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Language and Thought in The Invisibles

By Francesco-Alessio Ursini

“Which side are you on, anyway?” Regier et al. / Jack Frost, The Invisibles Vol. 3:1


This paper aims to explore how the relation between language and cognition is used as a complex trope in the 1994-2000 comic The Invisibles (Morrison et al.). 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.

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 and 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 that language 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 analyze 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 tropeconceptual 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).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 and Truog), Morrison promotes animal rights in a rather direct way, without offering more nuanced philosophical counterpoints (Callahan ch. 4; but see Mahmutovic et al. (this issue) for another reading of Morrison and Animal Man). 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 and Yeowell), “youth” and “adulthood” themes pervade the plot (the brash attitude of Zenith, the arrogance of Peter St. John), without one pole being clearly favored 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 into 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 and Case), the pidgin-like English of Mickey Eye or of the three We3 pets (Morrison and Stewart; Morrison and 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 a 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 presupposes2 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 section.

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,3 cognition and their relation are closely intertwined with our discussion. At the same time, we will address 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, such as 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 Behaviorist paradigm. Behaviorism reduced all complex mental phenomena, including language, to forms of “trained behavior” (Skinner). After critical analyzes showed the inadequacy of such approach, cognition and the study of mental life became a central field of study again4 (Chomsky; Bruner).

Subsequent decades saw the emergence of a continuum of models of cognition, and of the useful “mind is a computer” metaphor.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 hypothesis6 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 134-150). 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, the formulation of the so-called strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that language determines thought or, in our terms, cognitive categories.

With the rise 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 pre-existing cognitive categories. Instead, works such as Berlin and 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 and 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, The Minimalist 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.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 Sapir-Whorf 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 Tzeltal8 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 and Keil; McCrink and 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, color 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 tokens9 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 are 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 mind-altering 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 puts up a fierce resistance to this torture, pretending to be someone else than his current fiction suit:10 Kirk Morrison, a horror books writer. The first dialogue that reveals key 17‘s effect is reported in example (1). The next token occurs when King Mob explains to his ally Lord Fanny the nature of this drug, as shown in (2):

(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 … (#18: 6)


(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. (#24: 13)

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, Fanny and King Mob can counter-attack a third Outer Church member, Miss Dwyer, via a dose of key 17. She11 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 hmmm …


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). This passage offers a homage to 1984‘s classic torture scene (Orwell), as Sir Miles plays the role of 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: QWERTYUIOPASD]

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. (#19: 8)

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 blur 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. 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:

Figure 1: (5)

An important aspect of this token is that the key utterance12 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 volumes.

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 re-conditioning via drugs. Coyote, the leader of cell 23 and an old acquaintance of Boy in incognito, queries her[13] about the nature of the “real” alphabet. I transcribe the relevant passages in (5)-(6), and report the relevant images in (7)-(8):

(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. (#11: 7)

(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. (#11: 12)

Figure 2: (8)
Figure 3: (9)

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. A final use of the secret alphabet occurs in the next issue, when Boy can reject her programming. These tokens are shown in (9)-(12):

Figure 4: (10) Image from #12: 21
Figure 5: (11) Image from #12: 22
Figure 6: (12) Image from #12: 23
Figure 7: (13) Image from #13: 10

Note once more that the secret language utterances are presented as imperative sentences, as in the case of (5). The panel on 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 the 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. 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? (#13: 6)

(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, non- stop. 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. (#13: 7)

(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. (#12: 21)

Examples (14)-(15) show that the words that cell 23 uses in their attack acts as a “viral word”: a word that 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 (19a-b) illustrate this fact in detail:

(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. (#13: 6)

(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! (#13: 7)

Figure 8: (19a) Image from #13: 6
Figure 9: (19b) Image from #13: 7

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 generate14 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 64 letters 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. (#13: 8-9)

Figure 10: (21) Image from #13: 8
Figure 11: (22) Image from #13: 9

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 pre-school 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 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 is not on any side of the debate between the Universalist and the Sapir-Whorf 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:

(23) Helga Tannen: you’ll have to excuse me … I was trying to learn an alien language and it all came up … (#8: 8)

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:

(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. (#6: 2-4)

Figure 12: (25) Image from #6: 9

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):

(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— (#4: 2)

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 Sapir-Whorf-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:

(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 … (#10: 5)

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, on 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 “re-initiation” into the invisibles. 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. (#10: 19)

In (28), Jack Flint is tied to a chair, inside a wind-mill that featured already in the series (#5-8). 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):

(30) Purves: We’ve dosed you with LSD and key 23. You may think the universe is sick, Sir Miles …

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 ARE THE FUTURE PROJECTED ON MR. SIX, HELGA AND PURVES] (#9: 19)

(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! (#7: 2-3)

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”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) and (34):

(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 … (#2: 6)

Figure 13: (33) Image from #2: 6-7

(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 [GUN SHOOTS POOF!] (#1: 16-17)

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), 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. (#5: 5)

(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 … (#5: 6)

In (35), Jack Frost uses a subliminal controlling method that he learned with Elfayed, at the Invisibles’ academy, as a weapon against his enemies. Via this method, Jack can apparently produce utterances that 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. Thus, the Outer Church scientist is led to believe that Jack is also an Outer Church officer. This is the only token for this sub-type, 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 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 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 analyze 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 analyze 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 established 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 the 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 of 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 the 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 was novel, for the comic’s time. 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’s method of fiction-building, well documented in the literature (Callahan; Singer: 10-30). Since Morrison seldom takes sides but prefers to explore them, the use of language and cognition in The Invisibles follows this tack, too.


[1] This definition has recently been introduced in the field of ludology or game studies to identify the code parts of a game software that handles players’ choices and their consequences within the game world. I adopt this definition in order to highlight how tropes can be dynamically used to develop a plot and its constituting events.

[2] A presupposition can be seen as a proposition (a bit of information) that must be true in discourse, for the truth of an assertion (explicitly stated sentence) to be true as well (Riemer ch. 6).

[3] Nota Bene: in this section, “language” is a label we use for our “real world” phenomenon, rather than for the trope under discussion. No confusion should arise, during the discussion.

[4] Behaviorism, in turn, was in part opposed to the Gestalt school of Psychology, which focused on proposing general principles by which the mind organizes information about parts into coherent wholes (Boden ch.1-4).

[5] A simplification on the relation between “mind” and “brain” is that the brain is the physical support of the mind, intended as the combination of our cognitive abilities, as well as our conscious intellectual abilities. Although this is a (vast) simplification, it will serve our simple purposes (cf. Coltheart for a review).

[6] A caveat: neither Sapir nor Whorf put forward this hypothesis in its various incarnations (Casasanto 207-208). I use the label for ease of presentation, as it is common practice in the relevant literature.

[7] The attentive reader has probably noticed that the logoplasm is indeed represented as a “mirror entity.” Again, I defer a discussion of this topic for future research.

[8] A Mayan language that only has cardinal terms akin to North and South (Tzeltal, Ethnologue).

[9] I take the basic notion of type, a certain class of objects in a model of analysis and token, an instance of this class (Wetzel and references therein). If a (literary) trope is an abstract particular (“specific thought”), then a token of a trope is each use of this trope in a text. A type is thus an abstract universal: a class of tropes that share structural properties (e.g. plot twists). See also Maurin (§3) for discussion on types and tokens. For simplicity, I focus on one modality of representation: language as text in balloons.

[10] Morrison has often defined a fiction suit as a state of mind that allows someone to experience and interact with a fiction (Morrison in Meaney 228-230). Fiction suits can be recursive: the reader of a text wears a fiction suit when it “enters” a character in a story. The character can then enter a cover story being wearing a fiction suit within the fiction, and so on. This is the case of King Mob as Kirk Morrison, or vice versa.

[11] Lord Fanny is a transvestite shaman, but certainly a glamorous lady; hence, the use of she in our discussion.

[12] Utterances are phonological realizations (“spoken forms”) of syntactic sentences, and the corresponding semantic propositions (Riemer ch: 1-2).

[13] Boy is also a lady, hence my use of the pronoun she.

[14] An interesting fact is that the notion of “generating” sentences/utterances can be traced back to formal theories of language, which usually rely on a UV hypothesis. This vocabulary choice can be seen as a very indirect use of this hypothesis; more direct uses are discussed in 4.3.

[15] The term “eriksonian” refers to “Neuro linguistic Programming,” a quack theory on how to use language to “program” individuals: roughly, by taking control of their language faculty. See Glasnser-Edwards and Rawson (96-97) for discussion. Its quack status certainly is not detrimental to its use on the story, though.

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