Every word is an opening

by | London, UK

Thursday, 11 August 2011

tags: culture, europe, making sense

China Mieville prefaces his recent science fiction novel Embassytown with a quote from the philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin: ‘The word must communicate something (other than itself)’. Later on in the book one character (a linguistic theorist) quotes Hegel. Forgetting the source, he suggests ‘[t]he human voice can apprehend itself as the sounding of the soul itself’. There’s language in Embassytown. But there’s also Language.

Language is spoken by Hosts (or Ariekei), a race of alien beings for whom ‘speech [is] thought’, and Language ‘speech and thought at once’. What we would call words are not, for the Ariekei, anything. Whereas words to us mean things, for Hosts ‘each word is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen’. This has a number of consequences, but one is especially important. Hosts cannot lie – everything in Language is a truth-claim.

Humans and hosts co-habit in Embassytown (located on the planet Arieka), but communication is understandably difficult. Hosts cannot make head or tail of human speech (of a language that simply signifies and refers to things, rather than one which essentially is them). Communication between the two groups is only possible through an elite group of ‘Ambassadors’, twinned clones who can emulate the Language of the Ariekei when they speak in chorus – with ‘joined up minds’. It all gets a bit complicated here, but I think the crucial point has been made. Mieville is exploring two fairly familiar ‘kinds’ of language. The word. And The Word. 

There’s a clear religious dimension to this tightly plotted and hugely entertaining work. But there’s also lots for the semiotician to get her teeth into (the novel twists on a ‘semiotic revolution’, which I won’t ruin for anybody who hasn’t yet read it), and something for the philosophers too (including some fancy Kantian furniture, like a window pane which renders the sublime raw data of experience – the ‘immer’ – sensible to the frangible human mind) and even a little for the cultural aesthetes, including this reflection on childhood, which strikes me as being both wonderful and lamentable, altogether true: ‘It felt like being a child again, although it was not. Being a child is like nothing. It is only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth’.

I don’t want to give the impression Embassytown is an excellent introduction to semiotics. I don’t think it is, and I think it’s wrong to say there’s a philosophical or cultural ‘argument’ about Language being made here. This is an entertaining, thought-provoking exploration of the origins and implications of meaning, speech and truth. If language is intrinsically linked to falsity – indeed, to lying – then is to speak, to lie? Is there a distinction we can make between signs and Signs, and if so on what side of validity does semiotics rightly fall? There are implications for fiction here, and – it seems to me – a suggestion being made about the possible fictitiousness, so to speak, of Truth itself.


© Gareth Lewis 2011

Leave a Comment