Evgeny Kuchinov
The Four Tasks of Сosmolinguistics

V–A–C Sreda online magazine presents a new three-month programme devoted to space and its reflection in culture, art, and utopian dreams of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In this first issue, we publish a text by the philosopher and historian Evgeny Kuchinov that explores the languages of cosmic communication developed by philosophers, mathematicians, sociologists, and writers. Turning to the linguistic and cybernetic theories of the twentieth century, modern science fiction, the practices of Amazonian shamans, and the panarchic utopian ideas of the Gordin brothers, Kuchinov examines the technological basis of languages intended for communication with alien civilizations.

None of them had seen the tower before. It became visible when they were still leagues away: a line as thin as a strand of flax, wavering in the shimmering air, rising up from the crust of mud […] the tower appeared more massive than anything Hillalum had ever imagined: a single column that must have been as large around as an entire temple, yet rising so high that it shrank into invisibility. […]
—“We’re to climb that? To the top?”
—“Going up to dig. It seems ... unnatural.”

Tower of Babylon, Ted Chiang

0. Guiding thread: between movement and travel

To move along the line of this text, it is necessary to have in hand the guiding thread of difference, without the mastering and application of which movement through the text will not take place. This difference is that between two conceptual characters, between “pilots” and “cosmonauts,” along with the difference between their worlds.

Pilots first of all move from one point in space to another—and only after do they travel. In their pure form, pilots are those capable of movement without travel. Even when they do find themselves in an another (planetary) world, they do not see this world in terms of difference, noticing in it only that which is identical, only that which does not change from point to point and ensures the possibility of their spatial joining, of their flight. Wherever they may be, pilots find only themselves, their flight is an expansive extension of their world; in their flight, the world of movements, which in their pure form are only possible in homogenous spaces, expands to the boundaries of the entire world.

Cosmonauts first of all travel other worlds—and only after do they move. In their pure form, cosmonauts are those capable of travel without movement. No place in their world (the cosmos) is identical to another—pure cosmonautics is cosmonautics in place. Wherever a cosmonaut may be, he finds other(worldly) landscapes, even on his own planet, at home. In the world of cosmonauts, there are no separate points that do not differ from one another, there are only guiding threads and lines, which, even rolling themselves up and becoming indistinguishable from a point, preserve within themselves the duration of development—the possibility of further travel.

The difference between pilots and cosmonauts is conditional upon the difference between movement and travel, between the exchange of one place (the point of departure) for another (the point of arrival) and the repetition of the other (the point of meeting) in one (the point of return). Movement and travel are possible not only in physical but also in symbolic space. Pilots move in the symbolic space of a universal language, transporting meanings, expressions, and understanding from point to point and back again, bringing about their exchange and—communication. Cosmonauts move—and speak—between languages that do not add up to a single line, translating the differences of a foreign language into their own language, which itself then becomes something alien to them, yet also native for the first time. Linguistic pilots strive for sameness and generalisation, linguistic cosmonauts search for difference and repetition.

The interweaving of these guiding threads will serve to guide us through the languages of cosmic communication: we will not move through their history going from one language to another, seeing in each a manifestation of one and the same linguistic impulse, rather, we will differentiate these languages from one another in terms of their tasks, revealing absolutely different strategies— strategies of movement and strategies of travel.

It is usually thought that the history of cosmolinguistics begins with Lincos (Lingua Cosmica), the language invented at the end of the 1950s by Hans Freudenthal, a mathematician who specialised in algebraic topology. Freudenthal set himself the task of developing a language that would allow for communication with intelligent beings capable of understanding but unfamiliar with earthly natural languages. To achieve this task, it is necessary to differentiate the translation function, which requires understanding, from the encoding function, which does not require understanding (decoding, as a rule, also does not require reason). The language of cosmic communication is addressed to intelligent beings and must therefore be open to understanding, not only to decipherment, but such a language must also not require translation. Freudenthal resolves the aporia of an understanding decoding by turning to the language of unformalised mathematics, which, on the one hand, is suitable for communication (the exchange of understanding) and, on the other, does not carry the traces of etymology (one of the defining characteristics of natural languages) and thus does not require translation.

This language is the language of being itself. In this language, by gradually moving from the simple to the complex, vocabularies of index sets and counts, time, behaviour, space, speed, masses, and so on can be compiled—and sentences composed from this vocabulary can be addressed to intelligent beings on other planets. In relation to these beings “I shall suppose,” writes Freudenthal, “that the recipient of my message is human or at least human-like in his mental state and experiences.” Since the end of the 1990s, messages in Lincos have regularly been sent into space—in the optimistic hope that human-like life exists not just on Earth—and in complete disregard for any other forms of life.

Lincos is an exemplary langue of cosmic communication, an example of the universal linguistics of pilots. It forms part of the long history of the development of universal languages, which were intended, at first, to unite earthly humanity into a homogenous linguistic body and, later, to be used for communication with humanity on other planets. These developments took two directions, and emphasised one of two types of universals: logical (beginning with Rene Descartes, this is the direction taken by Lincos) and aesthetic (beginning with Marin Mersenne—this is the direction taken by contemporary developments of audio-visual universals, which embody a more direct and immediate approach). Both types of universals converge in the universality of nature itself, of life itself. There is a single world, the forms of life which fill it develop according to one and the same evolutionary principles, among which one must include the laws of linguistics, which rule the ways forms in this single world communicate with one another—such is the self-evident presumption that lies at the foundation of the universalist linguistics of pilots. Against the background of this history, a doubt arises: is it possible, could a phenomena akin to the linguistics of cosmonauts exist, a linguistics which would have its origins in the logic of travel and would be constructed, accordingly, as linguistic anti-universalism? Could cosmolinguistics not provide a theory of universal language? Basing itself on physical universals, the linguistics of pilots gives up on the possibility of an improbable encounter with alien life, which might bring linguistic universals into question, having, however, not so much a natural-scientific, so much as science-fantastic sense

1. Arieka: the task of speaking dust / difference in nature

In the British fantasy writer China Miéville’s 2011 novel Embassytown, the aporia of cosmic linguistics is brought into radical focus. Miéville’s novel describes the planet of Arieka, on the edge of the known universe, where a “language” that brings the thesis that the language of interplanetary communication must be universal into question is discovered. Humans, encountering the insect-like inhabitants of this planet, the Ariekei, try to enter into contact with them. The Ariekei have a double speech apparatus, which produces two voices at once: Turn and Cut. Humans invent a means of recording the two speech flows of Language (the language of the Ariekei is referred to in the novel with a capital letter, and in the singular, as the single, but not the universal), uncover Language’s structural elements, create a more flexible version of Language than the original, learn it themselves, teach it to machines—exactly, physically reproduce their language. However, the Ariekei do not perceive this exact reproduction as a manifestation of Language—in what physically sounds like their language, they hear nothing but noise; humans, along with their machines, remain mute and language-less pieces of “curious dust”—despite all the technical splendour of humanity of the distant future. The solution to the problem of communicating with the Ariekei comes about by chance: two Contactors begin to speak at once, putting the same feeling into words, one using Turn, the other using Cut.

This was how the “curious dust” was finally heard and interpreted by the Ariekei as capable of Language. As a result of experimental work, a special breed of human is “grown”—Ambassadors, genetically engineered twins, are created as paired speech organs of humanity for communication with the Ariekei. The empathy of the Ambassadors is taken to the extreme by neural networks and is upheld by constant synchronisation and correction of their outward appearance: Ambassadors differ from each another only in pure difference, only in that they are two different bodies, in the rest they are the identical. The tragic consequence of “communication” between humans and the Ariekei is the infection of the latter with human language and its separation of signifier and signified, to which the Ariekei fall into a destructive narcotic addition. The result is the fall of Language to language, which then falls apart into languages, arms itself with written language, and fatally distances itself from the body, becoming one of a multitude of languages, with the speakers of which, however, the possibility of entering into contact with opens.

China Miéville’s novel catches better than anything else the difference between pilots and cosmonauts. In order to enter into contact with the Ariekei, it is not enough to master their language as a simple means of transporting meaning and to begin communication and mutually beneficial exchange of information and resources. Moving in space to Arieka, moving around the planet and among its inhabitants, pilots do not attain Arieka. For communication a change is necessary, requiring, on the one hand, the introduction of Language itself into the bodies of the Contactors and the change of these bodies, and, on the other, the introduction of humans themselves into Language, their en-Languaging, which does not only produce an effect of alienation and defamiliarisation within the novel, but reveals the “alien-ness and a-humanness of any language.” The event of the beginning of human speech in Language looks to the Ariekei as though in our earthly reality a stone began to speak to us. The effect of estrangement means that Language, in which the structural gap between signifier and signified is absent, un-symbolic Language without polysemy and literalness, is, strictly speaking, impossible from the point of view of what we understand as language. This said, what is the point of this impossibility?

In numerous interpretations of Embassytown, the fact that human language is not a language in the world of the Ariekei (and the other way around) is often unnoticed or deprived of attention. It is not just that the attempts of Humans to speak in Language is noise for the insect-like aliens (this would put the Ariekei in the position of the Greeks encountering the Barbarians, whose language seemed simple muttering to civilised people, an imitation of this gives the aliens their corresponding name); the noise that cannot be spoken is their language itself. And in reverse: the Language of the Ariekei has nothing in common with language, their Turn and Cut is not speech, not even noise, in as far as noise can only be defined in relation to speech; their Language is that for which their is no designation in language, and even this “no” means nothing relative to Language. One of the characters of Embassytown, a xenolinguist by the name of Scile, describes the language of the Ariekei in this way:

“The Ariekei think they’re hearing one mind, but they’re not […] It’s like we can only talk to them because of a mutual misunderstanding. What we call their words aren’t words: they don’t, you know, signify. And what they call our minds aren’t minds at all.” 

The conclusion that in such communication we have to do with “false” contact, founded on the fact that humans and Ariekei liken one another to themselves, communicate with projections of themselves in the other, “bypass differences which, if recognised, would make communication impossible” is too sedative and therefore too superficial. Scile’s intuition must be understood absolutely literally: that which in the world of the Ariekei is language is, when played out in human bodies, not language, but the empathic connection of a pair of Ambassadors—in the most material sense: two Ambassadors are united in one mind in the same way that the two separate consciousness of the two hemispheres of the human mind are united in one consciousness; that which is language in the human world is, when played out in the bodies of the Ariekei, a narcotic substance—in the most ecstatic and destructive sense: the Ariekei lose their minds, mutilate themselves—even their living machines grow themselves ears, in order to partake in the voice of the Drug-God.

A universal, middle language, in which communication between the worlds of humans and Ariekei might have been brought about, proves impossible in this linguistic war of the worlds—Lincos, in Embassytown, would be curious dust that spoke nothing to no one.

2. Shamans: the task of translating what the dust is saying / difference between natures

In cosmolinguistic studies, it is sometimes noted that contact with alien civilisations, if it takes place, will be complicated in light of its duality: on the one hand, this is ethological contact (with a different biological species), on the other—ethnological (with a different culture). Contacts between human and non-human biological species, as well as between different human cultures, have a place here on Earth. Beyond its boundaries we will, most probably, find ourselves met with both a non-human species and with a different culture. The only guarantor of communication—the universal, which can ensure contact—will be nature, the laws of which are the same everywhere: “if extraterrestrials are living beings, they will have undergone a process of natural evolution”—and even if we are met with artificial agents created by aliens, “the central features of the extraterrestrial mind that has been shaped by an evolutionary process will be reflected in the design or the uses of these artifacts.” Tracing alien non-human culture to its natural origins, we will be able to decipher its code and enter into contact with it. However, have we really met with different cultures here, on Earth? Have the stones begun to speak with us (or we—with them)?

The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro leads us to think that these are not idle questions. The framework according to which a single nature exists (mononaturalism), from which a multitude of cultures unfold (multiculturalism) is the foundational mythogene of the Western world, which cannot encounter different cultures other than through their inclusion into this framework. Multiculturalism is fully applicable (and is applied) beyond the bounds of the Earth: unearthly culture can differ from human culture but cannot live in a different nature and by different natural laws (any “different” laws simply could not exist, there is only one nature). However, even in the context of one planet this narcissistic framework, as Viveiros de Castro shows, fails, not allowing for encounters with different correlations of nature and culture. In the case of the Amazonian tribes studied by Viveiros de Castro, the Western world confronts not one of a multitude of cultures, existing within the framework of a single nature, but “interspecies perspectivism”—a framework according to which all forms of life have a single culture, and that culture is human culture (even if we are speaking of animals or crystals: they themselves—from their own perspective—see themselves as people), while there are many natures. This is not a “particularity of culture” but an ontology of shamanism, the structure of the cosmos in which Amazonian tribes really live.

Shaman-multinaturalists are not pilots, they are closer to cosmonauts; the routes of their travels do not run from culture to culture—in a single homogenous nature—but between varied natures, in each of which one and the same (human) culture is met as a problem of difference: how do jaguars see themselves—in what nature do they live? How do tapirs see themselves? How does any “curious dust” see itself?

How do the Ariekei see themselves? What is needed for an answer to this question is not a universal language that would allow us to receive from the Ariekei an account of the peculiarities and secrets of their living world, but an art of translation, the success of which would not be guaranteed by a universal intermediary (a common nature, in which people and Ariekei exist, does not exist for humans and the Ariekei). The purpose of perspectivist translation consists not in the search for symbols with the help of which one might enable communication between different species that refer to one and the same nature but name one and the same things differently, rather, “the objective is to not lose sight of the difference concealed by the deceiving homonyms that connect/separate our language from those of other species.” The cosmolinguistic aporia brought to completion by China Miéville in Embassytown, consists in the fact that on Arieka the deceiving homonym, connecting/separating language, is Language itself.

The ambiguity of “mutual misunderstanding” which allows humans and Ariekei to speak to each other discovers in this aporia its primordiality and insurmountability—as much for languages (two Ambassadors speak together, but do they represent a single mind?) as for Language (the bodies of the Ariekei carry out Turn and Cut, but do they speak?). This ambiguity is not an obstacle that hinders translation, but the intermediary space to which translation leads. The task that lies in this space (always recurring), which is the translation of what the curious dust speaks, which forks into the translation of what the dust speaks, and of the fact that the dust speaks, is not unique for the encounters of people (dust) and Ariekei. This would also be the central task of a cosmonautic linguistics, if such a thing exists. If such a thing can exist on Earth.

3. Anarchists: the task of the invention of language/ difference between nature and technology

If China Miéville sets a radical difference of nature between humans and Ariekei, and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro allows us to nuance this difference, seeing in it a difference of natures, then the anarchist Gordin Brothers take cosmolinguistic difference to the extreme, to the assertion that nature does not exist.

Wolf and Abba Gordin were teachers, philosophers, linguists, poets, and participants in the revolutionary events of the first quarter of the twentieth century in Russia. In their biography—at first doubled to the point of indistinguishability, later separate to the point of irreconcilability—the most saturated period runs from the end of the 1910s to the start of the 1920s, during which time they wrote their foundational works. After the October Revolution, Wolf became one of the leaders of the Petrograd Federation of Anarchists and published the daily newspaper Burevestnik; Abba numbered among the most important figures in the Moscow Federation of Anarchists and worked on the daily newspaper Anarchy. In these two printed media, the Gordin Brothers published articles, poems, notes, and fragments of important works that would later be printed in separate books. Despite distance, they worked as two hemispheres of a single brain, creating the common textual body of the Gordin Brothers. The philosophical treatise Sociomagia (1918), in which the Gordon Brothers develop the concept of pananarchism and pantechnics and Anarchy in a Dream (1919), where their ideas are played out in the space of utopia, were key works of this time.

The initial—apophatic—element is “aphesisim” or “innaturism,” which brings the atheism of the nineteenth century to its logical end and consists in an assertion of the non-existence of nature. The slogan “No God, No Nature” adorns the covers of almost all of their pamphlets of the end of the 1910s and consists in a statement of non-correlation: the “simple outside world” is not correlated to any conformity with law, not correlated to time and space, not correlated to epistemology, causality, number—not even to its own existence. “We reform and recreate and create the world through the means of Technology”—such is the assertive—cataphatic—formulation of pantechnics, of the philosophy of the sociotechnicum. The closest analogue to the ontology of pantechnics may be be panpsychism, which sees the place of the contemplative, white-handed soul taken by the proletarian soul that freely operates with technical objects (more accurately, living technological bodies) inventing and perfecting them.

The Land of Anarchy—an incoherent pan-technical world happened upon by five travellers (I, Worker, Woman, Countryman, and Child) who meet in it an aboriginal conductor—receives description in the utopia Anarchy in a Dream. In as far anarchy rules this world, it is not meant for understanding, only for invention. It is constituted of only technical bodies, free relation to which does not presuppose manipulation or exploitation, but a particular language of “request”:

“We are technicians,” continued the man from the Land of Anarchy, “we act, not we do not philosophise. We simply tell the tree, a centuries-old oak, to go and cover the one sleeping on the hill with its shadow, and it will go and do what is asked of it. Of course, all this must be said in his language, in the language of the trees and in his special oak dialect.”

It turns out that Anarchy is “opened, created by the word and maintained by it.” Trees, suns (there are five), seas (also five), mountains (again five), sky, grass—and any curious dust—all technical bodies in the Land of Anarchy sing. And this—recalling Arieka—in two or more voices at once: “Don’t you hear at once the ticking of the clock and the rustling of the leaves, the conversation of friends, and the barking of the dog in the yard? And do your sounds and your voice form a complete unity that cannot be divided? We have moved further along this path.”

All this anarchic pandaemonium of voices is not addressed to understanding, though it is written in its language out of necessity. This language requires reverse translation—into the language in which Anarchy is “created and maintained” in the utopic text—and which must be brought out of utopia and introduced into things. As a result of this extraction a cosmic language of travel should appear, if such a language is possible.

4. Beobi: the task of completing the construction of the Tower of Babel / language as cosmic apparatus

It may be that the key task of a reading of any utopia—and especially of reading such a utopia as The Land of Anarchy—is the unfulfilled task of extraction. In its absurdity and impossibility this task is akin to the extraction of an object from sleep: on the edge of awakening, you hold something valuable in your hands, which you want to wake up holding with all your might, however, the border between sleep and reality is always impenetrable, and you awake with empty hands.

In 1919 the Gordin Brotherhood fell apart, Abba took the rational, down-to-earth road and began to develop a programme of anarcho-universalism under the slogan of “organised people of the whole world—organise yourselves,” while Wolf concentrated on madness and entering the cosmos, on the task of extraction. The object Wolf extracted from the Land of Anarchy was the AO language, a number of versions of which were created from the end of the 1910s to the beginning of the 1920s. In 1927, after the dramatic emigration of both Abba and Wolf from the Land of the Soviets, the First World Exhibition of Interplanetary Spacecrafts and Mechanisms was organised by the few followers of Wolf who had remained in Russia, timed to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the October Revolution and the seventieth birthday of the rocket scientist and pioneer of astronautics Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. At this exhibition, the AO language was presented in lieu of an interplanetary apparatus—in the form of a short manifesto, which described how relations between words, sounds, and things are formed in the AO language, axiomatics (alphabets), and a short dictionary including such verbs as “to invent,” “to technologise,” “to enable” (to invent methods), “to make real,” and so on.

Without going too far into the details of this language, we will note its main features. Through a compact set of graphic signs and sounds (in all 11 numbers and algebraic signs, along with their corresponding sounds, in the version of 1924), AO codifies various shades of invention: its beginning and end, affirmation and negation, the extracted quality by invention, the five stages of invention (again, the number of characters in Anarchy in a Dream), as well as particularity. In this language the imperative mood and “nature” are absent, its vocabulary describes processes and the state of things as given in a non-artificial, uninvented way. This language is untranslatable into “old,” pre-inventive languages, any text not written in AO requires not reading, but reverse translation into AO (including texts by Wolf himself, which were impossibly translated by him from the AO language into Russian, a fact noted in almost all of his late works).

After the invention of AO Wolf took on the name of Beobi (beo = humanity, bi = I, beobi = I am a human), demonstrating the principle of this language. Naming in AO is the placement of things into technology, as had been described in Sociomagic and Sociotechnics, in which the Gordin Brothers had countered the Kantian thing in itself, which embodies the negative universalism of nature and is closed to invention, with the thing in feeling, the muscular thing, open to invention in its non-correlation. Their thesis consists in the fact that things do not exist in themselves, that there is no “X” that can be seen differently from different points of view and named differently in different languages, remaining something undefinable (closed from invention, nature and its laws do not exist). On the contrary, each thing, not corresponding to any universals, is a concrete border between invention and its framework. Placing himself in the name of Beobi, then transforming it through a proliferation of endings, “the former W. L. Gordin” travelled the path of self-invention—Bibi Beobi (I I I am a human) is the final version of this process of self-invention, fixed on the tombstone of the cosmolinguist. The presentation of the AO language as a spacecraft should be interpreted absolutely literally, with this one caveat, that what is meant is not an isolation capsule for movement between planets, but a machine for travel that can be launched on one and the same planet.

In Sociomagic and Sociotechnics, the Tower of Babel figures as an ancient interplanetary apparatus—a technological object that commemorates development in the production of burnt brick, geometry, and architecture, embodying in itself “a revolt of nascent technology against God that ended in tears: its forces were too weak. But the important thing here is not failure, but the attempt, what matters is daring.” This audacity finds completion in the AO language, which is not a union of the languages that appeared as a result of the collapse of the single language of humanity, but an instrument for bringing the collapse of universal language to the end, to the edge. First, the common language of the Gordin Brothers fell apart, separating into two absolutely different voices that had nothing in common with one another. Then Wolf, having become Beobi, used AO for the demarcation of his own personal language, by way of making a spacecraft, in which the number of cosmonauts increases with every turn.

∞. Felt tongue

At the end, everything falls into confusion

“Bobeobi lips sang,” wrote the poet Velimir Khlebnikov in the early 1900s. In the AO language, Bobeobi means: bo = plant as a pure transition from inorganic to organic, beobi = human–I, combined: the vegetable human–I, the pure growth of the human I, passing through different orders of existence (crystals, plants, animals, humans...).

The last book we know to have been written by Bibi Beobi describes a correspondence (possibly fictitious) with Velimir Khlebnikov, who, in one of his letters from the early 1920s, the period during which Beobi was working on the second version of his AO language, wrote to the person who took his name from his poem: “I’m currently working on a treatise, The Language of the Foreskin, but not Vice Versa.” To what this treatise was actually dedicated is difficult to say—the work does not appear in Khlebnikov’s collected works, and Beobi himself is tight-fisted with the details:

The treatise develops the idea of a cosmic language not as a universal language in which all intelligent beings in creation could communicate with each other—the very word “universum” caused extreme disgust in Khlebnikov—but as a language for the invention of the world […] A language you can lick with and moisture will remain on the skin […] The foreskin, Khlebnikov wrote, is the least solid, woven from subtle matter. The cosmic language must be woven from this foreskin. The language is like a blush that gives a sign. Blushing palms. It is a language created from admiring each other's blush. Blush is a discharge that runs between bodies. Discharge of subtle matter.
A universal language, Khlebnikov wrote, on the contrary, creates flesh for itself by becoming solider. But the very soul of cosmic language squirm by this “on the contrary,” the very soul should consist not of generalisations, but of degeneralisations, of that which turns away from the universal and goes to the extreme. Khlebnikov called this extreme an invention and contrasted it with exploration. What is invented is something that has no place in the world, the very outer world of subtle matter. Only a pale complexion is explorated.
I love Khlebnikov, but I disagree with him on everything. 

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