What Extra Baggage Do Words Have? A Review of Embassytown and Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy

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Book Review: Embassytown, China Miéville (Pan MacMillan) and Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, Alain Badiou (Verso)

Words are a funny old kettle of fish and good sci fi has always been alert to this. In Heinlein’s novel The Whipping Star, what engages the reader’s attention throughout is the difficulty the central character has in communicating with Fannie Mae, the alien Caleban, for although they speak to one another in the same language the meanings they attach to words are not the same. Semantics also pose a challenge for Captain Picard, in one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when he finds himself on a planet with a Tamarian who speaks to him in riddles like ‘Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra’ and ‘Shaka, when the walls fell’. Enlightenment dawns for Picard when it is realized that the aliens communicate through metaphors and that key moments from Tamarian history, what took place at Tanagra and how Shaka felt at a city’s downfall, serve as bookmarks for their figurative language. China Miéville’s Embassytown is in this tradition, exploring aspects of language in brave new ways while remaining comfortably ensconced within the sci fi genre.

The Ariekei are the indigenous inhabitants of a far-flung planet, colonized by the intergalactic Bremen empire not so much because products of highly advanced Ariekei bioenergetics are valuable but on account of the planet’s far-flung, strategic location on the edge of the known world. Any explorative journeys to what lies beyond will begin from this colony and this makes it all the more important that friendly relations with the Ariekei are maintained and control maintained over the colonists.

The Ariekei cannot speak an untruth because their language only allows for words to be used when they directly refer to a reality that is known to have taken place. If the cat is hiding behind the sofa, they cannot say it is on the mat – which is only one step away from the scheme of the Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels to do away with words altogether:

Since Words are only Names for Things; it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on – which hath only this Inconvenience attending it; that if a Man’s Business be very great, and of various Kinds, he must be obliged in Proportion to carry a greater Bundle of Things upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him.

The Ariekei are elegant creatures and avoid such cumbersomeness by setting up little scenarios which, once enacted, can be referred to in similes. This not only allows them to say something they previously couldn’t but, as a necessary corollary, also allows new thoughts to be thought. Still, though, they can only use words that signify something that has really taken place. They cannot lie, cannot therefore imagine, hypothesize or play with any of the other strange possibilities inherent in (our) language. But using similes brings them closer to the way we use words because the transgressive has been launched: ‘Because we can refer to anything. Even though in [Ariekei] Language, everything’s literal. Everything is what it is, but still I can be like the dead and the living and the stars and a desk and fish and anything’. These words are spoken by Avice, the narrator who participated in the enactment of a scene for the purpose of generating a new simile, and she comes to realise what is also possible:

Similes are a way out. A route from reference to signifying. Just a route, though. But we can push them down it, even that last step, all the way. “It became clearer to me as I spoke. “To where the literal becomes…” I stopped. “Something else. if similes do their job well enough, they turn into something else. We tell the truth best by becoming lies.”

Not paradoxes, I wanted to say; these weren’t paradoxes, they weren’t nonsense. “I don’t want to be a simile anymore,” I said. “I want to be a metaphor.”

A narrator’s aspiration to be a metaphor does not seem the likely trigger for a fast-paced sci-fi adventure involving exotic aliens, androids, warp-speed travel, organic technology — all spiced up with the (mercifully, not-so-geeky) neologisms that are so de rigueur in this genre – but Miéville manages to make it so. Issues of language merge overtly with those of colonialism in the second half of the novel but the concern with language never diminishes. If the Ariekei come to swap their Language for language as we know it then they will be liberated, free to think and change what is, but they will also lose something: ‘In the beginning was each word of Language, sound isomorphic with some Real: not a thought, not really, only self-expressed worldness, speaking itself through the Ariekei.’ Our language will spell the collapse of their prelapsarian one; they will experience the death drive and learn how to lie.

By chance, I read Embassytown at the same time as Alain Badiou’s two essays on Wittgenstein and while the two books do not constitute a symphony of thought the conjuncture is a happy one nonetheless. The haute intellectualism that is a hallmark of Badiou’s work is not foreign to Miéville and both writers are able to combine literary fiction, scholarship and down-to-earth political activism. What justifies Embassytown and Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy sitting alongside each other on a reader’s shelf is their shared concern with questions about language and politics.

Names, for Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, have the same kind of grip on reality as the co-ordinates of a map. The truth of a sentence does not depend on other sentences but on its inherent logical form mirroring the way things relate to one another in the world. How grammar manages this feat cannot, however, be explained in words because we can never step outside of language in order to explain the connection. If we try to say what the logical form of a sentence is, we can only do so by means of a sentence that also shows this logical form – and so on, to infinity. Logical form can be shown: when I say ‘the cat is on the mat’ my proposition is not only referring to a cat and a mat but is also saying how they relate to one another. This is more than just a matter of throwing a verb and a preposition together: in some deep way grammar models relationships between bits of the world and state of affairs that exist. The aliens in Embassytown are profoundly in debt to this order of language and take it even further for while the Tractatus allows for sentences that are false – they point to a state of affairs that could exist but happens not to do in a particular instance – the Ariekei cannot lie, cannot say what is not literally true.

On the face of it, words do seem to operate in the kind of way Wittgenstein asserts it does: things have names, verbs describe the nature of something happening, prepositions point to temporal, spatial or logical links and so on. But this kind of sense seems to go on holiday when we use an expression like ‘a kettle of fish’ because we are not referring to a vessel for boiling water nor to aquatic vertebrate animals. Something is missing, there is ‘ab-sense’, yet we can know what is meant when words are used in this way. We communicate with words but in surprisingly odd ways, as the colonial powers in Embassytown come to realize in their dealings with the Ariekei.

Wittgenstein come to realize that language is a strange beast, that it was like looking at what we see through a particular pair of glasses; we become accustomed to the glasses and we take for granted what we see – and it never occurs to us to take them off. Another analogy he came to use was that between language and a game of chess. It is not a matter of labelling a word as the name for an object in the world but rather one of understanding how a word is used and what other words are used with it, just as explaining the meaning of a pawn involves an explanation or an understanding of the game as a whole.

Alain Badiou writes about both of Wittgenstein’s philosophies of language but it is the first one, the Tractatus, first published in 1921 that fascinates him the most. He labels it antiphilosophy because of its dethronement of the category of truth and erasure of the possibility for ethical propositions. A meaningful proposition cannot be made about something that does not function within the sayable — ‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists’ (Tractatus, 6.44) – even if this something does have a non-linguistic existence: ‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical’ (6.522). The mystery of life is there, it shows itself, but we cannot meaningfully put the mystery into words and when such an attempt is made the result is metaphysical non-sense.

Antiphilosophy and the valorization of the mystical is anathema to Badiou, it smacks of religious faith, but he is not immune to the power of Wittgenstein’s thought and he worries at it like a dog with a bone. The two philosophers share a tight cogency in their writing that does not suffer foolish words gladly and Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy (taking up just over a 100 pages, with an introduction by Bruno Bosteels that is almost as long) is, in its own way, as carefully packed as the Tractatus. It is a book to read slowly, to re-read and ponder what drove Wittgenstein to argue and formulate so compellingly the notion that the only truth worth its name is that which results in an affirmative when a proposition is compared with empirical reality. It is not as if Wittgenstein — a man who gave away all of the vast fortune inherited on his father’s death and someone who resigned his post as professor at Cambridge University to go and live alone in Ireland for 18 months (see Richard Wall’s Wittgenstein in Ireland) — was blind to ethical values or, indeed, ethical imperatives. What is ultimately of value, asserts Wittgenstein in theory and practice, is how one conducts one’s life, how one acts. The act is equally important to Badiou but he wants to extirpate its mystical wrapping and invest it with the kind of political valency that China Miéville brings to his fiction. In the Star Trek episode, the shared adversity facing Darmok and Jalad was the basis for their friendship and the Tamarian was telling Captain Picard that by working together solidarity would emerge – the sort of value unsayable according to the Tractatus but not incapable of being shown and a sound metaphor for the importance of class struggle here on earth.

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One Response

  1. John Green

    August 23, 2011 9:38 am

    Really enjoyed that review, Seán. Thanks very much. It’s interesting to contrast the “liberation” that metaphor offers the Ariekei with Heidegger’s conception of language: IIRC, the words of the ancient Greeks, he believed, had a direct link to the meaning of Being itself, and in the process of losing that language, we have lost sight of the true meaning of existence, which we can now only approximate via poetry.

    I’ve only ever read biographies of Wittgenstein, despite having the Tractatus and Investigations on my shelf. Part of my reluctance lies in knowing that he ended up rejecting his own conclusions in the Tractatus; had he lived any longer, one wonders if he might have done the same with the later book too! ;-)