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.


‘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…

Burning the Temple: Destructive constructions and constructive destructions


In mid-February East Belfast was once again the scene of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks. First, on the night of 15th February, the James McCurrie Robert Neill Memorial Garden on the Lower Newtownards Road was vandalised, in the latest of several incidents stretching back to 2004. The following night a Catholic church about a mile away in Willowfield was daubed with sectarian slogans in an apparent revenge attack. In this corner of Northern Ireland a memorial to two Protestant men, shot dead by the Provisional IRA in June 1970 during a gun battle centred on St Matthew’s Church, continues to fuel violence.

The James McCurrie Robert Neill Memorial Garden

A number of years ago I examined the regular attacks on the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden and, while depressing to see it in the news again, I can’t say that it’s a surprise. In my article ‘Resisting Memory’ I wrote that the memorial garden can

be described as an exclusively unionist-Protestant monument, which is designed as much to indict republicans, and by implication, the wider nationalist-Catholic community, as to commemorate the murdered men. It (re)writes a tragic instance of death into a historical narrative of unprovoked republican violence, obscuring the competing historical claims of republicans defending Catholics from violent attack. A selective story is given presence by the memorial, carried into the present and opening towards a future of continued vigilance against threats to Protestant culture and heritage.

The deaths of McCurrie, Neill and the other men commemorated are placed in the overall context of historical struggle through their insertion into the narrative of Protestant resistance to all attempts to wrench them from their place in the United Kingdom. As [Jenny] Edkins might put it, this scripting gives the families of the victims purchase on the events, allowing them to construct a story that can be remembered, while simultaneously allowing them to forget the raw trauma of the moment of the attack. However, this works to obscure and displace alternative understandings of the deaths — as personal tragedy, as senseless violence, as remnants of a time that has since passed.

The article argued that the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida can provide more constructive ways of resisting attempts to fix historical meaning than vandalism or desecration.

Targeting the assumptions behind the memorial, rather than the physical structure itself, reveals the impossibility of neutrally representing the past in the present. The memorial is built upon an imagined and constructed idea of the past, which is constitutive of its attempt to tell the ‘truth’ about what happened in the past. This is not a past that is utilised from the terms of the present, but a past that is constructed in the present, that is constructed co-extensively with the present.

When this is accepted, the question becomes one of building a politics in the present that can allow for shared understandings of the past, rather than building our present politics on notions of historical legacy. The actions of cross-community groups such as Healing through Remembering and Kirk Simpson’s suggestions to construct a shared memorial to civilian victims of ‘the Troubles’, point towards what such a politics, and its shared understanding of the past, might look like. The ability to think such a politics can be promoted through an ethos of deconstructive engagement with divisive understandings of the past.

The return of violence to the memorial garden in February 2015 seemed to highlight once again the difficulties of actualising such a philosophy. But I did not have to wait long after reading about the most recent attack to see a beautiful and inspiring vision of an alternative means of memorialising our past.

On 22nd March the lovingly hand-crafted ‘Temple’, designed by Californian artist David Best, was set alight in the Waterside area of London/Derry (a city whose very name symbolises the division over history in this part of the world). A sign at the entrance of the Temple invited visitors to ‘Leave a memory behind, let go of the past and look to the future’. This was not a memorial in the common sense of the word, but a blank slate upon which people could inscribe their own memories in ways of their own choosing.

This project did not claim to act as memorial to ‘the troubles’, even a subversive one. It is not a Northern Irish version of the German ‘counter-monuments’ to defeat and disaster that Edkins describes in her book Trauma and the Memory of Politics, which are designed to be buried or sunk over time, leaving a submerged trace at the burial site. The self-conscious target of the organiser Helen Marriage was the competing traditions of summer bonfires, held on the 11th July by Loyalists to commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and by Republicans on 9th August to mark the introduction of internment in 1972. Marriage’s original interest ‘was about taking the bonfire tradition and subverting it’ by creating ‘a bonfire about inclusivity, peace and letting go of the past’.

As Best told BBC Radio Four’s Front Row programme, the Temple was built around loss, but not in any narrowly-defined political sense. ‘The degree of loss goes from rape and murder to someone losing their dog’, he explained. ‘There are a whole lot of different losses in peoples’ lives’. Those touching the flames to the Temple included a woman who had survived breast cancer and a mother whose son had committed suicide eight months earlier.

The contrasts between the Temple and the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden are clear to see. One is attempting reclaim shared public space, while the other marks out space for one specific community. One is dedicated to a generalisable conception of loss, while the other commemorates specific deaths represented and remembered in a specific way. And one is now nothing but ash scattered across the earth, while the other remains a Union-flagged, walled-and-gated symbol of defiant identity, and a target for the hatred of others.

The McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden will have no doubt been repaired after the latest attack, but it will continue to provoke violence and counter-violence in the locality. It is a construction that is destructive of community relations, through the transmission of a particular version of the past into the present and future, in a manner which accuses the Catholic-Nationalist other of causing damage and death.

The burning of the Temple, on the other hand, was a constructive destruction. The fire left no physical trace, and did not attempt to crystallise and make permanent a particular understanding of the past or present to be carried into the future. Singular memories will be preserved in the minds of those who were present at the burning, being communicated and reconstituted in myriad ways into the future, free of all claims of central ownership or official sanction.

The intentional immolation can therefore be seen as delivering the Temple from the threat of violence that the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden will continue to face. It will not be inscribed into a particular narrative of history, and it will not be a target for symbolic violence aimed at heightening tension, mistrust and fear. Those possibilities went up in the flames on the 22nd March, and the reseeded field where the Temple once stood holds the possibility of growing into a space reclaimed from exclusive understandings of the past.

Burning memorials may be a drastic step, but when the alternative is allowing them to solidify into physical manifestations of division which replicate the violence of the past in new ways, you could be forgiven for looking around for fresh historical symbols to put to the flames.

Of course the past cannot be simply burnt away. It is something that we must live with, particularly in societies like Northern Ireland. But it is something that must not be allowed to determine our present and future. In my 2012 article I concluded that the issue of the vandalisation of the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden

highlights the pressing need to complete the deconstructive gesture, and move beyond the deconstructed system that sees memorials as representative of a past, even one utilised in the present for political purposes. Memory cannot be ‘reclaimed’ in such cases, as to attempt to do so can only provoke yet greater affirmation of memory on the side of those who feel their memory has been attacked. To resist truly the damaging effects of exclusionary commemoration, we must deconstruct the assumed links between history and memory, explode the concept of memory as a reflection of the past, and work to reveal the inherent undecidability of all assertions of memory in the present.

The burning of the Temple provides a blueprint for such a deconstruction of memory, a constructive destruction that highlights in heat and light the impossibility of capturing and containing the past. The present may always be chipped through with traces of the past, but what we do with those traces is a decision for the present and future.

If we can burn away our divisive and exclusive understandings of the past we will not be left with no past and no identity, but with a scorched earth upon which to build new understandings of the past that are not tied to divisive and exclusive understandings of the present. Until then, we are left only with the images