Monday, July 30, 2012

The Embedding

Watson, Ian. The Embedding. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1990. Print.

The Embedding interrogates the relationship between language, embodiment, and reality. In particular, Watson explores the possibility of a relationship with a reality “outside” of language and embodiment. The notion that we construct our reality through language is a familiar one, but The Embedding is also concerned with how bodies themselves participate in the construction of reality. At the beginning of the novel, a team of researchers are investigating the “universal grammar” (the researchers refer to Chomsky several times) of human languages, and want to know whether the brain is “wired” to produce a finite-array of possible language-constructions. The British researchers are based at an institute in Africa, and they experiment on African children born in scientific captivity. In another connected story arc, an anthropologist studies an Amazonian tribe with a similarly unique language. The “Xemahoa,” as they are called, use a psychotropic fungus to speak a new tongue in an altered cognitive state. The tribe is under threat by a dam built by the United Stated and the Brazilian government. Thus, the novel engages questions of language and embodiment alongside a commentary on colonialism. In other words, in addition to exploring an “outside” to language and embodiment, The Embedding also examines whether there is an “outside” to politics. For Watson, the answer to both questions appears to be: No.

Shortly after their birth, the children at the institute are placed in different cognitive environments as a way of probing the limits of what the human brain will accept as reality. In one environment, children learn a language unlike any spoken by “normal” humans. The researchers use a computer to create a synthetic language twisted into impossibly complex grammatical constructions, in which words and clauses pile on one another in long sentences that would be beyond the semantic grasp of any normal human. In order to process this artificial language, the children are given brain enhancing drugs that increase their short-term memory. This allows them to keep these complex sentences in their mind long enough to process their meaning. In short, the goal of the experiment is to determine how the brain imposes limits on perception and cognition. Other environments seem to stretch normal human logic and Gestalt psychology (the perception of shapes, colors, causality, and so on…). Of course, the researchers and other characters also struggle with the ethicality of these experiments.

In the Amazon, an anthropologist lives with a tribe caught in the crossfire between the capitalist exploitation of the Amazon River and socialist guerillas. By inhaling a fungus called “Maka-i,” the tribe can speak a new language similar to the artificial one developed by the British researchers. This allows the Xemahoa to articulate, and hold in conscious presence, their relationship with their entire cultural cosmology. To explain a bit more, when we read, the words before our eyes are the immediate objects of our cognition, but they quickly recede from immediate presence as our eyes scan over the page. The same might be argued for spoken language. However, the Xemahoa use the fungus to gain the ability to recite one long, unimaginably complex sentence and hold it present in mind for the duration of the drug’s effects. According to the anthropologist, this allows them to gain a complete and “direct sensory apprehension” of their entire world. As one character that has a similar experience later in the novel puts it: “The world was about to be embedded in his mind in its totality as a direct sensory apprehension, and not as something safely symbolized and distanced by words and abstract thoughts. The Greater was about to be embedded in the Lesser” (214). It’s not clear which elements of the Xemahoa’s environment grant them this ability, the clay they eat, the fungus itself, the plants and animals that serve as referents for their words. Interestingly, the Americans recognize this: “If there’s anything in this drug business, we got to save the whole ecology” (155). This part of the text warrants further consideration as an example of the “ecology” of language and writing.

The Embedding enacts these various cognitive estrangements to explore the relationship between language, embodiment, and reality. The third story arc concerns an alien race that visits Earth. These aliens are attempting to gather languages (and brains) from all sentient species they come across. They compile these languages (and the brains in which they are embodied) within a “Language Moon.” They believe that once they have collected enough subjective languages, they can merge them into a master objective conception of reality that will transcend any particular subjective experience of the world. As they alien describes it: “There are so many ways of seeing This-reality, from so many viewpoints. It is these viewpoints that we trade for. You might say we trade for realities” (117). Their goal is to find an “outside,” a space beyond language or the constraints posed by an embodiment. In doing so, they wish to literally escape the universe itself:  “Only at the places where the languages of different species grate together, presenting an interface of paradox, do we guess the nature of true reality and draw the strength to escape. Our language moon will reveal reality as a direct experience” (135). Although this might seem like irrelevant metaphysical speculation, Watson makes these ideas tangible in the political and cultural tensions that surface in the novel.

The anthropologist studying the Xemahoa notes that in order to engage “politically” with what is happening around them, the tribe would have to give up something of their cultural-autonomy and purity; in order to fight on the terms of their opponents, they would have to compromise the integrity of their own terms. Similarly, the US and the Soviet Union ally against the aliens – their ideological tension, capitalism vs. communism, for at least a period dissolves by a threat “outside” of human concerns: an alien presence. The aliens come simply wanting to trade for languages; they even offer the humans new space-travel technology and the locations of colonizable planets in return. However, after South America falls into political chaos as a result of US political engineering, the US decides to use the aliens as a scapegoat and blame them for causing the turmoil. The US and USSR briefly join forces to nuke the aliens, the revolutionary momentum in South America falters, and the status-quo more or less returns. As the narrator sums it up in a reference to Jefferson Airplane’s album Blows Against the Empire: “Sorry, Jefferson Airplane… the Empire still stands firm” (87). In illustrating the impossibility of accessing a transcendent space outside of reality, perhaps Watson asks the reader to consider seriously how our linguistic, ideological, and ecological position shapes our world.

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