Magic and Power

Kelly Maudslien

Computer languages are literally magical in the sense that they collapse the signifier and the signified. A magic spell creates a desired effect simply by speaking the magic words or command. This is distinct from using language as a medium to signify a command, to ask someone else to draw a circle, for example. The language of the request is a symbol for your desire for a circle. A code which tells a computer to draw a circle, however, is not only the command but also the finished result: magic.

"What is the technology of magic?" Novak asks. "Poetry." Poetry, liquid language, can create a metaphysical space where readings can intersect in such a way so as to create a multiplicity of meaning. The language itself and not necessarily the author actually creates/is the resultant meanings in much the same way that computer code and magic spells create/are their results. For this reason, magical spells are typically chanted in verse rather than Prose is less capable of this because it is too linear and reasonable. It is difficult for me to narrate my conversation and my ideas about Snow Crash in this prose form since it does not allow for quick, easy transitions between links the way Storyspace would. Cyberspace is the dream realm of unconscious, poetic associations.

Snow Crash, however, takes a slightly different position on magic and magical language. Hiro is able to work magical feats in the Metaverse not because of the speed of associative connections but because of their slowness:

He pokes his katana through the side of the cube and follows it through the wall and out the other side... His blade doesn't have the power to cut a hole in the wall... but it does have the power to penetrate things. Avatars do not have that power. That is the whole purpose of a wall in the Metaverse; it is a structure that does not allow avatars to penetrate it... In theory, it cannot be ignored. But in practice, it depends upon the ability of different computers to swap information very precisely, at high speed, and at just the right times. And when you are connected to the system over a satellite uplink, as Hiro is, out here on the Raft, there is a delay... That delay can be taken advantage of. (435)

This is a rather prosaic way of working magic. Only a literate, learned priest of technology would write such code. Language in Snow Crash has magical, religious power because it exists in a virtually illiterate society. Those who cannot master language or code are powerless. Since they cannot understand how it works, they look upon it as mystical and use religion to explain the inexplicable. The pre-Enki Sumerians could not hack their own code so they were forced into pre-programmed social roles. Most of the population in Snow Crash are unable to access the Metaverse, do not have a grasp of current technology, and are subject to viral Christianity. Baudrillard describes the virus as "not contained in the information, but in the distance from the information." Since the masses of Snow Crash do not have the information to make the associative links that hackers and religious leaders can, they forfeit their power to However, L. Bob Rife Rife.

"Rife's key realization was that there's no difference between modern culture and Sumerian. We have a huge workforce that is illiterate or alliterate and relies on TV -- which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite -- the people who go into the Metaverse, basically -- who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages."

Benedickt seems more optimistic about the postliterate era. What does he mean by postliterate? Preliterate, oral societies only used signs that were identical or had direct causal relationships with their referents. Animal tracks and scars are examples of such signs -- they bear direct testimony to their authors. Literate societies use alphanumeric signs which are not directly related to their referents in order to communicate. Postliterate societies develop technologically to such an extent that it is possible to outgrow the reliance on symbols. Virtual reality returns us to the magical age which bridges signifier and signified.

To Stephenson, however, the postliterate era only renders us susceptible to the distortions of irrational religion. In Snow Crash, the Garden of Eden is as structured and dehumanized as a termite mound. Every so often an individual hacker such as Enki or Jesus Christ writes a nam-shub that can reprogram people. Everyone then diversifies and starts to speak different languages. This blocks the Asherah biotechnical virus from controlling everyone's brainstems. A new, rational religion supplants the Asherah cult and forms abstract binarisms such as spirit/flesh, subject/object, and good/evil. This transition is equivalent to the Fall from preliteracy to literacy. Before, the Word was made flesh and no distinction existed between signifier and signified. Enki split the two into writing and reality. Unfortunately, diversification can lead to over-compartmentalization. The Pharisees created their own microcosm of the Asherah society, where differences were not tolerated and texts had to be copied and followed to the letter. Reader interpretation and interaction with texts was prohibited. The Pentecostal religion is another Asherah-like system. Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is actually the speech of the One language. Homogeneity of language leads to susceptibility to the virus.

This must not be confused, however, with Haraway's heteroglossia. Haraway is virulently opposed to the binarism of rational religion, it is true. She sees it as a means of domination and oppression. The division into subject/object means that someone must be objectified. Where Stephenson sees only the alternative of a termite matriarchy, however, Haraway poses a third, blasphemous possibility. She thinks that cyborgs cannot return to the Garden of Eden, the state of organic unity, because they were never fully organic to begin with. She recognizes that it is useless to impose a single identity upon all women simply by virtue of their gender. We cannot return to the state of original unity because we never were all the same. Gender is a subjective construct and people are inherently diverse. However, a third possibility is the concept of affinity. Affinity is a way of creating unity within diversity, to resist oppression without imposing internal dominations. Heteroglossia is the language of affinity, diversity, and power. It can resist both the virus of ignorant fanaticism and the destructive dualisms of Reason. One might say it is even poetic, magical.

[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]