Launched in 2005 on Nelson’s Secret Technology web site, Hermeticon: Pop Spell Maker initially appears on the screen as an empty rectangular grid while an ominous synthesized bass note pulses in the background. The minimal directions tell the reader to “click on grid and then use your keyboard to create pop spells.” (An earlier 2005 version was titled Hermeticon: An Incantation Engine, and the directions included the explanation “every letter is a spell part, a conjured hook.”) When the reader types, each keystroke places an enigmatic fragment of text on the grid, pairing it with a clip from a raucous 1980s television advertisement; for example, the “u” key calls up the phrase “between the hills” and an ad for Kellogg’s Corn Pops. Key combinations produce overlapping pairs and a cacophony of jingles and slogans. Though in many cases the juxtapositions are striking and evocative, especially in combination with the images, sounds, and movements of the commercials, the pieces of text do not add up to a coherent message, regardless of the combinations the reader types. In fact, the text-video pairs remain only the screen only as long as the keys are pressed; they do not accumulate to fill the grid. Hermeticon thus serves as a kind of quirky translation engine that converts whatever words a reader attempts to type into its puzzling, provocative “spells.”
The homographic pun of the word “spell” is the obvious place to start an examination of the tropological dimensions of Nelson’s piece. Recognizing the play on the verb “to spell” and “magic spell” points students toward one of the work’s fundamental motifs: the practice of logomancy, conjuring with words, a motif that is evident in the physical interface and on-screen behavior of the piece. Whatever words the reader attempts to “spell” on the keyboard turn into mysterious “spells” on the screen. Beyond this literal reference to Hermeticon’s peculiar design, however, the double meaning of “spell” links the idea of writing with the ideas of enchantment and divination. At this point, some readers might draw the conclusion that Hermeticon’s message is that “writing is magical” or that “writing is powerful.” As they continue to explore Nelson’s piece, and as their further research uncovers the origins of the word “hermetic,” the resonance of the title’s yoking of the semantic fields clustered around the word “spell” becomes increasingly more nuanced. I will discuss some of these nuances below.
Reassigning the user’s keystrokes to specific interface functions is a common practice in Flash authoring. It is one way for game designers, for example, to set up the keyboard controls for such actions as moving through space or firing a weapon. Hermeticon deploys this technique to generate its juxtapositions of texts and video clips. One can argue that Nelson’s devious “meta-capture” of conventional key-capture scripting constitutes Hermeticon’s pivotal trope. Hermeticon deviates from our typical interface with the computer keyboard, whether to type words or to fire cannons, in a manner analogous to the fragmentary verbal text’s deviation from purely denotative language with elaborately metaphorical phrases like “beautiful order and ladder of nature” and “have not a good breastplate of patience.”
One of the outcomes of literary-critical training is an instinct to follow up on each aspect of a text that is “unfamiliar and strikes us as significant,” to use Hans-Georg Gadamer’s cogent formulation for the impetus to interpretation (70). For instance, if one submits the phrase “beautiful order and ladder of nature” to Google, and the results point to online English-language editions of Giordano Bruno’s 1584 philosophical dialogue On the Infinite Universe and Worlds.
Hermeticon clearly exemplifies the kind of work N. Katherine Hayles includes in “the literary,” a capacious category encompassing “creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper” (4). One of Hermeticon’s subtler visual details adds another, somewhat more philosophical interpretive possibility. If we look carefully as we type our spells, we discover that the “normal” alphabetic results of our keystrokes also appear on a layer behind Nelson’s frenetic video clips and his excerpts from Bruno. Because they are only a few shades lighter than the gray background, these letters can be difficult to see, but the fact that they are still there at all reinforces Hermeticon’s deviation from established interface conventions: the unexpected outcomes of our familiar interaction with the keyboard—the text block and video clips—are, as it were, shadowed and thus thrown into sharper relief by the ghostly presence of the anticipated characters of typical, instrumental, “automatic” typing. Hermeticon strikes an unstable equilibrium between the expected and the unexpected, conforming—on its own audio-visual-verbal-kinesthetic terms—with Aristotle’s recommendation in Book 22 of the Poetics that authors balance the tantalizing strangeness of tropes with the clarity of standard usages (101-102).
Hermeticon seems to suggest that reading and writing are ultimately inseparable, recursive processes, and furthermore that neither can escape the influence of languages’ relentless, promiscuous, and only partially containable figuration. In Hermeticon the alphabet as a whole has not so much been replaced as it has been displaced, and the ripples in the wake of this exile of the familiar contributes to this text’s seductive, unsettling energy. Just as Early Modern bibliomancy posited reading as an interface between mortal human understanding and a transcendent consciousness at work in the world of human affairs, texts like Hermeticon expose the inextricable links between our reading, viewing, and writing practices and the machinic agencies—computational, certainly, but also linguistic, economic, cultural, and political—that so powerfully influence our destinies today.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.
Bruno, Giordano. On the Infinite Universe and Worlds. Trans. Dorthea Waley Singer. New York: Henry Shuman, 1950. Electronic edition. Positive Atheism Magazine. 28 April 2009. .
Gadamer, Hans G. “Writing and the Living Voice.” Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics. Ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson. Trans. Lawrence Schmidt and Monica Reuss. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1992. 63-71.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre
Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2008.
Nelson, Jason. Hermeticon: Pop Spell Maker. 2005. 22 Mar 2009
Entry adapted from Zuern, John (2010), “Pop Spells, Hermetic Lessons:
Teaching on the Fringes of the Literary,” in Reading Moving Letters [Simanowski, Schäfer, and Gendolla, eds.], Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld. 261-72.)