This is a heavily redacted prophesy about the end of the book and the coming of machine-mediated brain-to-brain communication I wrote in February 1993 to Kali Tal as part of a longer exchange about hallucinogenic drugs, the coming of mind-to-mind communication through VR, and other things.
Bumpercar enhanced empaths
Tools are human.
There are no technologies without humanities.
Artificial intelligence is a metaphor for the psyche. (And not much more, believe me.) Just as the idea of a psyche is a contraption of cognitive psychology and philosophy, and the brain is a concoction of neurology, so is AI just an idea of what it wants human intelligence to be. (A machine.)
Multimedia, even as virtual reality, is a metaphor for the sensorium, a perceptual gadget beholden to poetics and media studies. It’s got a wonderful future, but it’s just a stab in the dark theater of our desire to be more intimate and stimulating.
Nothing is yet quicker than the light of the slow word.
Yes, we are in the late age of print. What we whiff now is not the smell of ink but the smell of loss, of burning towers or men smoking cigars in the drawing room, thinking they are building an empire. Hurry up please, it’s time. Yes, the time of the book has passed. But it will persist to give glorious pleasure, like other obsolete forms that continually renew themselves and the soul: the poem, dance, graffiti. The book is dead, long live the book.
We will continue to read from paper just as we continue to write poems and tell stories. But we shouldn’t be so attached to the idea of the material thing called a book, which is after all just one of many technologies for delivering the word that began with scrawls on clay and stone. Think of the book as a metaphor for the process it inscribes, for getting one’s solo thoughts into many other heads, one at a time. Just one of many technologies we’ve devised to get what’s in my brain into yours and vice versa. Tech-mediated-telepathy.
When Sony showed Discman, a portable, mini-CD the size of a Walkman, capable of holding 100,000 pages of text, a discussion on the Gutenberg listserv complained with pain, with nostos algia, wistful pain for home: “The smell of ink … the crinkle of pages…”
“But you can’t read it in bed,” she said, everyone’s last redoubt, the last-ditch argument.
Meanwhile in far-off laboratories of what Stuart Moulthrop calls the Military-Infotainment Complex at Warner, Disney or IBApple and MicroLotus, a group of scientists work on synchronous smell-o-vision with real time simulated fragrance degradation shifting from fresh ink to old mold. Another group builds raised-text flexible touch screens with laterally facing windows that look and turn like pages, crinkling and sighing as they exfoliate.
“But even the dog can’t eat it,” someone protests. Smiling, silently the techies go back to their laboratories with bags of silicon kibbles.
Swimming amidst this undertow, tilting at this windmill, we should keep alive the idea of what the book was and can be, Don Quixote. Tristram Shandy. Gravity’s Rainbow.
In an age when people buy and do not read more books than have ever been published before, perhaps we will each become like the living books of Truffaut’s version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, vestal readers walking along the meandering river of light just beyond the city of text. We face their tasks now, resisting what flattens us, re-embodying reading as movement, as an action rather than a thing, appropriating the metaphor that we think will diminish what we love. We should view the book as a network, a node in a network, each word an implicit hypertextual link to archeologcal layers of meaning and what has already been written elsewhere.
And as we appropriate the term, we should also colonize the territory, invade it, dominate it. The network is ours to inhabit. We will read there.
Think of what we need to get VR to work, I mean really work. You need a map of how cognitive modes function in the neurophysiology of the brain that then can be mimicked by a dumb ole binary machine, even a massively interconnected one … with enhancements (like direct electrical plugs into the brain).
As we get better and better at doing that, we’re gonna achieve some pretty good turnaround time in transcribing thoughts into evanescent images beyond words. We will produce other sensory kinesthetics (I should say performances). The time between upload and download shrinks, the kinesthetic performances become better and better at representing what’s in our heads, especially since the gear is our heads, and pretty soon you get telepathy, or tech-mediated telepathy, its asymptote.
Now amp up the part of the brain that integrates connections into feelings of transcendence – is it the dorsal raphe nucleus? — with a pattern that does something like Ecstasy or MDMA –forced massive sudden depletion of the serotonin reserves, so the big whoosh comes flooding down (or up) from the brainstem, and you get your waterbed bumpercar enhanced empath … Holy shit there’s more here than I thought. You just did it to me, that miracle:
This was a hypertext originally published by Mots Pluriels no. 19, October 2001. It was later redesigned by Reza Negarestani, the amazing post-everything author of Cyclonopedia, whose journey out of Iran and into the center of world discourse is an epic in its own.
Truly great poets stun us with great and beautiful and surprising images and novel ways to see the world. They arrange words so they’re laden with the promise you will uncover further hidden depths and new meanings the more you study them. They play with multiple meanings among words, and use their sound and music and cadence to draw or hint at connections. Parts of a poem echo within and across its different parts. Many poems allude to other poems and literary works and use of any of a hundred rhetorical devices. In short, we often admire poetry for its density and complexity as a text and its greatness often comes from how much interpretation it invites and provokes. Great poems get included in anthologies meant for college courses and classroom discussion. Often when they are, they come with footnotes and annotations and commentaries which digest the many interpretations into convenient slogans. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, and supply the sources of the allusions to other works the poet has embedded in the poem.
Take for instance this 1923 poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” from Collected Poems. Copyright 1923, 1951, 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)
“Stevens followed Parts of a World with Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, which is usually considered his greatest poem on the nature of poetry. This long poem, more an exploration of a definition than it is an actual definition, exemplifies the tenets of supreme fiction even as it articulates them. The poem is comprised of a prologue, three substantial sections, and a coda. The first main section, entitled “It Must Be Abstract,” recalls Harmonium’s themes by hailing art as the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity. The second long portion, “It Must Change,” recalls “Sunday Morning” in citing change as that which ever renews and sustains life: “Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace / And for the particulars of rapture come.” And in “It Must Give Pleasure,” Stevens expresses his conviction that poetry must always be “a thing final in itself and, therefore, good: / One of the vast repetitions final in themselves and, therefore, good, the going round / And round and round, the merely going round, / Until merely going round is a final good, / The way wine comes at a table in a wood.” Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction concludes with verses describing the poet’s pursuit of supreme fiction as “a war that never ends.” Stevens, directing these verses to an imaginary warrior, wrote: “Soldier, there is a war between the mind / And sky, between thought and day and night. It is / For that the poet is always in the sun, / Patches the moon together in his room / to his Virgilian cadences, up down, / Up down. It is a war that never ends.” This is perhaps Stevens’s most impressive description of his own sense of self, and in it he provides his most succinct appraisal of the poet’s duty.
Although Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction elucidates Stevens’s notions of poetry and poet, it was not intended by him to serve as a definitive testament. Rather, he considered the poem as a collection of ideas about the idea of supreme fiction. Writing to Henry Church, to whom the poem is dedicated, Stevens warned that it was not a systematized philosophy but mere notes—”the nucleus of the matter is contained in the title.” He also reaffirmed his contention that poetry was the supreme fiction, explaining that poetry was supreme because “the essence of poetry is change and the essence of change is that it gives pleasure.”Now imagine an Ur-poem, an ultimate text that is so infinitely complex and inspiring that interpretations and readings never end.Even a single letter in a word may have powerful implications. A single word by itself would have several possible meanings, and in the context of a line or image or the poem as a whole, that word obtains even more resonance.” – The Poetry Foundation
The Torah, Hebrew Scripture, was in its original form a self-reflexive text. It tells us about its own means of composition and its origin as the first document in the history of the world to be written in the alphabetic script. These two aspects of the Torah tell us it was really a kind of super-poem, and even more and deeper meanings are revealed if we read it as such. The Children of Israel have just escaped from slavery in Egypt and fled to Mount Sinai. They are about to receive the great revelation God promised Moses He would reveal to His people once Moses liberated them and they congregated there. With terrible thunder and lightning, in an awesome incomprehensible voice, God utters his commandments like one long blast of the shofar. The Israelites can’t bear or comprehend it and they beg Moses the Torah is Moses’ transcription of one long, uninterrupted awesome blast of sound by God from above Mount Sinai before an audience of the entire Children of Israel. Even if the original Hebrew was written by the Finger of God, by Moses, or by a committee of compiler, it would have had no punctuation, no vowels, nor spaces between words because they simply did not yet exist. The early Hebrew script was a primitive version of the phonetic alphabet that the Phoenicians improved, brought to Greece, and which spawned all future alphabets. But the singular ingenious breakthrough of using signs for atoms of sound occurred only once, somewhere around the 14th century BCE, probably among slaves working the mines for Pharaoh at Serabit El-Khadem in the Sinai. No matter if you favor a divine or archeological authority for its origin, Scripture’s original script, the one long sentence, was an Ur-poem, so densely packed with wordplay that millions of words each year are still devoted to admiring and interpeting it.
Aramaic and Greek rapidly begin to replace Hebrew as the lingua franca of the Jews in the centuries just before and after the common era. As a result, the oral tradition that kept the meaning of a highly ambiguous Hebrew without vowels stable started to slip. With the fall of the Temple and the scattering of the Jews, the loss of a vernacular Hebrew meant that the traditionally-understood meaning of the Torah was rapidly disappearing. IN response to this crisis, a family of linguistic experts and scholars supplied the missing vocal signs that would stabilize the meaning of the canon. Called Masoretes (from masora – those who hand down or pass along), they worked in Palestine, mostly Tiberias, along the Sea of Galilee, starting in the third century CE. But while they addressed one crisis, I believe they created another. By reducing the play of possible interpretations of Scripture, they also reduced its intrinsic poetry. And if the Author of the text was an infinite Being of infinite talent and cleverness, He was also therefore an Ur-Poet, capable of playing with an unlimited range of possible simultaneous meanings, allusions, hidden cross-references and echoes, creating the furtive unity and depths that we admire in the best poetry.
The meaning of the texts different texts to arrive at a composite, definitive version called the Masoretic Torah. Working with variora editions, the Masoretes had to make thousands of decisions regarding the pronunciations of words in the Scriptures and choose one, collapsing the multiple potential meanings into one actuality, one sense. In some cases this meant choosing among slightly different shades of meanings or tenses, but in others it meant radically reducing the free play of associations and interacting alternatives that a set of consonants might signify. They also added diacritical marks indicating intonation and made decisions about where to cut words in order to further reduce ambiguity and preserve agreed-upon meanings. (See discussion in Musaph-Andriesse, R.C. From Torah to Kabbalah. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
The Masoretes preserved the sense of difficulty in this task and some of the ambiguity by often annotating the text with distinctions between what was written (kettiv = Aramaic for “written”) from how it should be pronounced (qere – Aramic for ‘read’). They also extensively annotated the Tanach with marginalia indicating unresolved difficulties and discussing some of the bases for final decisions. Competing schools in Babylonia and Palestine between 200-1005 CE even completed conflicting versions. In the end, the school of Ben Asher offered the text that became the standard. Even though the Masoretes themselves registered difficulties and conflicts, as they eliminated the free play of interpretation by producing vowels and vocalizations, they were by definition reducing the number of possible interpretations. For example, in Isaiah 44:24, the prophet speaks in the voice of the Creator, comparing the work of human creativity with Divine Creation:
“The mere craftsman in iron works with his tools.
He works the iron over charcoal and fashions it by hammering…
The mere craftsman in wood measures with a line
and marks out a shape with a stylus
These craftsmen aren’t merely workers, they are idol-makers
They give their work “human form, The beauty of a man
To dwell in a shrine
…he makes a god of his own carving
he bows down and worships it.” (Is. 44:12-17).
But by comparison, God declares:
“It is I, the Lord, who made everything
Who alone stretched out the heavens
And unaided I spread out the earth”
The Hebrew for what often gets translated into English as “by Myself” here is = ‘m’itti’. The Masoretes note that what is written (ketiv) in the text includes a yod between the “mi ” and the ‘itti‘, which would literally say “Who [mi] with me [eettee]?” – a rhetorical question. But, the Masoretes insist, the text should be vocalized (qere) as “m’itti” – as if the yod were missing – which means “from me (alone).” Slight differences in shades of meaning are produced by these two pronunciations. One is potentially heretical by even invoking the possibility that God had a partner. The Masoretes resolve the problem by dropping the first yod, when reciting the verse. At first glance the change seems inconsequential: mi itti = “Who was with me?” is a rhetorical question whose answer is “Of course no one”; m’itti = “From me [alone]” is emphatic, though a bit awkward.
What if we imagined ourselves in the position of a modern scholar posing the following question about this passage from Isaiah: Is God being ironic? Is this really a rhetorical question, or does it open up other possibilities, calling for expansion or amplification? If so, then our reader is faced with the heretical idea that God was assisted by others in His act of Creation, a Gnostic notion the Sages resisted especially in the early centuries of the common era for obvious reasons. It invites the sense of multiple gods that Isaiah, by comparing God’s solitary act of creation with the making of idols, is trying to negate. The Masoretic choice of inflection, spacing and vowelling here attempts to control this intrusion of the Gnostic idea of God’s angelic assistants, since the project of the Masoretes worked in the face of declining Hebrew literacy in Palestine and Babylonia, declining coherence in Jewish thinking, increasing dispersion of Jewish people, and increasing threats from Gnosticism and then Christianity, Islam, and Orientalism both physical and theological.
But the Masora editing pays a severe price.
If we return to the letters of the word/phrase we see another powerful interpretation is possible, using the Talmudic practice of expansion and divine, irresolute punning: “m’itti” might also mean “From (mem – ) alphabet (aleph-taf) mine (yod)”! This renders the verse:
“It is I, the Lord, who made everything
Who alone stretched out the Heavens
And spread out the earth from my Aleph-Tav,.” Is: 44:24
Does this passage contain Isaiah’s enticing hint of the creative power implicit in the aleph-tavאת the word which stands for the Hebrew alphabet itself and resonates with Genesis’ first chapter: God creates “et [ את ] ha’shamayim v’et [את ] ha’aretz” ? Other clues in the passage suggest that Isaiah, the consummate poet and master of metaphor and wordplay, is playing with a conceit of the alphabet, for in the next line, he continues with God’s self-declaration,
“It is I that frustrated the letters (oht’ot = אתות ) of the boasters (badim = בדימ).” [Is 44:25]
This is translated:
It is I HaShem Who made the signs of the boasters to fail,”
The image of God ‘flattening out’ or ‘spreading out’ echoes another image of spreading outthat Isaiah used just a few chapters earlier. King Hezekiah received a letter from Rabshakeh, the Assyrian general threatening to destroy Hezekiah’s kingdom. Hezekiah brings the letter to the temple “and spread it before the Lord and prayed” (Isaiah 37:14-15).[ויפרשהו The three-letter root of the word for “and he spread it is P-R-Sh]
However, if the Masoretes had supplied a different vowel, ‘perush‘ could be vocalized “parash,” meaning “to amplify or interpret distinctly or differently or to clarify. Or they could have supplied yet a different vowel and the word is vocalized sky, since the same letters mean “the limiting plane” as in “a ceiling” or the vault of the sky. Since Isaiah here applies it in God’s voice to the earth just after forging his image of the sky, this version would reveal the full measure of Isaiah’s poetic power, neatly forming a circle back yet again to the Hebrew letters את God uses in Creation of earth and sky. The Masoretic text loses these depths in favor of clarification.
By using the energized combination of letters, the punning repetition of the את and the image of G-d spreading out the heavens and earth in a system of multiplied allusions within the text and to the text of Genesis outside this poem, along with possible alternatives, we can see that maybe Isaiah pursues the power of Creation itself to trivialize idols. The prophet unfolds before us a literal image of God “spreading out the Heavens and flattening out the Earth by Himself.” It is even possible to see my favorite Kabbalistic interpretation: God uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (the את) to unroll (perush) the twinned scrolls of the sky and the earth, like the Torah itself, in order to frustrate the alternative scripts (ha-o’tot) of ‘those who make up false stories [badim]” about Creation.
But this wonderful, and perhaps tenuous alternative conceit is lost if Isaiah’s poetry is collapsed into a strict Masoretic choice to read one decisive version.
We celebrate poets who had the advantage of writing in more developed and efficient alphabets, alphabets that are able to signify clearly a single intention because unlike the more primitive Hebrew of the Bible, they have vowels and separation between words and eventually punctuation and defined sentences. We admire Greek, Latin and English poets as they cleverly multiply layers of meaning, punning, and allusions in their wordplay. By contrast, ancient written Hebrew unavoidably multiplies alternatives and the Hebrew of the Torah is inevitably more ambiguous. Yet, the evolution of the text of the Torah is always towards clarity and disambiguation.
of course, this is a good and necessary path to follow. Keeping the Torah accessible, especially among a scattered people whose mother tongue was no longer Hebrew, preserved the Jewish people’s relation to their founding document, the core of their existence. The interpretive tradition of the Talmud and the ongoing torrent of commentary and commentary on commentary for the last two millenia, which has also bound the Jews together (and sometimes torn them apart) is enabled by having an agreed upon starting place to debate the remaining ambiguities of the Torah, which still seem almost engless, as anyone who has spent time studying Talmud, or simply looked at a single of its pages, will appreciate.
But here, I’d like to linger over what has been lost in this march to clarity.
In the poet’s hand, what we would consider a liability in day-to-day communication becomes a special power, since it invites multiple alternatives that may supplement each other rather than compete. The collapse of this enriching multiplication in unvowelled Hebrew into a single choice of vowelled Hebrew – Hebrew with dots by the Masoretes — was potentially catastrophic for the vital and sanctified project of reading the more primitive Hebrew.
The catastrophe is averted in Jewish tradition because of the religious significance attached to precise copying of every letter in the scrolls of the Torah. This religious tradition is founded on the belief that Moses received both the written and an oral Torah at Sinai. As a result, even in synagogues today, the text of the Torah is read aloud during services from parchment scrolls written in unvowelled Hebrew letters, while the congregation follows along in a book (including extensive commentary – the Chumash or Five Books of Moses) that includes the vowelled Hebrew text.
Nonetheless, the contrast between the vital and uncertain sea of language into which reading ancient Hebrew plunges us and the search for fixed meaning and certainty in later languages is stark. There is something poetic and prayerful intrinsic in Hebrew that we lose when we erect clarity – disambiguation – as a goal of all texts. The Torah reminds us that every letter is literary. Such letterature is a form of liturgy.
The poetry we learn to read in school is famous for its difficulty. The difficulty comes from layers of possible interpretation. For many, the encounter with poetry is thankfully brief, but whether a joyous or horrid experience it introduces us to reading as the opposite of what good communication is supposed to be: clear, unambiguous, efficient.
Now imagine a genre of ultra-poetry, written in an alphabet on beyond zebra, where every word, every letter multiplies possible meanings. Such a literature would invite the reader into a mad tango of interpretation. The promise of unfathomable depths would beckon our imaginations into an embrace with the lure of transcendence, a sacred psychotropic drug. Call it letterature.
The Torah is written in primitive Hebrew. It lacks vowels, which means the same consonants can represent multiple words. As originally written, the Hebrew Bible also lacked spaces between words, so it was in essence one long word. It wasn’t until groups of Jewish scribes, the Masoretes, who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, added definitive breaks, punctuation and vowel marks that the Torah was frozen and reduced into a canonical version. The Masoretes created what was in effect a translation, and all translations are partly treasonous –traduttore tradittore, as the Italians say. Choices of meaning were negotiated based on intense and sacred scholarship from the Talmud, the centuries-long interpretive Jewish tradition. But as negotiations in committee, they cut off alternatives that remained alive in the original text as multiple coexisting potentials and mutually-illuminating layers. That’s why I call the Masoretic project, with all due respect, a “catastrophe.”
So many of the most radioactive words in the original Hebrew -(dbrדבר or etאת) are not-yet-words or something-more-than-simple words. They are lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, autopoetic. In short, almost all Hebrew texts are always already a form of literary, one might even say poetic, expression: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretation.
By the standard of the Greek ideal of clarity, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. Walter Ong inOrality and Literacy(1988) and Eric Havelock in The Origins of Western Literacy (1982) both show how perfecting the alphabet as a tool for transcribing and preserving speech brought about massive cultural and congnitive innovation. Indeed, Havelock places this innovation at the root of the origin of Western Civilization. But both scholars have pernicious biases about the origins of literacy among the Hebrews, dismissing Hebrew as primitive and incapable of either inspiration or literature, which is of course laughable in the face of the Bible.
Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential alephtavian style of an ambiguity-generating script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of hyper-poetry, generating difficulties and inviting interpretation in almost every word and letter.
Indeed, the whole literary/non-literary dichotomy makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to Hebrew textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never quite words with fixed meaning as the Greek ideal demands.
In reading Hebrew, we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature. Sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word. We shuttle back and forth in an interpretive frenzy attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.” Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the threat and promise of the infinite sign, ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical plane.
I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you) but this sure feels how I am seized by mine, in all its transports of pleasure, the joy of possibility and the enticement of revelation to come.
A good poem – or a dense novel striving to become a hypertext – exiles us, for a time. We read and we are lost somewhere in the wildness of the possible and the wilderness of mutually-enriching meanings, in bemidbar. The opacity of the text tells us that if we wander there long enough, and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come. Reading the Torah then becomes devotional, a form of pray. This letterature is liturgy.
Now, in our age of virtual reality, the fate of this constant assault of multiple mutually self-altering meanings becomes relevant again. Hypertext in its ideal form makes every part of the text central, a hub with spokes to many possible links, and therefore marginal. The principle of hypertext is the intelligence of the reader wandering in a wilderness of texts, each become like a letter in an alphabet that goes on beyond tav, omega, zebra.
The premature insistence on presence and intimacy in our culture has led to the urge for a technology of telepresence or virtual presence or cyberpresence. This urge has metaphysical roots. And it has obvious ramifications. In what sort of voice does God address Moses? Will He again address humanity?
To most readers and others fascinated by VR, nothing could be more remote or uninteresting than the quasi-religious subjects of this blog. As one e-mail correspondent put it, “I wish sleep on the good rabbis and the Church fathers.” In other words, the eyes of most readers are on the future, on a gleaming technological horizon that is seductive and brings with it promises of utopian reorganizations of capital, labor, play, communication, sex, and intimacy, or at very least, interesting new cultural terrain to explore and colonize, interesting new configurations of old relationships.
This blog is exploring a continuity from the time we scrawled on cave walls to the day coming soon when we have a form of art that relies on brain-to-brain communication. This continuity shows that it has always been brain-to-brain communication, or at least mind-to-mind. And the technologies which we so often view as doing something to us, as autonomous forces like The Terminator, are extensions of all our qualities. Our media technologies can even be a form of prayer.
Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the cultural moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history.
We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God is coeval with it. We can understand why a powerful leader would want to expel or eradicate those who possess this potent new tech, especially of they were slaves: there’s lots of them and they have an ax to grind with Pharaoh’s rule. We can understand why slaves attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument.
As such, the origin of the alphabet becomes a model for understanding other moments in history that were wrought by sudden eruptions and deployment of disruptive technologies, especially technologies of communication, since they inevitably bring a new ethos, new cognitive tools, new arts, new epistemologies, and new gods.
We’ve seen in previous posts that, if we read the Hebrew closely and cleverly, the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel. Moses and Aaron use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt by showing its disruptive power to Pharaoh in his court.
Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history. We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God comes with this new cognitive weapon. We can understand why a powerful leader would let those who possess this new technology would be torn between expelling them and eradicating them. And we can see why a culture of slaves who seem to come out of nowhere attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution that changes humanity for millenia. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument.
We’ve seen (in Parts 1 and 2) that the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel and use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt. He and his brother Aaron then stage a contest of scripts in the court of Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons his hieroglyphic scribes to show that the new writing system is not so special. The war of demos takes the form of magical-seeming transformations and “signs” (the Hebrew word for “thing” “plague” and “word” are the same). Water turn to blood. Frogs crawl out of the slime. But on the third contest, when Moses strikes the “dust of the earth” and summons “lice” all over Egypt, the Egyptian scribes are defeated. They throw up their hands and exclaim, “This is the finger of God!”
But why do the Egyptians give up now after having no trouble matching the transformation of water into blood or summoning frogs from the mud? A clue is in the nature of the transformation. Hieroglyphic signs for frogs and blood are well-known. What are pictograms for dust and lice? In Egyptian, the spoken word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” – the same word used for little girls. And they didn’t have a glyph for it. Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph, even in later Egypt, for “dust.” Lice, like dust, are ubiquitous but nearly invisible little nothings. They are like the finger of a ubiquitous but invisible Deity stirring the pot of the universe and history. Kinim [כנם],the Hebrew word here translated as “lice,” is used in Israel to refer also to those tiny gnats that make a buzzing sound but which can’t be seen. In the American South, we called them “noseeums.”
Furthermore, the letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]. By supplying different vowels from those in traditional interpretations, these letters can also signify words or things or statements or even commandments, as in the Ten Commandments. As a word, DBR דבר is, like EHT את, a one-word demonstration of the power and facility of this new script to add abstraction and multiply layers of meanings that add complexity and even poetry to even simple texts.
Re-reading the Hebrew Bible as the story of the phonetic alphabet
The alphabet and the universal literacy it enabled was the ultimate disruptive new tech of its age, especially in its environment of hegemonic empires and nomadic oral (illiterate) cultures. Because it was simple and made literacy universal, anyone could broadcast their expressions to a much wider audience. The means to own one’s own private publishing house was in anyone’s hands, much as anybody in the early years of radio and Internet could create their own channel or webpage. It could represent any language well enough. It was more abstract and enabled new cognitive powers to blossom. It invited self-reflection and self-empowerment and self-affirmation. It enabled the writing of any concept, emotion or abstraction that could be said or thought in words, and therefore opened up the interior lives of people to each other. It created a new kind of intimacy.