Teleology again

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Two years ago I posted about Hollywood’s need to film re-boots / AU versions of old movies and I asked this question

“Isn’t anyone in the damned Hollywood (and other filming Meccas) reading any new books? Isn’t anyone writing any good original scripts?”

Well, it seems that the people in charge have heard me this time. They read a “new” story (1998) and made a move about it. This Monday I watched the Arrival and was pleasantly surprised. Right after watching the movie and while exiting the cinema, I went online and searched for the following phrase “arrival movie based on book” because I really wanted to read this story. It turns out the movie was based on a short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Today I read the short story, and it didn’t disappoint.

HERE BE SPOILERS

Let’s start with the movie – the main reason why it surprised me so much was that it was so no typical for a Hollywood-made aliens-are-here movie. It had no CGI action sequences of mid-air fights, there was no nefarious purpose to the visit…. What there was was an old-time feel to the whole thing. It brought back memories of  Close Encounters and other 20th century movies with aliens that actually had a thought out story. This movie had a beginning and an end, even though as it went on you realized that many things you considered to be a logical chronological sequence were in fact something else – those ended up being glimpses into the new way of thinking the main character developed.

All this was taken from the story. What they did not take, and what I loved about the story, was the analysis of language, of how our minds can be shaped by our language, of how in our world the sequential patterns of thought have shaped our language. It brought back memories of university courses, of Sapir-Whorf, of the progression at which languages develop names for colours, of Lakoff’s amazingly cool book… In a couple of very short paragraphs it reminded me  why I love language, why I teach it. But, let’s face it, all this might not be as interesting to a typical viewer.

Instead of delving into the nature of language, the movie filled this gap with a bit of a sappy story about world-wide collaboration, about how the humanity today with all the instant connectivity and everything is more divided than ever before perhaps. The sappy-factor increased in the end when a conversation the main character had with the general of the Chinese army saved all the aliens and allowed them to leave in peace, or better said it allowed the world to witness the departure of the aliens in one piece.

As for the teleology from the title.

The ending of the movie explains that the aliens came to earth to give humans the ability to think as they do, because in 2000 years they will need our help. The story leaves us with no answer as to why they came, except to give us their language. And I think this is a better ending. But, again, if they had put this into the move, perhaps the typical viewer would have felt cheated. We need to see ourselves as better than we believe we are in movies. It makes us feel better about ourselves as a species…

 

I’ll finish this with a quote from the story about language

“But language wasn’t only for communication: it was also a form of action. According to speech act theory, statements like “You’re under arrest,” “I christen this vessel,” or “I promise” were all performative: a speaker could perform the action only by uttering the words. For such acts, knowing what would be said didn’t change anything. Everyone at a wedding anticipated the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” but until the minister actually said them, the ceremony didn’t count. With performative language, saying equaled doing.

“For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

****

P.S. I highly recommend to everyone to read Lakoff’s book, at least parts 1 and 2 of it (part 3 goes a bit too much into the research and numbers of it all).

 

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