Resurrection of the Word: The Uncanny Persistence of William Gibson’s “Agrippa”

Had his final wishes been obeyed, Franz Kafka would perhaps be the literary equivalent of Nikola Tesla―a luminary who, for one reason or another, went relatively unknown during his lifetime, but whose exant works point to a more tantalizing oeuvre just out of our reach. And while Kafka had not developed anything audacious enough to call a “death ray,” his writings are often held up as the epitome of 20th Century literature. During his lifetime, however, the only works of his that saw a printed page were a handful of short stories.

It took Max Brod, a prodigious writer in his own right, a champion for his fellow authors and musicians, and the executor to Kafka’s estate, to bring Kafka’s manuscripts to the public. Whether Kafka would have appreciated that is questionable. Accounts peg him as having afflictions ranging from severe social anxiety disorder to schizophrenia with many diagnoses in between. A letter by Kafka to Brod beseeched his close friend to handle his life’s writing in a particular way: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread. 

Of course, Kafka’s work did not burn. Two months after Kafka’s death, Brod was preparing his friend’s posthumous works for publication. But if his works did burn, did expire as Kafka wished, there would have been no public outcry, no protest. No beating of breasts or gnashing of teeth over the loss of such an important entry into the literary canon.

After all, Kafka was not Kafka until after Kafka was already dead.

Writing is a game of egos. One does not usually engage the art with the intention of keeping it hidden. Some would say that the stuff of writing―the story, the communication, the engagement―does not come into being until the text is actually read (a la pragmatic semiotics). Measures of literary success most often include questions like: how many readers have read your work? How long has your work been in print? How much money have you made from your work? How many scholars have lauded your genius to their students? Success being quantifiable in this way (whether mistaken or not) renders the opposite as failure: No readers = fail. No publicaions = fail. No money = fail. No scholars praising your name = fail.

Fading away = ultimate fail.

It would stand to reason―barring mental impairment (severe social anxiety, schizophrenia)―that no writers labeling themselves as “writers” would set out to create a text that disappears, to create a text meant to “fail.”

Enter William Gibson’s “Agrippa.”

In 1992, four novels into a very successful writing career, William Gibson―author of the genre-defining “Sprawl Trilogy” (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive)―collaborated on a limited edition book with artist Dennis Ashbaugh. Called Agrippa (a book of the dead), the work consisted of a book of original art paired with a poem by Gibson. Both works were specially treated/programmed to destroy themselves (the art book fading in the light over time, the diskette housing the poem corrupting itself after a single read). But why? Why go to the lengths of creation only to forcefully enact its quick and sudden destruction?

I’m in the vanguard of the death-of-print crowd. . . I love books, and books as objects, but when you think about it, a library is just a pile of moldering organic material―it’s literally rotting. Soon enough the library will become something at the end of a modem. (Killheffer 1993)

There have been a number of scholarly and journalistic essays about what Gibson’s point was when he created (and thusly destroyed) “Agrippa.” Examples include this and this and this. This essay, though, is not about the point of the poem, its genesis, nor the greater intrinsic nature of the digital text. I personally find it hard to fathom what manner of “nature” an electronic text has over text in print (superficially a difference in media, I suppose―pressed wood pulp and ink vs. arrangements of binary code on a visual display), or even whether text have a nature independent of the readers that respond (or not) to it.

I want to look at the curious way “Agrippa” survived its prescribed demise and how its dogged persistence, like a stowaway, had been as prescribed as its vaunted vanishing act.

Templar, Rosehammer, and Pseudophred

The tale, according to the amazingly comprehensive Agrippa Files website, goes something like this:

After the completion of the poem and the art book, Gibson arranged a one-time-only public reading of an abridged version of the poem by magician Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller). Projected behind the reader was the text of the poem, from one of the specially-formatted, self-corrupting diskettes. This live audio broadcast, nicknamed “The Transmission,” was to be the best and only way the general public would get to experience “Agrippa” (the actual art book and accompanying diskette had an extremely limited print run, even more limited by a price point between $1500 to $2000 each).

Unbeknownst to everyone save for three NYU students pseudonymically known as “Templar,” “Rosehammer,” and “Pseudophred,” this one-time-only exhibition was anything but. These three students had been recruited by the book’s publisher to help display the publisher‘s Powerbook 180 screen as a large projection viewable by the attendent audience. Technically speaking, the Powerbook 180 did not have this capability (though it was one of the first laptops to offer any sort of port for an external monitor). The students’ solution was wonderfully elegant―they set up a separate camera to film the publisher’s screen. The feed from the camera would then be projected onto a screen at the front of the room.

That’s the in “Templar” needed. One cassette serruptitiously slipped into place, and the camera was not only projecting the video, it was recording. A day later, the complete text of “Agrippa” appeared on the MindVox BBS. The poem has not left cyberspace since. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that these events would be confirmed by the perpetrators themselves for author, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, and it wouldn’t be until 2008 that a pristine, unviewed diskette of Agrippa would be hacked, its contents extracted and rendered permanent for anyone to view, anytime, as many times as they wish.

The how of Agrippa’s preservation (a “lifehack”) now solved, a more vital question arises: Why? Why did “Templar,” “Rosehammer,” and “Pseudophred” risk a possible lawsuit and expulsion to even try to preserve “Agrippa”?

Look Upon Ye Mighty and Despair

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum has written much about Agrippa, and is heavily involved in the Agrippa Files website. In his essay, “Hacking ‘Agrippa’: The Source of the Online Text,” he states:

In the introduction [accompanying the MindVox upload of “Agrippa”] in which he claimed credit for the hack Templar had airily written that the text of “Agrippa” was a “challenge, or dare . . . the latest golden fleece of the hacking community.” And so it was, a black box figuratively as well as literally, a perfect-pitch technological glyph that seemed to call out for some delicate or artful solution to be its Rosetta stone.

That does shed some light on the reasons behind the “hack,” but upon closer inspection, “Templar’s” statement seems incomplete. Why would capturing “Agrippa” constitute the “golden fleece of the hacking community”? One could respond by saying that “Agrippa” was the challenge that the hacking community desired at the time, the kind of mountain a Cyberpunk protagonist would look at and salivate over. But why “Agrippa” specifically? Surely even more elusive―and thus even more challenging to preserve―would have been the never-to-be-heard-again ramblings of a half-drunk poet in the Bowery, a conversation about warthogs captured in the stacks at The Strand Bookstore, a very liberal interpretation of Hamlet’s speech from Act 3, Scene 1, performed over a plate of pork dumplings in Columbus Park. Of all places, New York City is teeming with once-in-a-lifetime moments that would have been even more challenging to find and record. What made “Agrippa” truly special and worth the effort?

Answer: It was William Gibson‘s “Agrippa.”

The double fact that the poem was penned by the grandpappy of Cyberpunk and was built to be as fragile and finite as possible created a hacker holy grail too tempting to pass up. Upon a closer inspection, however, the strings start to show. Not that “Agrippa” and its life as a cyberspace archangel was the result of a conspiracy between Gibson and the manganimous hackers three. But he, of all people, had to have understood the technological variables and the very human constants revolving around the presentation of his work in such a peculiar manner. The interface between technology and its creators/operators/slaves is a powerful theme in Gibson’s own award-winning writing. He had to know that the combination of his own notoriety and the challenge would engender efforts to undermine “Agrippa’s” self-destruction. Every diskette offered the chance for a would-be programmer to make his mark. In fact, it would have been quite simple for someone viewing an “Agrippa” diskette to perform exactly the same act as “Templar,” “Rosehammer,” and “Pseudophred” did.

Perhaps by implementing its self-destructive capabilities, Gibson actually extended “Agrippa’s” life. If he truly wanted it to disappear, he would should have put it on a 5.25 inch diskette, formatted for the Commodore VIC 20, published it under a pseudonym, and not tell a soul. As it stands, having it on 3.5 HD diskette (the dominant form of magnetic media at the time) and publicizing “The Transmission” far and wide created a scenario in which the poem’s resurrection was always already predestined, despite its creator’s stated goals for the opposite.

The “hacking” of “Agrippa” was not a question of if but when.

With a Wink and a Nod

In doing research for this essay, I came across a curious piece of information whose provenance is most likely unverifiable. It appears on Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s long-abandoned personal site at umd.edu. Underneath the post concerning Kirschenbaum’s first encounter with a physical copy of “Agrippa,” there is an innocuous comment, dated June 4, 2005. It states:

I had the chance to meet Ashbaugh a few years back. He told me that during the time shortly after the book was published, he and Gibson were suddenly inundated with requests for interviews, so many, he said, that they felt compelled to give each interviewer a different story about the project. Some of the stories were true.

Meaning some of the stories were false.

Special thanks to Anobium’s own Benjamin N. Schachtman, whose commentary spurred me to do more in-depth research on this topic. 

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One Comment on “Resurrection of the Word: The Uncanny Persistence of William Gibson’s “Agrippa””

  1. Brandin
    June 28 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Shit story

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