The Broken Gunsight of Language
April 1, 2023
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Visiting Research Scholar, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies
In his essay, Ilya Kalinin talks about the lack of political imagination and the dangers of turning to the experience of world wars of the 20th century for explanatory models and arguments in decision-making on the current crisis.
The reality of war is defined not only by the masses of people and hardware that opposed forces bring to bear in the conflict, but also by the symbolic resources mobilized to make sense of this reality. The theater of war is mapped out not only by a material network of defensive structures and supply lines, imposed over the natural landscape, but also by the semantic structures of language that organize belligerents’ conceptions concerning the essence of the war they are prosecuting. Whereas tactical success is dependent on the ability to bring human, technical, and geographical elements into alignment, strategic success requires not only an increase in the scale of coordination of these elements, but also an ability to inscribe them in a symbolic horizon adequate to unfolding events.

Furthermore, whether you identify with one of the warring parties or are an external observer who adopts one or another stance regarding the opposed combatants or the war as a whole — the more distant you are from the location of actual battle, the more important becomes the language you use to describe and comprehend the conflict. I am referring here not to opposed languages of propaganda, which the mimetic logic of war constantly and inevitably impels to approach one other, increasing similarities and accelerating a loss of distinctions. (Of course, this discursive mimeticism does not diminish the fundamental boundary in values that stands between the political motivations of Kyiv and those of Moscow.)

Nor am I discussing propaganda that glorifies “our own” and dehumanizes “the other.” At issue, rather, are structures of knowledge that generalize from past experience of human interaction with the environment (both natural and social), which, sedimented in language, mediate perceptions of new experience, establishing coordinates for its cognition and evaluation and for responses to it.

In other words, I am discussing language as a system of conceptual frames and scenarios for processing information, crystallized in a mobile set of analogies, comparisons, authoritative images and commonplaces that help to structure new material, packing it into ready-made cells.
"Among the most effective means of responding to life’s challenges and processing their socio-cultural or psychological novelty in the language of already familiar experience is metaphor."
In this instance, metaphor is understood not as a rhetorical figure of poetic language, but as a means for the description and understanding of one thing (phenomenon, event, process) in terms of another.

Metaphor as Gunsight

Cognitive research regarding metaphor and its functions in human thought have shown that metaphor — as a framework that shapes our perceptions of reality — affects the mechanism of decision making. This mechanism includes a number of elements and transitions from one element to the next: recognition of a problem; identification of various options for its solution; assessment of the adequacy and productivity of these options; and finally selection of one of them — that is, the actual decision. Note that the frame established by metaphor for perception of a problem, which may influence any of these stages, is especially important in formation of the set of its possible solutions.

Individuals recognize only those paths for the unfolding and culmination of events, and only those possibilities for their own participation in events, that fit within a habitual optics for perception of the situation. The lens that defines this habitual optics is metaphor — a form of comparison of one experience with another, a first object with a second that seems similar or even identical to it.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their classic work Metaphors We Live By (1980), demonstrate how these processes work, providing an extensive list of expressions of everyday language that describe how we view the activity of discussion: “Your claims are indefensible,” “I demolished his argument,” “He shot down all my arguments,” “He attacked every weak point in my arguments,” etc. Clearly, our ideas about the nature of dispute are organized by our ideas about the nature of war. Summing up these examples, the authors explain at a more general level that: “This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue … It is not that arguments are subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things — verbal discourse and armed conflict — and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR.”

One may wonder how different our strategies for argument would be if the metaphorical framework that defined our ideas of what it means to argue were not war, but, say: dance, sexual intercourse, or sawing through a tree with a two-man saw.

Metaphor and Crisis

Since the appeal to the cognitive resources of metaphor is largely motivated by the need to respond to challenges and make decisions, one may propose that the intensity of its deployment will increase during periods of crisis, when the volume of new, unexpected, unpredictable, often painful experience demands, in response, extraordinary efforts to integrate it. In a situation of socio-political or economic crisis, a metaphor — that is, a machine for production of comparisons and equivalences — becomes both a means to understand a novel and unfamiliar reality and a therapeutic tool that mitigates the effects of a traumatic collision with the unknown.

The profound crisis provoked by Russia’s attack on Ukraine — which has given rise to extended series of multiplying, tragic consequences, both immediate and long-term — is no exception. As expected, descriptive language applied to the war immediately turned to a range of metaphorical fields, drawn from national literary traditions, modern mass culture (orcs, zombies), zoology and botany (various animalistic epithets intended to dehumanize the enemy), epidemiology and clinical psychiatry (the medicalization of the figure of the enemy in terms of various diseases).

Yet the rhetorical range of rich symbolic resources that have been deployed in the war of languages, designed to inspire warring armies and those who support them (wherever they may be: in Ukraine, Russia, or elsewhere), works to mask the narrowness of the overall conceptual framework that in fact continues to dominate understanding of this war. “Shell hunger” haunts not only the warring armies, but also the political imaginary governing the approach to strategic decisions with critical significance for the unfolding and outcome of the war.
"There is a lack not only of ammunition, but also of conceptual metaphors capable of describing the present global crisis, leaving the stable orbit of 20th century historical experience."
The catalogue of conceptual frames organizing existing narratives describing the current war and possible scenarios for its outcome brings us back in one way or another to three familiar stories drawn from the past:

1) The First World War, which ended for Russia with the transition from imperialist war to civil war — that is, with revolution and the overthrow of the former political regime (at times, as a local variation, we encounter the Russo-Japanese War, in which the defeat of the Russian Empire became the catalyst for the first Russian revolution of 1905-1907);

2) The Second World War, which ended for Germany with utter defeat and unconditional surrender, for the German political regime with an international tribunal, and for German society with collective repentance (which, it must be added, took shape only some twenty years after the end of the war, initiated by a generation that did not participate in the conflict);

3) The Cold War, which ended with the fall of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but which at the same time (and this is currently seen as its main positive significance) ensured for 40 years the stability — albeit at times an anxious stability — of the world system, pushing direct conflict out into the countries of the Third World. In this light, many (on both sides of the conflict) see a return to the situation of the Cold War as the most desirable option for normalization and stabilization of the current crisis.

In fact, the three wars enumerated above function as the basic metaphors (frameworks establishing an optics for perception of reality) that determine conceptions regarding the current war and how it might end. Moreover, these frameworks are operative regardless of the position one takes in (or in relation to) this war. What shifts, from one camp to another, is simply the distribution of roles in the plots derived from these three conceptual frames. It seems that we have imagination which is enough just to try out historical costumes, for ourselves or our opponents, handing out props inherited from the past according to our own hopes for a better future.

My central proposal in this essay is that
"Turning to the history of the three major 20th century wars for explanatory models and arguments in decision-making only deepens and prolongs the current crisis, placing this war into a field whose resources the Putin regime learned long ago to use very well."
The Past as a Resource

The resource dependency of the Russian state underlies the economic life of the country. It structures the core of its political power, as well as organizing vertical channels of administrative management and the system of capillaries that distributes material support to various segments of the population. This extractive modus vivendi leaves its mark on the characteristics of the political imaginary, which is unable to overcome the gravitational pull of history, given that resources are nothing other than the past in a condensed form (whether we are discussing the past of nature or of society).

In this sense, the appeal to the historical legacy of the “wars of the fatherland” that Russia waged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as to the “thousand-year history of Russia,” is rooted not only in time-tested methods of securing a national-patriotic consensus, or in the fundamental condition of the Putin regime’s survival — the necessity to stop time in order to remain in power. It is founded on modern Russia’s resource ontology itself. Resource dependency renders the regime dependent on the past, while the past remains its central resource.

At the present moment, everything accumulated by the very ancestors whose name is used to consecrate the war with Ukraine is disappearing, as though into a funnel, into this bad — in both a logical and a historical sense — infinity. Having placed its bets on history, Russia is playing out the past more and more consistently, since hope for victory is tied to it alone. In an attempt to revive the historical past, Russia is rendering its future less and less certain.

Having lost a large part of its modern military equipment and ammunition in the first year of the war, Russia has turned to mothballed Soviet reserves. Never put to use in the expected clash with the capitalist Western world of a past era, this equipment now serves duty in a war with a former Soviet socialist republic. In this conflict, its purpose is to prove that the past of that land, too, has not yet come to a conclusion, and that its present and future can only reiterate its “historical unity with Russia.”

Following the abject failure of initial plans for a quick rout of the Ukrainian army and ouster of the Ukrainian political regime, having endured a number of military defeats, the Russian army has transitioned to a form of warfare inherited from the world wars of the twentieth century: dense lines of defense, bombardment of cities located in the rear, frontal attacks with artillery support, and intensive depletion of resources of all kinds.

It is hardly surprising that, dependent on the past for both technological infrastructure and mode of warfare, the Russian regime and the elements of society that support it find the foundation in a social and political imaginary that is also completely shut off into the past.
"Russia has a single path to victory in its war with Ukraine and with the West that stands with it — via a collective belief that this is a Great Fatherland War. Furthermore: not just a belief that this is a Great Fatherland War, but that it is in fact the Great Fatherland War of 1941-1945 — its continuation, return or repetition."
A cross on a Livonian knight's outfit from Sergei Eisenstein's film (1938) in which Livonian knights were defeated in the 13th century by Prince Alexander Nevsky. Source: Facebook
At the least, this is what the Russian leadership considers to be the most desirable path of development for the current war. Accordingly, both the war’s outcome and the fate of the Putin regime directly depend on the success of its attempts to sink Russian society into a totalizing experience of that past as the actual present.

For this reason, all Russian political propaganda efforts are invested precisely in creation of the collective fantasy of an endlessly repeated heroic past. The Russian president continuously reminds the population of this repetition, making use of each and every memorial occasion: “Once again, we have been forced to repulse the aggression of the collective West. It is unbelievable, but true: we are again being threatened by German Leopard tanks adorned with crosses. And once again they seek to make war on the soil of Ukraine against Russia, using as proxies Hitler’s own followers — using the Banderovites” (from a February 2, 2023 speech at a gala concert commemorating the eightieth anniversary of the Red Army’s defeat of the Nazi army in the Battle of Stalingrad).

History repeats itself again and again. Its movement is reduced to reproduction of one and the same archetypal plot in which century after century Russia opposes the “collective West”: so
"The crosses on the sides of tanks can refer both to the events of the Second World War and to the epoch of Alexander Nevsky and his defeat of the Livonian Order."
The phrase Mozhem povtorit' (we can repeat) , has been commonly used in the past decade to celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, as well as a belligerent anti-Western slogan.
Source: VK
The battlefield remains the same — the Ukrainian lands — except that Ukraine itself is conceived as having shifted its political subjectivity, becoming a stronghold of “Hitler’s followers.”

However, the problem with narrative amalgamations of this kind is that within these mirrored constructions, the figure of the enemy loses a certain clarity of outline. With whom exactly is Russia now fighting for the second year? With the “Nazi regime” of Kyiv? With the Ukrainian people “who succumbed to its propaganda”? With “rotten Europe”? With American imperialism, striving for world domination? In the end, one is challenged to ascertain who exactly Russia is to defeat and who is to be liberated as a result of victory in this war.

“Symmetrical Response”

So much for Russia. An additional problem is that the opposed camp (Ukraine, its allies, the Russian opposition), in its own understanding of the events of this conflict and their possible outcome, resorts to the same resources drawn from the historical past. In the minds of the German political leadership, the memory of World War II frames perceptions of the war in Ukraine, slowing down the decision to supply the very Leopard tanks to which Putin refers in the quotation above. Evocation of two past invasions of Russia by the West (by Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany), in connection with fears of escalation of the current conflict, regularly crop up in the speeches of European politicians, immediately eliciting enthusiastic reactions from the Russian camp (“victory will be ours, as in 1812 and 1945”).

Images and toponyms from the eras of the First and Second World Wars (Verdun, Coventry, Nuremberg…) regularly appear in descriptions of the current war, not only defining public perceptions of it, but also shaping political decisions by the coalition in support of Ukraine. The plot of the narrative remains the same, yet with different attribution for the role of “Hitler”, who has become an empty signifier of modern political and propaganda discourses.

Аs a result, the war in Ukraine is, as Lakoff would say, is “partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about” in terms of previous World Wars (or “Wars of the Fatherland” in Russian history), which serve as framework metaphors (analogies, comparisons, chains of identification and equivalences). This historical horizon is not simply empirically inadequate for cognition of today’s events. It also happened to constitute the main element of the imaginary theater of operations that the Putin regime seeks to impose on Russian society and the rest of the world. Putin is, in fact, not a Stalin or a Hitler. The nature of his power is completely distinct. To describe it via these metaphorical mechanisms or to produce not overly witty puns (such as “Putler” or “Putin kaput”) is in actuality to implement Putin’s own approach, confirming that the Second World War is still a present reality.

To adopt the language of these historical analogies is to engage in the self-same “Fatherland War” that the Russian authorities deploy to endow the “special military operation” with meaning.
"To view the war in Ukraine through the prism of the First or Second World Wars or the Cold War, regardless of how roles are distributed in these scenarios, is to reproduce the Putin regime’s propaganda agenda"
granting reality to its historical imaginary and aiding it in exploitation of the historical identifications of a significant part of the Russian population as a mobilizational resource. The fixation of the Russian liberal-democratic opposition on these same analogies, reversed by 180 degrees, demonstrates the depth and stability of these conceptions.

The appeal to the historical experience of the World Wars of the twentieth century has worked for 77 years as a safety valve preventing new global wars. However, now that the war has already broken out, use of the experience of the First or Second World Wars as metaphor to describe current conflict may backfire, laying a path that leads directly to the Third.
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