He shook his head. Formally, he said, “Language is the continuation of coercion by other means.”
“Bullshit. It’s cooperation.” (Embassytown, 316)
Right now I’m blogging while my friends are doing homework, and they’re not ok with that – I have to be on the watch for hard objects thrown at my head. But sharing their homework-induced misery can wait because I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while now. My mind has been doing acrobatics with China Mieville’s novel, Embassytown and I want to make an attempt to share. If you haven’t heard of this author I recommend his work. But open one of his books with hesitant curiosity. He offers a wild ride of thought summersaults set in eerily familiar alien-world imagery. But I’m not writing a book review, so that train of thought ends here…
…To pick up another one. Mieville’s thesis, put bluntly: language is scary powerful. And Embassytown is a science fiction that shows us that in a most frightening and helpless way. It’s really not fair, this juxtaposition he creates with an alien race of innocent beings formally called “Ariekei.” Innocent because their notion of language is a vast chasm away from ours firmly placed on the opposite side of our understanding.
It takes Mieville a book to explain this, so I’ll do my best.
The Ariekei (known to the humans as Ambassadors) cannot communicate with us in a meaningful way. In our mindset the words we say are arbitrary – they are the signifier giving our agreed meanings to the objects signified. Imagine Adam granting all the animals names, pulling imaginary words out of his head to describe what he saw. We see an elephant and name it: elephant. Someone else could come up and say it’s a squirrel, and who are we to tell him otherwise unless everyone has already agreed that that large grey beast knocking down a tree over there is an elephant. But the name itself as a descriptor doesn’t give any sort of truth to the creature.
For the Ariekei it is somehow the opposite. We have no language for their language. Their words are not arbitrary. They are. The humans have no idea how this language originated, but it makes the Ariekei unique in the fact that they cannot lie; they cannot say something that is not because it would be meaningless babble. To further twist things they have two mouths (called the Cut and the Turn) which speak in concert to produce meanings. To say the name of one of the characters, Brendan, they would say in Cut and Turn voice bren/dan, two sounds spoken from one being at the same time. Impossible for us. To communicate with them two people need to produce sounds – their designated parts of meanings – simultaneously.
My brain = toast.
Unfortunately, (humans, being the way they are) discovered that they can confuse the Ariekei by saying things in Ariekei tongue like “red is blue” or “my brain is toast.” This would send the aliens into something like shock, and after this is experimented on further with the right voices, mankind discovers how to make this a drug for the Ariekei.
Only by learning how to create lies themselves can they get around the addictive effects of human words and have their minds back. Because of this their way of life and innocence is destroyed.
Two human characters talk this over toward the end of the book. They discuss the pros and cons of human language. The argument was made that maybe the Ariekei didn’t really have language until they knew how to formulate lies. They had no culture. No stories. No way to explain or define something without saying the same thing that was already said. They had no way of creating a religion or a mythology or a clever word pun. They had no way of persuading. They had no way of avoiding the drug of human lies.
“Language is the continuation of coercion by other means.”
“Bullshit. It’s cooperation.”
I’d argue that language is also the beginning of coercion. Other means are invented only when language fails (if words won’t do the trick, I suppose sticks and stones will have to do). But in Mieville’s world, the Ariekei don’t know this. Violence comes first. For those puritans who won’t or can’t speak an untruth lest they wish to create an untruth, human language becomes the ultimate form of torture and seduction. The god-drug. The final addictive power. When a lie is born (cloaked by humans as the “metaphor” – that beautiful poetic device) among the unique alien race, it is at the cost of their innocence. There is no retreating back over that line. To be able to speak something new and call it true is a freedom too seductive. It’s eve’s apple.
I can’t say it better than Mieville himself, and even he needs some space to say it:
The said was now not-as-it-is. What they spoke now weren’t things or moments anymore but the thoughts of them, pointings-at; meaning no longer a flat facet of essence; signs ripped from what they signed. It took the lie to do that. With that spiral of assertion-abnegation came quiddities, and the Ariekei became themselves. They were worldsick as meanings yawned. Anything was anything, now. Their minds were sudden merchants: metaphor, like money, equalised the incommensurable. They could be mythologers now: They’d never had monsters, but now the world was all chimeras, each metaphor a splicing. The city’s a heart, I said, and in that a heart and a city were sutured into a third thing, a heartish city, and cities are heart-stained, and hearts are city-stained too (311-312).
So in the end a new culture is born. Beings who, by their very being, were not able to say lies could suddenly speak a plethora of double-truths and double-lies. The Cut is saying “I regret nothing” while the Turn utters “I regret” at the same time (343). Both are true and both are false perhaps? Because of that, what is said is made more meaningful and less meaningful at the same time. You pick the poetry of it. They’re not explaining. The new Ariekeis have become the master-artists of language performance.
A performance perhaps, but I envy that precision. (343).
Let me try that performance too: I step up to the podium and take a deep breath. The mike is on and my breath breathes around the entire room…
Language is coercion. Language is cooperation.
I regret this.
I regret nothing.