What are we going to do with them?

Abstraction, Imagination, and Difference in ‚Arrival‘

A lifting ramp elevates linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks into the asymmetrically oval- shaped space ship that floats above the ground. An orange hazmat suit protects her from the unknown atmospherical conditions that await her. The space ship has a rectangular opening at its bottom, which is where Banks enters, together with her military research team and a range of investigative equipment. Inside, gravity works differently, so that one of the sides of the large funnel on the inside of this object from outer space turns into the ground on which Banks and colleagues are able to walk until they reach a blank screen which blocks their way. Banks breathes heavily as she stares into this screen, behind which there seems to be nothing but thick, white fog. Her heart is pounding, and she does not know how to proceed — when suddenly, dark blurs begin to appear through the fog. The blurs get closer, and slowly but surely Banks is able to distinguish two oval shapes from which eight large tentacles extend. The shapes become bigger as they get closer to the other side of the screen with increasing speed — Banks’ heart skips a beat. They have arrived. And they speak.

This is one of the first scenes of Dennis Villeneuve’s 2016 movie ‘Arrival’, a cinematic adaptation of the 1998 short story ‘Story of your life’ by Ted Chiang. It is the beginning of a truly outlandish encounter between linguistics professor Banks and two aliens who have arrived on planet Earth in a strange-looking, refreshingly inelegant space ship. There are eleven more of these ships, floating above apparently randomly selected locations around the globe — and the militaries of all nations concerned are keen to engage with what seems an attack from outer space. But who is the attacker? Who the attacked? And why are they here?

The film is an unconventional science fiction story about aliens — precisely because it is not about aliens. It is about us humans, and our ways of relating to one another along the lines of distinction between self and other. What is alien? What is me? How do we understand foreigners, and what are we going to do with them? I shall approach these questions tentatively by reading Villeneuve’s adaptation with the work of Inayatullah and Blaney (2004) as the main theoretical underpinning. More specifically, I will make an attempt to understand the images and philosophical concepts drawn and mobilised in the film against the background of three major ‘problems of difference’: Todorov’s ‘double movement’ as understood by the above authors; abstraction as an act of power; and imagination as the subversion of the conceptual. The paper will be structured according to these three problems and in that way discuss how the film makes these tensions visible and how it tries to make sense of them. Against this background I understand ‘Arrival’ as a fascinating post-colonial discussion of the linearity of time, development and modernity which is able to rewrite time and space through a decidedly political imaginary that bears severe implications for the thinking and making of international politics.

The double movement

Inayatullah and Blaney (2004) bring Todorov’s ‘The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other’ from 1982 to the context of International Relations (IR). They do so by focussing in particular on Todorov’s notion of the ‘double movement’: In the hypothetical space of the contact zone during the first encounter between coloniser and colonised something very peculiar takes place — as something of oneself is seen in the other, the intimacy is simultaneously recognised and cut off. This splitting, as Inayatullah and Blaney call it, subsequently yields a bidirectional practice of othering. On the one hand, a clear inferiority of the other is established, according to which ‘they’ were negatively different. At the same time, some degree of sameness is acknowledged — there appears to be some ‘common humanity’ connecting self and other that needs to be accounted for in some way or another. This is being done by means of the notion of progress — the other is in that sense offered the option of assimilation, the (implicit or explicit) dictum being: You are inferior, so you ought to strive to become like us. This double movement can take place, as Inayatullah and Blaney go on to detail, by means not only of discursive engagement but also of scientific method — a striking example, they point out, is comparison. It is through the comparative approach that the researcher looks at the other very explicitly in terms of the self — it is in this way that knowing the other is an act of complicity in the establishment of inferiority, not a solution to that inferiority. Developmental practices presented as a ‘solution to global problem X’ are in this view little more than an expression of power in the guise of a philanthropic suggestion. As Todorov himself put it: “Good information is the best means of establishing power” (Todorov 1982: 182).
Now, in ‘Arrival’ the situation is of course rather different — in two important ways. On the one hand, the contact zone has been significantly enlarged and moved to the interstellar space; suddenly all of the nations of the earth are similarly confronted with the arrival of an unknown
species from outer space. On the other hand, the narration is inverted: Although the story is still told, presumably, from the perspective of established power (the United States of America), it is them (as they themselves quickly assume) being invaded, not the other way around. Both of these special circumstances are however immediately made sense of by means of conventional practices — how does one deal with the aliens once they are suddenly there? Someone in the movie asks: ‘Is there a protocol?’ And the question could not hit the mark more neatly. Of course there is no protocol, there is only one protocol for the encounter with the other, and that is the conventional response to threat. There is, to make matters easier for the threatened nations, no demand for acknowledging some common humanity with the aliens — the aliens could not be more different.

And accordingly, the first thing all nations of the earth do is to parade their tanks and artillery. They set up considerable military camps around the twelve sites where the extraterrestrials had stationed their peculiar floats. There are differences in degree of this hostile response, and not surprisingly China is the one state in the American film production that decides to cut ties with other nations and launches an attack on the aliens first — but ultimately all parties, including the US themselves, decide to ‘put things straight’ by making attempts to expunge the foreign invaders. Much more interesting is however the perspective of the linguistics professor Banks: Along with physicist Ian Donnelly, she is being recruited by the military to investigate aliens and decrypt their language. While the scene I described initially could have been one of danger and hostility, it is actually not much more than a resemblance of the science laboratory: The two researchers set up an improvised research protocol and run a number of tests to find out about the alien’s language. Banks is convinced of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, which helps her discover that the aliens not only use logograms (signs that depict whole words or ranges of meaning) but that they therefore also perceive reality in a way completely different from that of human beings. To them, time is as circular as their logograms and therefore every expression of meaning always contains all meaning at once, and not a causal string of grammatically constructed narrative. This discovery, again in line with linguistic relativity, leads Banks to perceive time in this way herself, as she gradually manages to learn the alien language and starts to think and dream in this language herself. To go full circle, the whole movie itself is set up in such a non-linear way, which becomes clear only towards the end of it — and thus, in classical linearity, the film reveals meaning in the traditional way yet manages to hint at the philosophical implications of non-linearity.

In sum, how does the Todorovian double movement thus become visible in ‘Arrival’? Upon close inspection, it becomes clear that no direct analogy can be drawn from ‘The Discovery of America’ to the film, primarily because the other in this case, the other-alien, does not offer the
same literal entry point as the other-human. At the same time, the initial failure of some of the main characters of the story to find an answer to the question ‘what to do?’ stems from immediate attempts to manage the matter by conventional means — means which indeed resemble the double movement. Scientific examination constitutes the top priority here, in combination with military regulation and control. There is indeed a great need to know as much as possible about the alien visitors, which is always justified as a means of exerting control over the situation — ‘We need to know what they want’, the army colonel repeats more and more fervently. ‘What is their purpose on earth?’ is in the same vein the leading research question for linguist Banks. It is of course no coincidence that science and military merge into one and the same institution: defence.

Abstraction as an act of power

Inayatullah and Blaney also make a more concretely methodological gesture towards the ways in which we make sense of or absorb difference into practical frameworks and schemes according to which we are able to give the other a name and a place. One such tool is abstraction. Abstraction is an act of power in that it constitutes the eradication of differences to the end of ‘really’ grasping a concept only in terms of commonality — the alien visitor is abstracted as a threat, the only familiar concept available to the human respondent. Abstraction is, in this sense, a practice of distancing, of being drawn away from the object under consideration. As a cultural practice, abstraction becomes visible as an ambiguous tool — on the one hand, it is an act of violence, while on the other, it is also one of necessity in that it is useful. It is likewise a form of disconnection and connection at the same time, as it is only by this very abstraction that we appear to make the object in question intelligible and thus grant it entry into discussion, yet at the cost always of prior objectification.

Abstraction is further an act of power because it constitutes a way of regulating what is available in the public space, wherein the public is the reference point of common denomination, standard, market, et cetera. This regulatory practice then simultaneously includes an eradication of the accident, an eradication of chance — the principle of regularisation is a principle of establishing certainty. This becomes very visible in the military response to the first hint Banks receives from the aliens regarding their purpose on earth. The first time she is able to ask the aliens this question, in their own language, they reply: ‘Offer weapon’. This could of course mean a great variety of things, for are the humans supposed to offer a weapon? Is their purpose to offer a weapon? What do they mean by ‘offer’ and what by ‘weapon’? The multitude of options available is however without hesitation subsumed by the abstraction of the aliens to a threat, so that ‘offer weapon’ needs to be read in terms of threat — they must, therefore, clearly mean that they aim to direct a weapon at humankind. Even if that was not their intention, the possibility of it were too great not to respond with military offence. Abstraction serves here as regulation, and regulation requires certainty. Similarly, abstraction conditions the legitimacy of particular claims, so that the reservation ‘They could mean something else!’ is rendered illegitimate given the already established notion of ‘The aliens are a threat to us’.

Imagination as subversion of the conceptual

The film does however add a considerable commentary to the way we make sense of relations between self and other, and it is precisely this aspect by which it not only pays attention to a great sensitivity, but also offers an unconventional way of thinking about the problem of difference. In a way, on this level at least, the film puts into practice what Inayatullah and Blaney call for: an ethnology of space and time — an ethnological stance that would require a reflexive look at the other as a key to understanding oneself. This, I argue, is done in impressively by means of imagination as a subversion of the conceptual. The conceptual, in this case, is the conventional linear understanding of time by which sovereignty can be framed spatially, “the temporal aspect of which is development” (Inayatullah and Blaney 2004: 87). The commonality or universality that makes such a fundamental part of the double movement is established with the help of two binaries, one spatial, one temporal, namely “the spatial demarcation of inside/outside and a developmental sequence from tradition to modernity” (ibid.: 88). In this way, the authors argue, modernisation theory provides discursive justification to such boundaries and procedural demands. In a consequent “quest for a nonethnocentric commonality” (ibid.), the authors go on, a liberal vision of universal sovereign statehood is embraced to the extent that “commonality, though claimed as preexisting, must actually be nurtured” (ibid.: 92). Again, the aliens are too different to reliably establish the claim of commonality, yet the means the film protagonists employ (data-gathering as control and military strategy as a fallback position) remain the same. The violence of the ‘binarism’ of modernity as a spatiotemporal concept lies not only in the concept, however. As the authors contend:

“Those to whom difference is attributed must be taught, and, if unwilling, they must be forced to recognise that assimilating to the ‘sameness’ of Europeans is good for them.”

(ibid.: 92)

This they call “the white man’s pedagogical burden” (ibid.), and it is precisely this pedagogy that is both practiced and disputed in ‘Arrival’. The dispute arises from the special resonance the main character Dr. Louise Banks obtains with the aliens, by learning their language and starting to think in the same non-linear way their language works. Through linguistic relativity, Banks is able to tap into a differently constituted reality and now overcomes the paradox of time: She simultaneously experiences past, present, and future — the film turns into a powerful study of determinism and free will, for what would you do if you knew now what will happen to you in twenty years? Would you change things? Could you?

This highly imaginative plot thus twists, or subverts, the conventional concept of time. It breaks with linearity in the exact same way the aliens do — or at least in the way the aliens would do, according to the author of the short story the film is based on. But even more so, it introduces a profoundly torn ‘hybrid’: Dr. Banks. As she has obtained the unique ability to enter into actual conversation with the aliens, she is both same and other, both threatened and threat, both invaded and invader. To the military, she will turn into a ‘secret weapon’, while to the aliens she is a trusting partner. Banks is the ethnological moment Inayatullah and Blaney envision for IR — she literally embodies an ethnological politics of comparison in which the study of the other becomes “a source of critical self-reflection” (ibid.: 112). If modernity is a battle ground that claims to have identified its ultimate end point (the desire to modernise, which can never be fulfilled, as it is constantly re- evaluated relatively), misrecognising “the partisanship on which it rests” (ibid.), then the concept of circular time in the alien language renders development superfluous.

The imaginary stops short of its transition to reality, although the way Banks experiences reality might already hint at how the critique formulated in ‘Arrival’ does not at all end with the end titles. Linearity of time is a concept that presupposes a certain causal line between past, present, and future, and it acts as a boundary to our imagination as well. Yet imagination itself could here serve as a powerful part of the ethnological turn Inayatullah and Blaney propose — for time and space, just as language, are relative and thus world-constitutive. The construction of my world takes place in my imagination, therefore my imagination can construct my world. For have I been born and will I die, or have I died and will be born? When will I have asked these questions? And what is now?


Inayatullah, N., & Blaney, D. L. (2004). International Relations and the Problem of Difference. London: Routledge.

Todorov, T. (1984). The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Levy, S., Levine, D., Ryder, A., Linde, D. (Producers) & Villeneuve, D. (Director) (2016). Arrival [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.

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