Arrival: The Work of Scientific Diplomacy

Natalie Smolenski
14 min readJul 11, 2017
Four scientist-diplomats approach the Others in a liminal space.

The film Arrival (2016) has generated quite a bit of attention among anthropologists; it’s not every day that the main character of a major motion picture is a linguist, and certainly not every day that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is presented as a serious thematic framing for the plot. In a post for Fieldsights, Nick Seaver has reviewed the film from the vantage point of recent anthropological literature on proficiency to argue that it misrepresents anthropological practice by privileging a myth of sudden, immediate access to alterity rather than the long, piecemeal work of habitus-formation which characterizes actual fieldwork. Writing for SAPIENS, Michael Oman-Reagan calls for encountering alien others through practices of hospitality which never fully collapse the incommensurability of the other. Elsewhere, he suggests that the mediation of first encounters by national militaries is a troubling fictional trope which calls for imagining alternatives in which marginalized and oppressed peoples are the ones to “manage” human encounters with extraterrestrials.

My argument in what follows emerged from exchanges with Nick and Michael in which I suggested that the film ought to be understood differently. That task of the film’s main character, Dr. Louise Banks, is not ethnographic immersion or hospitality but scientific diplomacy. The latter endeavor is not concerned with describing in detail the alien lifeworld or temporarily incorporating a guest through hosting rituals, but rather with establishing a working understanding of the other from which, if at all possible, political and scientific engagement can proceed.

These are not minor distinctions. The particular modes of comportment vis-a-vis otherness which have arisen within the field of anthropology over the past century and a half are not more virtuous modes of engagement with difference than are other means: trade, warfare, diplomacy, and scientific cooperation, for example. At times, ironically, anthropologists have a tendency to abstract their own projects from the actual lived concerns of the collectives that are engaging one another, and those engagements are frequently coordinated by their (however flawed) “medi[a] for political representation and action,” to borrow Kevin Thompson’s definition of the state (2000, 134). What Arrival masterfully illustrates is the responsibility taken up by a scientist faced with the task of understanding why an alien race is present on earth at all, while preventing different human factions from sabotaging this task and destroying one another in the process. This work occurs in the shadow of possible annihilation by aliens whose intentions are by no means clear.

Amidst this deep uncertainty, the true protagonist of the film emerges: a universal language which the alien heptapods have brought to earth as a gift for humans. Its immediate benefit lies in helping humans overcome a seemingly intractable social impasse: their lack of trust for one another. The technology achieves this by presenting time as circular: events in the past and the future are made equally accessible, and the language itself is written as a series of inklike circles generated by heptapod limbs. In the film, this technology opens up for the human main character, linguist Louise Banks, the ability to know things about the lives and deaths of others that enable her to generate last-minute trust with a Chinese general and thereby end a tense military standoff.

The British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The moment in which Louise, running from American military personnel with a commandeered sat phone, tells General Shang his deceased wife’s last words in Chinese appears to be a moment in which something impossible is realized. Louise has used the universal language given to her by the heptapods to speak in an unfamiliar human natural language to an ostensible enemy — who then stands down from his intended attack upon the alien ship and the initiation of a cataclysmic war. This tool/weapon that the aliens bring is a language-technology sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic, and what it creates is trust. Soon after this climactic event, the heptapods depart from earth.

The precarious introduction of a universal trust technology to human communities by alien life forms via a scientist-diplomat presents a powerful narrative in which individual and collective agencies play out simultaneously and outcomes are both foreseen and not guaranteed. In this way, Arrival depicts one of the most striking illustrations of the complexities of both “determinism” and “agency” in contemporary film. In this sense, it is theological in scope: the “revelation” is brought by an other, yet its transformative success is utterly contingent upon the recipient’s capacity to integrate it into the scaffolding of human social existence. The end of the film — with Louise teaching her latest book, entitled The Universal Language — shows that the capacity to integrate the new knowledge was there, but only because Louise was there and able to negotiate the transition from uncertain, high-stakes encounter to the routines of community learning and practice. This process involved above all else the ability to suspend categories of “enemy” and “friend” without succumbing to the human tendency to either incorporate or destroy the other.

Liminality: The Space Between Friend and Foe

Arnold van Gennep’s seminal study on rituals of social transition, The Rites of Passage, highlights the tripartite structure of transformative processes: separation, liminality, and incorporation (1960). While van Gennep’s study deals primarily with transformations in social personhood mediated by the surrounding community, he introduces these rites by way of another type: the territorial passage. The territorial passage involves moving beyond the magico-religious container of community territory and into the realm of the other. Doing so without the proper formal behaviors and interactions could invite supernatural sanction, as the individual is moving from a realm belonging to their own gods into a realm belonging to other gods. In Medieval Europe and the ancient Mediterranean, territorial demarcations were often buffered by a strip of neutral ground which served as a designated site of trade and warfare. In this way, liminality — the medial state in the tripartite process of transformation — was spatially codified.

Liminality, van Gennep stressed, is a position experienced by the social environment as both dangerous and profoundly unsettling, so where it is recognized, it tends to be girded with defenses and protections, including laws, rites, enchantments, and taboos. Like the individual transitioning from one social identity to another, the one moving between territories “wavers between two worlds” (18). In many human societies, the capacity to move into the liminal states between territories and do generative work there has been codified into a profession: the diplomat. However, diplomacy as a practice is by no means equivalent with “diplomat” as a social role. In fact, this codification can work against the aims of diplomatic encounters — which is why so often outsiders to the official state apparatus, like Dr. Banks, are brought in to do the work of diplomacy. On the other side of the territorial passage lie various permutations of incorporation and destruction: trade, warfare, treaty, cannibalism, sex, marriage, rulership, slavery, adoption, death, birth. The diplomat’s goal is to avoid the twin shoals of incorporation and destruction long enough to for the work of liminality to be accomplished.

The resolution of liminality into a stable melange of sameness and otherness — that is, a role within a stable world — is the aim of preliminal, liminal, and postliminal rites. In the film Arrival, it is not only Dr. Banks and her alien interlocutors who are “reincorporated” by their societies, but the heptapods’ gift, the universal language, makes a full transition from the heptapod to the human world. The aliens create a liminal space within their own ships within which uncertain encounters with humans can take place, and within which the gift is imparted. This transmission works only because Dr. Banks takes upon herself stewardship of the possibility that the encounter could be — or at least enable — a form of exchange. Upon the heptapods’ arrival, the military apparati of nation-states all over the world immediately gather around the ships to assess the threat and plan for attack. The possibilities of trade, intermarriage, or other forms of exchange seem out of the question for most of the humans mediating the encounter. Dr. Banks’s refusal to collapse the aliens either into familiars or enemies — in part by leveraging the gift at the last minute to prevent the utter collapse of liminality into warfare — prolongs the liminal stage long enough for the gift to be received.

The Gift-Weapon

As the aliens’ human interlocutors race to decode their language, one moment in particular leads to the escalation of tensions and mistrust from the human side: the translation of a part of one logogram referring to the alien language as “weapon.” On one of her visits to the alien ship, Dr. Banks asks them, “Heptapod purpose earth. What is your purpose?” Their reply: “Offer weapon.” Immediately the American security apparatus gathered around the ship begins speculating that the heptapods are trying to pit human communities against each other until only one prevails. A CIA agent invokes human historical precedent: “Just grab a history book. The British with India, the Germans with Rwanda. They even got a name for it in Hungary.”

Yet the heptapod classification of language as a weapon echoes the preface to Dr. Banks’s last book, which the physicist Ian Donnelly reads to her as they helicopter toward the site of one of the alien ships: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

As it turns out, Louise’s intuitions are correct not only about language’s capabilities as a weapon, but about an observation she makes to her colleagues just after “offer weapon” is written by the heptapods:

We don’t know if they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. Our language, like our culture, is messy, and sometimes, one can be both. And it’s quite possible that they’re asking us to offer them something, not the other way around. It’s like the first part of a trade.

Just prior to their departure, the heptapods inform Louise that the language they are offering is also a gift:

We help humanity. In three thousand years, we need humanity help.

True to the form of a gift, the expectation upon giving is that it will be reciprocated (Mauss 2000 [1950]). The gift of the universal language is in fact the first part of the trade, only the heptapods are the ones offering first. And this universal language is a valuable gift because it can be used to overcome the communication barriers besetting the many human national communities working to decipher the heptapod language:

Louise: I need you to . . . to send a message to the other sites.

Heptapod: Louise has weapon. Use weapon.

If language is a weapon and a tool, the one gifted by the heptapods to humanity opens the possibility of forestalling war. It accomplishes this by making time bidirectional for the subject of language: events in both past and future can be “seen.” Hence its circular syntax. Using this weapon, Louise is able to see into the life of a human presenting as an enemy — General Shang of the People’s Liberation Army — and make an emergency phone call in which she conveys to him, in his own natural language, information that no other human being knows. The universal language is, in other words, also a universal translator. It enables the translation not only of natural languages, but of events through a new kind of perception.

The universal language presenting in Arrival is therefore not, as Nick Seaver suggested, the forced commensurability enforced by liberal political regimes, in which the very alterity of non-normative others is conjured as a pedagogical tool for the order itself but ultimately silenced and refused (Povinelli 2001). The language carries no political or social prescription for humans; its only political implication emerges from the manner in which it is transmitted, when the heptapods request reciprocity in 3,000 years. The language is, rather, a perceptual structure which opens for the utilizing subject new modalities within which to experience time and intersubjectivity. It doesn’t give rise to or presuppose any particular normative political arrangement.

Neither does Arrival simply recapitulate Dorothy Lee’s argument about Trobriand Islanders’ language (1950), as Seaver also claims. Lee, drawing on a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Malinowski’s detailed ethnographic work among the Trobriand Islanders, suggested that the Trobriands experience time as a series of discrete states of being. As evidence, she cited the fact that their language has no equivalent of to be or to become; neither does it employ adjectives or connectives like and. Rather than describing someone as a “good gardener,” “the Trobriand word would include both ‘gardener’ and ‘goodness’” (16). Their narratives seemed to lack the dramatic structure (exposition, climax, denouement) that had (in Lee’s account) characterized “Western” storytelling since the ancient Greeks. Rather, they are recounted as a set of “points” — present-tense events spoken in sequence. Accordingly, Malinowski had trouble getting Trobriand Islanders to make causal connections between events in ways he could understand. They frequently attempted to describe causation (why things happen) to him in terms of eternal inheritance: “It was ordained of old” (19). Lee infers from this data that for Trobriands, acts are not connected linearly but rather are part of preordained clusters of events which together form recognizable patterns. Preservation of the pattern is highly valued; for example, spells are considered effective not based on whether or not they produce certain outcomes, but based on whether or not they are executed according to the accepted patterns.

While there are similarities between heptapod writing and the Trobriand language, it is clear that the heptapods are not describing a series of valorized, typified activities but rather utilizing a technology that gives them insight into both past and future events without any attached value judgments. Neither does use of this technology instantiate for Louise a particularly “heptapod” way of experiencing the world in the sense of recapitulating the assumptions of an alien lifeworld. Louise experiences Louise’s own life, but in an expanded way. This additional leverage suggests the language’s value as a technological advancement rather than merely as one of an infinite number of ways of making sense of the world. It is this distinction between leveraged practices and simple variation that anthropologists frequently do not make — largely due to the flattened political epistemology that is prevalent in the field, which establishes false equivalences between different categories of endeavor.

Here I also wish to quickly remark on the nature of the founding gift. Much has been written about gifts and gifting since Mauss published his seminal treatise. One of Mauss’s most prominent interlocutors, Johnathan Parry, noted that there is something unique about the very “first” gift — the gift that initiates a relationship and therefore all future gifting (1986). He writes,

A return, argued [sociologist Georg] Simmel (1950: 392), is always ethically constrained; but the very first gift which initiates a relationship has (or better, is often seen as having) a voluntary and spontaneous character which no subsequent gift can possess, and for this reason it can never be entirely reciprocated. [Anthropologist E.] Schwimmer (1973) describes a Melanesian society in which every social relationship is ideologically premised on exchange. Yet how could exchange ever begin in the first place? Only, the Orokaiva myths tell us, by an original free gift of the primal ancestors (466).

The gift brought by the heptapods is a first gift that inaugurates a new era between heptapods and humanity (despite not being “free” — depending on your reading of the need that the aliens have 3,000 years after the gift). The first gift is singular and unreproducible — it initiates a relationship of unprecedented importance between humanity and other beings. This is why I believe the universal language (the gift itself) can be considered the true protagonist of the film. It functions as a historical agent, interceding in human historical time via its alien carriers, then takes on greater momentum as it is adopted by human communities of practice. It bears the formal features of a revelation — with the heptapods functioning in the role of ancestors/divinities — that is, beings that found a new order. Yet they are not gods, but other inhabitants of the universe seeking mutuality with humans. Louise’s claim that “language is the foundation of civilization” reverberates here: the possibility of a civilization that is not only human but interspecies emerges along with the transmission of the universal language.

Circular and Linear Time-Consciousness

The introduction of the universal language doesn’t destroy unidirectional time-consciousness for Louise or its other users. Rather, human subjects who have been ontogenetically transformed by this new language capacity experience time as both linear and circular. Their everyday inhabitation of their lifeworld has been expanded by a “transcendental” move — that is, a move beyond the experiential structures they have inherited. Philosopher/physicist Gabriel Catren has been developing a formal account of this process, using scientific breakthroughs like the number zero, negative numbers, irrational and imaginary numbers as paradigmatic examples of new formal languages providing new transcendental frames through which one is able to ask and answer questions differently. His account of the transcendental subject is an account of how human beings can expand the possible objects of experience within the phenomenal worlds they inhabit (2016). This is a slow and painstaking process — scientific work which Catren likens to “shamanism” (2017). He quotes Foucault, whose lectures at the Collège de France examined the conditions which must obtain for a subject to be capable of truth-recognition: “The truth is only given to the subject at a price that brings the subject’s being into play” (2005 [1984]). That is, one must become the person for whom an outlook is possible. In the case of Arrival, it is by coming into fluency with the language weapon that Louise becomes capable of experiencing the world differently through the way that her transcendental frame is expanded. She becomes fluent only because of her willingness to repeatedly place herself at risk in encounters with the heptapods while sustaining her bracketing of the impetus to either incorporate or destroy them.

In light of the universal language, the title of the film, “Arrival,” cannot be understood only as the passing of a linear benchmark or event — that is, entirely from the vantage point of linear time. Rather, it invites us to imagine what “arrival” might mean from within a perceptual structure in which time is experienced as linear-circular. This imaginative “push” is one more story in a long history of humans speculating about different modes of temporality. Within the peculiarities of a linear-circular time-structure, arrival might suggest something akin to fiat (“let it be done/it has been accomplished”), which has been invoked as divine within certain religious traditions and has given rise to wide-ranging debate about the relationship of free will to predestination. Yet the beings who are bearers of the language within which time is circular are not gods in any literal sense, and not in any way overdetermining past or future. They simply are co-inhabitors of a shared universe, inviting human beings into a relationship of exchange with them. Arrival, then, may simply describe a moment in which the world — relational and perceptual — is widened through an encounter. That widening depends, in turn, on the preparation of the subjects participating in it to sustain the tensions of generative liminality long enough for the ontogenetic transformation to occur. This is the work of scientific diplomacy.


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