from Embassytown to assembly-ville

China Mievile's sci-fi novel, Embassytown, takes up language as a central theme. [Spolier alert.] The novel follows humans living on an alien planet where the native Hosts have two voices and thus speak a language no single human can attempt. However, their language is more mysterious than that. The Hosts do not view their language as symbolic; instead it is inextricably connected with a mind and with the world. As such, a machine speaking or two random humans speaking in chorus make no sense to the Hosts, who do not even recognize the sounds as language. Instead, it requires two carefully bred humans who are closely connected on a mental level (like twins, but only moreso) so that the Hosts recognize them as a single speaking entity. These humans serve as ambassadors, undertaking all communication with the Hosts. Furthermore, the Hosts find it impossible to lie as for them, language ties their minds directly to the world. They cannot speak what has not been perceived.

I don't want to summarize the entire plot. However in the Host's language one can see how a language might function if the world, words, and thoughts were so closely interwoven that the speakers could not separate them. Inasmuch, the novel considers what the implications might be for a language that was purely logocentric and nearly telepathic. Words without a recognizable presence behind them are meaningless. (There is no writing.) Only that which has been seen, that which is perceived as real, can be spoken or thought. Of course the human ambassadors can lie in this language: a fact that the Hosts find fascinating, and they struggle to lie as well. This all-too-human abiilty to separate language from word and thought, also introduces a literal pharmakon into the Hosts' language, as one Ambassador's speech has a narcotic effect upon the aliens. Eventually the aliens, with the help of the protagonist, create a new symbolic language that frees them from this addiction. 

It is the capacity to lie that brings Plato to condemn both rhetoric and poetry. Mieville's novel asks us to consider how invaluable this poetic-rhetorical capacity is. (He focuses particularly on metaphor.) One might imagine that the disconnection between symbolic behavior, thinking, and objects marks the impossibility of true knowledge of the world, but one might just as easily remark that this disconnection or slippage creates the possibility of knowing. The near-telepathic perception of presence among the Hosts obviates the necessity of extending toward the other that requires us to produce knowledge. Indeed, the Hosts are not able to imagine regular humans as sentient beings. Hosts do not produce knowledge, which is self-evident for them.

In any case, I don't want to over-philosophize the novel, even though it is openly philosophical. The most interesting moments are not the philosophical musings but the way the theory of language plays itself out through the characters and plot: the way some humans come to view the Hosts' language as Edenic, the politics and social structure that build up around the Ambassador class, the revolutionary struggles of Hosts seeking to break free from their language and their addiction.  However, in reading it, I couldn't help but think how the novel explored how an object-oriented ontology provides a basis for understanding how a minimal rhetoricity creates the context for thought and agency. Only with the separation of symbolic behavior from objects and mind does one come to see oneself as a separable thinking being and recognize others as such. Only in this way does one move from the "embassytown" where language is a neutral transmitter of reality, devoid of any possibility to think otherwise, to an assembly-ville where agency to think otherwise arises.

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