The central character of Denis Villeneuve's 2016 film Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is a linguist tasked with deciphering a logographic alien language in time to avert a seemingly impending global war. I argue that the alien heptapods' logographs exemplify the understanding of language advanced by Jacques Derrida in seminal texts such as Of Grammatology (1976), while also engaging some of the themes concerning time and gift-giving that he develops in later, more explicitly political works. Derrida argues that written signifiers, rather than being a mere vehicle for representing speech, confer their own, supplemental meaning onto communication. Furthermore, he emphasizes that writing is not bound by the same linear temporality as spoken utterances, inasmuch as it is inscribed in a format which allows it to be revisited repeatedly. The significance of this disruption of linear temporality becomes clear in Derrida's later works such as Specters of Marx (1994) and On Cosmopolitanism (2001), where he describes such disruption as a necessary condition for the type of political change he believes is needed in the world. The ability to experience time in a nonlinear fashion allows Banks to prevent the looming war, in an illustration of the connection that Derrida draws between time, violence, and politics. However, it also puts humanity in the heptapods' debt, thus exemplifying the paradox of genuine gift-giving that Derrida claims is impossible. Despite the complex ethical questions it invokes, however, the unique nature of the gift in Arrival signals that this gift might be a genuinely altruistic offering after all.
The central character of Denis Villeneuve's 2016 film Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is a linguist tasked with deciphering a logographic alien language in time to avert a seemingly impending global war. She eventually learns that the aliens, called “heptapods,” have come to offer humanity something which is first translated as a “weapon” or “tool,” and then finally as a “gift.” Over the course of the film, Banks discovers that learning the heptapod language changes the way in which she experiences time such that it no longer appears linear, allowing her to experience future events as she does those in the past. The gift offered by the heptapods turns out to be their language itself, but it seems not to have been given purely altruistically, since the heptapods mention a favor that they will need to ask of humanity in 3000 years.
I argue that the heptapods' logographs exemplify the understanding of language advanced by Jacques Derrida in seminal texts such as Of Grammatology (1976), while also engaging some of the themes concerning time and gift-giving that he develops in later, more explicitly political works. In the earlier texts, Derrida argues that written signifiers, rather than being a mere vehicle for representing speech, confer their own, supplemental meaning onto communication. This is clearly the case with the heptapods' logographs, which are not a mere correlate of their spoken language. Furthermore, he emphasizes that writing is not bound by the same linear temporality as spoken utterances, inasmuch as it is inscribed in a format which allows it to be revisited repeatedly. The significance of this disruption of linear temporality becomes clear in Derrida's later works such as Specters of Marx (1994) and On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), where he describes it as a necessary condition for the type of political change he believes is needed in today's world. The ability to experience time in a nonlinear fashion allows Banks to prevent the looming war, in an illustration of the connection that Derrida draws between time, violence, and politics. However, it also puts humanity in the heptapods' debt, thus exemplifying the paradox of giving that Derrida discusses in Given Time (1992). For Derrida, a gift cannot truly be received as such unless it appears to be something else, since a known gift necessarily demands a repayment from the recipient. For this reason, Derrida claims that genuine gift-giving is impossible. Despite the complex ethical questions it invokes, however, the unique nature of the gift in Arrival signals that it might be a genuinely altruistic offering after all.
One of the central themes of Derrida's earlier work (1976) is that writing is not merely a system of signs meant to represent a spoken language, a “signifier of the signifier” (p. 7), as he puts it. On the contrary, he argues that “there is no linguistic sign before writing” (p. 14); writing is, in fact, prior to any possible notion of signification. In the history of Western metaphysics, however, this relation has become inverted, given the assumption by most philosophers and linguists that speech conveys pure meaning, without altering it in any way. He characterizes the history of Western metaphysics as “the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word” (1978, p. 278), considering all of the various ways that philosophers have understood being to be examples of the general notion of a “transcendental” signified, which does not signify anything other than itself, but which makes possible the understanding of the meaning of all signifiers. Importantly, if writing is only a signifier of a spoken signifier, then “one has the right to exclude it from the interiority of the system” (1976, p. 33), as Ferdinand de Saussure claims in his Course in General Linguistics (1959),
Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first. The linguistic object is not both the written and the spoken forms of words; the spoken forms alone constitute the object. (pp. 23-24)
The primacy of writing is one of the most readily apparent Derridean aspects of Arrival. The principal plot line centers on the attempt of Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to decode the language of an alien species who have come to Earth in twelve spacecraft, which are hovering above different nations around the globe. Although they have not initiated any act of war, military and political leaders are concerned, and violence and apocalyptic sentiments are growing among the world's population. Banks and Donnelly are recruited by Army Colonel G. T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to discern the purpose of the aliens' visit. Their attempts to communicate with the heptapods – so named because of their seven long, thin limbs – take place in an empty gray room within one of the heptapods' spacecrafts; Banks and Donnelly are accompanied by Army personnel and an array of computers and recording equipment. One wall of the room is an enormous window, revealing a space filled with a bright white substance that looks like a thick mist; there are no windows opening onto the outside world. The heptapods initially produce sounds that neither Banks nor her counterparts at the other sites can understand, so Banks eventually decides to try communicating visually. This elicits the first instance of writing from the heptapods, which comes in the form of a circular logogram with clumps of small tendrils emerging from it at various points. Instead of using a brush or pen, however, the heptapods write by emitting a sort of ink directly from their limbs; while at first just an indistinct black ribbon, the “ink” quickly forms into a logogram, with all parts of the circle coming into focus at once. From the perspective of the humans, the white mist resembles a piece of paper on which the heptapods are writing. This impression is emphasized after the initial logogram appears, as the camera pans to a video screen showing what the team is recording; the camera zooms in until the screen is fully taken up by the logogram against the white background. The entire room thus appears to function as a writing surface on which the conversations between humans and heptapods take place.
The appearance of the logograms allows Banks and Donnelly to begin deciphering the heptapod language, and it also signifies the beginning of the disruptions to the linear narrative of the film, other than an initial series of what appear to be flashbacks of Banks interacting with her daughter. After Banks' second session communicating with the heptapods, she begins having visions of her daughter, which are interspersed with scenes of her work deciphering the language. As the work progresses, the boundaries between Banks' life at the Army base and her moments with the girl are often blurred, with a voice from the upcoming scene (generally the girl or Donnelly) unobtrusively integrated into the soundscape before the video transitions. This creates the sense that Banks is experiencing her time with the girl as part of her present stream of consciousness; in addition, the scenes are not softened or filtered in any way that traditionally signals memories or daydreams. In a voiceover, Donnelly describes the team's progress, including “The first breakthrough,” courtesy of Banks, namely that “there's no correlation between what a heptapod says and what a heptapod writes.” Unlike all known human forms of writing, theirs “conveys meaning, it doesn't represent sound.” As the work continues, the scenes with Banks and the girl become longer and more complex, and the space in which the team is working displays a growing number of logograms, corresponding to their growing presence in Banks' consciousness.
The discontinuity and gaps in the narrative point to some of the deeper Derridean aspects of the film. More significant for our purposes than the fact that the written heptapod language is independent of their spoken language is the nature of the logograms themselves. In the absence of a transcendental signified, Derrida (1976, p. 43) argues, all signifiers refer only to other signifiers, making both writing and speech a process of infinite reference that never arrives at an absolute meaning. Derrida often refers to this as “arche-writing,” a broad term describing what he sees as the structure of signification in general, not just that of linguistic marks on a page. Arche-writing introduces what he calls a “breach” into the supposed full presence of speech, one which is announced by the spacing between written signs. This spacing (a term which he notes has both spatial and temporal overtones) removes the self-present subject from the center of the system of reference. As he puts it, “spacing as writing is the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconscious of the subject” (1976, p. 69). This causes a “decentering,” allowing for what he describes as a sort of play among signifiers, and within the notion of language and signification in general. Commenting on the importance of this notion of spacing for Derrida's theories of both writing and history, Ethan Kleinberg (2012) states that “Derrida enables a reading of the past that focuses on the gaps, the places of absence where origins are situated in the present” (p. 123). The spaces thus encompass both spatial and temporal distance from a center or origin.
The heptapods' logograms, which always take the form of rings that are never entirely closed off, are literally decentered, conveying no meaning in the white space within the circle. More profoundly, however, in the buildup to the climax of Arrival, the heptapods give Banks an extremely complicated message, consisting of hundreds of logograms of different sizes, suggesting an arrangement in three-dimensional space. After analyzing the individual symbols, Donnelly is frustrated by his inability to understand the meaning of the message, since “There are too many gaps; nothing's complete.” However, once he realizes that he should “Stop focusing on the ones [and] look at the zeros” and figure out “how much of [the message] is negative space,” he comes to the crucial realization that the U.S. group has been given precisely one twelfth of the message. As a result, they will need to work with the other eleven teams in order to understand what the heptapods are trying to communicate. By this point in the film, the disruptions to the linear narrative have become more profound, with the story of the girl's life taking on greater prominence. Even Donnelly's account of his breakthrough is framed as an interruption of one of Banks' scenes with the girl. When Banks first sees Donnelly, she asks him what time it is, but instead of telling her, he describes what he has discovered. The lighting in the base is dim, and the gray, monochromatic surroundings, filled with logograms displayed on different surfaces, give the scene a particularly timeless feel.
Donnelly's discovery illustrates Derrida's (1976) belief that “signification is formed only within the hollow of difference: of discontinuity and of discreteness, of the diversion and the reserve of what does not appear” (p. 69). Only through reading the gaps and spaces, the absence within and between the signs, is Donnelly able to grasp the nature of the heptapods' communication. The key piece of information, namely that it will take an international effort to decipher the message, is stated not in the logograms themselves but in the spaces between them. As anthropologist Rosalind Morris (2007) puts it,
Derrida's notion of writing as that which conditions the possibility of speech is linked to a recognition that the discernment of signs, especially words, presumes the perception of spaces or intervals. (p. 358)
One of the first scenes of Arrival shows Banks with her newborn daughter, then progresses through a series of moments from the girl's life, ending with her death in a hospital bed while still a child. No further explanation is given, but the warm tones in the scenes, along with content such as mother and daughter playing by a lake and Banks tucking the girl into bed, lead the viewer to conclude that these are flashbacks to Banks' past. In a voiceover, however, Banks says that she was once certain that she knew where the beginning and end of her daughter's story were, “But now I'm not sure I believe in beginnings and endings,” already calling into question the audience's assumptions about the narrative structure of the film. During Banks' final visit to the heptapods' spacecraft, she has another vision of the girl and, startlingly, asks “Who is this child?”, to which the heptapod responds “Louise sees future.” At this point, both Banks and the viewer realize that she is having “memories” of future events. She is also told that the “weapon” the heptapods are offering “opens time.” Shortly after this encounter, she finally realizes that if you “really learn” the heptapod language, “you begin to perceive time the way they do,” namely in a nonlinear fashion.
This is a dramatic illustration of linguistic relativism, or the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar” (Whorf, 1956, p. 214). In other words, language affects a person's experience of reality, and thus each linguistic community will view the world differently. The importance of linguistic relativism in Arrival has been discussed at length. David Evan Richard (2018), for example, analyzes Arrival through the lens of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, suggesting that “the film proposes that inhabiting a different language can change the way in which we perceive and inhabit the sensible world itself” (p. 43). He goes on to argue that “Arrival visibly, audibly, and kinetically performs the specific language of the heptapods” (2018, p. 45) through its sound design, cinematography, and nonlinear narrative structure, causing viewers to experience some of the disorientation that Banks feels as her perception becomes altered by her increasing knowledge of the language.
In contrast to the relatively minor differences that Whorf discusses, however, the change that comes about as a result of acquiring the heptapod language is a profound shift in one of the most fundamental aspects of conscious experience, namely the experience of time. The connection between time and language is a recurring theme in Derrida's work. In the first section of “Signature Event Context” (1988), an early essay in which he critiques J. L. Austin's speech act theory, he discusses several characteristics of writing that make it fundamentally distinct from, and not derivative of, speech. As opposed to an utterance which exists in one specific moment of time, and which necessarily requires the speaker's presence at that moment, a written sign
possesses the characteristic of being readable even if the moment of its production is irrevocably lost and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor consciously intended to say at the moment he wrote it. (p. 9)
It is significant in this context that the heptapods write with logograms, instead of using an alphabetic or syllabic writing system. Derrida characterizes the historical process by which logographic systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphics give rise to alphabets such as the Latin and Cyrillic scripts as a form of linearization. By this, he is referring not just to the fact that alphabetic writing more closely tracks the order in which the phonemes of a spoken language are uttered, but also to the underlying temporality implied by alphabetic writing. This is the same temporality inherent in the Western “metaphysics of presence:”
the linearity of language entails this vulgar and mundane concept of temporality (homogeneous, dominated by the form of the now and the ideal of continuous movement, straight or circular) which Heidegger shows to be the intrinsic determining concept of all ontology from Aristotle to Hegel. (Derrida, 1976, p. 86)
“out of joint,” without coordination, without party, without country […] what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution among those who […] continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism. (1994, pp. 106-107)
The appearance of the specter does more than simply cause us to reminisce about a bygone era or an antiquated idea, however; it changes the structure of history itself:
what is happening is happening to age itself, it strikes a blow at the teleological order of history. What is coming, in which the untimely appears, is happening to time but it does not happen in time. (Derrida, 1994, p. 96)
The global unrest to which Derrida refers in “On Cosmopolitanism” is reflected in Arrival in the interactions among the teams from the various countries that have received parts of the heptapods' message. When Banks asks the heptapods what their purpose is in coming to Earth, she tentatively interprets their response as “Offer weapon.” The Army officers conclude that the heptapods' intention is to pit the various groups of humans with whom they are in contact against each other, until only the strongest remains. No one is certain what is being offered, leading to confusion and suspicion of the heptapods' motives. As other groups receive similar messages, they eventually cut off communication with each other, refusing to work together or share further information. In particular, the Chinese team interprets its message to mean “Use weapon,” causing General Shang (Tzi Ma), the Chairman of the People's Liberation Army, to begin planning military action. As the situation escalates, China declares war against the heptapods and encourages other countries to follow suit. In the end, in order for the teams to learn what the heptapods are actually offering them, and to take advantage of the offer, they must work together, each contributing one twelfth of the heptapods' message so that all people may benefit. Given that the message is arranged three-dimensionally, the contributions from the various nations must literally be intertwined and enmeshed with one another, such that no distinct boundaries could possibly be drawn around any group's “territory.” This is a visual analogue of the type of “profound transformation” in the way nations work together, and in the very idea of an independent notion or city, that Derrida calls for in his late work. As described above, by this late point in the film, the linear narrative is thoroughly “out of joint,” with the stories of Banks' daughter and that of the heptapods' visit to Earth as interwoven as the twelve pieces of the message.
Derrida was well aware of the power of film to disrupt linear temporality. In the interview “Cinema and its Ghosts” (2015), he states that “the cinematic experience belongs thoroughly to spectrality” (as quoted in de Baecque, 2015, p. 26). This spectral dimension of film “has political stakes” (2015, p. 37), and is often best manifested not in “what is immediately visible,” but in “the invisibility that determines the logic of the images, that is, interruption, ellipses, the whole zone of invisibility that presses on visibility” (2015, p. 36). This “zone of invisibility,” which is prominent in the frequent interruptions of the linear narrative of Arrival, amounts to a “confiscation” and “violent appropriation” of memory (2015, p. 39) which confounds temporality. As Joana Masó (2015) puts it in her analysis of the interview, for Derrida, it is “as if the memory proper to cinema is deferred memory, on loan, supplemental, and always in the service of another time and place” (p. 71). Arrival thus emphasizes precisely those aspects of film that Derrida finds the most akin to his own methods, as manifested in the idea of the specter.
Further insight into Derrida's relation to film comes through Bernadette Guthrie's (2011) analysis of the 2002 documentary film Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Kofman. Throughout the film, Derrida questions the ability of the cinematic format to portray him accurately and draws the viewer's attention to the presence of the camera and the necessary distance between interviewer and subject. By confounding the typical linear narrative structure with his actions and with statements such as “when I confide things that are very secret, I don't confide them in the mode of a story. […] I don't write a narrative” (Derrida as quoted in Guthrie, 2011, p. 525), Derrida makes manifest the spectral nature of film. As I have demonstrated in this section, a similar interruption and disorientation of linear temporality is a fundamental aspect of the plot as well as the cinematography of Arrival, in keeping with central themes in both Derrida's written work and his behavior in a film of which he is the subject. Building on my analysis here, in the final section of this article I will dive even more deeply into the logic of Arrival, using the Derridean notion of the gift to explore the significance and message of the film's ending.
The scene which Donnelly interrupts in order to tell Banks about his discovery is one in which Banks' daughter asks her for the term to describe a situation where “we make a deal and we both get something out of it” or “a competition, but both sides end up happy.” There is a clear thematic connection between what her daughter is asking about – a non-zero-sum game – and the scenario she and her colleagues are facing, in which the twelve groups of researchers will need to work together to decipher the heptapods' final message. This implies that the strange episodes might have an impact on her present situation, and that they might even be beneficial somehow. Even though Banks is not yet aware of what is happening to her, the heptapods' language has already profoundly altered her experience of time, which is what eventually allows her to avert the impending war.
This scenario illustrates some of the central characteristics that Derrida attributes to the concept of the gift, which is a common theme in his later work, and which can be used to reveal some of the most profoundly Derridean aspects of Arrival. In Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (1992), Derrida outlines a paradox or aporia that he considers to be inherent in the notion of gift-giving. When someone receives something that they understand to be a gift, they invariably feel the need to reciprocate in some way; this may take the form of a simple, immediate “Thank you” or a more substantial repayment that comes years, or even decades, later. For Derrida, this reciprocation “annuls” the gift, inasmuch as it draws it into a circular economy, whether an actual exchange of money or of goods with monetary value, or an exchange of signs whose meaning both parties comprehend. As a result, “for there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt” (1992, p. 12). The impulse to reciprocate in some way is deeply ingrained in human psychology, however, to the extent that it could be argued that if the recipient does not feel the need to acknowledge the gift in some way, then they have not, in fact, received a gift at all. However, if any sort of reciprocation invalidates the gift, then it would seem that gift-giving would be impossible. Indeed, Derrida refers to the gift as “the impossible” throughout the first chapter of Given Time, arguing that “for there to be a gift, it is necessary that the gift not even appear, that it not be perceived as a gift” (1992, p. 16). Furthermore, “the one who gives it must not see it or know it either” (1992, p. 16), lest they begin to expect some sort of reciprocation, thereby nullifying the generosity of their offering. Inasmuch as this sort of radical altruism seems impossible, the “conditions of possibility of the gift (that some ‘one’ gives some ‘thing’ to some ‘one other’) designate simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift” (1992, p. 12).
In Arrival, the moment at which Banks becomes aware that she (and by extension, all of humanity) has received a gift is clear. During her last visit to the spacecraft, she implores the heptapod she is conversing with to give her the tool that was offered but is told that she already has it. She also learns that the heptapods have come to help humanity and that, in 3000 years, they will need humanity's help in return. When she asks how they can know the future, the heptapod tells her that “Louise sees future” and that the “weapon opens time.” With this, the gift is revealed as such, along with the fact that it has already been given and received. This encounter is unique, in that Banks enters the spacecraft alone, through a pod sent by the aliens, and finds herself not across the screen from them but within the mist, initially disoriented by the near whiteout and the apparent density of the medium through which she is moving. She converses directly with one of the heptapods and is literally immersed in the script, reading the logograms as they hover in the air around her, without the aid of the lexicon she had been shown using in earlier encounters. In keeping with this intense immersion in the heptapod language, her visions of her daughter become lengthier, and the audience, as well as Banks herself, begin to understand what she is experiencing, as it becomes clear that the girl's parents are, in fact, Banks and Donnelly.
After she exits the craft, the contrast between the calm and brightness of the heptapods' space and the noise and dark, muted tones of the outside world is particularly striking. The torrential rain and rushed agitation of the Army personnel, who are preparing to evacuate, are escalating along with the political tension, as the viewer learns that Russia and Sudan have joined China in declaring war on the heptapods. From this point on, Banks' experiences of different temporal moments become more frequent and diverse; in addition to a conversation with her daughter, Banks is seen opening a box containing copies of a book she has written about the heptapod language, prompting her to tell Donnelly and Weber that what the heptapods are offering is “not a weapon; it's a gift. The weapon is their language.” The gift allows her to convince General Shang to stand down and to share China's section of the heptapods' final message, thereby preventing the impending war and initiating an international effort to decode the lexicon. She does this by experiencing a reception that takes place eighteen months in the future, in which General Shang tells her that, as he was about to go to war, she called him on his private phone line and told him his wife's dying words, which he had never told anyone. Although the viewer is not given the details, this act convinces him that he should take seriously her plea not to attack the heptapod craft. When she tells him at the reception that she does not know his private phone number, he gives her the number and the message, allowing her to call him and to set the chain of events that they had just been discussing into motion. At this climactic moment in the film, the narrative alternates between Banks' call to General Shang from the base and their conversation at the reception, and it appears that Banks receives the number from Shang and then immediately repeats it to him over the phone. The disruption of the linear narrative is complete, with the two moments as thoroughly intertwined as the twelve parts of the heptapods' gift. It appears that Banks is now able to experience temporality in the way the heptapods do, and the gift has thus undeniably been received.
On Derrida's interpretation, then, it would seem that the heptapods' gift was “annulled” when its nature as a gift was revealed. Furthermore, the heptapods clearly conceive of their offering as a gift, for they state that they have come to help humanity. However, given the temporality of Arrival, and of the heptapods' gift, this impossible scenario is one in which true gift-giving might be possible. In order to see how this could be the case, we must first understand the link that Derrida establishes between the gift and time. In Memoires for Paul de Man (1989), Derrida states that “a gift must never appear in a present, given the risk of its being annulled in thanks, in the symbolic, in exchange or economy, indeed, of its becoming a benefit” (p. 149). The notion of a gift “appearing in a present” illustrates this connection between gift-giving and time. Derrida starts by pointing out the extensive use made in economics of the figure of the circle, a figure which, in turn, is often used to describe time, in what he calls “one of the most powerful and ineluctable representations, at least in the history of metaphysics” (1992, p. 8). The gift, however, must remain outside this circle, must “remain aneconomic,” inasmuch as it is “that which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange” (1992, p. 7). Given the temporal character of the economic circle, however, what is “aneconomic” must also be atemporal. For a gift to be given, “something must come about or happen, in an instant, in an instant that no doubt does not belong to the economy of time” (1992, p. 17).
As paradoxical as this might sound, there is a sense in which the instant in which Banks receives the heptapods' gift is outside the economy of time, at least the linear or cyclical time of giving and reciprocity to which Derrida is referring. The heptapods do not give their gift in the hopes that humanity will reciprocate in a certain way because, as they experience time, the reciprocation has already taken place. More accurately, it has neither taken place in the past nor will it take place in the future, since “past” and “future” are not part of their experience of time. If, as the heptapods tell the Russians, “There is no time,” then there also cannot be any moment in which the gift first becomes present, and in which the recipient feels indebted and the giver awaits reciprocation.
In his late work, Derrida frequently calls the existence of time into question, considering it, like the gift, to be impossible. If existence amounts to presence in a particular moment, then time truly cannot exist, inasmuch as we cannot experience the “presence” of the present moment. In other words, if we examine the contents of our consciousness at any given instant, we find only memories of past moments and anticipation of future ones, what Derrida calls “presents-past” and “presents-to-come” (1992, p. 28). Thus,
the structure of this impossible gift is also that […] of time which […] is always defined in the paradoxia or rather the aporia of what is without being, of what is never present. (1992, p. 27)
While it is not possible to fully address this complex topic here, it illustrates the depth and complexity of Arrival's conclusion, and gives some insight into what the film may ultimately be saying about humanity. After Banks has persuaded General Shang not to attack the heptapods, the war is averted, but humanity is left with a debt that will have to be repaid in 3000 years. Importantly, it is precisely because Banks successfully received the gift that the debt was incurred, for if she had not been able to prevent the conflict, presumably humanity would not be in a position to help the heptapods in the future. Of course, the threat of war would not have existed in the first place if the heptapods had not come to Earth, so their attempt to give humanity a gift, even from outside the economy of time, put them in the position of being able to collect on a debt. This is a dramatic illustration of the paradox of gift-giving, the way in which a gift creates the conditions for its own impossibility. On a Derridean reading, it is not surprising that, once Banks realizes that there is no time, her actions bring about consequences that make us wonder whether knowledge of the heptapods' language truly is a gift. The film never makes clear what humanity will be asked to do in 3000 years; it could be something with far worse consequences than those that would have resulted from China and its allies attacking the heptapods. The same dynamic exists even more clearly on the level of Banks' personal life. Her experience of her own future creates the conditions that bring about that future, in which Donnelly leaves her because she decided to have a child with him while knowing that child would succumb to an incurable disease at a young age. As the film ends, he asks her if she wants to “make a baby” with him, and she answers “Yes,” setting into motion the chain of events that will eventually cause her to lose both her husband and her child. While it could be argued that Banks would have lost her child regardless of whether she knew about her incurable illness in advance, Banks' knowledge of the future further compounds this tragedy.
In light of this, it would be tempting to ask whether Banks has made the right choice by agreeing to have a child with Donnelly. Setting aside the question of whether, in the logic of the film, she would even be free to make a different choice, it can be argued that this very personal decision ultimately affects the course of global politics. In “Precarious Life” (2004), her analysis of Emmanuel Levinas' ethics of non-violence in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Judith Butler argues that the censorship of certain voices and images creates a culture of fear which not only fuels perpetual war, but which also judges that certain lives do not deserve to be mourned publicly. Particularly in times of war, “politics – and power – work in part through regulating what can appear, what can be heard” (2004, p. 147). This repression, in turn, calls into question whether ungrievable lives are even lives at all, making violence against those individuals that much easier. Instead of being trapped in the cycle of endless violent conflict, however, Butler suggests that engaging in mourning and grief, even of “ungrievable” lives, “can yield an experience of humility, of vulnerability [… which] can move us beyond and against the vocation of the paranoid victim who regenerates infinitely the justifications for war” (2004, pp. 149–150). Images of “precarious” lives such as those of children dying from napalm attacks during the Vietnam War played an important role in turning popular opinion against the conflict, she argues, inasmuch as “the images pointed somewhere else, beyond themselves, to a life and to a precariousness that they could not show” (2004, p. 150).
Seen in this light, Banks' decision to have a child who she knows will die prematurely amounts to a choice to bring that child's life to visibility and to engage in the work of mourning which she knows will follow. Indeed, she has already begun that work, given the nonlinear way in which she is experiencing time. On an individual level, her mourning makes possible the love she experiences from her family, but beyond this, her acceptance of the reality of her daughter's life, and thus of the nature of the heptapods' gift, is what allows her to avert a global war. In other words, if she had not come to accept that she was truly experiencing future events, including the loss of her daughter, she would not have had the means to convince General Shang to stand down. It is clear from the nature of Banks' final visit to the heptapod craft that receiving their gift and accepting the work of mourning involves putting herself in a position of vulnerability. She is alone and unprotected by the dividing wall, standing next to an alien whose immense size just then becomes clear to the audience. One shot, roughly level with the top of the heptapod's body, shows a tiny Banks as if seen from a third or fourth story window; this strikingly conveys the precariousness of all human life in the context of the escalating worldwide violence and the looming interspecies war. In line with Butler's argument, Banks' vulnerability and drive to understand the significance of the girl's life is what ultimately allows her to help humanity avoid a major conflict.
Even if we accept that Banks' choice had positive consequences, however, the status of the heptapods' gift remains ambiguous. Beyond avoiding a war that would not have existed if the heptapods had not come to Earth in the first place, it is difficult to tell whether humanity in general truly stands to benefit from their offering. Following and extending Derrida's reasoning, however, this ambiguity may in fact mean that a genuine act of gift-giving took place after all. If the gift itself is annulled when Banks realizes that it is not a weapon, but rather something meant to benefit humanity, then it would seem that a second annulment – an annulment of the benefit – takes place when the nature of the gift and its attendant consequences become clear. The heptapods give their language to humanity with no expectation of a future repayment, since, from their perspective, the repayment has already taken place; likewise, humanity has no reason to be thankful, for there is no clear benefit that will accrue from learning the language. The altruism of the heptapods is so inscrutable that their offering exemplifies what Derrida describes in The Gift of Death as a denial that must occur with gift-giving. This denial involves an “abnegation of the gift, of goodness, or of the generosity of the gift that must withdraw, hide, and also in effect sacrifice itself in order to give” (2008, p. 32).
While Derrida makes this statement in the context of a discussion of Christian notions of love and responsibility, it applies to the end of Arrival as well. With the generosity of the heptapods' offering obscured by humanity's uncertain future, and by the suffering which Banks knows she will experience, it seems that their gift has indeed “sacrificed itself.” However, in a final moment of the Derridean aporia, the gift reasserts itself, for Arrival does not leave the viewer fearful or despairing, but instead hopeful. The last word of the film, Banks' “Yes,” is coupled with happy moments from her daughter's life, suggesting that she has indeed made the right choice. Banks and Donnelly prepare to depart the Army base, as the sun rising over the distant hills introduces warm pinks and golds into the otherwise bleak setting. These tones carry over into scenes of their life together with their daughter, signaling the happiness that they will experience as a family, if only briefly. If her pain will be compounded by her knowledge of the future, then so will her joy. On a larger scale, then, perhaps the rest of humanity will also be able to benefit from the heptapods' gift, even if it is not clear when or how that will occur.
Cinematographer Bradford Young alludes to this positivity when he describes the inside of the heptapods' spaceship as “a place where a certain level of truthfulness is revealed to humanity” and “the one space in the film where you can see things, where you can understand what it means to watch human beings evolve” (as quoted in Levy, 2016). As discussed above, the brightness and serenity of that space stands in stark contrast to the tones which dominate most of the rest of the film, as if to represent the clarity that comes from experiencing and understanding reality in the way the heptapods do. In the end, then, the heptapods' gift is that of knowledge and growth. In learning to experience time nonlinearly, Banks overcomes the limitation inherent in viewing reality as a narrative with fixed beginnings and endpoints. This places her, and anyone else who chooses to accept the gift, outside the circular economy of giving and reciprocation. For Derrida, this is the only position from which true altruism and meaningful political change are possible, and thus whatever might allow us to attain it would undoubtedly be a genuine gift.
Ultimately, Arrival takes Derrida's analysis of the gift beyond the aporia of Given Time and The Gift of Death, illustrating a context in which gift-giving once again becomes possible. While the heptapods' visit is clearly a fantastical scenario, elements of the film such as the tense relations between the U.S. and nations such as China and Russia, the hostility and suspicion with which the alien visitors are met, and the extremism and violence which erupt during their stay, put it squarely within the world of the early twenty-first century. By situating the exchange between heptapods and humans outside the economy of time, it does something that, for Derrida, was difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of. In the words of Antonio Malo (2012), “in Derrida's view the gift is not something impossible. It is the very figure of the impossible: a wish to go out of the economic circle that inhabits the circle of time” (p. 150). It invites Derrida scholars to consider whether the aporia is truly unresolvable, and what the real-world equivalent of the heptapods' gift might be. In other words, what means, if any, are available to us to step outside of not just the economic circle but the circle of time and history itself, and to create radical political change in today's world?
One clue that can perhaps be taken from the film relates to one of Derrida's important late ideas that we were not able to address here in any depth, namely that of hospitality. As Judith Still writes in Derrida and Hospitality (2010), “hospitality implies letting the other in to oneself, to one's own space – it is invasive of the integrity of the self” (p. 13). Arrival depicts an extreme example of this idea, as Banks opens herself up to the “invasion” of one of the most central aspects of any human's selfhood, namely the experience of life unfolding in a linear fashion. What is the analogue of that radical hospitality – a hospitality that exists in aneconomic space – in the reality in which we are actually living? As the world changes in ways that were unforeseeable at the time of Derrida's death, a film such as Arrival demonstrates how some of his most important late ideas can evolve along with society. Insofar as the medium of film is one that even Derrida acknowledged as having affinities with his own thought, it is reasonable to look to Arrival as we continue to explore his legacy in today's world.
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