Saturday, May 24, 2008

Modern "me," Ancient "me"

Note: Another essay excerpt from a class I'm taking. I'm such a smart-ass.

As Hiro Protagonist attempts to comprehend why a modern demagogue would want to revive the language of ancient Sumer in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Protagonist and the Librarian have an illuminating conversation about the power and banality of words.

In discussing the writings of Sumer, including the me – “rules or principles that control the operation of society, like a code of laws, but on a more fundamental level (251),” the Librarian assigns them the following qualities:

1. Fragmentary (251)
2. Bizarre (251)
3. Untranslatable (251)
4. Monotonous (251)
5. Promotional (251)
6. Fundamentally religious (251)
7. Banal (257)

The most important descriptor, however, is thus: Sumerian myths, the Librarian continues, “are not ‘readable’ or ‘enjoyable’ in the same sense that Greek and Hebrew myths are. They reflect a fundamentally different consciousness from ours (251).”

Throughout his novel, Stephenson offers glimpses that the me of Hiro’s world match perfectly with the Librarian’s description of the Sumerian me. The me of Hiro’s time remain translatable, enjoyable and readable to our ears because they are not fundamentally different than what we’re used to hearing, they do not reflect a “fundamentally different consciousness from ours,” as Stephenson writes. Given time, however – say, a few thousand years, or the chronological difference between our time and that of Sumeria – and the me of Hiro’s era (and of ours) that survive may very well sound as bizarre as the stories the Librarian shares of Enki and Ninhursag (see pages 251-257).

Take, for example, the “usual” text that accompanies introductions to Mr. Lee’s Hong Kong burbclave: “It is my pleasure to welcome all quality folks to visiting of Hong Kong. Whether seriously in business or on a fun-loving hijink, make yourself totally homely in this meager environment. If any aspect is not utterly harmonious, gratefully bring is to my notice and I shall strive to earn your satisfaction (98).” The text is written in perfectly flawed English. To Mr. Lee, the English reflects the English that Anglo-Saxon Americans expect to hear from foreigners: the misused words, the odd sentence constructions, and the weird phrases. A native speaker of English can read the notice and feel a slight superiority, despite the fact that the Hong Kong burbclaves are among the most stable in the United States, and that its currency is of a much higher value than the American dollar. The me of Hong Kong burbclaves mocks the outsider’s sense of superiority with the expected mangled English and obsequiousness. In its banality and promotionalism, it is a powerful me.

Another example is the advertisement for the RadiKS Mark IV Smartwheel, which Y.T. purchases for her Kourier duties: “CHISELED SPAM is what you will see in the mirror if you surf on a weak plank with dumb, fixed wheels and interface with a muffler, retread, snow turd, road kill, driveshaft, railroad tie or unconscious pedestrian (27).” This advertising on a cutting-edge product – where rhetorical reliance is on the immediate here and now as compared to there here and now of six months ago has a me that has power among its intended audience, but like the flowery advertisements for cemeteries or the Sears catalog ubiquitous at the turn of the twentieth century, its me loses power exponentially with the passage of time. The me of wanting to buy the latest product may indeed be translatable, but the product itself may not.

These examples of Snow Crash me may indeed be incomprehensible to those who dig them up thousands of years hence. They had power when they were created, but like the Sumerian myths Hiro and the Librarian talk about, “the characters are legible and well-known, but when put together they do not say anything that leaves an imprint on the modern mind (251).”

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