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Constituting China: the role of metaphor in the discourses of early Sino-American relations

Abstract

This paper demonstrates the value of political metaphor analysis as a tool for answering constitutive questions in International Relations (IR) theory, questions that attend to how the subjects of international politics are constituted by encounters with other subjects through representational and interactional processes. To this end, I examine the key metaphors within American political discourse that guided and structured early Sino-American interactions, focusing on US Secretary of State John Hay's Open Door notes and the contemporaneous Chinese Exclusion Acts. Viewed from a social constructivist metaphor perspective, this metaphorical protection of free trade and great power privilege hid the assumption that China was unable to act as its own doorkeeper, obscuring debates in the domestic and international spheres as to the meaning of ‘Chinese’ and the appropriate strategy for managing the encounter. A second approach, the cognitive perspective, builds on the seminal IR applications of cognitive linguistics and cognitive metaphor theory to reveal the deeper conceptual basis, specifically the CONTAINER schema, upon which this encounter was predicated. Used in tandem, these two approaches to the constitutive role of political metaphor illuminate the processes by which metaphors win out over competing discourses to become durable features of international social relations.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    As a knowledge-constituting, meaning-making practice consisting of linguistic and non-linguistic components, discourse is taken here as both ‘an ordering of terms, meanings, and practices that forms the background presuppositions and taken-for-granted understandings that enable people's actions and interpretations’ (Milliken 1999: 92) and ‘a social practice through which thoughts and beliefs are themselves constituted’ (Weldes and Saco 1996: 371).

  2. 2.

    Here I follow Nathanson's (1988: 455) analysis of the Soviet threat in American politics, which identified George Kennan's 1946 ‘Long Telegram’ cable from Moscow as an ‘interpretive straightjacket’ that disciplined Soviet behavioural ambiguity, thus defining the Russians by shifting the framing of the problem of Russia from a negotiation-based to a threat-based script.

  3. 3.

    In this paper, I focus on constitutive relations, leaving discussions of causal relations aside and sidestepping an important debate. Many constructivists hold that discussions of the ideational and material realms have been hampered by a blurred understanding of causal and constitutive relations. For Wendt (1999: 25), the two ‘are different but not mutually exclusive’. Where causal relations assume an independent, temporally prior X that causes an effect Y, in constitutive relations X and Y have a necessary, not contingent relationship where X both presupposes and exists by virtue of its relationship to Y (ibid.). Using the master–slave constitutive relationship as an example, Wendt notes that the constitutive relation does not rule out the institution of slavery (a structure) having causal effects (c.f Jackson 2011: 104−08). Most metaphor analysis in IR has been tacitly or overtly constitutive and non-causal, though see Anderson (2004).

  4. 4.

    David Campbell (1998: 25) warns, following Judith Butler, that performative constitution should not be confused with ‘social construction’ in that performativity denies the metaphysical idealist/materialist dichotomy at the heart of constructivism, preferring instead to speak in terms of the performative process of ‘materialization’ in the sense of the stabilisation of meanings over time.

  5. 5.

    Constitutive explanations are not relegated to the social sciences; Wendt (1998, 1999: 78) is sure to point to their role in natural sciences, such as the kinetic theory of heat, and the double helix theory of DNA.

  6. 6.

    Relevant earlier work on foreign policy decision making and the use of history includes Green (1966), Neustadt and May (1986), and especially Vertzberger (1990).

  7. 7.

    As Paul Chilton (1996: 124) writes, ‘Examining metaphor used in contemporary discourse gives an indication of the positive cognitive content of the categories and beliefs a group or individual may construct in response to ambiguous evidence …. [E]xamining metaphor … makes it possible to go beyond concentrating on individual psychology. Because language and communication are intrinsic to foreign policy formation, examining the recurrence of metaphor can indicate how conceptual systems crystallize and spread among individuals and groups’.

  8. 8.

    The convention in cognitive linguistics is to denote schemas and conceptual metaphors (as opposed to their linguistic expressions) in small capital letters.

  9. 9.

    Scholars from outside IR (without drawing upon cognitive linguistics) have also shown how metaphors are integral not just to ideational phenomena in world politics, but also to the representation of material forces, such as geography. For example, Lucy Jarosz argues that the metaphorical representation of the continent of Africa as the ‘dark continent’ in Euroamerican discourse legitimates the status quo and perpetuates unequal power relations; it ‘homogenizes and flattens places and people, denies the actualities and specificities of social and economic processes which transform the continent, and obscures a nuanced examination of the forces of cultural and economic imperialism unfolding within Africa in their relation to Europe and America’ (Jarosz 1992: 105). In relation to Africa, the metaphor of ‘darkness’ underscored a comparison to Europe (and challenge to European authority), drew a conceptualisation of missionary activities (dispelling the darkness of non-Christian beliefs), and described Africa's opening to the colonising power of capitalism and scientific assessment (ibid.: 106−7). Jarosz attributes the persistence of this metaphorical understanding to its ‘emotional and dramatic power, its aesthetic appeal for Western audiences’, and ‘its crystallization of Africa as Other’ (ibid.: 113).

  10. 10.

    Flanik (2011) is a welcome exception to this trend (also Chilton 1996). See Onuf (1989: 155−59) for an early and underappreciated discussion of Lakoff's metaphor theory in constructivist IR. Cienki (2008) addresses and attempts to remedy the more general split between political scientists and cognitive metaphor theorists through the provision of a methodological apparatus that aids in the identification and analysis of conceptual metaphors.

  11. 11.

    Conceptual blending theory, as presented in Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002), builds on conceptual metaphor theory, similarly treating metaphor as a conceptual, not purely linguistic phenomenon, while emphasising the systematic projection of language, imagery, and inferential structure between conceptual domains, and proposing constraints on these projections. In a departure from conceptual metaphor theory, blending theory allows for relationships between more than two pairs of mental representations, and does not define metaphor as strictly directional phenomenon. While conceptual metaphor theory stresses entrenched conceptual relationships, blending theory focuses on novel, often short-lived conceptualisations. Some scholars see blending theory as remedying some of the limitations of conceptual metaphor theory, particularly in regards to human creativity (Slingerland 2008: 175). Fauconnier and Turner's argument that the purpose of ‘blends’ is to convert complex, diffuse events to a cognitively manageable human scale (2002: 322) can be augmented with insights from neuroscience (Damasio 1994) to explain how metaphorical blends recruit emotions (Slingerland et al. 2007). Blending theory has yet to enjoy widespread interdisciplinary adaptation, while as one particularly researchable type of idealised cognitive model or structure by which human knowledge is organised (Lakoff 1987: 68), conceptual metaphor theory has been the focus of a growing number of empirical studies of political discourse.

  12. 12.

    Lakoff and Johnson's confidence stems from what they call ‘broadly convergent evidence’. They find a consensus for the existence of conceptual metaphor in several subfields and associated fields of linguistics, including historical linguistics, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, gesture analysis, and discourse analysis (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 81−93). The evidence discussed includes psychological ‘priming’ experiments to test the LOVE IS A PHYSICAL F metaphor as to whether it was actively being cognitively used, not ‘dead’ or only taken literally (ibid.: 84). Linguistic research on historical semantic change also found evidence for the presence of the KNOWING IS SEEING metaphor across a wide historical range of independently developed occurrences within the Indo-European language group. Lakoff and Johnson maintain that it is ‘the use of convergent evidence achieved via different methods that keeps science from being merely an arbitrary narrative’ (ibid.: 467).

  13. 13.

    Mottier (2008) is an exception to the extent that she engages with the cognitive argument in the context of social and political analysis, making important points about cultural situatedness of embodied experience, context, and the need to analyse wider discourses over just utterances. However, Mottier's argument would be more persuasive if its assertions that embodied experience is ‘ultimately a product of culture’ (ibid.: 186) were supported by more than citations to authorities such as Foucault and Butler. In addition, she overstates the degree to which cognitive approaches, and that of Lakoff and Johnson in particular, take the world as ‘given’ only to be ‘cognitively grasped’ (ibid.: 189).

  14. 14.

    Cf. Kennan (1951). For another assessment of the Open Door, ‘one of the lodestones of American history’ see Thomson et al. (1981: 121), which argues that the goal of the policy's maintenance of China's central government was exploitative. For a concise overview of the Open Door policy and its interpretation, see Lawrence (2002).

  15. 15.

    Wittfogel's ‘hydraulic society’ could also be considered a possible competing metaphor system; see Mackerras (1989: 116−25) and Spence (1998).

  16. 16.

    Historians disagree whether this was a ‘remarkable’ diplomatic victory (La Feber 1989: 209) or merely the result of a temporary willingness on the part of the other powers to put their imperial ambitions on hold until a more stable situation presented itself (Cohen 2000: 47).

  17. 17.

    The United States indeed nearly abandoned the Open Door on several occasions. While Hay and McKinley both briefly considered carving out an American sphere of influence in China, evidence suggests that they felt constrained, in part by public opinion. In 1900, Hay persuaded McKinley, who was unsettled both by Russian and British threats and a challenging re-election campaign, to stick to the Open Door by appealing to the background conditions of the Open Door. Hay's argument to McKinley illustrates the material and ideational constraints on US policy: ‘The inherent weakness of our position is this: we do not want to rob China ourselves, and our public opinion will not permit us to interfere, with an army, to prevent others from robbing her. Besides, we have no army’ (La Feber 1989: 209).

  18. 18.

    More generally, it is important to acknowledge that an interpretive component is inescapable in both self-consciously interpretive theoretical modes and positivist social scientific inquiry. As critical realist Andrew Sayer notes, ‘meaning has to be understood, it cannot be measured or counted, and hence there is always an interpretive or hermeneutic element in social science’ (Sayer 2000: 17). See Turner (2001) for an account that views interpretivism and cognitive science in a relationship of productive tension.

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Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank participants at the February 2009 International Studies Association Annual Meeting in New York City where a previous version of this paper was presented. The helpful comments of Alan Cienki, Nick Onuf, Ido Oren, Dvora Yanow, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and the editors of JIRD, and two anonymous reviewers are also gratefully acknowledged, though none are responsible for the final product.

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Blanchard, E. Constituting China: the role of metaphor in the discourses of early Sino-American relations. J Int Relat Dev 16, 177–205 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1057/jird.2012.12

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Keywords

  • constitutive theorising
  • constructivism
  • discourse
  • embodied realism
  • metaphors
  • Sino-American relations