This post contains spoilers.
Communication is at once one of the great themes of fiction, and the very stuff of most fiction most of the time. Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is a ‘first contact’ film that holds in check spectacular views of alien spacecraft and scenes of high-tech battle, and instead focuses most of its energies on dramatising the attempts of a group, organised and commanded by the US military but led by two professors (one of linguistics, one of physics), to communicate with a pair of newly-arrived extra-terrestrials. It is very much a film about communication, and one that has been warmly received in many reviews. But its view of communication – and especially of how we might overcome our limited human skills in this regard – seems to me to mainly waver between the peculiar, the limited, and the naive.
Electronics, like print in its early phases, is biased toward supporting one type of civilization: a powerhouse society dedicated to wealth, power, and productivity, to technical perfectionism and ethical nihilism. No amount of rhetorical varnish would reverse this pattern; only the work of politics and the day-to-day attempt to maintain another and contradictory pattern of life, thought, and scholarship. As Innis pointed out, the demise of culture could be dispelled only by a deliberate cutting down of the influence of modern technics and cultivation of the realms of art, ethics, and politics. He identified the oral tradition with its emphasis on dialogue, dialectics, ethics, and metaphysics as the countervailing force to modern technics. But support of such traditions or media requires that elements of stability be maintained, that mobility be controlled, that communities of association and styles of life be freed from the blinding obsolescence of technical change. However, the demands of growth, empire, and technology put an emphasis – in education, politics, and social life generally – on those media that fostered administrative efficiency such as print and electronics. Only by supporting the countervailing power of substantive rationality, democracy, and time would the bias of technology be controlled.
James W Carey. ‘Space, Time, and Communication: A Tribute to Harold Innis.’ In his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised Edition. Routledge, 2009.
John Durham Peters opens his mouth, and TRUTH and WISDOM shine forth! I was in a major rut with my book when I read his, Speaking Into The Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 1999), and suddenly there was excitement and there were possibilities once again. What follows is a brief extract from a lovely interview from last year on the Figure/Ground Communication website (available here).
My most emphatic piece of advice for any intellectual outside of the STEM fields is to master (or try to master) a foreign language. (No one ever masters any language.) The domination of world scholarship by English is an advantage to native English speakers, since they command the language, but also a major loss, since they are unable to think outside of the empire. Learning another language remodels the mind, and provides a flexibility and confidence that opens up a key to learning. Learning a language is absolutely humiliating and infantilizing, which is one reason most people avoid it; but on the other hand, language-learning is a small paradigm of the discovery of truth, of bumping against something recalcitrant and intellectual that you can’t boss around. Even more, language learning is fountain of youth. If you want to stay young, you should do what the young do: ride steep learning curves. Forget lipo-suction and Botox: language learning will keep you fresh.