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Magic and the Machine: Living in an American Age of Techno-Wonder and Unreason

The more uncertain our future seems, the more Americans retreat into magical thinking.

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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 Lapham’s Quarterly. 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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