Sunday, 3 December 2000

From "The Shape of the Signifier"

By Walter Ben Michaels.

Bova's Jamie thinks that the "shapes" of his rocks mean that there used to be Indians on Mars; no one on Robinson's Mars thinks that. But the important difference between these texts has nothing to do with the question of whether there ever was intelligent life on Mars, nothing to do with their differing narratives of how the rocks in which they're interested came to have their shapes. It has to do instead with their different accounts of the status of shape as such. The question raised by these two texts, in other words, is the question of the relation between what something is shaped like and what something is. They differ in their answers to that question. On Bova's Mars, the shapes of the rocks are regarded as clues; the fact that they look like cliff dwellings is regarded as evidence that they might be cliff dwellings. On Robinson's Mars, the shapes aren't evidence of what the rocks are; rather, it is the shapes of the rocks that make them what they are. This is what it means for Robinson to imagine that there can be language on Mars without there being any persons (Martian, Navajo, whatever) to have spoken that language.

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