On Arrival

"Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1974 Philosophical Grammar. This could well be the epigraph for the recent film Arrivaldirected by Denis Villeneuve. The film centers upon an alien invasion that does not immediately explain itself. Twelve ships hover above the earth beckoning human beings to inquire, "Why are they here?" 

Early on two experts are enlisted to help, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams). At one point Ian reads from the preface of one of Louise's books, "Language is the foundation of civilization." Louise explains briefly before Ian interjects. Surely she is wrong and science is civilization's true foundation. It is as if Ian is not just correcting Louise, but voicing an attitude of a whole genre of science fiction films. For instance, the 1997 film Contact included aliens who communicated in prime numbers. It also involved a few similar debates between its astronomer protagonist (Jodie Foster) and its religiously minded journalist (Matthew McConaughey). However, Arrival responds by showing Louise's expertise to be crucial. It troubles the typical paradigm in a way that struck me as deeply indebted to philosophies of language and a love of humanistic learning. Or, as Wittgenstein has it above, in order to reframe what is at stake in the "harmony between thought and reality." Others could be cited in the twentieth century turn to language, such as Martin Heidegger's quite different remark that "language is the house of being" in his "Letter on Humanism."

Eric Heisserer's screenplay was based on the 1998 award winning short story "The Story of Your Life," by science fiction writer Ted Chiang. The theme of language recurs in some of Chiang's other work such as, "Understand." A recent New Yorker article observed that origins of "The Story of Your Life," emerged from an idea "about accepting the arrival of the inevitable. A linguist, Chiang thought, might learn such acceptance by deciphering the language of an alien race with a different conception of time." Evidently, this interest in the relation between language and time emerged from Chiang's wider reading in linguistics. It made me think of Heidegger's Being and Timewhich developed a phenomenology of human being grounded in language. A watched pot never boils? Mathematically speaking, of course it does. But such language informs our experience of what it means to be human, impatient and hungry. Concepts such as care and angst later became key themes in existentialist philosophy. Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" distanced himself from that legacy. Rather, he broadened the scope of his interest in poetry in On the Way to Language

The film draws its audience into this meditation on the nature of language in part [spoiler alert] by depicting the aliens as creatures somewhere between an elephant and an octopus. Both are known to be highly intelligent animals on earth. There was a recent essay on the former creatures' gifts in "If You Were an Elephant," by Charles Foster. It suggests that empathy with elephants may make us better, kinder, wiser people. Arrival's animal likenesses are both otherworldly and yet familiar. They help to illuminate the difficulties of learning the aliens' utterly different way of thinking which is expressed visually through complex pictographs. At one point Louise provides a grammar lesson to impatient military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to explain why so much time is needed to cross this gap between human and alien mentalities. The film takes its time in this regard, but worth the wait. It turns out that the reason for this alien arrival is grounded in the very encounter with alien language itself. This may seem rather anticlimactic but understanding the harmony between their thought and language will have significant consequences that cannot be reduced to an advance in technology.

The film left me ruminating on two points. Firstly, humanistic forms of learning often aim to expand our capacity to understand the viewpoints of people in languages and cultures different from our own. How well they succeed in doing so is much debated these days. But the film provides a thought experiment worthy of further reflection. What if the most important skill we need in a crisis is not mathematic but a humanistic capacity to learn languages with all the philosophical, historical and cultural context that involves? Secondly, the film makes the case that somehow by involving herself in this expanded linguistic capacity, Louise's character is better able to live her life with its joys and suffering. Towards the end of the film Louise asks Ian, "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?" The film responds with a pastiche of memories and an affirmation that maybe it is possible to learn to embrace life as it arrives. I would suggest that this is a difficult hopefulness, and again much worth reflecting upon. 

Lastly, Arrival's soundtrack is deeply moving at times and also made me wonder about the film's philosophical undercurrents. One of the main songs is actually not on the soundtrack, but rather is "On the Nature of Daylight" from Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks album. The piano version of the theme is called "Written on the Sky," and the sheet music is accessible to play. It is not Wittgenstein's Blue Books referenced here as was the case in Alex Garner's 2015 Ex Machina. Rather it is Kafka's posthumously published papers, The Blue Octavo NotebooksThere, on 8 December 1917, one of Kafka's own more elusive comments on language can be found: "For everything outside the phenomenal world, language can only be used allusively, but never even approximately in a comparative way, since, corresponding as it does to the phenomenal world, it is concerned only with property and its relations." It is difficult to know just what he meant by "outside the phenomenal," but he was reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling around this time. Whatever the case, literary, linguistic and philosophical concepts coincide here in ways recently explored in Rebecca Schumann's recent monograph on Kafka and Wittgenstein.