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.