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Language and Thought in The Invisibles
Article · January 2015
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Francesco Ursini
Sun Yat-Sen University
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Language and Thought in the Invisibles
This paper aims to explore how the relation between language and cognition is used as a complex trope in The
Invisibles (Morrison et al.1994-2000). The Invisibles features a secret language that different characters can
access, and use to manipulate how other characters can cognize reality. Although this secret language seems to
posit the existence of a universal ability of humans to access an enriched understanding of reality, such secret
language is also used as a tool of ultimate cognitive manipulation. Thus, language and cognition act as a
complex trope that Morrison employs to explore themes of freedom and control, as well as different views on
the mind/external world problem. We address this complex trope by discussing which scientific theories of
language and cognition appear to be implemented in the story, and how they are used as tropes in the narrative.
“Which side are you on, anyway?” Regier et al./Jack Frost, The Invisibles Vol. 3: 1
1. Introduction: Why Language
A widely acknowledged aspect of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles is its incredibly diverse
and complex combination of concepts as non-linear plot devices or tropes, here simply
defined as significant themes or concepts in a work of narrative (Juul: 3-6). Morrison is
known for implementing dichotomies such as “chaos” and “order”, “control” and “freedom”,
or “youth” and “adulthood”. In Morrison’s works, the conceptual space between antinomies
is explored in detail; often, new syntheses become tropes in their own right (Neighly &
Cowe-Spigai; Meaney; Callahan; Singer). Among these dichotomies, one would not expect to
find “language”, if only for the reason that it does not apparently belong to a clear dichotomy.
However, recent works that explore Morrison’s use of language in The Invisibles discuss
language-based tropes, pointing to the existence of an implicit dichotomy between language
and thought (Rauch; Wolk 267-272; Singer 118-124). These critics suggest that The
Invisibles uses the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which can be preliminarily defined as the
hypothesis tlanguage determines “thought” (Casasanto 63-64).
The goal of this paper is to show that Morrison’s apparent and indirect use of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is but one aspect of his exploration of a more complex conceptual
system that includes language, thought, and their relation. We will then analyse not only how
Morrison explores this system, but also how his use of this system as a complex narrative
device has been constant and yet taken different “shapes” over the story’s unfolding. The
paper is structured as follows. In section 2, we present some background on Morrison’s work,
and the key notions we will implement in my analysis, in particular the notions of trope,
conceptual system and narrative. In section 3, we present an overview of the current debate
on theories of the language and cognition relation. In section 4, we discuss how Morrison
uses this complex trope, and the corresponding conceptual system in The Invisibles, as the
narrative unfolds; in section 5, we conclude.
2. Background Notions: Theories of Narration
The goal of this section is to introduce some basic theoretical concepts and their relevance for
our analysis of complex tropes, in The Invisibles.
In the Morrisonian universe, dichotomies are defined via concepts that are used as
tropes, and are often conceived as polar opposites. These basic, tropes seem to form a
complex web or continuum of concepts. Such webs of tropes appear to be the building blocks
of the narrative, the complex structure that defines the progression of the plot (Juul: 3-10)
[endnote 1]. However, Morrison often recasts opposite concepts as extremes within a
conceptual continuum, usually proposing a synthesis of these complementary notions.
Such an authorial and epistemic choice provides an interesting theoretical problem for
an analysis of his works. The problem pertains to how Morrison uses scientific theories as
tropes, in his works. Here we choose one line of analysis, that of possible worlds theory, to
address how authors implement and use real world knowledge to build and explore plausible
fictional worlds (Doležel 30-44; Eco 20-30; Pavel ch.13-18; Semino). We will consider The
Invisibles as a work of speculative or science fiction, since it includes possible scientific
theories (Ryan) and discuss how Morrison uses different types of scientific theories of
language within the narrative of this work
In his works, Morrison implements at least three epistemological positions with
regard to the character of the narrator. A first stance is that of the “prosaic” author, who uses
a specific point of view within a certain debate as a trope. In Animal Man (Morrison &
Truog), Morrison promotes animal rights in a rather direct way, without offering more
nuanced philosophical counterpoints (Callahan ch. 4). A second stance is that of the “neutral”
author, who uses dichotomies as complex tropes, but in a theory- and debate-neutral
perspective. In Zenith (Morrison & Yeowell), “youth” and “adulthood” themes pervade the
plot (the brash attitude of Zenith, the arrogance of Peter St. John), without one pole being
clearly favoured over the other (Callahan ch.1). A third stance is that of the “debating” author,
who elaborates dichotomies in novel, speculative ways. Such re-elaboration of the
chaos/order dichotomy occurs in The Invisibles, among others.
Before we zoom onto a discussion of the language/thought complex concept, we need
to situate this trope within Morrison’s broader work. Morrison often uses language as a
vehicle to represent characters’ unique identities. Examples include the acronyms of the men
from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. and the parlari of Danny the street (Morrison & Case), the pidgin-like
English of Mickey eye or of the three We3 pets (Morrison & Stewart; Morrison & Quitely).
Furthermore, The Invisibles features the logoplasm, a shiny silver substance that incarnates
the “higher universe” from which the Invisible College and the Outer Church, the two
factions of the story, originate.
In The Invisibles, language is also used as tool to express, expand and reduce “thought”
and its potential. In this series, language is at times used as a weapon that characters employ
to control thought: how other characters perceive and understand reality. This latter use has
been interpreted as Morrison’s use, or even support of the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (cf.
Rauch; Wolk 267-272). However, as Singer (118-124) notes, the existence of a language that
can be hacked via drugs to determine cognition presupposes [endnote 2] the existence of
language and thought as distinct domains. What the narrative of The Invisibles explores,
Singer argues, is how these two aspects of human nature interact, in various ways. Crucially,
the use of drugs that allows language to be used to control thought seems to suggest that a
second complex trope, call it the “control” and ”freedom” dichotomy, is at work when the
language and cognition trope is at work, too. We discuss this trope more in detail in the next
3. Background Notions: Language, Cognition and their Relation
The goal of this section is to present in more detail the linguistic concepts and ideas that act
as background information for our complex trope. We will take a broad perspective, as the
debate on language, [endnote 3] cognition and their relation are closely intertwined with our
discussion. At the same time, we will make precise some notions (e.g. the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis) that play a key role in our discussion.
At a basic sensory level, our five senses allow us to process the basic bits of
information that we receive about the external world; sensory inputs are the building blocks
of perception. These bits are then transformed (“transduced,” Pylyshyn 3-8) in mind-internal
bits of information: memories, sensations, and other types of thoughts. Thus, they become
part of cognition: our unconscious, spontaneous ability to store, organize, retrieve and
manipulate information about ourselves and the world (Matlin 5-8). Cognition can be seen as
combination of different specific cognitive domains: vision, language, action planning,
memory, attention, emotion, concept formation and several others: our “thoughts”
(Eysenck7-30). We can perceive and organize information about what we see, say, plan to do,
recall, and so on. Then, at a conscious level, we can operate on these bits of information to
interact with the world, and possibly “match” what we see and what we say.
The emergence of cognition as a field of inquiry occurred in the 1950s, in good part
as a reaction to the then dominant Behaviourist paradigm. Behaviourism reduced all complex
mental phenomena, including language, to forms of “trained behaviour” (Skinner). After
critical analyses showed the inadequacy of such approach, cognition and the study of mental
life became a central field of study again [endnote 4] (Chomsky; Bruner).
Subsequent decades saw the emergence of a continuum of models of cognition, and of
the useful “mind is a computer” metaphor. [endnote 5] At one extreme, computational
models assume that the mind can be seen as a computer relying on several specialized
processors, one per cognitive domain (e.g. Carruthers). Connectionist models eschew the
“domain-specific” approach, and suggest that any type of information can be processed in
any part of the mind/brain (Elman et al.). Intermediate models exist, and attempt to offer
varying degrees of synthesis between these ideas (Metzinger).
Regardless of the model, however, an important question pertains to what kind of
relation exists between the different parts of cognition, for instance language and vision. The
strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is but one answer to this question within this complex debate.
Since previous works on the trope of language in The Invisibles do not flesh out the nature of
this debate in much detail, I offer a brief but precise overview on this topic.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis [endnote 6] takes its name from a formulation found in
Hoijer (3-5), which builds on an interpretation of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf’s
research. Both scholars worked on Native American languages, with Whorf focusing on
corpora of the Uto-Aztecan Hopi (Hopi: Ethnologue). Whorf observed that Hopi lacks
temporal morphology on verbs (e.g. the past suffix –ed in English: walk-ed). He conjectured,
then, that Hopi speakers could not talk about time, at least not in the way that English
speakers could, hence they could not even think about temporal information (Whorf : 134150). Whorf ignored that Hopi includes temporal adverbs (e.g. now) to express temporal
relations, hence his claims lacked the necessary empirical punch. This fact did not prevent,
however, from the formulation of the so-called strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that language
determines thought or, in our terms, cognitive categories.
With the raise of the cognitive revolution, a diametrically opposed perspective arose,
as a partial reaction to behaviourism’s dismissal of mind-internal processes. The Universalist
hypothesis states that cognitive categories determine linguistic categories, and not vice versa.
A very indirect argument for this hypothesis was put forward in Chomsky (7-20), since its
notion of a “Universal Grammar” underpinning all natural languages relied on a set of preexisting cognitive categories. Instead, works such as Berlin & Kay offered more cogent
arguments for the Universalist hypothesis. This work showed that, language after language,
basic colour terms emerge following basic chromatic distinctions: from black versus white, to
red, then to green or blue, and so on. Given the empirical solidity of Berlin & Kay’s study,
the Universalist hypothesis was taken to be a better model of the language-cognition relation
than the Sapir and Whorf one, which was then left aside.
The debate on this relation did not end, though. Subsequent works in language
acquisition and language processing hinted that language categories may influence how
speakers pay attention to visual scenarios, or recall their structure. Thus, a weak version of
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the “thinking for speaking” hypothesis, was
formulated: that language may influence, rather than determine, cognitive categories (Slobin).
At the same time, a better understanding of language emerged, qua a part of cognition, seen
as a whole. As a cognitive system, language allows us to “externalize” thoughts, beliefs and
opinions, and allows us to talk about the world (Lakoff 3-30; Chomsky “program”: 5-60;
Talmy 4-58). In this role, language seems to act as a “mirror” to cognition, intended as sum
of all our cognitive activities. Thus, both domains would contain the same sets of conceptual
categories, but may differ in how these categories are used and related. [endnote 7]
Since three distinct hypotheses on the relation between language and cognition
emerged over time, the last 20 years or so witnessed a surge of studies investigating the
validity of each of these hypotheses. For instance, modern proponents of the strong SapirWhorf hypothesis have suggested that specific categories of language constrain certain
cognitive categories. Thus, Levinson suggests that languages with so-called “absolute”
spatial terms such as Tzeltal [endnote 8] do constrain how their speakers understand spatial
directions. In contrast, proponents of the Universalist hypothesis observe that pre-verbal
children can already count and distinguish small quantities and operations on these quantities,
before they can speak (Bloom & Keil; McCrink & Spelke). Furthermore, proponents of the
weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis observe that weak effects can emerge quite frequently, when
linguistic and non-linguistic tasks are temporarily connected (e.g. counting: Boroditsky;
Casasanto). Overall, each hypothesis seems to find some form of empirical support, although
partial in nature.
However, in recent times a fourth position has slowly emerged in the works of Terry
Regier and associates (e.g. Regier et al.). These works have investigated the classic linguistic
domains that are the focus of this type of research (spatial cognition, colour names). A
general finding reported in these works is that languages across the world seem to express the
same sets of pre-linguistic concepts, a fact in support of the Universalist hypothesis. In doing
so, languages tend to vary on categories’ boundaries: whether languages have terms for both
green and blue, or either one, or neither. However, when speakers are asked to use these
terms, they can usually find alternative ways to express concepts that do not exist in their
languages. These latter two facts support a strong and weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, instead.
Consequently, Regier et al. (158-159) suggest that taking a side on this debate seems
counterproductive, since different sets of data can explain a part of the data at hand. If one
aims for a theory of the “whole” language-cognition problem, then a novel synthesis of these
hypotheses seems to be called for.
The emergence of a continuum in the debate on the relation between language and
cognition has allowed the emergence of a fourth position, which sees all of these approaches
as necessary, although partial accounts of this relation. Now that we have defined these four
related positions, we can reformulate and address our initial question as a two-pronged
question. A first prong is whether Morrison uses any of these positions as complex tropes in
The Invisibles. A second prong is whether he uses these positions as a system, in an
overarching attempt to explore how these complex ideas can be turned into narrative tropes.
4. The Data
The goal of this section is to discuss the language and cognition complex trope in The
Invisibles by proposing a partition of this trope type into sub-types. We pursue this goal by
discussing the tokens [endnote 9] of three sub-types of this trope in each volume of the comic,
and assess how each token instantiates each trope. Each sub-type is distinguished by
involving a different control method: drugs (key 17/23/64), explicit verbal commands, and
implicit or subconscious subliminal messages. The latter two methods also based on the use
of a “secret” universal language. We thus label these sub-types “”drugs”, “explicit commands”
and “subliminal messages”. Only instances in which language is explicitly used as a tool of
control will be considered as tokens instantiating our sub-types. We divide the discussion in
three sections, one per volume of publication, and follow a chronological order. We do so, in
order to highlight how the use of this trope and its sub-types have evolved (or, more
accurately, have remained conceptually consistent) over the series’ publication.
4.1 Volume 1 (Issues 1-25)
The first sub-type of the language and cognition trope that occurs in volume 1 is the
“drugs” sub-type. A first token occurs in the story arc Entropy in the UK (#18-24). The mindaltering drug key 17 is introduced indirectly, as part of the narration. Sir Miles, the main
antagonist in the series, and an Outer Church scientist called Frankland are torturing the main
character King Mob, in order to extract information about the Invisibles. The crucial panels
present a first person narrative, and show how King Mob sees the chamber in which he is
being tortured. Everything looks red; Sir Miles appears in King Mob’s visual field with a
bucket, from which he throws Mob’s severed fingers on the floor, then shows Mob his
ravaged face via a mirror. The focus in the narration goes from King Mob’s perspective from
a character-neutral perspective. This change reveals that King Mob is actually being forced to
read scraps on paper on which the words finger and diseased face are written. King Mob
opposes a fierce resistance to this torture, pretending to be someone else than his current
fiction suit: [endnote 10] Kirk Morrison, a horror books writer. The first dialogue that reveals
key 17’s effect is reported in example (1) (#18: 6). The next token occurs when King Mob
explains to his ally Lord Fanny the nature of this drug, as shown in (2) (#24: 13):
(1) Sir Miles: I thought you said this key 17 drug was foolproof
Frankland: The drug scrambles perceptual information reaching the secondary visual
cortex. It makes him unable to tell the difference between the word describing
the object and the object itself…
(2) King Mob: The drug they gave me makes words appear to be things. You look at words
and you see the objects they describe. Key 17 it’s called
As Frankland explains, victims of key 17 become unable to distinguish a written word from
the kind of object it refers to. Thus, although Mob is in precarious conditions and was led to
believe that his fingers were cut off during the torture procedure, his fingers are intact. Issue
18 does not offer more information about key 17 and its function, nor does it explain how this
form of “induced cognitive disorder” actually works, within this fictional setting. It does
point out, though, that the drug allows someone to manipulate (“scramble”) one aspect of
cognition and cognitive processes, vision, via language. In (2), King Mob has become aware
of this, and explains to Fanny what the effect of this drug on the visual system is, much like
Frankland did in the previous example. During this part of the arc (#24: 13), Fanny and King
Mob can counter-attack a third Outer Church member, Miss Dwyer, via a dose of key 17. She
[endnote 11] can induce a false vision of Miss Dwyer’s father, via the text “world’s greatest
dad” on the cup, and verbal information that supplements this engraving. The key passage is
in (3):
(3) King Mob: Write something Fanny anything she reads she’ll see it as real something I’m
Fanny: Look! Look who’s here to see you! [FANNY SHOWS A CUP WITH THE
The use of key 17 clearly allows Fanny to manipulate the altered Miss Dwyer by adding some
more verbal information about her delusional visions. At this point, Miss Dwyer is supposed
to see her father, probably under a caring and emotionally “loaded” perspective: he is seen as
world’s greatest dad, after all. The combination of a drug-induced false visual stimulus and
Fanny’s plain verbal manipulation are the key aspects that force her to see what they are told
to see. By this point in the narrative, we can already observe how the drug sub-type is
implemented in the narrative. The use of drugs allows someone to manipulate two aspects of
cognition, visual information and emotions, via spoken and written language. Certainly, this
effect is somewhat similar the result of the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language is used
to determine (control, actually) cognition. However, this effect is obtained via key 17, while
both Sapir-Whorf hypotheses are hypotheses about the relation between language and
cognition without third intervening factors, let alone drugs. That is, characters can
consciously manipulate the unconscious linguistic and cognitive abilities of other characters.
Thus, neither the Universalist nor the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be invoked to describe the
events in this issue.
We now move to the “explicit commands” sub-type, which is introduced in example
(4) (#19: 8). This passage offers a homage to 1984’s classic torture scene (Orwell), as Sir
Miles plays the role of Sir O’Brien and King Mob the role of Winston Smith. As Sir Miles
suggests, humans would normally be able to access this universal language, if they were not
forced to learn writing systems (and its alphabet, in the English case), that constrain this
apparently innate ability. The explanation is as follows:
(4) King Mob: four fingers…
Sir Miles: Of course. That’s what you see. But “four” is only a word.
Sir Miles: Have you ever wondered why we talk of “spelling”? There is a spell word, an
“abracadabra”, implanted in the brain of every English-speaking child, the root
mantra of restriction, the secret name of a mighty, hidden demon.
Sir Miles: “Eye-bee-see-dee-ee-ef[…]xed”
Sir Miles: that name and all the names it generates, were designed to set limits upon
humanity’s ability to express abstract thought [FIVE FINGERS CARTEL]
Sir Miles: What you see depends entirely upon the words. You have to describe what you
see. Nothing exists unless we say it does. The drug we gave you is called key
17 and with its help, we can conjure reality with the help of a few words
scrawled on paper.
Sir Miles: When you were young you spent hours writing with your left hand, didn’t you?
You were trying unconsciously to break the alphabet spell our teachers placed
upon you.
Sir Miles: A brave and imaginative effort, my boy, but quite worthless. [PICTURE:
King Mob: What hfm you want me t huf see?
Sir Miles: It is not enough to see. It is not enough to say that you see.
Sir Miles: you must believe. You must want to believe with all your heart. Key 17 will
help you to believe.
Two concepts play a role, in this example. First, the secret alphabet is depicted as the
“universal” alphabet that allows to write all the words that can convey all possible human
concepts: the universal inventory of our “thoughts”. Note, here, that Morrison seems to
blurry the distinction between spoken and written form, as in the case of the first sub-type.
Second, in forcing humans to use only a part of this alphabet, the Outer Church forces
(English-speaking) humans to use only a part of this wealth of concepts, and their ability to
create (“generate”) new ones. The existence of a universal capacity for cognitive categories,
and the possibility to use language to constrain this capacity becomes part of the narrative, by
this point. Thus, this secret language is used to express commands must follow. Again,
“language” becomes a tool of control of cognition (thought), but in a rather conscious way,
unlike assumed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Another relevant example is offered when Miss Dwyer attacks King Mob and Fanny
(#24: 12). Miss Dwyer uses a special sequence of words in the secret language to trigger a
rapid tissue degeneration, as shown in (5). From this point onwards, we report the relevant
panels in-text, in order to display the secret language’s visual form:
An important aspect of this token is that the key utterance [endnote 12] is described as being
a “genetic” command. The external narration panel explains that the human body is in part
“programmed” to understand this sentence as a command for “sonic cancer”: the Outer
Church actively controls education and health systems, after all. Thus, in this case language
can affect a physical category of some sort, because organisms have been placed in position
to be susceptible to this command. Hence, by the end of this volume, we still do not know
whether all types of utterances of the secret language can also be used to control humans and,
as in this case, their biological processes. However, we know that language can be used not
only to affect thought, but also other physical functions, a fact that falls beyond the scope of
either the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, weak or strong.
As our discussion suggests, then, the first volume only uses the “drugs” and “explicit
commands” sub-types, in manners that are hardly consistent with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,
strong or weak alike. Only when a drug that allows to control visual cognition (“drugs”) or
cognition in general (”commands”) is used, language can be used to determine cognition.
Without such a device, characters cannot explicitly affect other characters’ cognitive
underpinnings. Thus, within the narrative of volume 1, Morrison does not use these sub-types
to “promote” the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Rather, he sets out to explore the narrative
possibilities that the control of cognitive faculties can offer, based on how various characters
can manipulate other characters’ perception of reality and language. The question that we
face now, then, is whether this use changes or remains internally consistent in the other two
4.2. Volume 2
In Volume 2 and the story arc American Death Camp (#11-13), the uses and functions of the
secret language and its alphabet are presented in more detail. Our third sub-type, the
“subliminal messages” type, takes the centre of the narrative stage. This arc’s plot revolves
around Boy, who is on the run after stealing the hand of glory, a device that allows its users
to open a gate on the Outer Church dimension. King Mob and his cell move to one of Mason
Lang’s research labs to retrieve Boy, after Jack has a premonition that she is being held
captive there. Here, a cell later known as cell 23 places Boy under psychological reconditioning via drugs. Coyote, the leader of cell 23 and an old acquaintance of Boy in
incognito, queries her [endnote 13] about the nature of the “real” alphabet. I transcribe the
relevant passages in (5)-(6), and report the relevant images in (7)-(8) (#11, 7, 12):
(6) Coyote: How many letters there are in the alphabet?
Boy: Look…
Coyote: There’s 64. This is the real alphabet we’re talking about.
Coyote: Seeing and remembering letters from the Invisible alphabet often triggers
nausea in agents with multiple cover stories.
(7) Coyote: And which side are you on? We think that seeing the letter tripleyou on the
wall was what finally cracked out the shell of your exopersonality.
One important aspect of this passage is that the precise number of the letters in the secret
alphabet, 64, is revealed. Coyote mentions one of the letters of this alphabet, tripleyou (ex.
(6)), as the trigger for the “exopersonality” or fiction suit that Boy was supposedly acting
under. In this case, and differently from the example discussed in (4), the letters from the
secret alphabet act as commands that take control of Boy’s will, much like post-hypnotic
commands. Thus, the words from the universal language can be used to take control of Boy’s
cognitive faculties (her memories and will), but only once Boy is under the effect of unnamed
drugs aimed at removing her “fiction suit” programming. Towards the conclusion of the issue,
several tokens of the secret alphabet are presented. In a flash-forward, Coyote has now forced
Boy to wear a new fiction suit/exo-personality as an Outer Church agent. Then, cell 23 and
Boy pretend to be agents, with the aim of killing an imprisoned King Mob (#12: 21-23). A
final use of the secret alphabet occurs in the next issue, when Boy can reject her
programming (#13: 10). These tokens are shown in (9)-(12):
Note once more that the secret language utterances are presented as imperative sentences, as
in the case of (5). The panel on p. 21 lacks this punctuation mark, but the narrative context
suggests that Coyote is also imparting orders, as he yells with to boy with an aggressive face,
while also alternating orders in English. These tokens, then, offer a better depiction of how
the combination of drugs and the secret language can indeed affect the cognitive abilities of
Boy. If the secret language can affect cognition (memories and will, here) only via the use of
drugs, then its use hardly qualifies as consistent with either Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the
Universalist hypothesis.
These examples do not exhaust the tokens for the “subliminal messages” sub-type in
volume 2. Another token for this type is introduced when cell 23 attacks King Mob and his
cell. Two members of cell 23 are shown to discuss the property of this agent (#13: 6-7),
although Jack Frost mentions some other information earlier in the story (#12: 21). The
relevant passages are presented in (14)-(16):
(14) Henchman #1: Jesus, King Mob. Do we have time to introduce a viral component into
the language tanks?
(15) Henchman #2: Yeah: I just got exposed to one of those prototypes a couple of years
back. Damn thing just kept going through my head for two days, nonstop. I heard it ended up being used as a subliminal in the chorus of
some big hit record.
Henchman #1: This is the first time I have used one of those viral words.
(16) Jack Frost: Better watch out; they’ll ask you for a word, right? But the word’s not a
word. It’s one of their words, man. If our words are circles, their words are bubbles.
Examples (14)-(15) show that the words that cell 23 uses in their attack acts as a “viral
word”: a word that in is in a sense more complex than normal words, as Jack Frost mentions
in (16). The attack that ensues once King Mob and his cell become a threat to cell 23’s
actions makes clear what the complexity of these words consists of. Examples (17)-(18), and
the adjacent two pages reported in (19) illustrate this fact in detail (# 13: 7-9):
(17) Henchman #3: Good Evening. Reality is all about Language. We can demonstrate.
Jack Frost: Fucking Hell
Ragged Robin: Oh shit
Henchman #4: I know some of you are familiar with detournment or hijacking—it’s
a term from situationist theory. We have taken it a step further. We’ve
just occupied the language processing areas of your cerebral cortex. You
will now generate auto-critique.
(18) Ragged Robin: We seem to have g—my tits spell anarchy
King Mob: The most pernicious image of all is the anarchist-hero figure. A creation of
commodity culture, he allows us to buy into an inauthentic simulation of
revolutionary praxis.
Ragged Robin: When is the movie?
King Mob: The hero encourages passive spectating and revolt becomes another product
to be consumed.
Jack Frost: Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Mason Lang: Everything has a value on the open market. Who pays for the revolution?
Lord Fanny: The transvestite, far from being a rebellious or transgressive figure,
actually serves the status quo by validating stereotypical images of
femininity. Uh
Mason Lang: The light! They’re hypnotizing us…God made money in his image.
King Mob: Up against the wall, motherfuckers! Recuperate this!
(19) FIG. 8 & 9 ABOUT HERE
A third member of cell 23 explains to King Mob and his cell that they have already been
placed under control, so that they lose control of their ability to spontaneously generate
[endnote 14] language. However, this occurs when King Mob and the others fall under the
influence of a hypnotizing light, as Mason Lang points out. The image in (18) shows the
hypnotizing effects: the panels look like photographic negatives. The “hijacked” auto-critique
sentences (here, underlined) are represented via typewriter-style fonts, in the panels. The
third sub-type (“subliminal”) of our trope is revealed, since the control factor in this use of
language is the hypnotic signal, which may be the “viral word” mentioned in (16). Once the
first attack is over, cell 23 members shift gears and use a much more powerful attack, as
explained in (20)-(22) (#13: 8-9):
(20) Henchman #1: This isn’t slowing them down. These people are hardcore…Hit them
with some vocabulary.
Henchman #2: We have the power to do things to your mind because we have the keys
to a wider world which you haven’t been educated to comprehend.
Henchman #2: We’ve been taught the full 64letters of the alphabet.
Henchman #2: We have words and concepts for things that you aren’t even able to
imagine in the rudimentary language of your slave language.
King Mob: How do we fight words?
Henchman #1: There are things all around. Things you never see because you don’t
have the words, you don’t have the names. You only have the 26-letter
alphabet. Here are some names for things.
Fairy: The basic irony is that pre-verbal children see us everywhere but we’re made of
language, which cannot be easily processed by infant minds.
Fairy: That’s why communication is so difficult between us.
In this passage it is not entirely clear whether King Mob and his cell are still under the
influence of the subliminal message or not. Thus, this may be the only genuine case in which
the secret language can be seen to affect cognition without any mediating control factors.
However, a possibility is that since the unnamed member continues speaking via an amplifier,
the subliminal may still be active. Mind-control is here explicitly part of the narration, rather
than implicitly. The net effect of this attack is that King Mob and his cell are forced to see
“things” for which they lack the language, given their “slave” English spelling-based
education. “Fairy”, one mysterious entity that now King Mob can see, points out that preschool children can see these “things”, as they have the conceptual but not linguistic tools to
describe such a richer reality. Children lose this ability only when educational systems take
control of their linguistic skills, and consequently of their thought processes. This fact also
suggests that “control” broadly conceived, once more, determines how humans can become
unable to fully use language and thought to understand reality (pace Rauch 648), whether this
control is linguistically achieved via explicit commands or subliminal messages.
As the story progresses, the attack proves to be almost lethal. Ragged Robin must
cancel the other characters’ memories, before everyone is put to sleep via a cell 23’s
command, as shown in (21). Thus, the only solution to remove the effects of this hijacking
technique is to remove its effect from memory altogether. This is done via a telepathic
command: cognition controls cognition, in this case. Other forms of “cognitive control” occur,
one example being the use of the “skorpio” hypnosis weapon (#14-16; #19-22). However, as
“pure” cognition tropes, we leave them aside, and sum up our discussion for this volume.
As our discussion shows, the “subliminal messages” sub-type involves the hijacking
of the characters’ cognitive faculties in an even more explicit manner than in the other types.
The victims of this method lose control over what they understand as being “real”, hence
becoming victims of (verbally) induced control. As in the case of the “drugs” and the
“explicit commands” sub-types, and their use in volume 1, this is hardly evidence that
supports the exclusive use of either the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses or the Universalist
hypothesis as complex tropes. Once more, the fact that language is used to control aspects of
other cognitive faculties is based on the fact that some characters can achieve a form of
control over other characters. In other words, Morrison uses the combination of the “language
and cognition” trope with the “control” trope, but chooses to represent this combination of
ideas in a different way (or type, in our parlance). Thus, by volume 2 it seems clear that
Morrison seems not to be on any side of the debate between the Universalist and the SapirWhorf hypothesis. We can now address whether this consistence is borne out in volume 3.
4.3. Volume 3.
Volume 3 features again the “drugs” sub-type via a new version of the drug, key 23, and
language manipulation as an integral, constant part of the narrative, which is in turn an
instance of the “explicit commands” sub-type. However, this type is also indirectly used to
expand and explain more in detail how the “Universal Language” concept works, a concept
briefly introduced during volume 2 and the encounter with cell 23.As a result, Morrison
indirectly clarifies how he assumes that control of language can be achieved, within the
economy of the narrative. In the first story arc, SatanStorm, the invisible linguist Helga
Tannen is introduced as a member of Mister 6’s cell. She is shown to throw up, then make
the following comment about the invisible language she was trying to learn (#8 8):
(23) Helga Tannen: you’ll have to excuse me…I was trying to learn an alien language and
it all came up…
In this volume, it is revealed that the Outer Church and the Invisibles refer to “twin” realities,
halves of a more complex reality. Thus, they share access to the same universal language.
Crucially, “alien” is used to describe the secret language, which turns out to be the same
language used by the Outer Church. The nature of this language is explained more in detail in
the storyline Karmageddon, when Helga tries to discover its properties (#6: 2-4):
(24) Helga Tannen: 23pm, 30 mls. Key 23. Direct via the angular gyrus to the language
cortex. high-speed random letter combinations: loading.
Key 23 is a synthetic mind-control agent. Under the influence of this
drug, written words appear to be what they describe.
I tried it with the word “bliss” scrawled on a card my little sister drew
for me. I entered a state Buddhists call nirvikalpa Samadhi. The rapid
drop in metabolic function almost killed me. […]
The 38 extra letters of the alphabet are kept secret by those at the highest
level of so-called “global control”
Sound reconstructions of many words in the ubersprech are now
available and…If terrestrial words become things under the influence of
key 23—what if I expose myself to alien words?
It takes seconds. Some gloossslaghghghah occurring. […] 11:23.
Alphabet generator.
They’re breeding like rabbits.
As explained in (24) and shown in (25), the secret alphabet includes a set of 38 extra “letters”
to the “normal” alphabet. It is a secret or “superior” language (übersprech ‘superior
language’), kept hidden by both the Outer Church and the Invisibles’ hierarchies. It allows its
users to express “alien” words, which in turn can convey concepts that humans are taught not
to access, but that Helga learns to access, overriding this conditioning. One more token of
this sub-type are used in the final story arc, Glitterdammerung, once Helga has got a hold on
how the secret language works, as King Mob explains in (26) (#4 2):
(26) King Mob: Helga calls her alien alphabet generator “KALI”, which I know I can talk her
and Six into being an acronym for Kabalistic Alien Language Initiator or
something---the screen’s a storm of fucked and fucking text---the roman [sic]
alphabet fertilized by Helga’s holographic syntax--Helga has developed a software that has cracked the syntax (“grammar”) of the alien/secret
language, which KM describes as “holographic”. The exact sense of KM’s words seems not
very clear, and may refer to how syntactic annotations appear in the program. By this point,
though, it becomes clear that that the alien language is a full language, possibly with an “über”
structure that shares the same properties of “normal” languages. In this sense, as Singer (124)
also notes, the use of the “language” side of our complex trope does echo the Universalist
hypothesis. When free of all conditioning and control, our universal language seems to reflect
our fully developed cognitive categories, or “thoughts”. Control, instead, triggers SapirWhorf-like effects: language can be explicitly used to control cognition. Further evidence that
this analysis is on the right track is offered when a young Sir Miles is shown to undergo an
LSD experiment in the early ‘60s, which was recorded by BBC (#10: 5):
(27) Sir Miles: You see, man will not be man…he will be like them…star-headed…in
the…2012…The trans-continuum…that is how they are putting it…like
them…their language…
This oblique reference is to the fact that, should the Outer Church win, they will impose their
own language, and the cognitive control it comes with it, to the oppressed humans. A more
relevant use of the ”drugs” sub-type occurs in this same issue, when it is revealed that Jack
Flint, a member of the cell Division X, has been kidnapped by another cell, to undergo “reinitiation” into the invisibles (#10: 19). Examples (28)-(29) report the key text passages:
(28) You are in the wicker man now
(29) Purves: key 23; the drug affects the language centers in the brain. Whatever he reads
becomes real to him…
Jack Flint: The invisibles…
Purves:…makes initiations so much easier…
Helga Tannen: The alien metalanguage has some words but no real grammar yet. Still,
Chinese seemed like a real challenge when I was 15.
In (28), Jack Flint is tied to a chair, inside a wind-mill that featured already in the series (#58). Under the effect of key 23, he is shown a picture of a burning wicker man with the text on
23 superimposed on the picture. As a consequence, he hallucinates that he risks becoming a
sacrifice in a modern “wicker man” ceremony. In (28), the invisible Purves explains the
functions of key 23 one more time, while Helga is, by this point, still wrestling with
understanding the secret language’s syntax. Note that, at least according to her preliminary
understanding, the secret language is language for languages (a meta-language): perhaps, a
universal language. The use of key 23 is not limited to internal re-initiation: Sir Miles
attempts to attack Jack Flint and the other invisibles inside the wind-mill, but falls prey to
their telepathic attack. Sir Miles is then drugged with key 23 and undergoes brain-washing
and interrogation, as respectively shown in (29)-(30) (#9: 19; #7: 2-3):
(30) Purves: We’ve dosed you with LSD and key 23. You may think the universe is sick, Sir
Mister 6: But we rather think we’ve found a way to inoculate.
We’ll swallow all your poisons and piss them as vintage champagne. [WE
(31) Sir Miles: I can see the eriksonian commands emerging through your sentence structure.
All of your neurolinguistic techniques are visible to me as emergent structures.
Sir Miles: What are you? This is key 23, isn’t it? I’ll have you lobotomized and turned
into a doll!
Helga Tannen: get in line, dad!
In (30), Sir Miles is forced to see the trio of invisibles as “the future” which, given the effect
of key 23, likely means that he is forced to image their victory in the ongoing battle. This
passage reveals in an even clearer way that, via key 23 and language, attackers can control
not what the victims “see”, but also how they can conceive and form beliefs about reality. In
(30), Helga uses key 23 to appear like a myrmidon to Sir Miles, although it is never illustrated
how this is achieved. Sir Miles sees through the illusion, though, as Helga is moving her body
like a myrmidon’s to implement the written “signal”. Sir Miles notices this, as he notices that
the post-hypnotic (“eriksonian” [endnote 15]) commands are clearly discernible in her
language, therefore trying to resist these commands. The remaining other tokens occur in the
final arc, Glitterdammerung, as reported in (32)-(33) (#2: 7-8), and (34) (#1: 16-17):
(32) Sir Miles: What are you gawking at? They shot the creature full of key 23 in an attempt
To bind the archon…they made it useless for our purpose.
Soldier #1: He helped them. He’s always been one of them.[…]
Sir Miles: Damn! Key 23…the drug is in me…
(34) King-of-all-tears: I am the king of the Aeon
King Mob: Are you? You were dosed with logoplasm: key 64, you evil shit: welcome to
the word. And a bullet in the right place…is not substitute for the real thing
In (32), Sir Miles is shown to shoot to death the Moonchild, the monstrous creature that
should have become the king of the dark millennium. As the Invisibles were about to control
(“bind”) the Moonchild via key 23 and language, Sir Miles decided to sacrifice their own
pawn. At the same time, though, he realizes that he is under the effect of the drug, and will
end up suiciding, later in the story. However, this occurs after the Invisibles spread scraps of
papers with words for complex concepts written on them (e.g. tomorrow), to create havoc in
the coronation ceremony in Westminster abbey (viz. (33)). This action allows the Invisibles
to save Earth from the forces of the Outer Church, in perfectly super-heroic fashion. The
final example is from #1: the action takes places on December the 22nd, 2012, the day on
which humanity enters the super-context. King Mob doses the king with key 64, a more
powerful version of key 23, and uses a gun that shoots a cartoony “poof!” message, causing
the archon to implode. Such is the control power of the new drug that the archon commits a
form of suicide, imploding into thin air.
Although the “drugs” sub-type features prominently in volume 3, the “subliminal
commands” type does feature in this volume as well. A single token is presented during Jack
Frost’s incursion in a myrmidon’s factory, as shown in (35)-(36) (#5: 5; #5: 6, respectively):
(35) Jack Frost: Special agent Black, M.I. none.
My ((number/date/official/see numbers)) I.D. We’re ((trustworthy/a little strange/to
be expected)) here to install new time travel codes ((childhood memory/doctor
who/happy to be a little scared)). Your deep ((we acknowledge your knowledge and
intelligence and)) tank operatives are being recalled ((appropriate)) for ((don’t
overlook this)) re-imprinting.
(36) Jolly Roger: What was that subliminal shit when you were talking to him?
Jack Frost: Found out about it in Egypt. I just sort of look through his eyes and change
what he’s seeing. It’s not like something you do…
In (35), Jack Frost uses a subliminal controlling method that learnt with Elfayed, at the
Invisibles’ academy, as a weapon against his enemies. Via this method, Jack can apparently
produce utterances that can have multiple words in key positions, so that his interlocutors will
understand them as per their expectations of a dialogue. In (36), he reveals to Roger that he
can directly take control of an unnamed character’s vision without the use of drugs, but with
hypnotic methods similar to those used by cell 23. Jack. Thus, the Outer Church scientist is
led to believe that Jack is also an Outer Church officer. This is the only token for this subtype, and the last token we discuss before moving to the general discussion.
Let us take some stock. By volume 3, Morrison has used each of the three sub-types
of the language and cognition trope, and has outlined how the direct, agentive control of
linguistic and cognitive faculties can determine how characters perceive and understand
reality. Some of the tokens related to the “drug” type are used to reveal more details about the
properties of the fictional “universal” or “superior” language that underpins the use of these
sub-types. First, at least English and the written form it is taught with is conceived as a “slave”
language, designed by the Outer Church to restrict a much broader, universal language.
Second, the systematic use of this language to indoctrinate humans causes them to lose
conceptual categories: the “slave” language and the systematic conditioning permanently
hamper human cognitive categories. Universal categories are thus constrained via linguistic
means and years of indoctrination, but can apparently be recovered when access to the secret
language is also recovered. The Helga Tannen’s cases point to this direction in a particularly
clear manner.
We can conclude that Morrison further elaborates the use and presentation of these
three sub-types, in volume 3, but does not change his initial conception of the relation
between language and cognition, our complex trope. Throughout the series, Morrison does
not seem to side with either a Universalist or Sapir-Whorf perspective, but rather explores
what could happen, if forms of cognitive and linguistic manipulation could affect how
characters perceive and understand reality in the long and short term. Pace Rauch and
Wolk’s claims (and, to an extent, Singer’s as well), our discussion suggests that Morrison
does not to take any sides, but rather explores the narrative effects of each side. To an extent,
Morrison anticipates the main suggestion put forward in Regier et al.: that there is no good
reason, empirical and conceptual, to take a side on the debate regarding the relation between
language and cognition. Therefore, Morrison definitely seems to act as a debating author,
entertaining and using different ideas as tropes in The Invisibles’ narrative, without taking a
side on the debates he wishes to analyse and use. With this final result at our disposal, we can
move to the general conclusions.
5. Conclusions
The goal of this paper has been to analyse how the complex trope of the relation between
language and cognition is used in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. We proposed that
Morrison uses this trope by taking a nuanced approach to a fairly complex problem: the
relation between language and thought. Linguistic theories on this relation either assume that
cognitive categories determine linguistic ones (Universal hypothesis), or that linguistic
categories determine, perhaps influence cognitive ones (strong and weak Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis, respectively). Only in recent times a complex theory implementing each
hypothesis into a coherent whole has been proposed, as discussed in Regier et al. (156-157).
Our key results, and the importance of these results for the ongoing debate about the
Morrisonian opus, can be summarised as follows.
In The Invisibles, Morrison indirectly uses each of these scientific hypotheses as
complex, connected tropes within the narrative, and refrains from taking any sides in the
dispute. This use does not change over the unfolding of the narrative, but it is elegantly
presented under different perspectives and forms, as we discussed via the discussion of the
“drugs”, “explicit commands” and “subliminal messages” sub-types of this trope. From
volume 1 to volume 3, it is clear that only when characters take control of linguistic and/or
cognitive faculties of other characters, they can manipulate perceptual and cognitive abilities.
Furthermore, it is also shown that when characters break free of these constraints, they could
perhaps access a fuller understanding of reality and language, without deterministic
constraints on one domain over the other. This is in line with an overarching theme of
Morrison’s works: the sublimation of apparent dichotomies in a more sophisticated, unified
perspective. Such a perspective seems to be consistent with the “fourth approach” to the
relation to language and cognition, which integrates these hypotheses into a distributed
scientific model. In other words, Morrison seems to take a fairly sophisticated stance in
representing a rather complex problem in fiction, thus mirroring the complexity of the “real”
debate in The Invisibles, to some extent.
We conclude, then, by proposing that Morrison uses this complex trope in a vest of a
debating author, rather than that of a prosaic author (cf. again Wolk 267-272). As the
Invisibles anticipates a Regier et al. fourth “skeptic” approach, then, we may even say that
this use of this complex trope were novel, for their times. The approach to such complex set
of tropes, as well as a sober decision not to take any sides in the discussion, however,
represents a standard staple of Morrison’ approach to fiction-building, as well documented in
the literature (Callahan; Singer: 10-30). Since Morrison seldom takes sides but prefers to
explore them, its use of language and cognition in The Invisibles follows this tack, too.
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