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Summary

A LethalText is a text (i.e. a chunk of language, written, heard, visual, symbolized) that disrupts or destroys the mechanism that processes it. A very direct example is a computer virus that destroys the infected computer's operating system. A less direct example is a biological virus that kills its host. The more interesting cases are texts that disrupt the mind, and the question is whether or not the Fall from Eden or the Tower of Babel was precipitated by a LethalText that freed our minds.

Lethal text

The Sumerians (Mesopotamians) were the first civilization to develop written language. While as argued in RepresentationConfusion, all new media undergo a phase where TheAudience feels as if reality was both susceptible, invoked, and enacted by the medium, as if falling through the looking glass; and where this process is both feared as leading to insanity and admired for its magical abilities; the Sumerians possess a special place in our history as the bridging culture between OralCulture and literature. And although, despite their overwhelming cultural influence on all Western civilization (including Judaism), the Sumerian language does not live on in any shape or form.

Just to unpack that latter statement for a moment, the Sumerians were the proto-culture for all the Tigris and Euphrates cultures, including the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hebrews. They were the first to codify laws in the CodeOfHammurabi?, although their conception of laws were more direct than our rationalist, philosophical view of laws. Rather, laws covered everything in society, and cities in Sumer compared themselves by the efficacy of their laws. Also, their myths live on in the myths of others, such as the fertility goddess (and temple prostitution), the snake, the flood, and the destruction of language.

And it's that latter myth that is so interesting. While human languages are liable to be created at the drop of a hat, which adjacent villages, neighbourhoods in London, parents&children speaking different times, there is no good reason why. There is a suggestion that during the days of Sumerian rule, all people spoke the same language, before some god came and broke it for all of us. This lives in in Judaic culture as the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) story.

The Origin of Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes hypothesizes socio-biological reasons for this shift. And while his theory has not been widely accepted, neither has the one on this page, so we'll mention it briefly because it is relevant. Jaynes suggests that prior to human consciousness as we know of it today, the hemispheric partioning of the brain acted schizophrenically to induce behaviour. The logical left-hemisphere created orders that the right-hemisphere intrepreted as divine commands to act out. Thus, the Sumerian conception of laws, known as the me, seemed more like a software that was excecuted by the people, rather than obeyed. (As obeisance presupposes TheIndividual, and here we deny individuality). Certainly many people have theorized that there was no conception of Self at some point in our written history, including as late as the Old Testament, and if take it as the truth, then it was the emergence of Self that led to the destruction of language. After all, society was no longer a HiveMind, controlled by the writers of the laws (priests), but a contentious lot of individuals for which (at the time) there was no protocol to order them (governance; note that governance is different from algorithms).

What spurred on the creation of Self is heavily mythologized tradition. Certainly eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the loss of innocence if you will, is the myth of the acquisition of Self. But what was that fruit in reality? What did happen at Babel?

One theory suggests there was a LethalText. A story, an incantation in a sense, a magical spell, a law, an algorithm that interfered with the mind, if you will. Since the Sumerians believed in the directness of speech, a form of language devoid of symbol-symbolized dichotomies, where speech and thought and action were essentially equivalent, it was natural that the disrupting process was itself language. In their case, it was their chief god Enki's [nam-shub], a story of the the destruction of language which had itself the effect of destroying language. Much like a quine, it was folded on itself so it told the story of its own actual action. It was, in short, a LethalText; a text that destroys text.

The nam-shub reads [as culled from SnowCrash; originally from Samuel Noah Kramer and John R. Maier's Myths of Enki, the Crafty God (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)]:

 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 Shubur-Hamazi, 
 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 king defiant, 
 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. 

What is so shocking about this was that Enki was the god who had written all of their laws to that point, the one who would OrderChaos by writing the rules of living. And here he has incongruously destroyed the very mechanism he had exploited all this time. Perhaps it's just a story of end times, when the Sumerian empire fell apart under tensions from its regions, who eventually began to form their own languages. Maybe it's simply a story of disagreement, where the "one tongue" meant simple OneText, one opinion, that fell apart into a SeparationOfPositions?. Certainly, the loss of uniformity is universally decried as a Fall from some Perfection. Kings worship empty thrones, poets despair at their broken craft, civilizations fall into disarray, and wars are fought.

But at least let's look at it from the viewpoint of a language-destroying-text, of the explosion in natural language, on this page, and that this was really bad for civilization. Contrast that to now, in the PostModern age, when this plurality is considered valuable and required, something worth preserving (even at the cost of freezing certain peoples' development out of post-colonial guilt).

Lately, SciFi has looked at the reversal of this process through the same mechanism that enabled it.

The novel SnowCrash relies heavily on this concept to build a cyberpunk apocolyptic thriller based on memetics, the computational theory of mind, Jaynes' theory, and Mesopotamian (mostly Sumerian) mythology. In this novel he describes how a wealthy GlobalMedia? giant, L. Bob Rife (the name an allusion to L. Ron Hubbard of the Church of Scientology), finds Enki's nam-shub, decodes it, and sets about reversing its effects so that we all become automatons for his bidding. This is a rather dark reading of a LethalText, in line with the novel's overall assertion of the moral superiority (despite occasional ugliness) of pure unflinching individuality.

Conversely, as Aleph of Deoxyribonucleic Acid suggests, in Piers Anthony's Macroscope, humans have invented a new instrument dubbed the macroscope, which allows humanity to touch the thousands of hereto unknown civilizations out there in the galaxy. These civilizations are all freely exchanging information in a universal language that is transcendant, Platonist, direct. This makes it similar to Sumerian in its directness, but wholly opposite in its logicalness. Nonetheless, the major problem is that whenever humans attempt to listen in to the conversation, they are "jammed" with a LethalText in this language, a text that sends its listeners into catatonia. As we learn, the LethalText is actually a Rosetta stone for this universal language, except it also acts directly on the mind, so that as it is heard, it builds within its listener the capacity to understand the language. Once the language is understood, the human mind transcends its limitations and begins to perceive reality in a wholly different way. Thus, unlike the apocolyptic SnowCrash, Macroscope is (clearly) a story of transcendance.

A similar story to Macroscope is told in Wiki:PiTheMovie, where the search for the fundamental nature of mathematics leads the protagonist to discover a 216 digit numerical string that coincided with a Kabbalahistic numerological reading of the Talmud. Purportedly the true name of Yahweh (God), the string reflects the deep nature of the universe. If understood (not merely pronounced), it is so powerful, it kills the mechanism processing it (brain or computer) unless that mechanism is somehow pure or ready for it. In the end, the protagonist has to remove the part of his brain that processes math before he dies from pure transcendant understanding.

While these two perspectives differ in the obvious dimension (one negative, one positive), they differ in a more important dimension (and one that explicates the negative/positive view in part). Anthony's story is built upon a Platonistic universe, one where the mind is fully Cartesian; there is a duality where the mind is separated from body in some sense, and thus it is susceptible to mathematical forms. A higher Truth. A world transcendant from the Natural. The LethalText is akin to going crazy by hearing from God, a very Protestant belief, but thus the LethalText is Good because it is getting closer to God.

Conversely, and more compelling, Stephenson's story believes in the "hackable brain." After all, it presupposes the brain is a computer (a symbol machine) that can be hacked just as your computer can be hacked by a virus or worm. Thus, the LethalText just pushes your meat around in ways it's not supposed to be pushed around, and thus it breaks it, and thus it is bad. Then again, a homogeneous linguistic pool, especially with a language that directly affects the structures of the mind, could be very dangerous; a meme could be a real virus, moving from one host to another. SnowCrash posits that Enki aimed to diversified the mental genome in order to save mankind from epidemics of mental viruses (memes).

What is more interesting, however, is a combination of the two perspectives. HackerCulture would believe it's possible to push your brain around in ways it is not designed--not to break it--but to improve it, hack it, to make it better. If we understand the Enki myth within the CyberPunk context we have framed it here, then as a loving god, Enki did not break our minds to harm us, but rather to push us to a new level of consciousness. Whether this is an improvement or a failure is either a) moot, or b) obviated by thousands of years of civilization later where humanity has flourished rather than died off.

Simply put, Enki's nam-shub could have been the only way to move humanity forward. Perhaps since we had built a StableBase for civilization, which was articulated in detail as the Sumerian society's laws (me), we could afford to explore chaos once again to attain new levels of proficiency. After all, we could eat, so why not take a risk and return to chaos? In this frame, destroying our linguistic harmony could be seen as a gift rather than a punishment. It freed societies to differ, and thus to explore different ways of acting. Competition often makes us stronger.

Biological LethalTexts

Human languages are not the only information carriers into our minds. As they are embedded in a biological substrate--the brain--they are also manipulable through biological components. In particular, common examples in our society are disease-causing agents that attack the brain (syphillis, herpes simplex, variant CJD) and drugs (Prozac, marijuana, LSD, cocaine). Most of the ones listed here are negative, particularly if their effects on the brain exceed the brain's tolerance. Thus, they can become LethalTexts, in a sense, by overloading the brain. Overdosing on coke will kill you.

SnowCrash also explores these ideas by suggesting viruses are also vectors for Enki's nam-shub, and that this was in fact a primary means of transmitting it in the first place given the Astari temple prostitution cults' ability to propogate sexually-transmitted diseases. Given that overdosing on coke is also known in real life as a "snow crash" (as cocaine is also known as snow), and there is a heavy motif of cocaine (and other drug) abuse in the novel, it's clear Stephenson was also playing with how we manipulate our minds with drugs as well as information.

Other examples

LethalText as a design philosophy

In a sense, many network standards can be seen as LethalTexts. While some standards seek to lock in conformity and uniformity (e.g. FTP), other standards seek to free clients to act on their own (HTTP). These latter standards might be considered LethalTexts as they destroy the communication protocol's efficacy they operate on, let the resulting chaos leads to new innovation and breakthroughs that were otherwise impossible before. Some novel standardization efforts seek only to define grammars without limiting semantics (e.g. words, a vocabulary), such as the InternetProtocol and XML, which gets the best of both worlds. But, of course, this can only be done upon a StableBase on the network, where there are already enough nodes willing to cooperate towards a simplification of their protocols.

See also WikiPedia:Motif_of_harmful_sensation


I've been reading SnowCrash for my CyberText course, eight years or so after I first read it. I now have a much deeper understanding of the nature of information, history, and such; SnowCrash is less interesting than actual human history, I think, since it is an important question: how the hell did we become conscious? A nice read on this, and the site where I stole the term "lethal text" for it, is the ever important cyberpunk reader: [Deoxyribonucleic Acid]. -- SunirShah

Does Julian Jaynes allow for the option of reverting to pre-consciousness? Or are we "stuck" with consciousness now we have it?

It seems probable that we became conscious when we invented the notion of "consciousness". It seems every other creature manages to interact with its environment without having to reify the process by which that occurs.

(18 months later) I just read NealStephenson's first novel, TheBigU, and Julian Jaynes also features prominently in there. While the novel is not very deep, he does directly insinuate LSD abuse takes you to a pre-consciousness level. -- SunirShah


Discussion

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