First off, I’d like any film that nudges viewers toward thinking about language and its effects on events, the environment, and relationships past, present, and future. Arrival’s got “events” and “relationships” covered, and, by extension, “environment”, so I like it. *SOAP BOX ALERT* Lackadaisical attitudes toward language are common. Many folks don’t think about language much at all, despite how, when threatened, they quickly move to weaponize it when they feel threatened. Moreover, since a meaningful percentage of the population gets its information from movies and other media rather than peer-reviewed scholarly articles on language and linguistics, I’m good with casting language in a leading role in a semi-popular film. *END SOAP BOX BLURB*
We also have funny ideas about language, including that it impedes real communication. Charles Taylor discusses one angle of such thinking in The Language Animal, the theory that, ideally, language should just name things in the world with constraints on usage to enable precise communication—no funny business like metaphor, symbol, etc., which some literalists believe renders discourse into Keystone Kops ineptness.
For a taste of Keystone Kops, go here.
Taylor makes a good case that this idea of language still influences beliefs about human powers of articulation (unduly, he says). Arrival may in fact put the “language as precision tool” concept to work, since very few nods to metaphor’s powers of transport occur in the movie. It would be nice if the black-and-white nature of instrumental language could have been expanded a little, but that’s probably asking too much. Many people know language mainly as a tool for getting done what they want, even as they complain about its exactness. In blame-the-messenger fashion (including in language Global Mall Facebook), laments abound over how language fails to live up to expectations then betrays us; ergo, it’s faulty.
But to the movie. Arrival is a cryptic thing on several levels, including its
fleeting references to a “theory” the movie’s theme swivels upon: the Sapir-Whorf Theory, which strictly speaking isn’t exactly a theory. As far as I can tell, Sapir and Whorf did not collaborate to propose their thinking as a unified system of insight to explain a phenomenon. It’s more like a conversation later linguists erupted into, and “Sapir-Whorf Theory” is its nickname, or what linguists call this long-running discussion thread.
Also, two narrative strains of the S-W Theory exist. (It does help to know this for the movie.) The Hard Version is full-on deterministic and proposes that the language you speak circumscribes the range of your thinking, or how you experience and process reality. The Soft Version is that the linguistic schematics of your language constrain some of your cognitive scope but not to the point of being wholly deterministic; language is not a pool ball rack, and communication is not a game of pool confined to an experiential tabletop.
The first narrative strain has been discredited, but discussion continues on the value of and evidence for the softer strain. Linguists like Steven Pinker dispose of S-W theory altogether but others interpret the softer strain more charitably. Interestingly, while both strains explore language’s deterministic effects, the theory overall is called the Theory of Language Relativity. Whatever Arrival’s take on the S-W Theory, it fiddles with this linguistic conversation in sci-fi theater similar to how 50s and 60s sci-fi movies in their day played with the awesome destroy-or-save-the-world power of the ray gun.
In Arrival, we are meant to believe that our human sense of time as a one-way street is coded into our language. That coding affects our perception of cause and effect, inhibiting ways we experience reality. Alas, our beloved English may mislead us in how we perceive the unfolding of events. Human articulation’s timestamp is portrayed as linear, unfathomable present scrolling into unforeseeable future. Meanwhile the alien seven-armed Heptapods’ timestamp shifts all over the place, backward, forward, present, etc., and sports a clarity we can—actually we can’t—only dream of. I interpreted it as a depth of perception in which all unfolding may be seen to occur through the present, where the present provides access to a broader vision of time’s domain, similar to how Schlegel’s theory of symbol describe a symbol opening like a window onto to a domain of more expansive meaning. However, some sources I read describe Arrival’s depiction of time’s movement as a river that flows both ways.
In the movie, written rather than spoken language becomes the medium of congress between humans and the alien and animal-like Heptapods, which some people immersed in language study would find counter-intuitive. Most people learn to communicate through speaking their native tongue long before they learn to associate marks on the page with sounds, those sounds with words, and those words with meaning. Yes, in Arrival, these are adult humans and (presumably) adult Heptapods, but still. The movie’s depicted researchers give up on vocalized Heptapod A pretty quickly because humans can neither interpret nor imitate the sounds these creatures utter. So written language it is.
In contrast to the linear arrangement of written English, the movie portrays the Heptapods’ written language as a circle. When the written language was revealed on screen, I thought, “Ooo! Pretty! Kinda looks Elvish”. Well, in my readings I came across sources confirming it is an artist’s take on Tolkien’s elvish language looped into a “no beginning no end” ring then given an imaginative flare, making it one of the most beguiling elements of the movie, because the image does bend a viewer’s mind. I found it quite attractive. Much of the flick’s visual atmosphere is stark by comparison. As an aside, the sexiest elements do not express themselves in the relationship between the love interests (that’s actually pretty flat, with insinuations of inconsequentiality) but in how linguist Louise Banks’ learning the Heptapods’ written language reconfigures her receptive brain.
In many 50s sci-fi movies, Outer Space Things arrive on Earth either as ravenous primitives or as advanced empire-builders bent on taking over the earth and subjugating humans. But the Heptapods arrive all patience and forbearance, with the very best of intentions: they offer us what they believe is a gift. But why? Unlike many silver screen aliens, these ones actually need human help, or will. Or they do now. Or did, but momentarily we’ll loop backward or forward and the need becomes imminent. They say, “In three-thousand years,” but in this movie, such precision is token, maybe a rendering into Earthese to simplify the Heptapods’ chronofluidity for Earthen minds.
Regardless, they’ve got groovy language that will help humans escape the cognitive prison of linear thinking—if they can only find someone able to understand what a fine thing it is. Apparently, once we accomplish the cognitive breakout, we can help the Heptapods when they call on us in 3000 years. Or tomorrow. Or in the next five minutes. Or whenever the Event swells up in unison awareness and the need becomes now. Totally fantastic. LOVE this part.
Hey, aliens! Any of you have a mind-altering language you’d like to share? Your place or mine?
Oh, wait … probably mine.
Although our heroine Louise Banks appears to live bound within the linguistic worldview of one version or the other of the Sapir-Whorf theory (probably the Hard Version), it turns out she is The One. She taps into the Heptapod’s unchained temporal melody, thereby experiencing a total rewiring of her cognitive acuity so that she comes to perceive reality differently (i.e. with greater clarity than everybody else, including her husband-to-be Ian). Many of the movie’s viewers might find this tipping of the angle of view acceptable, but for me, this is where the story gets into trouble. For some reason not provided in the storyline, we seem to be meant to accept that learning Heptapod B (written articulation) makes Louise wiser than those around her who can’t quite wrap their minds around the embedded alien perspective.
I haven’t read Tim Chiang’s award-winning “The Story of Your Life”, which Arrival is based on, but my reading about it points to a theme that free will, while still a thing, and the dynamic of personal responsibility, which is kind of, maybe, a Tao-ish, non-action, effortless-effort sort of thing, are exercised by not affecting the outcome of events even when you know what it is to be. This theme might catalyze Chiang’s story differently from the movie’s representations, I don’t know. I have only the movie version and internet illuminations to go on. That, and the fact that in Taoism, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, there’s the concept of wu wei, non-action or non-doing. It may or may not be relevant that wu wei is sometimes represented in calligraphy as an inky circle.
Transformed as she is by Heptapodese, Louise can see the future of her not-yet-born daughter, knows she is going to die young, but accepts that outcome and lives it through, much to the dismay of her yet-to-be-husband Ian, who, the movie later informs us through Louise’s POV, thinks her choosing a future where the daughter dies a mistake. He leaves Louise because she accepts the future and gives birth to the ill-fated daughter, apparently without consulting him. And without consulting the daughter, who’s actually available to Louise through future/present interactions. I know when I’ve made unilateral decisions that affect others I’ve been hotly criticized. People seem to prefer not to be objectified through being excluded from involvement in an event’s unfolding by one person’s narrative take on that event. Go figure.
According to my internet sources, movie and short story both are designed to provoke viewers and readers to reflect on the strength of their own choices. As the website The Verge states the dilemma, “[W]ould you rob someone of their existence, and yourself of the time shared with them on Earth, if you knew they would one day feel pain, and you would feel their loss?”
Let’s take The Verge’s rendering of Arrival’s premise and run with it, even while it may not accurately reflect the principles of effortless effort, Chiang’s intention in his story, or, well, anything. Suppose I had Louise’s cause-and-result acuity and knew I was going to birth a daughter whose brain would be severely injured in utero by a pathogen at a time in human medical science when no technology existed either to prevent or repair the damage. Would I act to affect the future of that child so that I rob that child of her life and of our relationship lived in the shadow of the illness, especially if I know that she’ll suffer in the womb and to various degrees throughout her life? Or would I choose to have the baby even knowing what I know and accept the scripting of our life together in a potent act of free (and, we suppose, freeing) will, without special concern for how such a situation might affect others whose wills are not quite as free?
I might not be the person to answer this question. I have no reverence for either-or scenarios, which the movie does appear to assert in one way or another. I doubt them regardless of the pathos gilding the dilemma’s horns. In fact, I grab a hammer and head straight for those shiny horns. Also, true story: my husband and I both had the sense that such a child would be born to us, and we decided together to participate in the baby-making game, despite the risks.
But if I had the chance to go backward (or forward) in time and help my daughter avoid her prenatal suffering and the severe disability she’d be bounded by for the rest of her life? If I could avoid, in one of a dozen ways I can think of, the cytomegalovirus infection that actually did destroy parts of her brain, would I wave off those options and live at rest in the grace of effortless effort? Or would I choose one or two options I thought manageable and take on the responsibility to amend the story of her life, full effort ahead?
Yeah, that heartbeat people say they’d do things in? I’d jump ahead of that heartbeat, and, just as when my husband and I accepted the sense we’d have a challenged baby, I’d act to change the outcome despite the risks. And I’d do it with my husband, if I could.
Let’s drop out of silver screen glamour for a moment and talk about plain yet real special effects. For the few centuries since science became a thing, humankind has been busily altering outcomes for conditions that for thousands of years were accepted as inevitable. If you’re a scientist living in a population racked by polio and you know from experience that a certain number of adults and children will suffer and die from it, do you accept those odds (in the U.S. in 1952, 3,145 adults and children) and live well with the outcome, or, if you can, do you alter the course of countless lives by creating a vaccine that reduces the disease’s dangers for the population of the United States in 1954, just two years before I was born? Heck, my future might already have been radically altered by Jonas Salk’s meddling in polio’s what-might-have-been.
Now, back to the portrayal of language in the movie—very instrumental-designative, name-that-thing dominant, not a trace of metaphor to be found, though there are definite traces of symbolism in Heptapod B and some playing with ambiguity. (Is language a “gift” or a “weapon”?). Plus, I don’t know about other languages, but English already has begun throwing off chronological multi-dimensional sparks. That the movie even attempts to portray such an idea as language being time-bound (or of another language’s not being time-bound) could be taken as evidence of that those sparks are there. However, other aspects of human language demonstrate abilities to open into the future while altering consequences of events in the past.
All that aside, I liked the movie and recommend it to anyone interested in aliens or language. It’s provocative, contains many wonder-infused scenes, offers moments of inspiration, a few manipulative ones (like the bomb scene), and, once you unravel its strange threads, does give rise to new thought. And to some old thought that reminds us of metaphor’s power of conveyance—a quality of language that Arrival, doesn’t touch. Remember that Next Generations episode, “Darmok”? Picard, his mind opened wide.