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How to Speak to Aliens: Visual Poetry and the Fiction of Contact

How to Speak to Aliens: Visual Poetry and the Fiction of Contact

By Gregory Betts

Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival (2016) captures a central problem about coming into contact with radical difference: namely, how to speak to someone without a common language or even a common sense of reality (note: this is not an article about the American election). Having a common purpose helps, of course, but basic curiosity in the other can quickly shift to frustration from the inevitable miscommunications, which are in turn easily exacerbated by the lack of ways to correct constant misunderstandings. Fear and paranoia can swiftly overwhelm the slowly built, ever fragile links. As we all know, Hollywood delights in the violence that can follow from encounters between the familiar and the spooky unknown.

In a beautiful sci-fi twist, however, Villeneuve turns to a kind of visual poetry to codify the alien’s language and to create a bond between humanity and our radical Other. Humans make contact with alien consciousness by their willingness to read and interpret the visual poetry. To understand the visual poems, however, the readers have to enter into alien consciousness (the aliens experience time as circular, in contrast to our linear sense of time).

Arrival bases its concept of alien language on the theories of Edward Sapir, the early 20th-century linguist who revolutionized the field by arguing that different languages reflect different concepts of the world. Same world, different realities—or, in the case of the movie: different world, radically different realities.

Closer to home, Sapir developed this theory while working on Indigenous languages on behalf of the Geological Survey of Canada as our first chief ethnologist. As he worked with the Nootka, the Athabaskan and the Tlingit peoples, he came to understand that language does more than just encode specific words for things and ideas that everybody shares. He wrote that language predetermines observation—we can only see what we can already say. Thus, “we must learn to fight the implications of language” if we want to understand anything new. He realized that Indigenous people have a very different understanding of how time and ultimately reality functions and what it means.

Another revolutionary implication of Sapir’s ideas is that language contains the worldview of a people. Indigenous authors in Canada have long argued the same point (and, indeed, Canadian residential school leaders understood the connection between language and culture implicitly—which is why they outlawed children from speaking their mother tongues). As Six Nations author Brian Maracle explains, “an onkwehón:we [vibrant Indigenous person] is someone who speaks the language of the Creator, who still carries the unique way of thinking and looking at life that stems from our language.”

The visual poems, or more technically “logograms” (word signs), that Villeneuve uses in Arrival, set me thinking of the wampum belts that are central to the Haudenosaunee culture of Six Nations. Both use a single visual image to tell a story that connects the past to the future by using stories to instruct people on how to live. Past, present and future are depicted simultaneously. Both articulate identity, status, and complex relationships between diverse populations in a simultaneous moment. Both contain the articulation of a worldview that settlers in North America can only comprehend after seriously fighting the implications of their own language, their own stories, and their own worldview.

Wampum belts helped secure the peace in this region a long time ago, even if we have widely forgotten how to read them. One hundred and three years before Canada became a country, the English colonial government met here with 24 different Indigenous nations from Nova Scotia to the prairies for treaty negotiations. The result of that delicate diplomacy was the Treaty of Niagara of 1764, which guaranteed massive territory and cultural autonomy to those Indigenous nations that were present. England’s Sir William Johnson entered into the worldview of Indigenous people enough that he helped them embody the Treaty of Niagara into an appropriate wampum belt. He pledged, so that “we may not forget our mutual Engagements, I now present you the great Belt by which I bind all your Western Nations together with the English.”

Frankly, and as many have pointed out, Canada as we know it today only exists because of the partnership mapped out in this agreement, which led Indigenous warriors to fight with the Englishled settlers in the Revolutionary War of 1776 and the War of 1812, and led them to help protect the Canadian borders from that point forward (the Six Nations territory is located where it is, in part, for military strategy).

That meeting, back in 1764, was a delicate moment of contact between two radically different worldviews: the settler and the indigene. It could have gone so wrong so easily but for the concerted efforts by many to work across the radical linguistic divide. It isn’t to pretend that that moment wasn’t fraught and complicated, nor that the treaty (which some refused) was perfect. But the fact that Canada has since betrayed even the problematic promises of the Treaty of Niagara is one of the roots of a national crisis we need to correct now. That we still have the wampum belts encoded with the message and spirit of those promises means there is still a chance to rebuild a common language and a common sense of purpose. Doing so, however, requires entering the worldview that made that wampum belt meaningful so long ago, and learning to read from an entirely different perspective.

It strikes me that Arrival represents something quintessentially Canadian in this present moment for its acknowledgement of the difficulty of navigating communication between culturally and linguistically distinct groups. Not just the difficulty, but also the fragility and the existential necessity.

That the movie is even more nuanced than this in its handling of geopolitics (China negotiates the peace) speaks to the general sophistication of its handling of cultural contact as a multi-layered, multi-valenced experience. That it ends, not with war, but with a visual poetry that allows groups to reach their Other speaks to the importance of creating experimental portals that expand the possibilities of communication. May the settlers of North America and the Indigenous people of Turtle Island be so fortunate.

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