Once upon a time,
there was no snake, there was no scorpion,
There was no hyena, there was no lion,
There was no wild dog, no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival.
In those days, the land
Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the me of princeship,
Uri, the land having all that is appropriate,
The land Martu, resting in security,
The whole universe, the people well cared for,
To Enlil in one tongue gave speech.
Then the lord defiant, the prince defiant, the
Enki, the lord of abundance, whose commands are trustworthy,
The lord of wisdom, who scans the land,
The leader of the gods,
The lord of Eridu, endowed with wisdom,
Changed the speech in their mouths, put contention into it,
Into the speech of man that had been one.
I have quoted this from Neal
Stephenson's _Snow Crash_ (216-7). Stephenson
obtained it from Samuel Noah Kramer and John R. Maier's Myths of Enki,
the Crafty God (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)
In Snow Crash, a sinister industrialist has
obtained and translated ancient nam-shubs and is using them to wreak
linguistic havoc in the modern world.
The nam-shubs suggest a magical
theory of language, in which the only kind of utterance
that can cause the breakdown of language is one which also happens to
talk about the breakdown of language. In other words, the surface
meaning of the incantation is crucial to its deep effect.
Why? Some indication can be found in Hofstader's discussion of the USE-MENTION dichotomy in information theory.
It is interesting that many stories about lethal texts and/or linguistic viruses invoke ancient mythology, as if the ancients knew things about language which have been forgotten in the modern world. _Snow Crash_ posits that Sumerian nam-shubs are being used to wreak linguistic havoc in the modern world. Macroscope has a character who has the "gift of tongues," and takes its protagonist, Ivo Archer, back to Mesopotamian times. Julian Jaynes, in _The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind_, posits that new kind of "unicameral" consciousness swept like a virus through the ancient world, destroying what had been a kind of Edenic innocence, and cites, as evidence, Sumerian inscriptions which sound much like nam-shubs.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
The object called "Snow Crash" is a computer program that, when activated, displays a pattern of dots to its user. It appears to be meaningless, but like the destroyer signal in Macroscope, it has the devastating effect of destroying the user's mind.
The Snow Crash code is a lethal text. Snow Crash goes into the theory of lethal texts in detail, defining them as "speech with magicalforce." Another character, the Librarian, explains that the Sumerians developed what they called "nam-shubs", incantations which destroyed the ability of their hearers to understand language. These nam-shubs existed on a curiously dual level, analogous to the USE-MENTION dichotomy well known in molecular biology and information theory. They were stories of the the destruction of language which had the effect of destroying language. To hear the story--the nam-shub--forced the listener to experience the effect it described.
In Snow Crash, these ancient nam-shubs are being excavated, translated, and used by L. Bob Rife, a sinister industrialist with plans of world domination. He is using variants of them to reduce large numbers of the population to docility, and to kill off the computer hackers who might be able to oppose them.
In those it does not kill, the Sumerian nam-shubs have an interesting effect. It makes them prone to glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is a neurological phenomenon which is exploited by religion. Snow Crash further posits that glossolalia recovers a now-lost ur-language, the language which supposedly existed prior to Babel. In the world of Snow Crash, that language is Sumerian, which is in fact the oldest written language, and has no known descendants. Like the Babylonian ur-language, Sumerian disappeared without a trace. The novel suggests that it disappeared as a consequence of the nam-shubs, which spread through the population like a virus and destroyed its linguistic unity.
The parallels between Snow Crash and Macroscope fascinate me. Both are about lethal texts. Both are about informational spaces: Snow Crash takes place in cyberspace, Macroscope revolves about a galactic library that is described in terms astonishingly prescient of the World Wide Web. Both are deeply concerned with the politics of information. Both incorporate glossolalia and Mesopotamian myth as plot elements. Both invoke the Babel myth and the myth of a pre-Babelian ur-language: in Snow Crash it is Sumerian, in Macroscope it is the galactic symbology. Both are deeply absorbing novels about language, information, and ideas.
Articles by Mike Chorost
How can an utterance -- a thought -- take over the mind? Here is where Stephenson adapts a theory of consciousness invented by Julian Jaynes. In his book "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," Jaynes argues that early man was not conscious in the modern sense, i.e. lacked self-awareness and could not think of oneself as an independent, self-willed "I." Instead, the right brain formulated ideas and plans, which were perceived by the left brain as literal voices emanating from outside oneself. In effect, Jaynes says, early man hallucinated constantly, living his life by obeying voices. This is where the gods came from. Each person's god accompanied him constantly through life, always telling him what to do.
What is there to recommend such a bizarre theory? For one thing, Jaynes points out, it explains the preponderance of living, speaking gods in Sumerian and Assyrian texts, and in the Bible and the Odyssey. Early man wrote about gods because they were a factual, daily part of his life. Jaynes also draws from studies of modern schizophrenics, whom he argues are simply regressions to ancient forms of consciousness, and various neurological studies of left and right-brainedness.
Where did the gods go? Jaynes argues that a series of catastrophes and contacts with other cultures forced human beings to integrate the left and right brains and become self-aware, self-willed beings in order to cope with the increasing complexity of the world.
Here is where Stephenson departs from Jaynes. Stephenson suggests that modern consciousness was forced into existence by Enki, the ruler of ancient Sumer. Enki understood his contemporaries' bifurcated minds so well that he was able to devise an incantation whose effect was to force them into consciousness. This, Stephenson suggests, is the historical event of Babel. Before Enki uttered his incantation, everyone spoke the primordial language of the brain, a language which is inborn and does not have to be learned. (By way of a very weak analogy, think of dog language.) Enki's incantation cut its hearers off from the primordial language, and thereafter human languages began to diverge and multiply.
L. Bob Rife has located the incantation -- the nam-shub -- of Enki on an archaeological dig, and has reversed it, using it to return people to the form of consciousness human beings had 6,000 years ago.
This is where the "babble" of Snow Crash comes in. The reason David, and the pirates, and the many other victims of "Snow Crash," speak in bizarre strings of syllables is because it is the primordial language of the brain, which they are once again able to access. Their own thoughts, once internalized, now appear to them as hallucinations -- literal voices from outside, which they obey without question. Pentecostalism, in Stephenson's interpretation, is a spiritual method of accessing the primordial language, by way of "speaking in tongues." Rife has appropriated Pentecostalism, using it as yet another route to spread the "Snow Crash" virus. Of course, L. Bob Rife's goals are entirely unspiritual. He plans to use the primordial language to give his Snow Crashed zombies their marching orders.
The actual scientific evidence for such a "primordial" language is not very strong. The linguist Noam Chomsky famously proposed that all human languages can be reduced to a basic "deep structure" rooted in the physiology of the brain, and Stephenson is clearly influenced by this idea. Virtually all neurologists and cognitive scientists would snort at the proposition that this "deep structure" could actually be spoken aloud in a language that everyone would understand, regardless of their native tongue. Few of Stephenson's ideas are accepted scientific theories. But Stephenson's main goal is to engage in interesting speculation, not to adhere to scientific doctrine. Snow Crash is science fiction, fiction inspired by scientific ideas.
Stephenson's synthesis of a number of ideas and cultural concepts -- Jaynes' bicameralism, Chomskyan deep structure, Pentecostalist speaking in tongues, Sumerian mythology, the Babel legend, and computer viruses, all in the context of slam-bang cyberpunk social satire -- can safely be called brilliant.
Consider Julian Dibbell's
assertion that life in the computer age is increasingly ruled by "the
logic of the incantation." In cyberspace, words literally make things
happen. (In a MOO one can say, in computer code, "Create a room," and
it will happen.) In your papers on the Mr. Bungle incident, most of
you argued that words spoken in a MOO have no direct effect on real
life. But what if you had "Snow Crash"? Then you could speak some
syllables to a character you met online, and the real-life person
behind it would be frozen before the computer, either dead or enslaved
to your will.
604 track _Mystic Linguistic_ MP3 by Quirk off of _Machina Electrica & Fornax Chemica_ 12"x2 on Matsuri Productions (1998)