Assemblage Theory digital rhetoric

alien languages and rhetorical procedures

Ian Bogost writes about Star Trek: The Next Generation and the unique language of the Tamarians, an alien race encountered in one episode. Picard and the crew eventually figure out how to speak with the Tamarians by interpreting their language as a series of metaphors. Bogost, however, suggests that metaphor is the wrong concept,

Calling Tamarian language “metaphor” preserves our familiar denotative speech methods and sets the more curious Tamarian moves off against them. But if we take the show’s science fictional aspirations seriously and to their logical conclusion, then the Children of Tama possess no method of denotative communication whatsoever. Their language simply prevents them from distinguishing between an object or event and what we would call its figurative representation.

Bogost then proceeds to put the Tamarian language in the context of computers where, from our perspective when we look at the computer we perceive descriptions, appearance, or narrative but what is actually happening are logics and procedures. Picard may think the Tamarians are speaking in metaphors, but they are in fact speaking in procedural logic. There is some insight there for us, Bogost observes,

 To represent the world as systems of interdependent logics we need not elevate those logics to the level of myth, nor focus on the logics of our myths. Instead, we would have to meditate on the logics in everything, to see the world as one built of weird, rusty machines whose gears squeal as they grind against one another, rather than as stories into which we might write ourselves as possible characters.

It’s an understandable mistake, but one that rings louder when heard from the vantage point of the 24th century. For even then, stories and images take center stage, and logics and processes wait in the wings as curiosities, accessories. Perhaps one day we will learn this lesson of the Tamarians: that understanding how the world works is a more promising approach to intervention within it than mere description or depiction. Until then, well: Shaka, when the walls fell.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this episode has received some treatment in rhetorical theory. Both Steven Mailloux and Diane Davis (paywall) have written about it as an opportunity to investigate the challenges of communication with otherness. As Davis points out, the episode ends without any real understanding being achieved between the Enterprise crew and the Tamerians. They do not establish diplomatic relations. The best they can achieve is peace without understanding, which, as Davis argues, “suggests that understanding is not a prerequisite for peace, that a radically hospitable opening to alterity precedes cogitation and volition.” From this she concludes

the challenge is to compare without completely effacing the incomparableness of the “we” that is exposed in the simple fact of the address; that is, the challenge is to refuse to reduce the saying to the said, to keep hermeneutic interpretation from absorbing the strictly rhetorical gesture of the approach, which interrupts the movement of appropriation and busts any illusion of having understood .

In this moment, Bogost and Davis appear like Picard and the Tamarians: two non-communicating entities. However they both recognize the partial-at-best success of Picard’s ability to communicate here and the limits of the hermeneutic gesture. Davis points to a rhetorical gesture that precedes communication. I wonder if that gesture might be procedural, or if I were to put it in more Deleuzian terms, as the operation of an assemblage.

Let’s see where that takes us by bringing in two other sci-fi stories.

  1. Kirk-and-GornThe ST:NG “Darmok” episode is often compared to the original Star Trek episode “Arena” where some omnipotent space race called the Metrons forces Kirk to fight an alien captain from a reptilian race called the Gorn. In the end, Kirk manages to create a makeshift weapon (anticipating every episode of MacGyver) and defeats his enemy. However he chooses not to kill the Gorn and he is rewarded for this decision by the Metrons. It has many of the classic tropes of the original episode: Olympian-styled super aliens, violent bestial aliens, and scrappy, can-do American know-how with the perfect mix of brains and brawn, judgment and courage, etc., etc. One way of comparing the episodes is in terms of the shift from Golden Age to New Wave sci fi, where in the former the heroes are cowboy engineers and in the latter they are anthropologists. In “Arena” there is no hope for communication and apparently no attempt.
  2. Stepping out of the Star Trek universe, China Meiville’s Embassytown focuses on an alien race called the Areikei. They are two-headed creatures, and the only way humans can communicate with them is through genetically-engineered twins called Ambassadors who can speak with two mouths and one mind. Like the Darmok, the Areikei appear to speak through metaphorical concepts but more importantly they cannot create fictions or lies. As such, humans are called upon to stage various actions in order to create concepts for communication. There is a Derridean pharmacological aspect as well, as the Areikei find themselves intoxicated by a new Ambassador’s speech. And then, when they figure out how to lie… Following Bogost, we might also call the Areikei’s language procedural. I see the pharmakon as fitting into a procedural understanding of rhetoric and communication: language is a machine.

It’s tempting to see language, or more generally symbolic behavior, as the proto-machine of modern humans. Today, when we look at technologies, they all are preceded by language, by descriptions, images, narratives, and metaphors. When we think about remediation or just McLuhan’s contention that all media take prior media as their content, that’s what we see. The origins of symbolic behavior are as murky as efforts to define it in the first place, but I think we acknowledge that there are technologies prior to language. Technologies always bridge the modern nature-culture divide, responding to physical laws but also shaped by cultural processes. Language is certainly that way, partly in our nature in evolutionary developments of the mouth and brain but also cultural. From Bogost’s view, as well as Deleuze’s (though the two are quite different in other ways), language is machinic because being is machinic. The machine precedes language. For Davis, rhetoric also precedes language and communication as this opening of a relation to Otherness.

Might we say that rhetoric is also a machine? I don’t think Davis would agree to that, but this is precisely Bogost’s point when he discusses procedural rhetoric. Persuasive Games,where Bogost introduces us to procedural rhetoric, focuses on the contemporary scene of videogames, especially games with a social-political agenda. However, if we say that procedural rhetoric is not only a way to understand how software persuades but more broadly a way of seeing rhetoric as a machine, prior to symbolic behavior, then we move toward a different understanding of these science fiction situations.

Human and alien assemblages grind their gears into one another. (Mis)understanding is one output. Violence, heat, entropy are others. Dis/order is produced as assemblages mutate. One inclination is to say there are no aliens here, just stories written in English. Let’s interpret them with our various hermeneutic methods. But there are aliens here, albeit not extra-terrestrial ones, just nonhumans. What happens if we take Bogost’s advice and not see the “Darmok” episode as description, image, and narrative but rather as a process?

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