This week’s video essay is a deep dive into the film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve. The movie’s plot demonstrates different approaches to solving the problem of language’s necessary ambiguity. By looking at Plato’s treatment of speech and writing and Jacques Derrida’s seminal deconstruction of it, it starts to become clear that the most responsible thing to do, in light of the fact that we can’t just escape the textuality of experience, is to follow Louise Banks’ example and embrace the problem of language.
What follows is a text version of the video essay based on the script:
Ian Donnely: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” …
Louise Banks: “That’s quite a greeting.”
Donnely: “Yeah, well, you wrote it.”
Banks: “It’s the kind of thing you write as a preface. Dazzle them with the basics.”
Donnely: “Yeah. It’s great. Even if it’s wrong.”
Donnely: “The cornerstone of civilization isn’t language. It’s science.”
Science, n.: Middle English (denoting ‘knowledge’): from Old French, from Latin scientia, from scire ‘to know’.
Some science fiction speculates in terms of distance: What worlds and creatures could we find if we could go faster than light, or if we had some portal that enabled instantaneous travel across the galaxy?
Some science fiction speculates in terms of existence: At what level of technological integration does a human stop being human? At what point does a computer become a person?
In most of these stories it’s some technology—whether mechanical, digital, political or magical (which is just another way of saying technological)—upon which the narrative turns in some way.
Which makes Denis Villeneuve’s film, Arrival, something different.
Its object of speculation, as I see it, is not some technology. It’s something far humbler, if difficult to define: understanding.
The story is plain enough. Twelve alien ships inexplicably take up positions hovering over the ground in twelve different locations across the earth, allowing periodic access for people to enter and interface with each ship’s two heptapod inhabitants.
The principle conflict revolves around the problem of knowledge. Why are they here and what do they want?
The problem of knowledge itself becomes immediately a problem of language. Explicitly, the effort to investigate the aliens hovering over the earth unfolds as an exercise of multilingual and polylingual communication between all the various teams trying to do similar work at each arrival site. Another level up, Dr. Louise Banks, a sociolinguist and the protagonist of the film, is thus tasked with accomplishing monolingual elicitation in order to be able to communicate with the aliens.
Implicitly, the problem of knowledge is ultimately a problem of language because knowledge is mediated by language. Direct access to concepts and ideas, let alone the mind of another, let alone the minds of multiple Others, is impossible. Our access is mediated.
The only means to knowledge—why they are here, what their intentions are—is language: signifiers and signifieds.
What, then, is understanding?
Before we can answer that, we need to talk about Phaedrus.
The writings of the philosopher Plato pit Socrates, his teacher, in dramatized dialogues with characters of Athens in the pursuit of wisdom.
In one of these dialogues, Socrates tells his pupil Phaedrus the story of how the god Theuth came exhibiting his wares to Ammon, the Egyptian king, one of which was writing. Theuth pitches it as a potion for memory and wisdom.
Ammon is unimpressed with writing: “In fact,” he says,
“…[people] will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. … You provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.”
Of course, as must be obvious to us, Socrates’ story is transmitted thanks to this very pharmakon, as Theuth puts it—this potion—called writing.
Language—particularly spoken language—unlike warp drives and stargates, seems to us so natural, so given, that sustained contemplation of it may strike some people as perverse.
Until, that is, we find ourselves in a situation in which language fails us.
If we’re sensitive to that situation, we may be more willing to recognize, as Jacques Derrida argues in his seminal deconstruction of Socrates’ story, that the meaning of our speech, as with our writing, is already at a distance from us.
It is worth noting, then, that the only possibility of mutual linguistic understanding between Dr. Louise Banks and the heptapods is through writing.
Barbara Johnson, in her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s essay, explains,
“There is no temporal or spatial distance between speaker, speech, and listener, since the speaker hears himself speak at the same moment the listener does. This immediacy seems to guarantee the notion that in the spoken word we know what we mean, mean what we say, say what we mean, and know what we have said.”
(Translators Introduction, Dissemination, 1981)
But the idea that speech is somehow present and writing is somehow absent is a false distinction,
“…since speech is already structured by difference and distance as much as writing is. The very fact that a word is divided into a phonic signifier and a mental signified, and that…language is a system of differences rather than a collection of independently meaningful units, indicates that language as such is already constituted by the very distances and differences it seeks to overcome. To mean, in other words, is automatically not to be. As soon as there is meaning, there is difference.”
This is because signs don’t have meaning in and of themselves, but only insofar as each is different from the other.
Understanding, then, is about meaning. The only reason understanding is a thing is because of the fundamental absence implied by the structure of language.
In other words, understanding is only possible because of misunderstanding.
If Socrates and Plato are obsessed with the oppositions of speech vs writing, immediacy vs representation, Arrival seems concerned with the oppositions of concrete vs abstract, simple vs complex, as when Colonel Weber questions Dr. Banks’ monolingual elicitation methods. He asks why her vocabulary list is mostly “kid words.” Banks shows that to get to the idea of “what is your purpose here on Earth,”
“First, we need to make sure they understand what a question is, the nature of a request for information along with the response. Then we need to clarify the difference between a specific ‘you’ and a collective ‘you,’ because e don’t want to know why Joe Alien is here, we want to know why they all landed. And purpose requires an understanding of intent. We need to find out, do they make conscious choices, or is their motivation so instinctive that they don’t understand a ‘why’ question at all. And biggest of all, we need to have enough vocabulary with them that we understand their answer.”
Banks demonstrates not only that speech is always already beset by the structures of difference, but also that even a concrete utterance, an utterance we might want to call “simple,” already entails behind and before it the whole abstract linguistic system from which it is derived.
Arrival demonstrates two attempts at a solution to the problem of language, and thus the problem of knowledge. Both may be introduced by way of another passage from the Phaedrus dialogue.
“You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has been written down, every discourse rolls about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”
Phaedrus agrees. Socrates then asks if there’s another kind of discourse akin to this that is by nature better and more capable. Phaedrus is puzzled at first.
Socrates answers with a riddle:
“It is a discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; it can defend itself, and it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent.”
Phaedrus solves the riddle by describing speech:
“You mean the living, breathing discourse of the man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image.”
Arrival self-consciously plays upon the strong version of this hypothesis to literalize a version of Socrates’ riddle of a “discourse that is written down in the soul of the listener”:
Louise Banks: “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The theory that, um… it’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think, and…”
Ian Donnely: “Yeah, it affects how you see everything, it was, uh… I’m curious, are you dreaming in their language?”
Through immersion in the heptapods’ nonlinear language, Dr. Louise Banks magically acquires the ability to experience the past, the present and the future simultaneously.
This magic spell—another translation of pharmakon, as it turns out—would seem to solve the problem of knowledge through language by going beyond language. To experience time nonlinearly seems like a way to finally achieve the presence which we have seen language by nature endlessly defers.
But Banks cannot, in fact, simply skip language to access knowledge directly. Even after escaping the linear bounds of human being, there is still no shortcut to understanding. When Banks discovers that her memory is really of the future, she doesn’t know what to do with this experience, and returns to the heptapods where she is faced, yet again, by the work of interpreting the necessarily ambiguous meaning of language.
This scene occurs in the middle of an ongoing crisis demonstrating a second, alternative approach to assaying the problem of language.
By the time Banks discovers her new abilities, General Shang has shut down the Chinese team’s attempts at linguistic contact precisely because of what we later learn is a misunderstanding of the heptapods’ speech.
Shang reacts to this mis/knowledge by ceasing discourse and thereby preventing the play of language, the negotiation of meaning. The resulting panic additionally removes all possibility of understanding each other.
You see, this alternative solution to the problem of language is violence.
In the face of diffèrance—Derrida’s term for the shifting nature of language constituted as it is both by fundamental lack and by superabundance, by the differences between signs rather than their correspondence to platonic forms or things-in-themselves—that is, in the face of the ambiguity of language, the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility of final understanding and certain knowledge, violence provides a means of avoiding the problem altogether.
Simply destroy the Other, and there will be no need for understanding.
But even this is an illusion.
The soldiers who take it upon themselves to load a bomb onto the alien ship even at the risk of their own lives and the lives of other human beings cannot escape language.
It is language, even a certain understanding—that first informs their fear.
Adapting the words of Derrida: beyond and behind what the soldiers and General Shang believe can be defined as the obvious text of the aliens’ malevolent intent, there has never been anything but writing—language—meanings coming forth in a chain of differential references, over which is laid what appears to be the “real,” itself taking on its meaning from the always lingering trace of language.
But this story is not doomed to failure.
It is through embracing the problem of language, of doing the work of language, that Louise Banks reaches an understanding of the heptapods—why they’re here, what they want—and it is through this same work that she is able to remember her future conversation with General Shang, to use language to come to an understanding in the future in order to use language to help Shang come to an understanding in the present.
So we ask again: What, then, is understanding?
The English word “understand” is itself a case of ambiguous meaning. It is literally “to stand under”. The Old English understandan meant “to comprehend” or “to grasp the idea of”; but “under” meant not “underneath” but “among” or “in between,” like the Latin inter and Greek entera. But the prefix “under” has also meant, in varying circumstances, “among,” “between,” “before,” even “in the presence of.” The — suggests “perhaps the ultimate sense is ‘to be close to,’” comparing it to the Greek epistamai meaning idiomatically “I know” but meaning literally “I stand upon.”
To understand is to comprehend, but while “comprehend” means “to seize fully,” language betrays even this. For understanding may occupy a space under, among, in between, before, with, upon or, however it’s oriented, in the general vicinity of its object, but it never quite coincides with it.
Borrowing from Derrida again, we could venture that understanding
“is necessarily a text, the system of a writing and of a reading which we know is ordered around its own blind spot. We know this a priori, but only now and with a knowledge that is not a knowledge at all.”
(Of Grammatology, 1976)
But far from demonstrating that language is nihilism, that meaning is meaningless and that all our efforts are in vain, Arrival reminds me at least of both the problems of language and its possibilities.
If there is ultimately no way to get outside the textuality of experience, as Derrida attests, then it seems to me that the only responsible thing to do is to follow the example of Dr. Louise Banks: to embrace the challenge of language, to accept the ambiguity of meaning, to do the work that understanding requires.
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, 2016
Plato, Phaedrus (http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedrus.html)
Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” 1968
Barbara Johnson, “Translator’s Introduction” to Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (1981; 2004: University of Chicago Press)
Jacques Derrida (trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), Of Grammatology (1976)
“Understand (v.),” Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=understand)
Star Trek Into Darkness Official Trailer #3 (2013) – JJ Abrams Movie HD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAEkuVgt6Aw)
Interstellar – CLIP: The Wormhole (2014) | HD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ln2SGm9gEuE)
Ghost in the Shell | Trailer #1 | UK Paramount Pictures (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTaLafAFrmE)
Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Trailer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhJ7Mf2Oxs)
Thoth: Eden, Janine and Jim CC BY (https://www.flickr.com/photos/edenpictures/5382187637)
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