to provide grounds for it by pointing to appropriate evidence” (Habermas 1984: 15), but in addition “if he is following an established norm and is able, when criticized, to justify his action by explicating the given situation in the light of legitimate expectations” (Ibid). In other words: rational agents need not put the “legitimate expectations” or “established norms” themselves into question (that would be metalingual communication). He is more metalingually inclined in case of moral-practical discourses of “validity” and “justification” that “require a break with all of the unquestioned truths of an established, concrete ethical life, in addition to distancing oneself from the contexts of life with which one’s identity is inextricably interwoven” (Habermas 1993: 12). However, referential communication enters when moving from justificatory discourses of norms to those of their application. The latter ought to discern “which of the norms already accepted as valid is appropriate in a given case in the light of all the relevant features of the situation conceived as exhaustively as possible” (Habermas 1993: 14). Thus “rational” persons seem to be in constant tension between referential and metalingual communication, or, between facts and norms (Habermas 1996a). However, the key for arguing that it is primarily the former that sets the limiting conditions for this form of democratic communication, comes from Habermas’ differentiation between “identity claims” and “validity claims”:

 

identity claims aiming at intersubjective recognition must not be confused with the validity claims that the actor raises with his speech acts. … The speaker certainly could not count on the acceptance of his speech acts if he did not already presuppose that the addressee took him seriously as someone who could orient his action with validity claims. The one must have recognized the other as an accountable actor whenever he expects him to take a position with “yes” or “no” to his speech-acts offers. (Habermas 1992: 190).

 

In other words: everyone has to accept already the code that positions everyone’s identity as speakers before posing any validity claims could intelligibly be undertaken. This means that despite the metalingual orientation of validity claims, the “checking the code” (Jakobson 1960: 356) has clear limits in this model. As is dealt with below, it is exactly this aspect of “deliberative democracy” that is one of the central targets of “radical democratic” attacks, since the positions of different parties as possible participants in the deliberative process are presumed to be “fixed” or established in a society. Habermas introduces the category of “social rights” for this establishment. These are: “basic rights to the provision of living conditions that are socially, technologically, and ecologically safeguarded, insofar as the current circumstances make this necessary if citizens are to have equal opportunities to utilise [their]… civil rights” (Habermas, 1996a: 35). These rights ought to guarantee real and fair opportunities of participation in the public debate over the utilization of civil and political rights for even those who are marginalized by the “market” thus excluding the political dominance of those with better material resources.

 

Having established that “deliberative democracy” is primarily a referential public communication we can outline the typological features of the latter: 1) prevalence of discourse framed in terms of social rights in the public communication; 2) public orientation towards “substantial” citizenship; 3) the “enemy” is publicly an “adversary”, heterogeneous and addressed as a legitimate “other”; 4) the deconstruction of political narratives into political facts and arguments (“thick state” “sustainable development” etc. into concrete policy proposals and their justifications).

 

According to Benjamin Barber, one of the most influential proponents of “strong democracy” (Barber 1984) and critics of both deliberative and Schumpeterian minimalist models that for him presume merely a passive and rights-based citizenship, rights themselves “are both constantly being redefined and reinterpreted and dependant for their normative force on the engagement and commitment of an active citizen body” (Barber 1996: 354). He is aiming at a public sphere emphasizing “revolutionary spirit”, “autonomy” and “commonality of political judgment” (Ibid,  350-354) as the true constituents of democracy. This way he is allied with lot of writers like James Tully, William Connolly, Claude Lefort, Jacques Ranciere, Alain Badiou and others who set at the heart of democracy an ethos that “would entail not only the descriptive claim that political identities and interests are constructed and that the process of construction is constitutive, but also the normative claim that they ought to be seen as such” (Glynos 2003: 195). This ethos is captured most influentially by Laclau and Mouffe’s “project for a radical democracy” conceived “in a form of politics which is founded not upon dogmatic postulation of any ‘essence of the social’, but, on the contrary, on affirmation of the contingency and ambiguity of every ‘essence’” (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 193). If the “essence” of the social is constantly questioned and checked we are dealing with metalingual communication par excellence. The latter we associate here primarily with “radical democracy”.

 

Radical democracy (metalingual public communication)

 

CNN host Wolf Blitzer, imposes a clearly phatic form of communication on the US presidential debate in June the 2nd 2007: “I want you to raise your hand if you believe English should be the official language of the United States.” Barack Obama’s reaction is aimed at the very code that was imposed through this proposal:

 

This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us. You know, you’re right. Everybody is going to learn to speak English if they live in this country. The issue is not whether or not future generations of immigrants are going to learn English. The question is: how can we come up with both a legal, sensible immigration policy? And when we get distracted by those kinds of questions, I think we do disservice to the American people (cited from Lakoff 2009: 153).

 

This is what could be interpreted as “radical democracy” in the micro-level: the code of the question was itself questioned and an alternative code proposed. But “radical democracy” has taken a far more general form, questioning the codes of whole social formations:

The development of workers’ and anti-capitalist struggles during the nineteenth century was a crucial moment in this process, but it was not the only or the last one: the struggles of the socalled “new social movements” of the last few decades are a further phase in the deepening of the democratic revolution (Laclau and Mouffe 1987: 104-105).

 

We offer a preliminary sketch of the typological features of “radical democracy” in terms of metalingual public communication: 1) prevalence of questioning the constitution of freedoms, rights and obligations in the public communication; 2) public orientation towards general audience (including non-citizens, minorities etc); 3) the “adversary” is addressed in terms of “common grounds” and values that in turn are deemed as contingent; 4) the deconstruction of central public facts, arguments and values into their (rational, historical, contingent etc) conditions of possibility.

 

Radical democracy does not take any political identity as given and aims always to leave their constitution open for revisions and contestations. In other words even the code is never fixed for radical democrats: “Radical democracy cannot be attached to any a priori fixed institutional formula” (Laclau 2004: 295). The reason is simple: fixing the code a priori is exclusionary in nature. As Chantal Mouffe explains it criticizing Rawlsian-Habermasian deliberative democracy for their orientation toward consensus of the rules of politics: “What such a view implies is that, once such a consensus has been obtained, it cannot be legitimately challenged” (Mouffe 2005: 227). And this challenging is crucial for the radical democrats. As Laclau puts it: “Democracy is only radical if it involves an effort to give political voice to the underdog” (Ibid, italics added). Yet the other side of the same coin is the logic of populism that “presupposes an essential asymmetry between the community as a whole… and the underdog… the latter is always a partiality that identifies itself with the community at large” (Laclau 2005: 224, italics added). This points to a possible “bifurcation point” of “radical democratic” communication. In practice, “giving voice to the underdog” could mean not only recourse to deliberative questioning of existing codes (as in the more “radically” oriented theory of “deliberative democracy” [see Benhabib 1996: 70]), but doing away with the very “deliberative” way of addressing political issues altogether as is evident in several “totalitarian” turns of 20th century politics. As Marchart explains the crucial difference between the latter and democracy “is that in democracy the general condition of the absence of a positive ground is not occulted but institutionally recognized and discursively actualized” (Marchart 2007: 107). But what if it is occulted? What if the democratic framework is completely shattered and none of its norms are deemed valid anymore? This is the theme of Lotman in his Culture and Explosion where he points to a logic that could be interpreted as an important caveat for “radical democracy”:

 

Exit beyond the boundaries of a structure may be realised as an unpredictable movement into another structure. In this case that which from a different point of view may be considered as systemic and predictable and within the limits of this structure is actualised as the unpredictable consequence of explosion” (Lotman 2009: 85).

 

Think for example of the following excerpt from the most notorious political speech of the 20th century:

 

Total war is the demand of the hour. We must put an end to the bourgeois attitude that we have also seen in this war: Wash my back, but don’t get me wet! […] The danger facing us is enormous. The efforts we take to meet it must be just as enormous. The time has come to remove the kid gloves and use our fists (Goebbels 1944).

 

Thus, what if the radical questioning of rules ends up in occultation that “nothing is the same anymore” without any positive grounding of the “new” rules? The  centrality of the discourse of “9/11 changed everything” is widely acknowledged by social scientists in relation to the George W. Bush administration political strategy (see Dunmire 2009, Kellner 2002 for an overview). This discourse is a good contemporary example of what we call “totalitarian populism” conceptualized in terms of emotive public communication and exemplified by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney form December 22nd 2003:

 

In a sense, 9/11 changed everything for us. 9/11 forced us to think in new ways about threats to the United States, about our vulnerabilities, about who our enemies were, about what kind of military strategy we needed in order to defend ourselves (cited in Dunmire 2009: 195).

 

Totalitarian populism (emotive public communication)

 

Sartori offers the following formula for locating “totalitarian” government within different governmental forms: “the structure is dictatorship, and one of its variants (its most extreme, if not ideal-typic one) is the totalitarian dictatorship” (Sartori 1987: 203). However, that “totalitarianism” is a communicative problem not merely one of government is evident already in the seminal works on the subject by Arendt: “Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself; the masses have to be won by propaganda” (Arendt 1962: 341). She adds: “Propaganda… is one, and possibly the most important, instrument of totalitarianism for dealing with the nontotalitarian world” (Arendt 1962: 344). We conceptualize “propaganda” in terms of emotive public communication, differentiating it from “public relations management” that are usually reserved for what we have characterized above in terms of poetic public communication aiming at “persuasion”. Of course, this demarcation is not absolute, but rather ideal-typical (see Jowett and O’Donnel 2006). As one of the analysts of the “9/11 changed everything” discourse points out: “Bush articulated his ‘doctrine’ by declaiming ‘either you’re with us, or against us’ in the war on terrorism, suggesting that whoever did not follow Bush administration policies was an enemy” (Kellner 2002: 153). This presupposes a more agitated metaphoric world view than that discussed under “authoritarian” communication: “The Bush administration discourse of a perpetual war against evil evokes a Manichean theological mindset that divides the world into a battle between good and evil and takes for granted that one’s own side is ‘good’” (Kellner 2002: 153). Thus,

 

[t]he battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001 and still goes on. That terrible morning, 19 evil men, the shock troops of a hateful ideology, gave America and the civilized world a glimpse of their ambitions. They imagined, in the words of one terrorist, that September the 11th would be the beginning of the end of America. By seeking to turn our cities into killing fields, terrorists and their allies believed that they could destroy this nation's resolve and force our retreat from the world. They have failed (Bush 2003).

 

Drawing on Lefort we could characterize totalitarian populist discourse as one in which “social division, in all its modes, is denied, and at the same time all signs of differences of opinion, belief or mores are condemned” (Lefort 1988: 13) This might point to phatic “authoritarian populism”. Yet, as Marchart (2007: 102) via Lefort points out: “since that division can never be completely erased as an ontological dimension and will continue to surface in the form of disturbances of the imaginary concealment, it has to be displaced.” Thus, for “the ‘People-as-One’ to be presented as a totality, as full identity, a relation to some sort of outside is inevitable. What acts as the new outside is a series of internal substitutes representing the ‘enemy within’: the kulaks, the bourgeoisie, the Jews, spies, and saboteurs” (Ibid). An example of the latter could be illustrated as follows:

 

Once the war against Saddam begins, we expect every American to support our military, and if they can’t do that, to shut up. Americans, and indeed our allies, who actively work against our military once the war is underway will be considered enemies of the state by me. Just fair warning to you, Barbra Streisand, and others who see the world as you do (Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, February 26th, 2003).

 

The role of constructing an “enemy within” is creating “uncontaminated cohesion”: “Precisely because totalitarianism presents itself as an entirely rational order, it has to adopt the form of an uncontaminated purity, and that which is excluded has, conversely, to be essentially impure” (Laclau 1990: 90). We provide an initial list of typological features of “totalitarian populism” as follows: 1) prevalence of emotive metaphorical antagonisms in the public communication; 2) public orientation towards agitating the “us” through “them”; 3) the “enemy” is constructed as passive (talked about, but never talks) and homogeneous, but addressed directly (often being “one of us”); 4) the reduction of  “empty signifiers” into icons of “them” (“War on terror”, “brown plague”, “terrorists”).

Now we have an initial model of democracy summarized in Figure 1. We conclude with general methodological remarks on its status.

 

 

Figure 1: A Semiotic Model of Democracy

 



 

 

Concluding remarks

 

The general aim of the model is to provide conceptual tools for comparative analysis of different forms of public communication in different social formations (regimes, countries, regions etc) synchronically or within the same formation diachronically. Of course, semiotic analyses of democracy cannot substitute other analyses in the social sciences, but are meant to complement them. They can first contribute to systematic contextual description of political communication. This might seem as a minor contribution, merely “evidence without inference” (Almond 1996: 52). Yet the stakes do not have to stop at description. Classification, another important role of political analysis is certainly one possible application for our model. As is evidently clear, we hope, from our whole exposition and Figure 1, the model avoids the classical dichotomies between “democracy” and “authoritarianism”, but sees democratic process as “a dynamic process that always remains incomplete and perpetually runs the risk of reversal – of de-democratization” (Tilly 2008: xi). In line with Jakobson’s remarks on the language functions, we have constantly stressed that the types of different democracy are not exclusive and that they do indicate different levels of social development. Rather, all those tendencies of public communication are present in some form in each social dormation fluctuating between metaphoric and metonymic poles of democracy (in Laclau’s sense) and their status is always partly contestable. This was evidently clear in the case of “radical democracy” that could in principle take both “deliberative” (metonymic) and “totalitarian” (metaphoric) directions. A stable democratic formation should find a balance of different democratic communication within itself. Thus, we have description and classification, but what about explanation? In our view, the task of democracy analyst is to conceptualize the movements from one prevalent form of public communication to another. This conceptualization could help explaining why certain messages will never “speak” to audience despite their constant availability, others get “turned upside down” and yet others become hegemonic momentarily. But what is the character of this explanation? The partly discontinuous and multidirectional form of Figure 1, points to an important feature of the model viewing democracy as a dynamic process: the types offered there do not form any deductive-inductive order (as is common in political science), but an abductive/retroductive typological framework. In the semiotic tradition leading back to Peirce, the retroductive approaches to both research and cognition are pretty common (cf the special issue of Semiotica 153–1/4), but are pretty neglected from the social sciences. The most powerful exposition of the necessity of retroductive view for the latter emerged recently by two direct students of Laclau for whom “explanation in social science is closely tied to the context of discovery, thereby making retroduction central to it” (Glynos and Howarth 2007: 47). Locating themselves directly to the practice-oriented view of explanation they capture the role of theoretical models and empirical data as follows:  

 

an application [of theoretical categories] should not be seen in terms of subsuming instances under general rule. Instead, in our terms… such an application ought to be understood as part of a general practice of articulation, in which the sense and meaning of explanatory categories grow organically and contingently in the very process of their application (Ibid).

 

The model of democracy proposed here allies with this general view of social research and sees its six categories as tools for abductive explanation. Their application “to concrete objects does not come off without a remainder” (Ibid). This abductive view of explanation sees the latter as processual movement from puzzling empirical phenomenon to theoretical premises making it intelligible and then back to the phenomenon through which both the identity of phenomenon as well as the corresponding theoretical premises can change and the process is never completely final, since the “final” result itself is a part of the process (cf Peirce CP, 5.189). This is exactly what one of the most semiotically oriented social scientists of our time makes a point of with his colorful prose: “Hopping back and forth between the whole conceived through the parts that actualize it and the parts conceived through the whole that motivates them, we seek to turn them, by a sort of intellectual perpetual motion, into explications of one another” (Geertz 1983: 69).

 

 

 

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[1] John McCain was the official presidental candidate of the conservatives in 2008.

[2] The leading conservative radio-anchor in the USA, reaching about 35 million people.



This research was supported by European Union through the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence CECT) and Estonian Science Foundation grant ETF7988 “The Power of the Nomination in the Society and in the Culture”







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