as a matter of fact it’s all dark: cyberpunk, language, and the two worlds

Emma Becciu, one of the most gifted interpreters I’ve ever known, has begun a language & translation blog. A lot of it is in Italian; if you can’t read that, turn on Chrome’s translator. You’ll lose some of her spare, rigorous phrasing, but catch most of her engaging ideas.

She recently posted “Colazione da Hegel,” a quick overview of linguistics from the practical standpoint of the professional interpreter. As I read, I found myself recalling a very intense and frightening moment from early childhood. I can even remember where I was — in the doorway to my house, heading up the stairs to my room. I was thinking about the word “house.” It occurred to me that when I learned a word in Spanish, such as “casa,” I learned it by saying to myself, “it means ‘house.'” Then, once I’d worked my way back to “house,” I would have a mental image of an actual house. What terrified me was the sudden awareness that for a Spanish child, the word “house” does not have a real existence. For this child, “casa” leads directly back to the mental image of a house, and not even the same house, but some completely different structure in a different part of the world. Then, learning English, this child says to himself, “oh, ‘house’ means ‘casa'” — which it obviously doesn’t, because everything he’s picturing is foreign and incomplete. Perhaps this would not be a shocking realization for every person, but in my case, I came awfully close to tumbling down the stairs.

This raises the larger question of linguistic relativism: to what extent can we depend on the external world to stabilize linguistic differences? In other words, to what extent can two people who speak different languages come to an understanding by pointing at the same house?

This recourse to actuality is more than enough for most people, and even for most knowledge-workers, which is why we have the practical linguistic concepts of denotation and connotation. For any given word, the denotation is felt to be irreducible, while the connotation is more idiosyncratic and more culturally inflected. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the only really “irreducible” thing about denotation is a certain intention towards the object: dwelling, in the case of a “house.” (In a different sentence, uttered with different intentions, the “house” might be transformed into a “building.”) Furthermore, connotation is often undecidable; for example, the word “hippie,” which has a positive connotation for some people, a negative one for others. Connotation and denotation, taken together, form a dubious Platonic binary that keeps the vertigo of linguistic relativism (the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis) at bay.

Fortunately, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis poses no real danger. In her post, Becciu argues against it on subjective grounds, i.e. that we often do not explain ourselves well, or cannot explain ourselves at all. But a really determined relativist could easily argue that statements like “I can’t put my feelings into words” are not only intelligible statements, but fairly specific ones, with a consistent range of applications and effects (e.g. spiritual experiences). The only thing that can’t be explained away by linguistic relativism is the pressure that the world clearly exerts on language, causing it to diversify, splinter, and evolve. It’s rarely very useful to think in these terms, but from a strict philosophical standpoint, material reality is akin to “dark matter” in physics: all we can say about it is that it must be there, because it exerts a force we cannot explain any other way. But that doesn’t mean that when I look at a bar of soap, I see what is “really” there. The “soap” is still a product of my language and culture.

This redounds on our understanding of language itself. If there is an external reality (even a “dark” one) that does not map neatly onto human language, then language is suddenly a rather strange response to this reality, since it seems doomed to always be a step behind the actual (or many steps). This tragic situation of language is described in all sorts of traditions, from the metaphysics of illusion in Gnosticism and Zen, to Immanuel Kant’s architecture of consciousness, to Jacques Lacan’s separation of the signified from the Real. The only possible justification for language — returning to Becciu’s argument for the subjective — is that it represents a complex negotiation between two unknowable entities, the world and the mind.

I don’t mean, y’know, that the mind is a microcosm of the universe, or some ridiculous mystical overreach like that. Rather, I mean the following: it’s very difficult to create a model of consciousness that sufficiently accounts for our “negative capability,” our ability to be outside of the signifying world we inhabit, such that we are aware of ourselves and can oppose the imaginary to the real.

Hence the fundamental question of cyberpunk art: is negative capability a strong force in human society, or not? Can the imaginary world of one individual defeat, or at least de-stabilize, the ideological fixtures of a high-tech society? Will people remain separate and dissatisfied for no reason at all, and through this stubbornness, preserve the creative genius of mankind? The cyberpunk grand royale takes place within a shared dreamscape, whether that is the neon highway of Tron, or the Metaverse in Snow Crash, or the Matrix, or literally a dreamscape, as in Paprika or The Lathe of Heaven. (The seeming exception, Blade Runner, is based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.) Significantly, the “hacker” is not somebody who lives outside of the regulated, patrolled city, but rather someone who can infiltrate its fortresses, a living embodiment of the ineradicable “not-I” at the center of the ego.

Even the non-hacker heroes work this way; think of the assassin at the beginning of Ghost in the Shell, crashing through a window and busting up a secret powwow of corrupt officials. The hackers are still the stars, though, because they can bend the dreamscape by controlling information flows. At the end of Snow Crash, the savior is a hacker who can submit herself to the groupthink of L. Bob Rife’s neuro-linguistic “root language” without forgetting her own identity — thus, she escapes. Minority Report ends with the precog and her rescuer surrounded by works of fiction, having slipped fate’s noose.

Of course I love the grumpy optimism of cyberpunk. At the beginning of a cyberpunk story, when you zoom in on the ruined city, the message seems to be ironic: “How sad, that we’ve got all these marvelous toys, and yet there’s still dirt on the eaves, and the soup is still bad.” But the irony goes down another level. Eventually, you realize that this is precisely what will save the human race: it will be saved by its own messy, carnal, anarchistic heart, that is never satisfied, and never will be. That’s why our heroes thrive in the back alleys of Chandler’s noir; even Paprika likes to meet her clients in a dive bar.

This leads inexorably to Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “be glad you still have chaos in you; you can still give birth to a dancing star.” I’d guess most of these authors already know that quote, and keep it in their back pockets. They’ve given us a glamorous, profound model of the human mind. It is only limited by its own brilliance: cyberpunk is such a good tribute to negative capability that it cannot, in fact, give birth to a dancing star or anything else. Nothing is created, and the romances are a montage of adolescent fantasies, upgraded with anatomical details. It’s too bad the cyberpunks don’t have a more mature, less hormonal theory of love.

But then again, who does?