Friday, July 31, 2015

Propaganda as Signaling

In a lovely piece published nearly three decades ago, the French historian Paul Veyne noted that much “propaganda” art throughout history has been “without viewers.” His key example was Trajan’s Column:

“Trajan’s Column Panorama” by Juan Francisco Adame Lorite. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Trajan's Column
Not far from the Forum in Rome, Trajan’s Column raises its shaft thirty meters. Spiraling around it is a sculpted frieze whose 184 scenes and one thousand figures illustrate, like a cartoon strip, the conquest of Dacia by Trajan. Except for the first two spirals, viewers cannot make out these reliefs. Archaeologists study them with binoculars. Moreover, nobody would want to itemize this repetitious swarm or try to follow the account of military campaigns declaimed by the conquest of barbarian villages whose name or place on the map was unknown. Historians explain Trajan’s Column as a work of “imperial propaganda”. That shows how much a shortsighted rationality, one that cannot distinguish between expression and information, keeps its prestige even to our day, when it brings something to “society” or states what this thing is assumed to “bring to society”. We may however doubt that the Romans of Trajan’s time looked very much more at the reliefs, materially invisible, than today’s Romans and that they rushed to this spectacle to go around the Column twenty-three times with their noses in the air. The Column does not inform people; it simply lets them see the evidence of the greatness of Trajan faced with time and the weather. In the same way, at the summit of the Behistun Rock, Darius the Great had a monumental inscription engraved in three languages to the glory of his reign. This inscription was not meant to be read: it is located at the top of a peak, and only eagles or mountain climbers suspended on their ropes could read it (p. 3)

Behistun Rock inscription by Hara1603. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Behistun Rock inscription Column
The lack of clear visibility of the great works of imperial art is so common, according to Veyne, it is hardly noticed, and when noticed it is explained as if it were some embarrassing technical fault. (The sculptor of the Vendôme column, a “faithful imitation” of Trajan’s column constructed for Napoleon, published a book to explain the meaning of the reliefs, since these could not be seen from below; he thought the book “might be helpful” given their invisibility. One wonders how many people read the book). Though Veyne did not use this terminology, his argument was that such works were a form of costly signaling:
The Column expresses the glory of Trajan, just as the heavens (which it is useless to itemize star by star) express the glory of Jahweh. In both cases there have to be far too many stars and far too many sculpted scenes. The expression of a superiority is only undoubted when it is excessive (p. 3)
Imperial art was thus not a way to transmit some specific ideological content to “legitimate” the social order, and its political force did not depend on any understanding of its meaning:
What the Column bears as ideology is the right it claims to exist, just as, in a country submitted to an authoritarian regime, loud-speakers diffusing official discourse in the streets count more for their omnipresence than for what they broadcast. Trajan’s Column is propaganda of a sort but not because of its imagery. It is such for its presence and for the power expressed by its redundancy (p. 11)
The same was true, mutatis mutandi, of most (especially political) rituals, whose meaning, painstakingly reconstructed by the anthropologist, is only dimly recognized, if at all, by participants. Much ritual activity, in Veyne’s view, was “conduct without belief,” as the title of the article had it, not because participants actively disbelieved or resisted what was said in and through the ritual but simply because they did not have the foggiest idea about its meaning:
Their multiplicity of meaning and the feeble intensity of the meaning most generally received make these ceremonials a behavior that functions at only about ten percent of their energy[,] and that meaning is not the one involving their content and what their creator intended. It is not the words of the Marseillaise that matter, when the day-nursery is inaugurated with music (p. 13)
Veyne’s point was not that official rituals are necessarily unconvincing or incredible, but that most of the time most people just aren’t paying enough attention to “get” the official message. (This point should not be a surprise to anyone who has ever given a lecture to a crowd of indifferent students). The meaningful content of official ritual and art matters much less than its limited emotional charge and oppressive bulk. For example, the Stalin cult required enormous resources to maintain, and much specialist energy was devoted to its symbolic construction. Yet despite the vast efforts of historians to understand the iconography of the cult (see, e.g., Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult), most Soviet citizens only engaged with cult productions superficially and without enthusiasm, hardly in the way required for any detailed understanding of their meaning. The Stalin cult was powerful primarily because Stalin was powerful, not because it had some specially designed symbolic content that most people “got.” A similar thing could be said of the later rituals of Soviet power, described with such care in Christel Lane’s The Rites of Rulers, and intentionally designed, on her account, to impress Soviet citizens with a wide variety of explicit values. Yet there is little evidence that the symbolism of these rituals had any but the most passing influence on the values and attachments of Soviet citizens to the political order; to the extent that they worked to “legitimate” the regime (as Lane claimed in a 1984 piece), such legitimation was predicated on the “signal” of the permanence and power of the CPSU, which was soon to vanish. As Veyne puts the key point more poetically:
We must […] be careful not to infer from the ceremonial of coronation of kings, for example, what monarchy is and what is thought of it and to bring grist to the mill of the ideological analysis of symbols. This ceremony does not show us the real visage of monarchy: it is merely a portrait by a court painter. The subjects of the king in all probability think something different of the monarchical regime. Even more probably, they think less of it: every portrait painter embellishes, interprets and defines the features of the model. (p. 14).
As long time readers will know, I think the “signaling” view of official ritual and propaganda is more often closer to reality than the “indoctrination” view, so Veyne’s ideas cater to my prejudices. Yet the “signaling” view of propaganda goes against the commonsense view that authoritarian ritual and propaganda “works” insofar as it indoctrinates or educates. (For example, my students are enormously resistant to it; I sometimes think that there must be some evolutionary benefit to believing that other people always believe what they are told, given my difficulties in convincing them otherwise). So I was interested to learn of new piece forthcoming in Comparative Politics, fittingly entitled “Propaganda as Signaling,” by Haifeng Huang, which provides further evidence for the signaling view.

The study looks at students exposed to mandatory political education courses in a Chinese University. These courses are seen as a pain:
Chinese students in general and even many instructors regard such courses as nuisances, i.e., rituals that they dislike but have to observe. Students also typically regard the courses as useless for their future careers. When asked how they treated the political education courses, only 8.0% of the students surveyed in the study reported they somewhat actively studied for the courses, with the rest acknowledging that they listened to lectures only casually, did not listen to lectures at all, relied on cram sessions to prepare for exams, or simply skipped some classes (p. 9)
The clever bit of the study exploits the fact that, since nobody likes these boring courses, student performance should thus depend primarily on their incentive and ability to maintain a high GPA. Conditional on academic standing, family income, Communist party membership, and the like, their satisfaction with the government should thus be unrelated to their recall of propaganda content. And indeed this is what Huang finds: people who do better at recalling propaganda content glorifying the CCP (the “good students”, let’s say) are no more likely to be satisfied with the government than people who do not recall such content. But the “good students” do appear to show a diminished willingness to challenge the CCP through dissent actions. They are more likely to believe, in Huang’s view, that the government is strong, even if it is not good.

Now, Huang does not dismiss the possibility of propaganda as indoctrination, though such socialization into regime values would happen in the more lively public sphere and by more indirect means. Moreover, the exact mechanism by which the better students believe that the government is strong is not altogether clear from the paper. (Perhaps they are more likely to attribute their boredom to the government’s ability to compel their attention, and thus draw inferences about the government’s strength? Perhaps their “ability” means they are simply more likely to form accurate beliefs about the government’s strength, irrespective of their feelings of satisfaction?). But the basic point is surely correct: power “legitimates” power in this case. Indeed, I suspect the very popularity of nationalist symbolism in the wider Chinese public sphere shows the same thing: it’s not that the government is powerful because it has been able to craft some very specific nationalist narrative that cleverly appeals to people’s values, but its ability to project strength makes the nationalist narratives a bit like Trajan’s column: a reminder of the CCP’s apparent permanence and overwhelming strength.


  1. Also, abstract art monuments that need to be explained by the artist, or by power, in order to fulfil their propaganda purposes. I’m thinking of this:

    1. That's a great example Hugo! I love it how the article goes to great pains to give the exact weight and dimensions of the piece - it's not so much the meaning as the scale that matters...

    2. That’s right, as with Trajan’s column size here is the real propaganda. And also the fact that we put this great big metal object in the middle of a historic square and there’s really nothing you can do about it because we are in power. So it’s really the performance of putting the object and leaving it there what constitutes an act of propaganda. Meaning is a meta discourse we can figure out later. The explanation of the meaning of the different colors sound like something they made up after?

    3. It totally sounds like something they made up afterwards, Hugo.

  2. Anonymous9:42 AM

    Excellent post! "Ability" can be approximated by academic standing, and the following passage from the CP paper can perhaps help answer the questions in the last paragraph of the post: "students’ actual attention to them over the course of several semesters varied considerably, which reflects their differing incentives (and abilities) to achieve good overall academic standing, as well as other random and idiosyncratic reasons. In other words, even though they have all received the propaganda treatment, the amount of treatment varies from one student to another. Controlling for their overall academic standing as well as demographic and political factors such as CCP membership, the students’ ability to recall the
    lecturing reflects the varying amount of treatment they have received due to these random and exogenous factors, which can then be used to estimate the effects of exposure to propaganda." So students with similar "ability" can have different levels of exposure to the lecturing, which leads to different levels of effects from signaling on these students with similar "ability."


    1. Thanks HF for the clarification!

  3. Anonymous2:27 PM

    I believe Orwell made this point as well, especially in 'England Your England', when writing about the goose-step. There are historical associations with the Prussian and Tsarist militaries, but only the specialist historians would be aware of them; it's more a signal of continuity, and hence strength and discipline. To quote from the essay:

    "A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren't laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim."