Arquivo da tag: Metáfora

Are We at War? The Rhetoric of War in the Coronavirus Pandemic (The Disorder of Things)

/ Guest Authors

The seventh contribution to our growing collection of writings on Covid-19 and this moment of crisis. Federica Caso is currently a teaching assistant at the University of Queensland, where she also completed her PhD in 2019. Her expertise is on militarisation and war memory in liberal societies. She also works on the politics of culture, art, and gender. Her most recent publication is titled “The Political Aesthetics of the Body of the Soldier in Pain” which features in Catherine Baker’s edited volume  Making War on Bodies.

In this pandemic, the war rhetoric has spread as fast as the coronavirus itself. Recently, US President Donald Trump has characterised himself as a wartime president. Hospitals are preparing for war and healthcare workers are heralded as the frontline soldiers in the war against COVID-19. Economists ask how the coronavirus war economy will change the world. Wartime terms such as shelter-in-place, panic-buying, and lockdown have entered our daily and most mundane conversations.

The language of war is so normalised that in a recent episode of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, a medical doctor answers questions from US American children about the coronavirus using war metaphors. We have come to believe that these children, aged no more than 6 and raised in ‘peacetime’ and prosperity, naturally know about invasion, bombing, weapons, and strategic warfare. We have come to believe that this is the best language to teach them about life processes.

It is important to pay attention to the language that we use to describe the coronavirus pandemic because it determines how we respond to it.

The War Metaphor

This is not the first time that the language of war is stretched to contexts that are not legalistically wartimes. In the last fifty years, we have heard of the war of drugs, the war on poverty, the war on crime, and the war on plastic.

War is a powerful metaphor. It is an effective, immediate, and emotive tool to communicate urgency to the general public. It also conveys a sense of struggle and righteousness that can justify exceptional measures.

The power of the war metaphor is derived from the role that war played in crafting the modern nation-state and the European model of the international system. Modern warfare is codified as an instrument of policy to protect the political community. In this dominant depiction, war is a measure that states take in the name of the nation to defend their citizens against a threatening foreign enemy. This is largely how we have memorialised war, and this is the type of war that we invoke when we deploy the metaphor of war.

The Power of the War Rhetoric in the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is not only invoking metaphors from war, it is also unleashing war rhetoric. To clarify the distinction between war metaphor and war rhetoric consider the difference between the doctor hosted by The Daily that I mentioned before who uses examples from warfare to explain children how viruses work, and President Trump characterising himself as a war president. One assumes that children are familiar with the language of war more than the language of life, and therefore draws from the former to explain the latter. President Trump characterising himself as a war president is asking Americans to trust his abilities to deal with this difficult situation.

The war rhetoric presumes that we are at war when we are not to construct the realities of war. These war realities are invoked as a means of interrupting normalcy and call for exceptional measures. This strategy in the coronavirus pandemic has some merits.

The first invocation of the war rhetoric comes from doctors and health workers. For example, Italian doctors cry that the situation in the hospitals “is like a war”, and Australian health workers are preparing themselves for war. Here the war rhetoric functions to raise awareness about the challenges that the health system faces during this pandemic and the need for preparedness. The influx of patients and the shortage of supply and medical equipment are likened to wartime situations as a way of warning about the coming challenges to health systems worldwide.

The rhetoric of war is also invoked by politicians to compel compliance with orders designed to slow the spread of the virus. We are now all familiar with the expression “shelter-in-place,” which has its origin in the Cold War. Shelter-in-place evokes bunkers and nuclear fallout, and Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo has raised concerns that the expression fuels panic among the public. He is right and this is why the expression works. The language of war is imbued with fear, which makes it a compelling way to communicate when seeking obedience.

Finally, the rhetoric of war is enabling economic changes and flexibility that are much needed to face the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Economists are comparing the current unemployment rates, drops in market shares, and goods shortages to wartime scenarios. They are calling for wartime economic thinking to stimulate the economy and nationalise key services and industries. For example, in the US, the war rhetoric has tabled the need for the Defence Production Act, first introduced in 1950 during the Korean War, to support the production and distribution of medical materials such as ventilators and face masks. Given the fear around the nationalisation of industry and the spread of socialism in the US, the rhetoric of war might be a strategy to persuade the sceptical in the political class that the State must intervene in the economy.

We are not at War and We Should Stop Using the War Rhetoric          

While the war rhetoric is effective to communicate urgency and implement special measures, we are not at war. The coronavirus is not an enemy. It is a parasitic agent that attaches to living organisms to generate new viral particles. There is no war to be waged against such a thing, and we should consider carefully before continuing to use the war rhetoric.

The first reason why we should stop using the rhetoric of war is that it fuels hatred, antagonism, and nationalism. For example, tapping into the war mentality, US President Trump antagonised China when he labelled the coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” We are also witnessing the mushrooming of conspiracy theories that incite mistrust. Furthermore, cases of racism towards Asians in the West are also testament of the divisive attitude brought by the war rhetoric.

Secondly, the rhetoric of war breeds and legitimises authoritarianism. Fear is a tool of control. Frightened people are more likely to accept exceptional measures and limitations to their freedoms. For example, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used emergency powers to extend his rule indefinitely. Several states around the world are implementing curfews with an increased deployment of police in the streets and ensuing police brutality. China is rolling out a new surveillance system that tells people when they should quarantine. Germany is developing an app that uses geolocation to do contact tracing. We will soon be confronted with the implications of this enhanced surveillance.

Third, as the war on terror taught us, a war with an elusive enemy is an endless war. A war against the coronavirus begs the question of how far are we willing to go to win, what counts as victory, and what are we ready to relinquish to win. After 9/11, the US introduced The Patriot Act which stripped Americans of many civil rights and freedoms in the name of security. The elusive enemy of war on terror has bred widespread wars in the Middle East and justified authoritarian measures in other parts of the world. There are lessons to be learnt from the post-9/11 rush to the war rhetoric that are instructive to avoid repeating another two decades of global violence.

Finally, the language of war authorises war behaviours and psychology. We are living in anxious times: people fear disease and death; many have lost their job and their business; we are keeping physically away from each other; services including mental health facilities and abortion clinics are closed; and we are watching the news as if it were the scariest TV series. When we embellish all of this with the language of war either to compel obedience or to give ourselves a boost of excitement, we also justify and encourage the fight or flight mentality and muscular, selfish behaviours such as hoarding toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitiser, and even guns.

Rhetorical Revelations

An analysis of the use of the war rhetoric during the coronavirus pandemic brings two revelations.

First, the rhetoric of a war against the coronavirus externalises responsibilities for the fact that our system is ill-equipped to protect people. For minority groups and poor people this is not news. But for the middle class and wealthy white people it is. The coronavirus is magnifying the deficiencies of our political, social, and economic system. It is forcing on us some of the questions that have long been at the fringes of leftist activism such as unemployment, prisons’ overpopulation, access to health care, mutual aid and community support, and funding for the arts. These were questions that before affected mostly minority groups and the poorer segments of society. Now, they affect most of us.

A case in point of how the war rhetoric externalises responsibilities is the crisis that the health system is facing today. We are speaking of medical workers as soldiers and of hospitals as battlefields. This conceals that the present crisis is mostly the product of our trust in neoliberal economic logics and in technological progress.

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing that our hospitals are highly technological but cannot accommodate large numbers of sick people. Since the 1980s, the development of medical technology and treatments for diseases that previously kept patients in hospitals, prompted a reduction in hospital beds. Empty beds are not cost-efficient. And even if now we can source beds from hotels and private hospitals, we still face the problem of the shortage of medical equipment such as face masks and hand sanitiser. The political economy of these shortages is rather common: many countries in the West have outsourced the production of medical equipment such as face masks and ventilators to reduce costs (the political economy of ventilators in the US is even more disturbing). It is no surprise that China, the largest world producer of face masks, is keeping them in the country to protect its own people and medical workers in the face of its own pandemic challenges.

The language of war conceals that the economic model on which we run hospitals and health care is deficient, if not sick. It implies instead that it is under attack by an external enemy. Viruses are an occurrence of life, they are not enemies. We can speculate that the coronavirus is here to stay, that it can come back, or than another virus like it will eventually emerge. We cannot declare a war every time. We must be prepared with policies and equipment such that life does not have to stop every time. The recognition that our health system is diseased from the capitalist logics of efficiency, cost reduction, and profit maximisation is the starting point to build resilient hospitals and medical workforce. Health workers should not be considered frontline soldiers. Life is not a battle.

The language of war devolves our own responsibilities further through discourse around the need to protect the vulnerable. We know that the coronavirus is more likely to kill the vulnerable. The elderly immediately come to mind. Initially, this information inspired the confidence that we could have kept running business as usual if we avoided contact with the vulnerable. This was the early strategy of the UK, for example. Soon we have realised that the extent of the category of the vulnerable is much larger than we could have ever imagined. Emerging data reveal that the vulnerable to the coronavirus also include those with weak immune systems, those suffering from hypertension, diabetes, cardiac ischemia, and chronic renal and lung conditions. We have been confronted with the fact that conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and depression, which are widespread in today’s world but are generally not considered life-threatening, make us vulnerable to death when compounded with a disease such as that caused by the coronavirus.

There is a connection between poor health and socio-economic conditions. Most cases of vulnerability are bred by social policies, which means that the coronavirus will hit some communities harder than others. For example, in Australia, this disparity is revealed by the health directives which indicate that while the cut-off of vulnerability for non-Indigenous Australians is 60 years old for those with pre-existing conditions, and 70 for those without, it is 50 for First Nations people. As Chelsea Bond explains, poor health in Aboriginal communities is the product of 200 years of neglect. While the health agenda focused on finding cures for diseases that were endemic in Europe and that were affecting the settlers, Indigenous people were denied access to medical treatment and control over their health agenda.

The rhetoric of war against the coronavirus puts the blame for sickness and death onto an external invisible enemy, while masking that in fact our current political and economic system is at the basis of many of the health conditions that make us vulnerable to this virus. The number of those vulnerable to the coronavirus due to underlying conditions suggests that the health agenda has failed us because of the politics of class, race, and sexuality. We are not at war with an invisible enemy, the head and lymph of our health system is sick.

The second revelation is that we are ill-equipped to deal with death. Charles Einstein suggests that we are not at war with the virus, we are at war with death. The triumph over death has been considered to be the ultimate sign of civilisation. Medical technologies that make us live longer are heralded as symbol of progress and make us believe that we have control over death. The coronavirus is challenging our triumph over death and we are fighting to reclaim it.

We are in denial of death and we cannot accept it as part of life. We are so possessed by the belief that we have to defeat death that when it presents itself, we do anything we can to avoid it, even if the price is human life itself.

This pandemic has presented us with death. To avoid it, we are asked to forgo human contact: no handshakes, no hugs, no sex, no gatherings, and no public life. We are living secluded in our homes, desperately attempting to make technology a viable substitute for our previous life. We Facetime our friends and family, use Zoom to teach, learn, and exercise, and invent new ways to date remotely. This works enough to avoid total isolation, but not to sustain human life in the long term. Indeed, this is a small and temporary price to pay to save lives. But how long can this go on? And what are the implications of this lifestyle? As hospitals prepare themselves for the worse, we are facing a surge of isolation, depression, domestic abuse, and alcoholism, all problems that we have to live with to avoid death.

The coronavirus is shaking the ground of our civilizational triumph over death. To be sure, people die every day and they died even before the coronavirus. Many people die of preventable diseases, domestic and intimate partner violence, and of hunger. While there are organisations, campaigns, and activities of mutual aid that operate every day to save lives, there are also structures of power that cause, benefit, or cannot care for the many who die of preventable death. This pandemic is begging the question of whose life matter – once again.

Coronavirus deaths were unforeseen and are threatening the legitimacy and efficacy of our structures of power. They are putting people out of work, affecting oil price, changing patterns of capitalist consumption, and prompting government to subsidise citizens and workers around the world. They are undermining confidence in the robustness of the medical, social, economic, and political system. This is why we cannot be in denial of coronavirus deaths like we are for other types of deaths caused by power imbalances and structural inequality.

A critical look at death worldwide reveals that many die from perverse operations of power. But we are all dying from these power imbalances. We can see this if we consider the bigger picture of the unfolding climate disaster. We are all slowing but surely dying. Life in the Pacific Islands is under serious and immediate threat from raising sea levels. Australia has witnessed a long and unprecedented summer of bushfires that is likely to come back. Draughts and famine are threating life in many African states. Levels of pollution and industrial urbanisation in Asia are alarming. The fluctuating temperature of the last few winters in Europe are affecting summer crop production. Scientists keep predicting how many years human life on Earth can continue as is unless we reverse the trends, 20, 30, 13, 50 years. And yet, we remain in denial of our own mortality.

The rhetoric of war about the coronavirus reveals that despite (or possibly because of) the scientific progress that we have made, we are clinging onto anything that keeps life going, no matter what kind of life. And with the war rhetoric in place, if we die, at least we die heroically, as if in war. Our rejection of death is making us blind to the question about what kind of life is worth living and what is worth living for.

Like war, the coronavirus pandemic is a collective trauma. The ways in which we have dealt with war traumas have instantiated various forms of structural violence: nationalism, state borders, toxic (militaristic) masculinity, muscular politics, economic competition, expansionism, and settler colonialism. And this is another reason why we must avoid the language of war to describe the coronavirus pandemic, for we don’t want another collective trauma to turn into an opportunity to instantiate more structural violence. In the face of collective trauma, Emma Hutchison invites us to consider the politics of grief to reshape our sense of collectivity. This demands that we name and face our injuries, negative emotions, and their sources as a way of integrating the experience in our narratives of communal life and adapt accordingly. Through the politics of grief, we do not re-enact the past over and over again; we empower ourselves to write a different future. We need to come to terms with the limitations of our systems of politics, economy, society, and beliefs that the coronavirus pandemic is showing us. These limitations are the source of our collective trauma and the items that we need to address to grieve and integrate the traumatic experience of this pandemic.

Modern day internet wisdom suggests that

If you are in conflict with someone and they are unaware, then you are in conflict within yourself.

This quote captures our so-called war with the coronavirus. We are not at war against the virus. As Annamaria Testa remarks, we cannot be at war with the coronavirus because it is not an enemy. It does not hate us and does not want our destruction. The virus is not even aware of us, and knows nothing of us or of itself.

Instead, we are at war with ourselves and the systems that we have created. We hate that the virus is stripping naked in front us the limitations of our systems, political, economic, social, and of beliefs. We hate that our health system cannot save us as we wanted and expected. We hate that, after all, screen time is not a very good substitute for human touch and company. We hate that once again we have to trust untrustworthy politicians to get us through this. We hate that the dreams that we built on the shaky grounds of our sick systems are becoming perverse fantasies. We hate that we have to relinquish again our freedoms and liberties for the fantasy of security. We hate to feel that the ground under our feet is crumbling fast and inexorably. If anything, we are at war with ourselves, just like a cancer patient might be at war with their own cancer.

But the language of war is no good either for the cancer patient or for the demise of the Anthropocene. This is not a war. This is a lesson and an opportunity to change ourselves and our systems and structures. The virus made visible the deficiencies of the status quo. It has made us hit pause. And it is demanding that we make changes. Going back to “normal” is going back to the same system that led us here. And this “new normal” of shelter-in-place, no human contact, and enhanced digital and police surveillance is a perverse fantasy of safety.

Covid Fallout [2] (Synthetic Zero)

· by Patrick jennings

Solutions to Enable Your COVID-19 Research | BD Biosciences-CA

Throughout the Covid crisis, the use of the war metaphor, as means of persuasion and matrix of explanation, has become pervasive in politics and the popular media.

Both practices have been able to make use of such rhetoric because the discourse on war, attrition and the destruction of enemies is so deeply embedded in the structure of public discourse, from ubiquitous and seemingly benign tropes valorising competition, to the outright eulogising of violence as the natural mediator between individuals, groups, classes, ethnicities, cultures, and nation-states.

Moreover, it seems entirely plausible to extend the metaphor of war and struggle to our relation with the natural world, enabling a discourse in which natural processes, set in motion by bio-molecular mechanisms, are capable of being mastered by science.

Science just is, from this perspective, a series of feed-back loops in which the accumulation of knowledge and experimental know-how leads to mastery over nature and mastery over nature leads to more knowledge and know how,  ad infinitum.

This is a version of the Baconian trope in which nature is put to the wrack and interrogated for it’s secrets but one in which cybernetics, systems theory and big data allow for an expansion of the field of knowable objects to include the system of the interrogator and his acts of interrogation.

Defeated, abased, nature must yield.

In this war on nature, in which the war on Coronavirus is but one “theatre of operations”, the techno-scientific industrialised exploitation and extermination of non-human and human animals is it’s quintessential modus operandi.

What is good and true for science just is, necessarily, good and true for the human as such.  But human here is an image abstracted from and other than the human-animal and it’s symbiotic connection with the ecology of living entities. It is, rather, an excess of the human animal carried over after an operation in which experience is subsumed under a system of bifurcations. This excess is an illusory mode of transcendence.

The Covid crisis is most probably a dry run for what awaits us down the road as the climate crisis intensifies.

During the unfolding of the pandemic, it was notable that scientists and doctors remained, for the most part, wary of presumption in the face of the unknown, choosing to concentrate instead on the behaviour of the virus in particular human environments before attempting generalised pronouncements.

Grounded in observation, this was good science, a science in which anthropomorphic presumptions played only a small part. It was made possible by wide-scale testing and the correlation and analysis of data on the actual unfolding of the pandemic, which, for all science knew, could have included the annihilation of the species.

Here, for all to see, was an example of the difference between the actual practice of science, always localised contingent and rather anarchic in it’s evolution, and the ideology of mastery, control and expertise; an ideology enabled on a philosophical structure in which the real is bifurcated, producing a thought-complex of human subject-agents and a field of objects and processes subjected to a regime of mastery.

One productive way of looking at the ideology of mastery is as the explicit expression of an implicit or philosophically esoteric sufficiency in which science becomes the arbitrator of what is known and knowable and what is known and knowable just is scientific, in all but name.

Science, taken up into the ideology of mastery, arbitrarily sets it’s compass and draws, godlike, the arc of the world.

As with Covid, the evolution of the climate crisis will most probably unfold unevenly  across geographical regions as a series of local emergencies, each set on its own trajectory by the generation and replication of feedback loops in which human agency is only one strand in a complex of becomings.

As with Covid this “dance of agency” between human and non human entities will unfold inclusive of the decisions, actions and reactions of the presumed primary actors – those who are supposed to exercise control over outcomes by “managing” the crisis on our behalf.

The ideology of management and eventual mastery is a doubling in thought of the always and already immanent unfolding of the real, inclusive of the subject-object dichotomy which enables the illusion of transcendent knowing and techno-mastery.

Such a real never enters into the realm of the scientific or philosophical subject and it’s field of knowable objects and systems of objects.

Recent climate discourse has taken on board talk of the “Anthropocene” as evidence for the emergence of an epoch of human dominance over nature in which the human “footprint” is literally inscribed on geological strata.

The inscription of the human onto planetary geology is often accompanied by speculations about an acceleration in human technological prowess leading to a “singularity” at some time in the near future; at which point technological civilization will make a qualitative leap, establishing the dominance of the human over the planetary system and it’s myriad life forms as an accomplished fact.

Thus, a positivist rhetoric of acceleration, mastery and control sees the human take charge of the contingent, variable and complex earth-system to impose a consciously interested anthropomorphic regime on what is perceived as a complex of “mechanical” and therefore “manageable” processes.

Such rhetoric almost always includes a naturalization of capitalism in which acceleration is a spontaneous result of the free reign of market forces, an unruly energy domesticated by a corporate or state structure, more often than not presided over by a charismatic individual.

Under such a scenario democracy is optional at best, at worst a hindrance to the generation of what is conceived as the proper management and eventual mastery of the eco/social system.

It is still unclear how such a planetary wide consensus among ruling elites could be achieved, taking into account the resurgence of the ideology of the nation state and the discrediting of the idea of inter-state unions, international bodies and structures of trans-national governance.

The Covid crisis has intensified the contradiction between a strong version of nation-statehood and a neo-liberal valorisation of free markets, deregulation, free flow of labour and capital, international supply chains and minimal state interference.

The axioms of neo-liberal ideological orthodoxy have been, almost universally, unceremoniously abandoned, if only for the present.

More importantly Covid has driven an even bigger wedge between liberal, democratic and rights based ideologies of reform, “new deal” regeneration and green transition and the more authoritarian forms of “new nationalism”.

As we emerge from the first phase of the pandemic, the struggle between these two tendencies will probably intensify. Already, international bodies such as the U.N are aligning themselves with those who see the transition from lock-down as an opportunity to establish the structural changes necessary for a more ecologically sustainable economy.

Capitalism has, of course, always had to negotiate a balance between the model advocating for a strong public sector, fiscal and regulatory intervention, forward planning and a welfare state and the neo-liberal free market, anti-state and anti-regulatory model we have endured for the last thirty years.

In reality this ideological difference masks periodic shifts from one one extreme to the other as cycles of boom and bust override ideological preferences. Both the climate crisis and the Covid pandemic underscore the limitations of all existing capitalist models to adequately account for the real cost of the consumption driven economy.

The real cost has always been borne by the human and non human animal, that is by the ecological community of life forms.

As the pandemic has made clear, even something as unvarying in its constitution as a virus will have varied consequences as it interacts with local economies, social systems and cultures.

This “uneven development” is equally applicable to the spread of capital, which must negotiate local conditions as it expands and contracts, mutates and recalibrates according to the complex of human affordances of which it is a particular expression.

This network of relation extends beyond the economic, the social and the cultural and includes, ultimately, all of the extended complexities of the planetary eco-system. As a species we are dependent on a complex of ecological checks and balances all of which have been progressively undermined by human activity.

At a more fundamental level we are subject to entirely arbitrary events beyond our present understanding and indifferent to our interests.

The ideology of techno-mastery, management and expertise is based on a vision of control over the variable and the contingent. This fallacy is exposed time and again, even within the supposed confines of the social and economic system. Indeed, it is this very act of conceptual enclosure which makes possible the belief in some future state of absolute control over the social/ecological/planetary system.

Paradoxically, this very ideology of control, more often than not, acts as a top-down hindrance to the bottom-up exercise of a plurality of collective and individual responses. It is out of this anarchic mech of knowings and doings that forms of relative control arise as a collective orientation around workable solutions.

In a network of contingencies, in which our own agency forms only one strand in a myriad of becomings, it is this diversity of response which enables the sort of open-ended social, political, administrative and scientific plasticity necessary for our continued existence as a species.

The ideology of mastery, management and control, despite it’s claim to have transcended the particular and the local, is itself enabled on contingent processes and diverse responses. It’s claim is a reworking of the religious impulse on the secular plane, in which knowing has ascended to a level of sufficiency akin to godlike omniscience.

It’s undoing, likewise, will most likely proceed from the ground up, inclusive of the political, ethical and philosophical practices of those who consciously set themselves against the existing state of the situation.

This, of course, excludes the possibility of sheer bad luck and the unfolding of an unexpected disaster, against which our life would be seen to have been bracketed as a moment of contingent grace.

The struggle against Covid could have been our swan song. That possibility is the simple and absolute refutation of the theory and practice (the ideology) of mastery.


I use the term animal, human animal, becoming and the real interchangeably, as free floating placeholders, in the spirit expressed below by Deleuze and Guattari:

“Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing; neither is it corresponding, establishing corresponding relations; neither is it producing, producing a filiation or producing through filiation. Becoming is a verb with a consistency all its own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to, “appearing,” “being,” “equaling,” or “producing.””

This puts the series of terms in some sort of relation with Laruelle’s use of “The Real” or “Man-in-person” and distinguishes it from the forms of empirical knowledge which are taken up into ecological or systems theorising of a strictly scientific nature or into loose scientific/philosophical combinations.

Surface physics: How water learns to dance (Science Daily)

Pole dancing water molecules: Researchers have seen this remarkable phenomenon on the surface of an important technological material

Date: December 21, 2015

Source: Vienna University of Technology

Summary: From pole dancing to square dance: Water molecules on perovskite surfaces show interesting patterns of motion. Surface scientists have now managed to image the dance of the atoms.

This is a visualization of the dance of the atoms on a crystal surface. Credit: TU Wien

Perovskites are materials used in batteries, fuel cells, and electronic components, and occur in nature as minerals. Despite their important role in technology, little is known about the reactivity of their surfaces. Professor Ulrike Diebold’s team at TU Wien (Vienna) has answered a long-standing question using scanning tunnelling microscopes and computer simulations: How do water molecules behave when they attach to a perovskite surface? Normally only the outermost atoms at the surface influence this behaviour, but on perovskites the deeper layers are important, too. The results have been published in the journal Nature Materials.

Perovskite dissociates water molecules

“We studied strontium ruthenate — a typical perovskite material,” says Ulrike Diebold. It has a crystalline structure containing oxygen, strontium and ruthenium. When the crystal is broken apart, the outermost layer consists of only strontium and oxygen atoms; the ruthenium is located underneath, surrounded by oxygen atoms.

A water molecule that lands on this surface splits into two parts: A hydrogen atom is stripped off the molecule and attaches to an oxygen atom on the crystal’s surface. This process is known as dissociation. However, although they are physically separated, the pieces continue to interact through a weak “hydrogen bond.”

It is this interaction that causes a strange effect: The OH group cannot move freely, and circles the hydrogen atom like a dancer spinning on a pole. Although this is the first observation of such behaviour, it was not entirely unexpected: “This effect was predicted a few years ago based on theoretical calculations, and we have finally confirmed it with our experiments” said Diebold.

Dancing requires space

When more water is put on to the surface, the stage becomes too crowded and spinning stops. “The OH group can only move freely in a circle if none of the neighbouring spaces are occupied,” explains Florian Mittendorfer, who performed the calculations together with PhD student Wernfried Mayr-Schmölzer. At first, when two water molecules are in neighbouring sites, the spinning OH groups collide and get stuck together, forming pairs. Then, as the amount of water is increased, the pairs stick together and form long chains. Eventually, water molecular cannot find the pair of sites it needs to split up, and attaches instead as a complete molecule.

The new methods that have been developed and applied by the TU Wien research team have made significant advances in surface research. Whereas researchers were previously reliant on indirect measurements, they can now — with the necessary expertise — directly map and observe the behaviour of individual atoms on the surface. This opens up new possibilities for modern materials research, for example for developing and improving catalysts.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Vienna University of TechnologyNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Daniel Halwidl, Bernhard Stöger, Wernfried Mayr-Schmölzer, Jiri Pavelec, David Fobes, Jin Peng, Zhiqiang Mao, Gareth S. Parkinson, Michael Schmid, Florian Mittendorfer, Josef Redinger, Ulrike Diebold. Adsorption of water at the SrO surface of ruthenatesNature Materials, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/nmat4512

Your Brain on Metaphors (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

September 1, 2014

Neuroscientists test the theory that your body shapes your ideas

Your Brain  on Metaphors 1

Chronicle Review illustration by Scott Seymour

The player kicked the ball.
The patient kicked the habit.
The villain kicked the bucket.

The verbs are the same.
The syntax is identical.
Does the brain notice, or care,
that the first is literal, the second
metaphorical, the third idiomatic?

It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love. But neuroscientists have been trying to answer it using exotic brain-scanning technologies. Their findings have varied wildly, in some cases contradicting one another. If they make progress, the payoff will be big. Their findings will enrich a theory that aims to explain how wet masses of neurons can understand anything at all. And they may drive a stake into the widespread assumption that computers will inevitably become conscious in a humanlike way.

The hypothesis driving their work is that metaphor is central to language. Metaphor used to be thought of as merely poetic ornamentation, aesthetically pretty but otherwise irrelevant. “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it,” sang Neil Young in 1977, riffing on the timeworn comparison between a sexual partner and a pollinating perennial. For centuries, metaphor was just the place where poets went to show off.

But in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By,the linguist George Lakoff (at the University of California at Berkeley) and the philosopher Mark Johnson (now at the University of Oregon) revolutionized linguistics by showing that metaphor is actually a fundamental constituent of language. For example, they showed that in the seemingly literal statement “He’s out of sight,” the visual field is metaphorized as a container that holds things. The visual field isn’t really a container, of course; one simply sees objects or not. But the container metaphor is so ubiquitous that it wasn’t even recognized as a metaphor until Lakoff and Johnson pointed it out.

From such examples they argued that ordinary language is saturated with metaphors. Our eyes point to where we’re going, so we tend to speak of future time as being “ahead” of us. When things increase, they tend to go up relative to us, so we tend to speak of stocks “rising” instead of getting more expensive. “Our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” they wrote.

What’s emerging from these studies isn’t just a theory of language or of metaphor. It’s a nascent theory of consciousness.

Metaphors do differ across languages, but that doesn’t affect the theory. For example, in Aymara, spoken in Bolivia and Chile, speakers refer to past experiences as being in front of them, on the theory that past events are “visible” and future ones are not. However, the difference between behind and ahead is relatively unimportant compared with the central fact that space is being used as a metaphor for time. Lakoff argues that it isimpossible—not just difficult, but impossible—for humans to talk about time and many other fundamental aspects of life without using metaphors to do it.

Lakoff and Johnson’s program is as anti-Platonic as it’s possible to get. It undermines the argument that human minds can reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language. They argue instead that human cognition is embodied—that human concepts are shaped by the physical features of human brains and bodies. “Our physiology provides the concepts for our philosophy,” Lakoff wrote in his introduction to Benjamin Bergen’s 2012 book, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Marianna Bolognesi, a linguist at the International Center for Intercultural Exchange, in Siena, Italy, puts it this way: “The classical view of cognition is that language is an independent system made with abstract symbols that work independently from our bodies. This view has been challenged by the embodied account of cognition which states that language is tightly connected to our experience. Our bodily experience.”

Modern brain-scanning technologies make it possible to test such claims empirically. “That would make a connection between the biology of our bodies on the one hand, and thinking and meaning on the other hand,” says Gerard Steen, a professor of linguistics at VU University Amsterdam. Neuroscientists have been stuffing volunteers into fMRI scanners and having them read sentences that are literal, metaphorical, and idiomatic.

Neuroscientists agree on what happens with literal sentences like “The player kicked the ball.” The brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described actions. This is called “simulation.” Take the sentence “Harry picked up the glass.” “If you can’t imagine picking up a glass or seeing someone picking up a glass,” Lakoff wrote in a paper with Vittorio Gallese, a professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, in Italy, “then you can’t understand that sentence.” Lakoff argues that the brain understands sentences not just by analyzing syntax and looking up neural dictionaries, but also by igniting its memories of kicking and picking up.

But what about metaphorical sentences like “The patient kicked the habit”? An addiction can’t literally be struck with a foot. Does the brain simulate the action of kicking anyway? Or does it somehow automatically substitute a more literal verb, such as “stopped”? This is where functional MRI can help, because it can watch to see if the brain’s motor cortex lights up in areas related to the leg and foot.

The evidence says it does. “When you read action-related metaphors,” says Valentina Cuccio, a philosophy postdoc at the University of Palermo, in Italy, “you have activation of the motor area of the brain.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Rutvik Desai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, and his colleagues presented fMRI evidence that brains do in fact simulate metaphorical sentences that use action verbs. When reading both literal and metaphorical sentences, their subjects’ brains activated areas associated with control of action. “The understanding of sensory-motor metaphors is not abstracted away from their sensory-motor origins,” the researchers concluded.

Textural metaphors, too, appear to be simulated. That is, the brain processes “She’s had a rough time” by simulating the sensation of touching something rough. Krish Sathian, a professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University, says, “For textural metaphor, you would predict on the Lakoff and Johnson account that it would recruit activity- and texture-selective somatosensory cortex, and that indeed is exactly what we found.”

But idioms are a major sticking point. Idioms are usually thought of as dead metaphors, that is, as metaphors that are so familiar that they have become clichés. What does the brain do with “The villain kicked the bucket” (“The villain died”)? What about “The students toed the line” (“The students conformed to the rules”)? Does the brain simulate the verb phrases, or does it treat them as frozen blocks of abstract language? And if it simulates them, what actions does it imagine? If the brain understands language by simulating it, then it should do so even when sentences are not literal.

The findings so far have been contradictory. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, of the University of Southern California, and her colleagues reported in 2006 that idioms such as “biting off more than you can chew” did not activate the motor cortex. So did Ana Raposo, then at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues in 2009. On the other hand, Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, in Lyon, France, reported in the same year that they did, at least for leg and arm verbs.

In 2013, Desai and his colleagues tried to settle the problem of idioms. They first hypothesized that the inconsistent results come from differences of methodology. “Imaging studies of embodiment in figurative language have not compared idioms and metaphors,” they wrote in a report. “Some have mixed idioms and metaphors together, and in some cases, ‘idiom’ is used to refer to familiar metaphors.” Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, agrees. “The field is new. The methods need to stabilize,” she says. “There are many different kinds of figurative language, and they may be importantly different from one another.”

Not only that, the nitty-gritty differences of procedure may be important. “All of these studies are carried out with different kinds of linguistic stimuli with different procedures,” Cuccio says. “So, for example, sometimes you have an experiment in which the person can read the full sentence on the screen. There are other experiments in which participants read the sentence just word by word, and this makes a difference.”

To try to clear things up, Desai and his colleagues presented subjects inside fMRI machines with an assorted set of metaphors and idioms. They concluded that in a sense, everyone was right. The more idiomatic the metaphor was, the less the motor system got involved: “When metaphors are very highly conventionalized, as is the case for idioms, engagement of sensory-motor systems is minimized or very brief.”

But George Lakoff thinks the problem of idioms can’t be settled so easily. The people who do fMRI studies are fine neuroscientists but not linguists, he says. “They don’t even know what the problem is most of the time. The people doing the experiments don’t know the linguistics.”

That is to say, Lakoff explains, their papers assume that every brain processes a given idiom the same way. Not true. Take “kick the bucket.” Lakoff offers a theory of what it means using a scene from Young Frankenstein. “Mel Brooks is there and they’ve got the patient dying,” he says. “The bucket is a slop bucket at the edge of the bed, and as he dies, his foot goes out in rigor mortis and the slop bucket goes over and they all hold their nose. OK. But what’s interesting about this is that the bucket starts upright and it goes down. It winds up empty. This is a metaphor—that you’re full of life, and life is a fluid. You kick the bucket, and it goes over.”

That’s a useful explanation of a rather obscure idiom. But it turns out that when linguists ask people what they think the metaphor means, they get different answers. “You say, ‘Do you have a mental image? Where is the bucket before it’s kicked?’ ” Lakoff says. “Some people say it’s upright. Some people say upside down. Some people say you’re standing on it. Some people have nothing. You know! There isn’t a systematic connection across people for this. And if you’re averaging across subjects, you’re probably not going to get anything.”

Similarly, Lakoff says, when linguists ask people to write down the idiom “toe the line,” half of them write “tow the line.” That yields a different mental simulation. And different mental simulations will activate different areas of the motor cortex—in this case, scrunching feet up to a line versus using arms to tow something heavy. Therefore, fMRI results could show different parts of different subjects’ motor cortexes lighting up to process “toe the line.” In that case, averaging subjects together would be misleading.

Furthermore, Lakoff questions whether functional MRI can really see what’s going on with language at the neural level. “How many neurons are there in one pixel or one voxel?” he says. “About 125,000. They’re one point in the picture.” MRI lacks the necessary temporal resolution, too. “What is the time course of that fMRI? It could be between one and five seconds. What is the time course of the firing of the neurons? A thousand times faster. So basically, you don’t know what’s going on inside of that voxel.” What it comes down to is that language is a wretchedly complex thing and our tools aren’t yet up to the job.

Nonetheless, the work supports a radically new conception of how a bunch of pulsing cells can understand anything at all. In a 2012 paper, Lakoff offered an account of how metaphors arise out of the physiology of neural firing, based on the work of a student of his, Srini Narayanan, who is now a faculty member at Berkeley. As children grow up, they are repeatedly exposed to basic experiences such as temperature and affection simultaneously when, for example, they are cuddled. The neural structures that record temperature and affection are repeatedly co-activated, leading to an increasingly strong neural linkage between them.

However, since the brain is always computing temperature but not always computing affection, the relationship between those neural structures is asymmetric. When they form a linkage, Lakoff says, “the one that spikes first and most regularly is going to get strengthened in its direction, and the other one is going to get weakened.” Lakoff thinks the asymmetry gives rise to a metaphor: Affection is Warmth. Because of the neural asymmetry, it doesn’t go the other way around: Warmth is not Affection. Feeling warm during a 100-degree day, for example, does not make one feel loved. The metaphor originates from the asymmetry of the neural firing. Lakoff is now working on a book on the neural theory of metaphor.

If cognition is embodied, that raises problems for artificial intelligence. Since computers don’t have bodies, let alone sensations, what are the implications of these findings for their becoming conscious—that is, achieving strong AI? Lakoff is uncompromising: “It kills it.” Of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity thesis, he says, “I don’t believe it for a second.” Computers can run models of neural processes, he says, but absent bodily experience, those models will never actually be conscious.

On the other hand, roboticists such as Rodney Brooks, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have suggested that computers could be provided with bodies. For example, they could be given control of robots stuffed with sensors and actuators. Brooks pondered Lakoff’s ideas in his 2002 book, Flesh and Machines, and supposed, “For anything to develop the same sorts of conceptual understanding of the world as we do, it will have to develop the same sorts of metaphors, rooted in a body, that we humans do.”

But Lera Boroditsky wonders if giving computers humanlike bodies would only reproduce human limitations. “If you’re not bound by limitations of memory, if you’re not bound by limitations of physical presence, I think you could build a very different kind of intelligence system,” she says. “I don’t know why we have to replicate our physical limitations in other systems.”

What’s emerging from these studies isn’t just a theory of language or of metaphor. It’s a nascent theory of consciousness. Any algorithmic system faces the problem of bootstrapping itself from computing to knowing, from bit-shuffling to caring. Igniting previously stored memories of bodily experiences seems to be one way of getting there. And so may be the ability to create asymmetric neural linkages that say this is like (but not identical to) that. In an age of brain scanning as well as poetry, that’s where metaphor gets you.

Michael Chorost is the author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) and World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet (Free Press, 2011).

Soldiers Who Desecrate the Dead See Themselves as Hunters (Science Daily)

ScienceDaily (May 20, 2012) — Modern day soldiers who mutilate enemy corpses or take body-parts as trophies are usually thought to be suffering from the extreme stresses of battle. But, research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) shows that this sort of misconduct has most often been carried out by fighters who viewed the enemy as racially different from themselves and used images of the hunt to describe their actions.

“The roots of this behaviour lie not in individual psychological disorders,” says Professor Simon Harrison who carried out the study, “but in a social history of racism and in military traditions that use hunting metaphors for war. Although this misconduct is very rare, it has persisted in predictable patterns since the European Enlightenment. This was the period when the first ideologies of race began to appear, classifying some human populations as closer to animals than others.”

European and North American soldiers who have mutilated enemy corpses appear to have drawn racial distinctions of this sort between close and distant enemies. They ‘fought’ their close enemies, and bodies remained untouched after death, but they ‘hunted’ their distant enemies and such bodies became the trophies that demonstrate masculine skill.

Almost always, only enemies viewed as belonging to other ‘races’ have been treated in this way. “This is a specifically racialised form of violence,” suggest Professor Harrison, “and could be considered a type of racially-motivated hate crime specific to military personnel in wartime.”

People tend to associate head-hunting and other trophy-taking with ‘primitive’ warfare. They consider wars fought by professional militaries as rational and humane. However, such contrasts are misleading. The study shows that the symbolic associations between hunting and war that can give rise to abnormal behaviour such as trophy-taking in modern military organisations are remarkably close to those in certain indigenous societies where practices such as head-hunting were a recognised part of the culture.

In both cases, mutilation of the enemy dead occurs when enemies are represented as animals or prey. Parts of the corpse are removed like trophies at ‘the kill’. Metaphors of ‘war-as-hunting’ that lie at the root of such behaviour are still strong in some armed forces in Europe and North America — not only in military training but in the media and in soldiers’ own self-perception.

Professor Harrison gives the example of the Second World War and shows that trophy-taking was rare on the European battlefields but was relatively common in the war in the Pacific, where some Allied soldiers kept skulls of Japanese combatants as mementos or made gifts of their remains to friends back home.

The study also gives a more recent comparison: there have been incidents in Afghanistan in which NATO personnel have desecrated the dead bodies of Taliban combatants but there is no evidence of such misconduct occurring in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia where NATO forces were much less likely to have considered their opponents racially ‘distant’.

But, it would be wrong to suggest that such behaviour amounts to a tradition. These practices are usually not explicitly taught. Indeed, they seem to be quickly forgotten after the end of wars and veterans often remain unaware of the extent to which they occurred.

Furthermore, attitudes towards the trophies themselves change as the enemy ceases to be the enemy. The study shows how human remains kept by Allied soldiers after the Pacific War became unwanted memory objects over time, which ex-servicemen or their families often donated to museums. In some cases, veterans have made great efforts to seek out the families of Japanese soldiers in order to return their remains and to disconnect themselves from a disturbing past.

Professor Harrison concludes that human trophy-taking is evidence of the power of metaphor in structuring and motivating human behaviour. “It will probably occur, in some form or other, whenever war, hunting and masculinity are conceptually linked,” he says. “Prohibition is clearly not enough to prevent it. We need to recognise the dangers of portraying war in terms of hunting imagery.”