Arrival and the ethics of non-linear time

I’ve just been to seen Arrival, the new slice of cerebral sci-fi from director Denis Villeneuve. Without wishing to give too much of the plot away, it deals with how not only our way of thinking, but our entire perception of reality, is shaped by our linguistic systems. It builds on this premise to ask what might happen to this perception if we are exposed to an alien language that doesn’t rely on linearity to generate meaning. Besides providing the opportunity to indulge in some Bill and Ted-style resolutions playing on the non-linearity of time, this concept allows the film to packs an emotional punch by asking: if you know what the consequences of your decisions will be, would you make those decisions anyway?

This ethical question is wrestled with by linguistic expert Dr Louise Banks, drafted in by the US military to take charge of efforts to communicate with the visitors. While The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw asks why the military commanders in the film did not ‘approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language’, I think the film’s understanding of language owes more of a debt to Derrida than it does to Chomsky.

(It might be worth having a **SPOILER ALERT** at this point…)

When Banks quickly asserts that communication with the alien ‘heptapods’ will be made simpler by focusing on written as well as spoken language, she is perhaps channelling Derrida’s understanding of ‘arche-writing’, something which disrupts the supposed hierarchical relationship between speech (as that which embodies ‘presence’) and writing (as that which fills-in for the absence of speech). Tension is also generated in the ambiguity of the word ‘weapon’ uttered by the heptapods. Does ‘weapon’ really mean ‘tool’? Is the knowledge they wish to transfer a gift to humanity, or the curse of foreknowledge? In other words, we have a Derridean undecidable, something that cannot be captured by the logic of either/or, but is ‘Neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or[1].

And like Derridean undecidability, the linguistic system employed by the heptapods disrupts notions of linear temporality. In my article ‘Deconstructing Dayton’, published earlier this year in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, I wrote that:

The ‘present’ is, according to Derrida, given presence by dividing from itself a past-as-presence and a future-as-presence, thus constituting the linear temporality that structures everyday action and thought. Just as deconstruction can be used to reveal the inherent instability of the hierarchical relations between the binary opposites which structure linguistic and philosophical systems, so can it be used to target our linear temporal assumptions. Derrida offers one potential means for enacting such a temporal deconstruction when he states in ‘The time is out of joint’ that the ‘teleological schema can be applied to everything’ except ‘to that which in it begins by questioning, displacing, and dislocating the machine of this teleology’[2]. In other words, to oppose or overturn systems of thought or action which derive legitimacy from a conception of a beginning, we must begin with a questioning of this beginning, and of the very concept of ‘the beginning’ as such. This form of critique must inhabit the beginning, displace the attempt to derive legitimacy from a conception of beginning, and refute the search for authority in a beginning.

In the article I argued that Derrida’s ideas on temporality can be applied to the post-conflict situation in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, where specific understandings of the violent past become the fault-lines along which contemporary politics is played out, freezing divisions and turning the political process into ‘war by other means’. In response to this, the article developed an understanding of a ‘deconstructive conclusion’ which can be deployed to

bend time backwards, in the sense of allowing the war to be conceived in different manners. For if the war can be understood as something other than the inevitable clash of fixed ethnic identities, a political system designed to keep these ethnic groups from resuming violence will not be such a necessity. The effects of the ‘conclusion’ of the Dayton system must therefore radiate back to the time before its beginnings, to the years of international engagement during the war, to how the war is understood and to how the term ‘Balkan’ is understood […]

Yet the effects of such a deconstructive conclusion are not limited to one direction on a linear temporal schema: the deconstruction works both ways. As well as showing how the [Dayton Peace Agreement] is dependent upon an ethnic understanding of the war, a deconstructive conclusion must show how the ethnic understanding of the war is given presence in the present through the Dayton political structures. Challenging and overcoming these political structures in the present can therefore allow different understandings of the war to develop. Such an unsettling of linear temporality is central to the deconstructive conclusion that can bring an end to the ethnic divisions enacted through the DPA. Overcoming the blockages which prevent BiH from moving forward will not be achieved through new constitutional agreements made in the present, or through new political constellations which marginalise the nationalist parties and international agencies, but through a reappraisal of the past, a reconfiguration of the past that can undo this aporia and allow the present and future to be reconfigured too.

Our ethical response to war is currently as constrained by our reliance on linear time as the response to the alien visitors in Arrival. The assumption that ‘the past is past’, that it is an unchanging and unreacheable resource from which our present flows, means that divisive and exclusive understandings of the past remain unchallenged, and the manners in which these understandings are constituted through present political posturing remain obscured. Fortunately we don’t need to await the arrival of aliens bearing strange linguistic gifts to realise this. As I argue in relation to Bosnia, deconstruction provides the tools to both reveal the ways linear constructions of temporality constrain our responses to violence, and the tools to challenge it. The task now is to apply this ‘deconstructive conclusion’ to other post-conflict societies, and to figure out if it has anything to say about conflicts currently in progress. Otherwise our tendency to see tools as weapons means we risk returning the gift of deconstruction.

[1] Derrida, Positions, 2004, p. 40.

[2] Derrida, “The Time is Out of Joint”, in Haverkamp, Deconstruction Is/In America, 1995, pp. 30-31.


Witnessing the Undecidable: A deconstructive live football blog

On my way to meet some friends in the pub before heading to Wembley. We’ll no doubt discuss predictions for the game, degrees of certainty may be expressed, or worries about what defeat may mean, but secretly we’ll know that nothing is certain.

Arsenal chants on the train to Wembley. A few Reading fans and some unfortunate people not heading to the football.

I think that whoever runs Wembley doesn’t understand the situation fans are in before the game, facing the ordeal of the undecidable. If they did ‘Wembley Radio’ wouldn’t be blasting out such awful music.


Finely poised so far. Plenty of encouragement for Reading.

Feels like neither side wants to resolve the undecidable. Neither wants to risk defeat. Tentative.

Ozil, Sanchez, goal. Comfort in the familiar chant ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’.

Half time, more awful music but otherwise all good for Arsenal. But we’re still in the depths of the undecidable..

A Reading goal, 1-1, this is the very aporia of the undecidable..

Chants for Giroud before he comes on. Easier to cheer the idea of a player rather than the ones actually on the pitch.

And his first contribution is to miss a good chance from a free kick..

Into the last ten minutes. Reading will be delighted to prolong this for another 30 minutes..

The width of a post from retaking the lead.

The Reading fans cheers the whistle as if they’ve won. Resigned silence from the Arsenal fans.

We shouldn’t still be watching this.

An Arsenal-style calamity for the Reading ‘keeper and we’re back in front. Thank god.



The undecidable is resolved. Until the final..

‘Beyond the touchline there is nothing’: Derrida and sport.

For a long time I’ve thought that sport provides a perfect analogy to explain one of Jacques Derrida’s key concepts: the ethics of the undecidable decision. I even explored this analogy in a presentation at a job interview once – I didn’t get the post, but I still think it’s a worthwhile pedagogical approach. I think Derrida would have approved as well – in an interview in 1991 he spoke of his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer, and he always had a passion for sport in general and football in particular (Derrida: A Biography, p. 23).

So tomorrow I’m going to attempt something that I’m pretty sure has never been done before: a deconstructive live football blog. I’m lucky enough to be going to Wembley for the FA Cup Semi Final between Arsenal and Reading. I’m a big Arsenal fan, and I can’t wait for the game. But before the live blog (which may be hindered by technological glitches, but I’ll give it a go), I wanted to explain why I think Derrida and football go together.

I think football, and sport more generally, generate such strong feelings in people, and have such a hold over so many lives, because they give people the experience of the undecidable. For Derrida, undecidables are the new concepts that are revealed by the double-movement of deconstruction (inverting binary hierarchies, then moving beyond the system of binary oppositions). For Derrida, undecidables ‘inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganising it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dailectics’ (Positions, p. 40).

Undecidables can be seen as internal to all our settled ways of thinking, and deconstruction works to reveal this to be the case. But Derrida does not think that we can simply reside in the undecidable (Memoires for Paul de Man, p. 22), with all decision-making infinitely suspended. He recognises that people must act, that the undecidable must be resolved one way or another. But he does affirm that we must retain fidelity to the undecidable nature of our decision-making.

This is what Derrida meant when he wrote about the ethical and responsible decision. It is not the decision that is ‘right’ or ‘just’ based on any pre-known ethical rule, or based on calculations of all available knowledge correlated against the demands of some ethical system. Rather, it is a decision made in the urgency of the present, not outside all reason and knowledge, but not determined by reason or knowledge. As Derrida wrote in The Other Heading:

When a responsibility is exercised in the order of the possible, it simply follows a direction and elaborates a programme. It makes of action the applied consequences, the simple application of a knowledge or know-how. It makes of ethics and politics a technology. No longer of the order of practical reason or decision, it begins to be irresponsible (p. 45).

The responsible decision is that which goes through the ordeal of the undecidable, resolves it one way or another without ever being certain that you are right.

When we watch sport we are witnessing the undecidable of the fixture resolve itself into a result. Before and during the game the result is a complete unknown. We may make predictions based on the relative strengths of the competitors, based on form or on recent history. But we simply do not know how things will play out.

Arsenal are clear favourites for the game tomorrow. They are second in the Premier League whereas Reading are 18th in the Championship. Arsenal have won eight league games in a row (a record winning streak for the Premier League this season) while Reading haven’t won in five league games. Arsenal are the holders, and have won the FA Cup a joint-record eleven times, while Reading have never reached a final. Arsenal have never lost a competitive fixture against Reading. But I know that means nothing. I remember last season’s semi final when we were eight minutes away from going out to Championship side Wigan. I remember 2011 when we lost a League Cup Final in the last minute to relegation-fighting Birmingham.

On Saturday the undecidable of this fixture will be resolved one way or another. In the event of draw after 90 minutes we’ll go into extra time and penalties. The fans at the stadium and watching around the world will put themselves through the ordeal of the undecidable, and hope their team comes through the other end victorious. But they cannot know before if their hopes and predictions will be proved right.

It is this resolution of the undecidable that is unique to sport. The arts all arouse passions and elicit emotions, but they are scripted, choreographed, written down – the ending is known by someone, if not by you. And since the time of the Ancient Greek playwrights have always employed their skills to generate tension and suspense in an audience who know how the story will end. Improvised music and drama provides a better challenge to my distinction, but while the mainstream arts rival sport in terms of audience size, I think it’s fair to say that improvised theatre does not.

While there are clear exceptions (watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in the cinema was one of the most visceral and terrifying experiences of my life), the arts do not provide the weekly gut-wrenching experiences, the pure exhilaration and the pure despair, that sport does. Theatre-goers don’t pay money to get angry, to swear and shout and hurl abuse, but they do at football stadiums. As fellow Arsenal fan Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch about his first trip to Highbury:

I’d been to public entertainments before, of course; I’d been to the cinema and the pantomime and to see my mother sing in the chorus of the White Horse Inn at the Town Hall. But that was different. The audiences I had hitherto been a part of had paid to have a good time and, though occasionally one might spot a fidgety child or a yawning adult, I hadn’t ever noticed faces contorted by rage or despair or frustration. Entertainment as pain was an idea entirely new to me, and it seemed to be something I’d been waiting for (p. 11).

I said earlier that I’m excited about the game tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it…