Monday, December 16, 2013

Cultural Engineering and Expression: Embassytown

A brief discussion of the fascinating implications of the linguistic architecture of China Miéville's Ariekei of Embassytown. This largely focuses on the deliberate cultural engineering of linguistic forms and expression. There are spoilers in this discussion, but none related to the plot in any direct way.

I recently began reading (or listening to; I have a new found adoration for audio books) Embassytown by China Miéville and, besides being absolutely fantastic conceptually, it has really captured my imagination of a possible future. In the story there is a species, the Ariekei, that can only understand communicatory acts if they are first instantiated in a signifying event. This means that, if I wanted to say "it hit my nerves like the grating wail of a thousand pounds of tinfoil in self-adjacent laceration," I would actually have to go get a thousand pounds of tinfoil and have it effect the collective perception as described. I would then refer back to that moment in order to make the expression intelligible.

What is interesting is that humans are actually like this. If the referent is lacking, the statement is lost; though, we can generalize to some degree. This is why my simile is probably comprehensible despite the fact that few people would ever have even seen a thousand pounds of tinfoil. However, in highly theoretical, hyper-contextual, or inordinately abstract domains, this problem resurfaces. People lack the eventful referent that
places the relevant topic in a space of intelligibility. As a consequence, when I am discussing these topics, I often take a shotgun approach with various metaphors, similes, and the like until one 'catches' in the listener. I then use that hook to build an architecture of comprehension around the topic in question.

The Ariekei do something similar but as a culture and species. Thus, in some way (as far as I am in the text, this is not yet clear) they sense that a certain form of expression is needed and they create the conditions for its manifestation. This then allows that expression to be made in future, applicable situations. I think this is a brilliant idea.

Imagine an international organization, something like NATO, whose sole function is to be sensitive to global fluctuations in cultural presence (local instantiations are equally viable and perhaps more desirable, depending on one's political proclivities). When the conditions suggest a need for a new form of expression, they collect all the elements (and, of course, it would be an honour to be so collected) and generate an event for global consumption. The entire world, as a whole, now can mutually recognize this experience and use it to communicate the underlying network of relations that were instantiated in that event. An easy (if not cutting edge) example that would be very relevant and useful today would be a global communicatory event for something like "unity" or "friend."

Religion, philosophy, and mysticism of various kinds has often operated as what I would call an unreflexive form of this organization. They manufacture clusters of these metaphoric referents that people use to grasp otherwise unintelligible experiences, but they do so in a way that is not aware of what it is doing. Usually this is because, in all but the most 'advanced' forms, the proponents of these views are entirely unaware that they are engineering as opposed to discovering (or that discovery is actually a creative act). Marketing and propaganda, on the other hand, self-consciously manufacture culture, but they do so as a byproduct. Science is somewhere in between.

As with many things I say, many might argue that this phenomenon already exists in a non-organizational form distributed within culture; thus, it is a given and mostly uninteresting. I completely agree, at least with the former. The issue is that this is equally unreflexive and, consequentially, it is driven almost entirely by chance and herd mentality. To build an international organization and navigate all the ethical, social, political, and legal shoals that entails would motivate an evolution in human thinking that is sorely needed. That itself would be an event worth communicating, an expression of yet unheard signification.

Images courtesy of:

No comments:

Post a Comment

A place in which to share your thoughts...