The Line Between Language: Embassytown, Zero History, and Continuity Drift

The line runs between non-commercial and commercial, public and profit, what we grow for love and what we make for money. It divides (in my mind) society and capital, love and hate, play and  competition. To trace this line, I will follow it here through an alien language in Mieville’s Embassytown, a secret brand in Gibson’s Zero History, and finally to my own work in progress, Continuity Drift.

Cut and Turn: Embassytown

The second time I entered the city, into another hall with a crowd of Hosts, I was left near a collection of obscure objects and anaesthetised Ariekene animals, and with four other humans, enzymatic lights bowing in the curves of their aeoli helments. Two were Ambassador LeNa, who ignored me. The other two were young men, commoners like me.

“Hello,” said one. He smiled enthusiastically and I did not smle back. “I’m Hasser: I’m an example. Davyn’s a topic You’re Avice, aren’t you? You’re a simile.”

-Embassytown

Embassytown is an outpost in the immer, a kind of hyper-space through which the main character is trained to navigate. A simile is only one of her roles. The Ariekei, or Hosts, don’t have a language as such. Instead, they have Language, which needs actual referents in order to function. In Sausserian terms, the signifier is the signified itself. This makes it impossible for them to lie.

Ursula K. Leguin writes in her 2011 review in the Guardian that “the Ariekei want similes because their language, which is innate, does not permit lying. Like Swift’s Houyhnhnms, they cannot speak that which is not. This contradicts the nature of language as we know it – language is a wonderful vehicle for untruth and perhaps a necessary vehicle for invention, the leap to the not-yet-existent.”

The alien Language is purely denotative, lacking symbols for counter-factual or absent subjects. There is no possibility of misunderstanding because, for the Hosts, words themselves are meanings. Their linguistic signs consist of two voices, spoken concurrently, one called the cut and the other the turn. In order to reproduce Language, two humans have to speak, each of them taking one half of the bipartite syntax.

Humans, when they first encountered the Hosts, analyzed the phonetics of their language, the sound of it, and could reproduce the words and intonations perfectly, but the Ariekei didn’t respond. The reason is this: the sounds aren’t enough. In order to speak Language, the cut and the turn have to be thinking the same thing, or the word/words they speak have no meaning in the alien tongue. The only humans who can come close are identical twins.

In the quote above, “two were Ambassador LeNa” is not a typo. An ambassador is/are the rare pairs able to speak words in Language, which in print appear like fractions, with the cut on top of a dividing line, and the turn below.

You see, I’m turning Mieville’s metaphor into one of my own. Books are commodities. If it couldn’t turn a profit (presumably) Embassytown would have never been published, and it would have never reached my hands. At the same time, the only kind of literature I care about, the only kind that I can hear, is when the commercial value matches or intersects with higher, non-commercial motives.

In a public square saturated with the ideology of markets,  your inner thoughts can only be expressed when sticking successfully to a sales pitch. Meaning becomes comprehensible only in the overlap between selling and self.

In this blog, for example, I’m using the debased idiom of the product-review. At the same time, under my breath (or over it) I’m trying to cut and curse my own language free from the creeping context of advertisements, indoctrination, and jacket-flaps. Mieville, in ignoring and transcending every known commercial genre (and in releasing a list of the 50 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read) seems to be thinking along similar lines.

ZERO HISTORY

“Once you have a way in which things are done, the edge migrates. Goes elsewhere.”

-William Gibson, Zero History

Gibson is more of a “commercial” writer than Mieville, with a lower ratio of poetry to product. The quote above is from a conversation between Hollis Henry, an ex-punk rocker turned author, and Hubertus Bigend, a wealthy patron and investor, with whom Hollis has had a troubled past. Bigend is explaining that for decades, clothing designers have been taking their cues from military uniforms.

What his company wants to do is reverse the directionality of this relationship, selling a marketing strategy, or brand, back to the military (or private military contractors). Gibson understands, with the same prescience of his earlier cyberpunk novels, that killing is the oldest fashion, and that making products and making war are two sides of the same, state-sponsored coin. Controlling the narrative is what is important.

He needs Hollis and her “cool,” to complete the coup of propaganda over art–to be able to speak the Language of business hidden under beauty. He pays her to track down a “secret” brand called the Gabriel Hounds, which has become popular in cult circles because (this is important) they refuse to advertise. They design clothes to function, not to sell, producing small runs dropped through clandestine channels, able to practice craftsmanship because of their commercial anonymity. Gabriel Hounds becomes a symbol, in the novel, for the uncorrupted human element that capitalism can’t function without, and likewise can’t function without trying to destroy.

Back Cover of Moon Palace, by Paul Auster. Illustration by Grez

Continuity Drift

Here is what I have learned: don’t think of narratives as good or bad, as products to be rated or endorsed. They either speak to you, or they don’t. Books, to me, aren’t entertainment; they are food. I need them to survive. We are obsessed with grading, ranking, buying, and selling. Non-commodities are invisible and silent. This is as true for people as it is for books.  Commercialism is the only language we’ve been trained to speak.

The grammar of consumption can’t be easily hacked or tampered with. If you want the world to hear you, you have to speak the Language of hybridized desires. From the possible spectrum, the only shades of light not filtered from our sky are green. Money is the language that cannot be misunderstood. It stands only for itself, and eats all other discourse.

In my writing, I try to draw from other worlds, and parallel dimensions. The novel is half written, a continuity drifting over the internet as music and a comic.  Maybe you can hear me, though there is no money on my tongue.

Continuity Drift is more than I can ever sell. It is the rough cuts of an unspeakable story, growing underground, before it turns into something else…

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