Culture Decoder


Image for Arrival


The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.

This story starts with an arrival. A very significant arrival. So meaningful in fact, that it seems to form a void around it that needs to be decoded. I love this beginning because it resonates improbably to Moby Dick. The whiteness of the whale itself is so sublime that everything else seems to lack meaning. The creature behind the whiteness, as the creatures behind the arrival, are secondary to something that is so dense with significance, it forms a vacuum around it.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and people facing it can’t wait to fill it with their own webs of meaning. Military personnel assume the visitors are invaders looking for conquest, government officials think they’re aliens looking to trade, scientists see otherness observing and collecting information. Then there’s the linguist, Louise Banks, our decoder. She knows we just don’t know what’s meaningful for them, and she ventures into that void to decode the visitors and their arrival through their language.

Let’s talk about language. The Sapir-Wolf theory says that language determines cognition, as every teacher intuitively knows. One Christmas holiday in Vancouver, I crashed my sister’s Medical English course to revalidate her nursing degree (yes, that’s the kind of thing I do in holidays). The teacher explained that the board would look for what they call an “English ego”, or a whole personality, as expressed and thus based in English, but a tiny bit different than the personality students have in Spanish, Hindi or any of their respective native languages.

The language ego idea stayed with me for years. As I was recently discussing it with a couple friends, one of them noticed that the relationship with her Swiss partner deteriorated when they started speaking in Spanish rather than French, to the point of separation. Her hypothesis was that personalities changed with language and became incompatible. Her relationship was constructed through language.

If languages don’t describe, but indeed construct the world we inhabit, being a polyglot means inhabiting more than one universe. The dubious utopia of a single language would mean the destruction of entire cosmos, a true cultural ecocide. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson notes that, since every species of the planet has different communication structures, each one produces their own unique semiotic universe. He tried to get to a foundational language, a language for all living systems, a “self-generating grammar”.

On the first day of class with his art students, Bateson presented them with a table full of natural objects and a dilemma. If you were aliens coming from distant galaxies and knew nothing about Earth, could you distinguish the living organisms? After some suspicious consideration, the students decided that yes, they could. Then he posed a beautiful question: What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and the four of them to me? And me to you?

Back to Arrival. Our decoder faces the ultimate semiotic task; to learn the visitor’s language, construct a world in their alien terms. She lacks a starting point. Maybe they can hear different sounds, maybe their range of sight is different, maybe they perceive through radars, and those sounds they emit? Maybe they’re coughing. In other words, maybe, no, not maybe, surely their firstness, the very spark of the seed of meaning, is different. And indeed, they have a round head with eyes looking in all directions. Where we see linearity, they see simultaneity. Their Enso-like language can form an all-encompassing mandala, and Louise soon starts to realize this simultaneity applies not only to space, but time. As she learns this alien language, she too, starts having memories of the future, her cognition radically expanded.

This is when the story turns to Greek myth, to my immeasurable enthusiasm. Say you knew your destiny. If you, as Achilles before the Trojan War, or the extraterrestrial travelers that remember the future, knew your personal final destination point, would you still do the things you’re doing now? And if indeed you would, what would your motivation be? As Louise finds out, she still does the things she does, even while remembering the painful ending they will have. As she shifts languages she shifts worlds, perspectives and motivations; all without changing her actions. Even her use of lineal human English language stays the same, asking questions to which she remembers what the answer will be. Life becomes play. She has re-coded what it means to be human.

DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Martha Arango (Sweden) on ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE | Becks Collins (England) on THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY | Gemma Jones (Netherlands) on EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

Tags: Decoder, Movies, Science Fiction