“A knowledge of each other; a community”: Heidegger and “Embassytown”

"Mmm, gnarly quiddity."

The Strange Horizons Clarke Award shortlist review is, as it is every year (hem hem), worthwhile reading. This year, Adam Roberts – who modestly and coquettishly demurs from placing his own novel in his list of this year’s unjust also-rans – has taken the baton. It is impossible for him, too, to narrate this year’s shortlist as anything but a controversial, Sphinx-like offering, begging more than is usual for explication. I was reminded on Twitter this week of the 2005 shortlist, and in that light 2012’s offering is strange beer indeed. If I haven’t quite found a true trainwreck amongst the nominees yet – Roberts is right that The End Specialist is a clumsy, superficial novel, but in the context of the episodic airport thriller it aims to be it passes inoffensively – this is not, alas, the same as saying the shortlist is good.

Amongst the first triad of books he considers, there is only one that Roberts seems genuinely to believe should be on a shortlist of this kind: China Miéville’s Embassytown. Consequently, he spends the largest and most entertaining part of his piece discussing said playful treatise on Language and metaphor. Here’s the money shot: “The problem, if I can put it like this, is that Miéville’s conception of language itself is insufficiently Heideggerian. [...]  The ground of Embassytown‘s linguistic conception of veracity (“Everything in Language is a truth claim,” the novel tells us (p. 60)) is parsed via an unexamined correspondence theory of truth [... and this] very lack of dialectical possibility, except in the authorial get out clause of “madness,” in the Host Language vitiates precisely the ground of the novel as a whole.”

Roberts likes the final revolutionary third of Embassytown – when the Hosts learn how to lie and in their conceptual madness destroy the society they have built around their assumptions – but he finds the novel’s central metaphor fatally undermined by an intellectual stumble: baldly (Roberts knows few of his readers will have so thorough a grounding in linguistic philosophy as he), and contra Miéville, it is not useful to conceive of truth as objective. It is at this point, dear reader, that my recent reading collides, and I risk mixing not metaphors but philosophers. Here’s John Lanchester in a recent LRB, on Marx at 193:

In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order. Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

I don’t think that the blindspot Roberts identifies in Miéville is entirely divorced from this Marxist rejection of empiricism (of which school the Hosts are the fundamentalist wing). Where Heidegger places value on being in the world, Marx prizes changing it. For Marx, empiricism is suspicious precisely because it makes conceptual breakthrough more difficult. In my own post on Embassytown, I wrote that the novel “links language not just to sentience but to will.” I think, and I would say this, that thinking about Miéville’s purpose in this way goes some way to squaring Roberts’s circle: that Language is, as characters in the novel happily accept, impossible – that it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what truth is, and how we can arrive at it, that it is static and didactic – is part of the point. Remember Iron Council, that other Marxian Miéville novel which shouldn’t have won the Clarke Award? Embassytown‘s like that, but a bit better. It’s about steaming away from common sense.

I’m not really arguing with Professor Roberts – in fact, I agree with practically every word of his review (though maybe not with “tweedledumtweedledee-ish”), and Miéville’s self-imposed difficulty is that he has muddied the waters between language and politics – but it’s worth adding this warp to the weft of his critique.  Indeed, to follow through on my emerging theme for this year’s shortlist, Embassytown is about creating a new kind of community. That can only be done, within the confines of Embassytown’s exploitative capitalist model, by rejecting precisely the anti-Heideggerian conception of truth Roberts identifies. If you’re to change the world, you first have to change the way you think – and if you’re to depict that change, you must depict the way of thinking that holds it back. Embassytown can be seen, for better or worse, to literalise this process in Language. Its shortcomings – and, like Besźel and Ul Qoma before it, Language certainly has them – are, in its defence, part of the point.

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2 comments
  1. adamrobertswriter said:

    Very interesting. I’d take issue (or if you prefer: nitpick) with your version of Heidegger — he doesn’t “places value on being in the world” exactly; being-in-the-world, Dasein, is our particular style or valence of being, not a thing to be valued or un-valued. But that doesn’t affect your central point; and indeed your point that M. links language specifically to will is, it seems to me, a very powerful one — a Nietzschean conception with a long pedigree in SF, particularly from the turn of the century. Hem hem.

    Otherwise: ‘Adam Roberts – who modestly and coquettishly demurs from placing his own novel in his list of this year’s unjust also-rans…’
    Ouch. ‘Modestly’ gives me too much credit, and ‘coquettishly’ is a bit stinging. Really?

    • danhartland said:

      being-in-the-world, Dasein, is our particular style or valence of being, not a thing to be valued or un-valued

      Yes, fair enough. I’d say, of course, that all philosophies place value on their conception of reality merely in the act of rejecting competing schools – which I suppose is where I was clumsily headed in that sentence – but I yield to you on the question of value, sir! Glad, though, that you found my central point to have some.

      Ouch. ‘Modestly’ gives me too much credit, and ‘coquettishly’ is a bit stinging. Really?

      I was being unhelpfully droll, so don’t take it personally! The absence of any mention of BLA did strike me, though, in large part because you usually so painstakingly declare your interests. The danger was great enough of the piece being dragged off course by even the faintest reference to the book (which you should know I think a greater omission than some of those others you cite), however, that I understand your reluctance.

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