Magic and the Machine

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As between the
natural and the supernatural, I’ve never been much good at drawing firm
distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles
per hour, but I can’t shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII,
who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn’t move. So also the desk over
which I bend to write, seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a
restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by
the witches in Macbeth.

Nor do I
separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy
spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard’s mirror of a
television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders
technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor
plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.

This inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a
faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect,
guinea hen, and ape. In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of
enchantment. I take my cue from Christopher Marlowe’s tragical drama Doctor
because his dreams of “profit and delight,/Of power, of honor, of
omnipotence,” are the stuff that America
is made of, as was both the consequence to be expected and the consummation
devoutly to be wished when America
was formed in the alembic of the Elizabethan imagination. Marlowe was present
at the creation, as were William Shakespeare, the navigators Martin Frobisher
and Francis Drake, and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon envisioning a utopian
New Atlantis on the coast of Virginia.

It was an age
that delighted in the experiment with miracles, fiction emerging into fact on
the far shores of the world’s oceans, fact eliding into fiction in the Globe
Theatre on an embankment of the Thames. London toward the end of the sixteenth century served as
the clearinghouse for the currencies of the new learning that during the prior
150 years had been gathering weight and value under the imprints of the Italian
Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Elizabethans had in
hand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther as well as those of
Ovid and Lucretius, maps drawn by Gerardus Mercator and Martin Waldseemüller,
the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and

The medieval
world was dying an uneasy death, but magic remained an option, a direction, and
a technology not yet rendered obsolete. Robert Burton, author of The
Anatomy of Melancholy,
found the air “not so full of flies in summer as it
is at all times of invisible devils.” To the Puritan dissenters contemplating a
departure to a new and better world the devils were all too visible in a land
that “aboundeth with murders, slaughters, incests, adulteries, whoredom,
drunkenness, oppression, and pride.”

Tanks of the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In both the
skilled and unskilled mind, astronomy and astrology were still inseparable, as
were chemistry and alchemy, and so it is no surprise to find Marlowe within the
orbit of inquisitive “intelligencers” centered on the wealth and patronage of
Henry Percy, “the Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, who attracted to his estate
in Sussex the presence of Dr. John Dee, physician to Queen Elizabeth blessed
with crystal showstones occupied by angels, as well as that of Walter Raleigh,
court poet and venture capitalist outfitting a voyage to Guiana to retrieve the
riches of El Dorado.

The earl had
amassed a library of nearly 2,000 books and equipped a laboratory for his
resident magi, chief among them Thomas Hariot, as an astronomer known for his
improvement of the telescope (the “optic tube”), and as a mathematician for his
compilation of logarithmic tables. As well versed in the science of the occult
as he was practiced in the study of geography, Hariot appears in Charles
Nicholl’s book The Reckoning as a likely model for Marlowe’s

During the same
month last spring in which I was reading Nicholl’s account of the Elizabethan
think tank assembled by the Wizard Earl, I came across its twentieth-century
analog in Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American
. As in the sixteenth century, so again in the twentieth: a
gathering of forces both natural and supernatural in search of something new
under the sun.

The American
Telephone and Telegraph Company undertook to research and develop the evolving
means of telecommunication, and to that end it established an “institute of
creative technology” on a 225-acre campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, by 1942
recruiting nearly 9,000 magi of various description (engineers and chemists,
metallurgists, and physicists) set to the task of turning sand into light, the
light into gold.

All present
were encouraged to learn and borrow from one another, to invent literally
fantastic new materials to fit the trajectories of fanciful new hypotheses.
Together with the manufacture of the laser and the transistor, the labs derived
from Boolean algebra the binary code that allows computers to speak to
themselves of more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in the
philosophies of either Hamlet or Horatio.

attributes the epistemological shape-shifting to the mathematician Claude
Shannon, who intuited the moving of “written and spoken exchanges ever deeper
into the realm of ciphers, symbols, and electronically enhanced puzzles of
representation” — i.e., toward the “lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters”
that Faustus most desired. The correspondence is exact, as is the one to be
drawn from John Crowley’s essay, “A Well Without a Bottom,” that recalls the
powers of the Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim, a fifteenth-century mage who
devised a set of incantations “carrying messages instantaneously… through the
agency of the stars and planets who rule time.” Bell Labs in 1962 converted the
thought into Telstar, the communications satellite relaying data, from earth to
heaven and back to earth, in less than six-tenths of a second.

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, Bell Labs produced so many
wonders both military and civilian (the DEW line and the Nike missile as well
as the first cellular phone) that AT&T’s senior management was hard put to
correct the news media’s tendency to regard the Murray Hill estate as “a house
of magic.” The scientists in residence took pains to discount the notion of
rabbits being pulled from hats, insisting that the work in hand followed from a
patient sequence of trial and error rather than from the silk-hatted magician
Eisenheim’s summoning with cape and wand the illusions of “The Magic Kettle”
and “The Mysterious Orange Tree” to theater stages in nineteenth-century Paris,
London, and Berlin.

The disavowals
fell on stony ground. Time passed; the wonders didn’t cease, and by 1973 Arthur
C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer believed by his admirers to be the
twentieth-century avatar of Shakespeare’s Prospero, had confirmed the truth
apparent to both Ariel and Caliban: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.”

As chairman of
the British Interplanetary Society during the 1950s, Clarke had postulated
stationing a communications satellite 22,300 miles above the equator in what is
now recognized by the International Astronomical Union as “The Clarke Orbit,”
and in 1968 he had co-written the film script for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The opening sequence — during which an ape heaves into thin air a prehistoric
bone that becomes a spaceship drifting among the stars — encompasses the
spirit of an age that maybe once was Elizabethan but lately has come to be seen
as a prefiguration of our own.

The New World’s Magical Beginnings (and Endings)

philosophies call all in doubt, the more so as the accelerating rates of
technological advance — celestial, terrestrial, and subliminal — overrun the
frontiers between science, magic, and religion. The inventors of America’s liberties, their sensibilities born of
the Enlightenment, understood the new world in America as an experiment with the
volatile substance of freedom. Most of them were close students of the natural
sciences: Thomas Paine an engineer, Benjamin Rush a physician and chemist,
Roger Sherman an astronomer, Thomas Jefferson an architect and agronomist.

Intent upon
enlarging the frame of human happiness and possibility, they pursued the joy of
discovery in as many spheres of reference as could be crowded onto the shelves
of a Philadelphia library or a Boston philosophical society. J. Hector St.
John de Crèvecoeur, colonist arriving from France in 1755, writes in his Letters
from an American Farmer
to express gratitude for the spirit in which
Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod — “by what magic I know
not” — was both given and received: “Would you believe that the great
electrical discoveries of Mr. Franklin have not only preserved our barns and
our houses from the fire of heaven but have even taught our wives to multiply
their chickens?”

A similar
approach to the uses of learning informed Jefferson’s best hopes for the new
nation’s colleges and schools, and for the better part of the last two
centuries it has underwritten the making of America into what the historian
Henry Steele Commager named “the empire of reason.” An empire that astonishes
the world with the magnificence of its scientific research laboratories, but
one never safe from frequent uprisings in the rebel provinces of unreason.

Like England in
the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a
vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous — the lines and
letters that weave the physics and the metaphysics into strands of DNA,
Einstein’s equations, Planck’s constant and the Schwarzschild radius, the
cloned sheep and artificial heart. America’s
scientists come away from Stockholm
nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes
by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system.

The record also
suggests that the advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been
accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness of smoke and
mirrors. The fear of new wonders technological — nuclear, biochemical, and
genetic — gives rise to what John Donne presumably would have recognized as
the uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in magic.

We find our new
Atlantis within the heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon
and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself
more readily to the traffic in spells and incantation than to the distribution
of reasoned argument. The less that can be seen and understood of the genies
escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the
rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become
the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and
entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product.

How else to
classify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq if not as an attempt at
alchemy? At both the beginning and end of the effort to transform the whole of
the Islamic Middle East into a democratic republic like the one pictured in the
ads inviting tourists to Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and the
Pentagon issued press releases in the voice of the evil angel counseling
Faustus, “Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,/Lord and commander of
these elements.”

Krauthammer, neoconservative newspaper columnist and leading soloist in the
jingo chorus of the self-glorifying news media, amplified the commandment for
the readers of Time magazine in March 2001, pride going before the
fall six months later of the World Trade Center:
is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new
realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”

So again four
years later, after it had become apparent that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass
destruction were made of the same stuff as Eisenheim’s projection of “The
Vanishing Lady.” The trick had been seen for what it was, but Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld emerged from the cloud of deluded expectation, unapologetic and
implacable, out of which he had spoken to the groundlings at a NATO press
conference in 2002: “The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are
things we know that we know. There are known unknowns… but there are also
unknown unknowns… The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

What Desperate Enterprise
I Will”

The Rumsfeldian
message accounts not only for what was intended as a demonstration magical in Iraq, but also for the Obama administration’s
current purpose in Afghanistan,
which is to decorate a wilderness of tribal warfare with the potted plant of a
civilized and law-abiding government that doesn’t exist. Choosing to believe in
what isn’t there accords with the practice adopted on Wall Street that brought
forth the collapse of the country’s real-estate and financial markets in 2008.

The magnitude
of the losses measured the extent to which America assigns to the fiction of
its currency the supernatural powers of a substance manufactured by a
compensation committee of sixteenth-century alchemists. The debacle was not
without precedent. Thomas Paine remarked on the uses of paper money (“horrid to
see, and hurtful to recollect”) that made a mess of America’s finances during its War
of Independence, “It is like putting an apparition in place of a man; it
vanishes with looking at, and nothing remains but the air.”

Paine regarded
the “emissions” of paper money as toxic, fouling the air with the diseases
(vanity, covetousness, and pride) certain to destroy the morals of the country
as well as its experiment with freedom. A report entitled “Scientific Integrity
in Policy Making,” issued in February 2004 by the Union of Concerned
Scientists, advanced Paine’s argument against what it diagnosed as the willed
ignorance infecting the organism of the Bush administration.

Signed by more
than 60 of the country’s most accomplished scientists honored for their work in
many disciplines (molecular biology, superconductivity, particle physics,
zoology), the report bore witness to their experience when called upon to
present a federal agency or congressional committee with scientific data
bearing on a question of the public health and welfare. Time and again in the
40-page report, the respondents mention the refusal on the part of their
examiners to listen to, much less accept, any answers that didn’t fit with the
administration’s prepaid and prerecorded political agenda.

Whether in
regard to the lifespan of a bacteria or the trajectory of a cruise missile,
ideological certainty overruled the objections raised by counsel on behalf of
logic and deductive reasoning. On topics as various as climate change, military
intelligence, and the course of the Missouri River,
the reincarnations of Pope Urban VIII reaffirmed their conviction that if the
science didn’t prove what it had been told to prove, then the science had been
tampered with by Satan.

The report
spoke to the disavowal of the principle on which the country was founded, but
it didn’t attract much notice in the press or slow down the retreat into the
provinces of unreason. The eight years that have passed since its publication
have brought with them not only the illusion of “The Magic Kettle” on Wall
Street, but also the election of President Barack Obama in the belief that he would
enter the White House as the embodiment of Merlin or Christ.

To the extent
that more people become more frightened of a future that calls all into doubt,
they exchange the force of their own thought for the power they impute to
supernatural machines. To wage the war against terror the Pentagon sends forth
drones, robots, and surveillance cameras, hard-wired as were the spirits under
the command of Faustus, “to fetch me what I please,/Resolve me of all
ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will.”

Wall Street
clerks subcontract the placing of $100 billion bets to the judgment of computer
databanks that stand as silent as the stones on Easter
Island, while calculating at the speed of light the rates of
exchange between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. By way of
projecting a federal budget deficit into both the near and distant future, the
season’s presidential candidates float cloud-capped towers of imaginary numbers
destined to leave not a rack behind.

The American
body politic meanwhile dissolves into impoverished constituencies of one,
stripped of “profit and delight” in the realm of fact, but still sovereign in
the land of make-believe. Every once and future king is possessed of a screen
like the enchanted mirror that Lady Galadriel shows to Frodo Baggins in the
garden at Caras Galadhon; the lost and wounded self adrift in a sea of troubles
but equipped with the remote control that once was Prospero’s; blessed, as was
the tragical Doctor Faustus, with instant access to the dreams “of power, of
honor, of omnipotence.”

Lewis H.
Lapham is editor of
. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the
author of numerous books, including
Money and Class in America, Theater
of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has
likened him to H.L. Mencken;
Vanity Fair has suggested a strong
resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This
essay, shortened for TomDispatch, introduces “Magic Shows,” the
Summer 2012 issue of
Lapham’s Quarterly.

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Copyright 2012
Lewis Lapham

Image by Walter
, licensed under Creative Commons.

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