Communicating the Body Interpreting the Code

Pharaoh Khufu intends to secure his riches beyond the grave, and into the afterlife. He captures the greatest architect known in his kingdom, and forces him – through a threat to his entire people – to build him an impenetrable tomb: a Pyramid no thief can plunder. The architect sets to work, knowing that upon completion of the tomb he himself will be sealed inside with the dead Pharaoh. How is it possible to build the most secret catacomb, a labyrinth impossible to breach, without passing on its secret through the workers who build it?

Frame from 'Land of the Pharaohs'In the classic Hollywood film, Land of the Pharaohs, such a conundrum is posed. The architect needs a team of workers that Khufu can trust, to construct the mechanism by which the tomb will close itself off to eternity. The Pharaoh has the solution: the workers he gives the architect have had their tongues cut out. In exchange for their devotion the slaves will accompany the architect and Khufu to the afterlife. No secret will pass their lips.

How do we pass on a message in a world with impenetrable borders? And in turn, how do we determine its secure transmission? The codes we devise become useless at certain horizons: if the slave cannot speak, he cannot exchange; if a being from another land does not know our language, it cannot understand us; if a message is encrypted, one must also pass on the method to crack it.

Sometimes the codes we devise to enslave, become apparatus in their own demise.

The tongue-less slave is still a liability in a literate society; in turn, a literate slave is a still liability in a digitised society. At every stage in the development of communication technologies human subjects have been relinquished power of one kind, only for a power of another kind to evolve and liberate them once again. The human body is the central locality for all information exchange. Even today, with our writing technologies, our radios, computers and nano-particles, it is the human form that dictates all particulars of scale and substance. What matters now is not the tongue – an organ reduced of its power by hieroglyphics and alphabets – yet in order to silence, corrupt regimes and over-zealous governments still effectively mutilate their subjects. In the West, information monoliths such as Google and Wikipedia help us mediate the space between discrete, complex reams of data. It is as if, in the modern age, to spite its people all China needed to do was cut off the equivalent of their tongue, building up around them a labyrinthine firewall that determines their silence; that reduces their identities to the status of tongueless slaves.

Sometimes to properly conceal something, one must devise a better way to encode it.

Page Du Bois, in her book, Torture and Truth, posits the human body as the primary node of information exchange. She recounts a tale in Herodotus' Histories. Histiaeus shaves the head of his most trusted slave and tattoos on his scalp a message urging his alley to revolt. Once the slave's hair grows back he is sent on his mission. If captured he is incapable of betraying his master: he does not know the message, nor could he understand it if he saw it. He merely knows to tell the receiver to shave his head upon arrival, a fact that would be hidden from any third party who attempted to intercept the message. This one extra layer of protection is an act of encoding; a slight of hand in the trick of communication. The slave is the medium of transmission: his knowledge is the code necessary to decrypt the message, rather than the message itself.

During the time of Histiaeus the human body was the focal point of most human action. We hunted, or worked the land by man power. We conversed, exchanged, delineated and deranged our culture with the hand, the tongue, the eye – all within the small horizon of the single human form. We worked in man-power before horse-power, steam-power before nuclear-power – each shift delineating a phase transition in information states – there can be no Chief without a Chiefdom; no King without a Kingdom. If I was the master of the tattooed slave (let's not believe for too long that this is my wish) I would extend Histiaeus' coding trick even further: sending the message on the scalp of a slave whose whole body has been tattooed, allowing the hair to grow over the part of his body where the true message lies. In any system of exchange, noise has the greatest power to conceal – whether intentionally or not. Making full use of the medium of transmission is the mark of a truly uncrackable system.

But as the distribution of our information systems grows wider – from the tongue, through the quill, to the printing press, and the internet – the importance of the body as a foundation for action remains. What method of distribution would we use to communicate with an intelligence completely alien to our own? Waggling your tongue at them may express a desire to communicate, but it would not transmit your message. Handing them a printed and bound book, perhaps replete with pictures, photographs and diagrams, might spark their interest for a moment, but no deep understanding between you would emerge. At present, organisations like SETI rely on very simple repeated patterns in their broadcasts to the stars. But a sequence of well timed dots and dashes can only express the existence of an intelligence – it is incapable of delivering a particular message. SETI broadcast these simple sequences because if any alien race were to intercept our messages they would, by definition, be incapable of interpreting the message from the code, or the code from the background noise inherent in our transmission. How do you determine what a tongue is trying to express if you don't even know what a tongue is?

Sometimes the method chosen to encode something, determines the impossibility of its comprehension.

In 1972 NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe into space. Its objective was to study “the interplanetary and planetary magnetic fields… the atmosphere of Jupiter and some of its satellites,” subjects that required a distant communication hub – a device cast further from the human body than any before it.

After plotting its proposed trajectory through our solar system NASA researchers noted that in a matter of a few decades Pioneer 10 would become the first man-made object to pass the orbit of Pluto. It was decided that to make symbolic use of this opportunity the probe should be fitted with a message: a way for an extra terrestrial civilisation to retrace Pioneer's steps if ever one were to come across it. The resulting golden plaque, now streaming through the outer Oort Cloud of our solar system, is one of the most anthropocentric objects ever created. As art historian Ernst Gombrich noted a few years after its launch, the multiple scales and symbolic indicators etched onto the plaque would be almost impossible for a true 'alien' intelligence to decode. Alien minds encased in alien bodies wouldn't even be able to separate the code from the message:

Pioneer 10 plaque (Ernst Gombrich)“Reading an image, like the reception of any other message, is dependent on prior knowledge of possibilities; we can only recognise what we know. Even the sight of the awkward naked figures in the illustration cannot be separated in our mind from our knowledge. We know that feet are for standing and eyes are for looking and we project this knowledge onto these configurations, which would look 'like nothing on earth' without this prior information. It is this information alone that enables us to separate the code from the message; we see which of the lines are intended as contours and which are intended as conventional modelling. Our 'scientifically educated' fellow creatures in space might be forgiven if they saw the figures as wire constructs with loose bits and pieces hovering weightlessly in between. Even if they deciphered this aspect of the code, what would they make of the woman's right arm that tapers off like a flamingo's neck and beak? The creatures are 'drawn to scale against the outline of the spacecraft,' but if the recipients are supposed to understand foreshortening, they might also expect to see perspective and conceive the craft as being further back, which would make the scale of the manikins minute. As for the fact that 'the man has his right hand raised in greeting' (the female of the species presumably being less outgoing), not even an earthly Chinese or Indian would be able to correctly interpret this gesture from his own repertory.”

Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion

In communication terms sharing the same kind of body is identical to living the same kind of code. Communication needs at least two parties, it needs a message, and more likely than not it needs a medium of transmission. At all points on this schema there is the potential for corruption, for noise to seep into the system. But lest we forget that without the same binary matrix, no computer would be able to interpret any other. The body too is a coding matrix. It represents a shared scale, it is composed of the same states of matter and bound within each of its cells one will find very similar coiled structures of DNA, encoding the sequences that determine each body's shape, status and character. On Earth the bodies that result from these codes are incredibly similar: whether fruit-fly, horse or human. We are slaves to these codes. And everything we intend to say, everything we fail to say, everything that our masters try to restrict us from saying, exists as a consequence of the bodies that compose us.

Sometimes the message only lasts as long as the system it upholds.

The architect and the silenced slaves make their way to the centre of the Great Pyramid, carrying the body of Pharaoh Khufu as they descend. As the labyrinth clamps shut behind them – a code designed to wipe out all evidence of itself as the catacombs collapse – one question looms large: what exactly were the riches the architect and his companions worked so hard to protect?

“At the extreme limits of empiricism meaning is totally plunged into noise, the space of communication is granular, dialogue is condemned to cacophony: the transmission of communication is chronic transformation.”

Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science and Philosophy