March 2009


Hello Eric,

I miss you so much it burns, as if you were vacationing in Equatorial Guinea, lying on a bed of hot coals while a skankily dressed and petite 14 year old maiden rubs Icy Hot on your crotch, and some large man named Toto pees on your face.

Call me.

Love and firecrackers,

jj.

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I’ve become fascinated with Abimael Guzmán, former leader of a communist rebel group in Perú known at The Shining Path. Here are some details from his life:

  • His father was a wealthy lottery winner and ladies’ man.
  • Guzmán’s first career was philosophy professor. He traveled to China and became interested in Maoism and Chinese-style communism.
  • He went underground in the late 70’s and formed The Shining Path rebel guerrilla group with intentions to lead a peasant revolution. The plan of this group was to terrorize police, army and government officials in order to make it impossible for them to rule, allowing for The Shining Path to take over utilizing Maoist principles.
  • The Shining Path burned ballot boxes, organized labor strikes and tortured those they deamed against them.
  • Wikipedia says: “Initially Guzmán attempted to win over the support of citizens by punishing corrupt government officials and other unpopular leaders. However Shining Path’s increasingly brutal methods together with strictly imposed curfews, the prohibition of alcohol and an overall sense of insecurity and fear lead to an increased popular reaction against the communist party.”
  • He was caught, along with 7 lieutenants, living in a ballet studio in a ritzy neighborhood of Lima. His laptop was found with detailed records of Shining Path members (23.430) and mercenaries, along with a database of his weapons arsenal.
  • He was publicly exhibited in a cage wearing a black and white striped uniform and was tried by military judges who wore hoods because they feared for their lives. He was sentenced to life and is currently incarcerated in one of four subterranean cells. Ironically, another prisoner in these cells is Vladimiro Montesinos, former head of the National Intelligence Service that captured Guzmán. He is in jail for taking bribes from drug traffickers who secretly videotaped the exchanges.
  • It is rumored that Guzmán’s first wife was murdered by his mistress and lieutenant, Elena Iparraguirre. Guzmán recently proposed to Iparraguirre, who is serving a life sentence in a different location. The two have not set a date for their wedding.
  • The Shining Path continues today, although it has morphed into a cocaine cartel.

gushingly
field
school
with gentle gasps
beg
a lookout shed for a melon
patch
preparation

(found by Ryan McGivern)

My top four non-music radio shows, the first three from NPR and the fourth from CBC:

4. Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me — a smart comedic quiz show about the week’s news; you get to learn and laugh at the same time

3. Radio Lab — a playful, inquisitive and wondrous deconstruction of science, ethics and the human condition.

2. This American Life — storytellers tackle all the topics of life

1. Wiretap with Jonathan Goldstein — neurotic masturbatory mindplay. This show isn’t for everyone and might take a few listens to understand what’s happening. Basically, Jonathan calls his friends and chats about reality and imagination, sometimes interluding with fantastical science fiction stories by his girlfriend and one of my favorite writers, Heather O’Neill.

An examination of pop culture, using Gordon Lynch’s use of the term in his Understanding Theology and Pop Culture, as being a people’s “way of life” allows for an inspection of how cultural ‘texts’ are produced and their consumption. This approach is effective particularly with such expressions of culture that are so deeply enmeshed in every human activity that they are likely to go otherwise unnoticed, as can be the case with technoscience and religion in the contemporary American milieu. Much as cultural inspections into religion have necessarily expanded their scope and complexity due to new avenues of inquiry such as the substantive and functionalist views so too has technoscience been complexified through the work of such social theorists as Michel Foucault. Pop cultural articulations of religion and the technoscientific overlap and are mutually interdependent as they are outgrowths of the imagination, determine existential questioning, are both evolving organically, and share mythic resonances. As a phenomenon that while ubiquitous is largely overlooked and misunderstood, technoscience and specifically information and communication technologies will be evaluated in regards to the reciprocal and co-occurring relationship to contemporary American religion.

            Technology is inherent in every religion. Considered in its broadest sense, technology includes technique, craftwork, methodologies, implements, procedures, and cultural structures towards the achievement of goals. The productive or instrumental nature of technology is not limited to material ends, but can include the cultural, psychological, or religious. Jay Newman writes, “a priest or lay religionist who prays for rain…is concerned with correct application of those techniques and skills that will make [their] world better.”[1] The techniques, structures, and methods of production employed by a culture can often remain latent, or taken as granted. Martin Heidegger referred to this condition of gainful apparatuses as ready-to-hand and as being largely ‘invisible’ until their malfunction. This ‘invisibility’ allows technology to grow within religion, dictate its parameters, and be integrated unquestionably into religious practice and theological endeavor. This essay will undertake to lift both religion and technoscience from pop culture for inspection on two points; first how information technology if accepted uncritically can become spiritualized and secondly how latent theological and ideological frames can be determined through the use and interpretation of technology.            Darwinistic evolution provides a model for the means and processes by which our environment takes shape, but has repeatedly been misappropriated religious agendas in the assertion that what is must necessarily be so. Some religionists see God revealed not only through nature but as though God directed nature to its current state and appearance by design and with purpose. Clothed in the quasi-scientific language of evolution, this perspective that is arguably deterministic and anthropocentric appeals to a desire to ameliorate tensions between faith and science. This use of Darwinistic evolution has been expanded to include not only the biological component of the environment but also the technological and spiritual by some and serving as illustrative is the work of Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg. Cobb Kreisberg owes much of her spiritualized vision of technological evolution to the work of Jesuit theologian and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who espoused a vision of an unfolding development of spiritual evolution guided by divinity towards an eschatological culmination into pure conscious spirit. Teilhard’s Law of Complexity/Consciousness detailed a development whereby brute materiality would be transformed unto higher levels of consciousness throughout the cosmos by ‘units’ of matter, life, thought, and ultimately spirit. Cobb Kreisberg understands Teilhard’s evolution as being witnessed within the progressing advancements of contemporary information technology.
            Cobb Kreisberg makes Teilhard a techno-prophet when she writes, “Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived.”
[2] In her article A Globe Clothing Itself with a Brain she writes that the mystic Jesuit’s vision of an evolutionary trek which the cosmos is caught in can be evidenced in information technology which enables communication to occur over vast distances. Teilhard’s publication of The Phenomenon of Man in 1955 describes a global membrane of information that begins to unify consciousness in a collective reified Mind (Greek ‘nous’) which he coined as the noosphere. John Perry Barlow, Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation states, “The point of all evolution…is to create a collective organism of mind. With cyberspace, we are essentially hardwiring the noosphere.”[3]

            Such statements which marry technology to theology though not uncommon can pose serious threats to interpersonal relations and ethics by their propositions. A connotation of inevitability is evinced in such portrayals; a sense that irrespective of human choice and intention, and technological goals and access, a divinization of the world is occurring. Teilhard’s progression of geosphere, biosphere, noosphere which eventually terminates in the Omega Point, that is God, is in itself fraught with troublesome outcomes and when coupled with technoscience its dangers increase. First, there is a problem of telos: when the end and purpose are substantive to a phenomenon meaning and relation are interjected. Thereby, information technologies are synthesized into a causal chain whose ends are dictated from the start despite the lived experience of diverse bodily narratives. Secondly, and related to the first is a totalizing effect that subsumes all narratives into a unified theory that assumes a metacultural standpoint that views at once the past, present, future in a harmonized schema. Another criticism of this view may be that it is a spiritually validated ‘might makes right’ argument. The sense connoted is that a tool such as the internet in its present form, which permeates so much of affluent American pop culture, must by its very significance in one iteration of popular ‘way of life’ be divinely consecrated. Lastly, in terms of theological conclusions that can be drawn, there is a deferral to the fullness of divinity in the present. The Ultimate is an ever postponed development that one must wait to occur within historical time. Like the release of an upgraded iPhone or the emergence of Internet 3.0, so too there is a ‘not-yet’ to the fullness of god.

In such broad uncritical celebrations of the internet and communications as representing the ‘expansion of consciousness’ one can detect the excited privileging of the primarily developed countries’ affluent whose consciousnesses comprise the internet presently. The neglect of consideration for whose class and social groups are represented in the ‘mind’ that is covering the globe acts as segue to the second point of appraising technoscience and religion: the latent theological and ideological can be inferred from pop cultural statements about technology. An article written in 2003 by Thomas Friedman for the New York Times serves as illustrative of how dense popular notions of technology can be. Citing that each day Google processes over 200 million searches, Friedman quotes Alan Cohen, a vice president of a Wi-Fi provider: “If I can operate Google, I can find anything…Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything.”[4] The implication in statements such as this is that God is an infinite database which stores information and is neutral, passive, and without virtue. This is kin to the idea that proper judgments and wise actions can be better made if one has merely more information. There is here, as with Cobb Kreisberg a cultural gloss in that Google cannot and could never know that which is not in cyberspace. Statements made of Wi-Fi laptops enabling ‘the world to be at one’s fingertips’ limits the world to mean that which has been ‘uploaded’ to the exclusion of the technologically marginalized.

Friedman, unlike Cobb Kreisberg does not directly divinize communications technology but insinuates at the idea with his article Is Google God? While dazzled by the power of the internet, his enthusiasm towards technology is tempered by nationalistic anxiety couched in xenophobia. The specter of terrorism and fear saturates Friedman’s analysis of how technology has changed the world and this fear of the knowledgeable ‘other’ is what inspires one to at least appear ethical. This is a perverse and inverted retelling of Genesis’ ‘tree of knowledge’ myth. Whereas before it was God who guarded knowledge from humanity, it is now America who would desire to withhold knowledge. He writes that because of the internet, “people outside America will be able to build alliances more efficiently…and they will be able to reach out and touch us—whether with computer viruses or anthrax recipes downloaded from the Internet.”[5] This sentiment gathers the various ideas of colonialism’s ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, deception being necessary to maintain order, and that those who are ‘un-American’ are to be feared as violent. Outside of the imagery of a hallowed ‘tree of knowledge’ which will inevitably be despoiled by sinful usurpers, Friedman also tips his hat to the religious disposition of appearing good out of fear of retribution. It is an uncompassionate heart that finds its motivation for goodness in an ‘all seeing eye’ whether it is God, Santa Claus or the Internet in the hands of figments of our fearful imagination. Friedman writes that Americans should become conciliatory towards others because “info-tech, left to its own devices, will make it so much easier for small groups to build their own little island kingdoms. And their island kingdoms, which may not seem important or potent now, will be able to touch us more, not less.”[6] To answer the question of Friedman’s article, ‘is Google God?’, the answer would seem to be ‘yes’ if one’s god was feared gazing eye whose availability to others was to be withheld.

Cobb Kreisberg also sees fear as concomitant with technology and appeals also to the threat of terrorism. Writing Cybergrace before 9/11, she appeals to the memory of the speculative fears that surrounded 1996’s TWA flight 800 catastrophe. She quotes a New York Times article that appeared four days after the crash: “high technology may make a fine sword, but it is a flawed shield.”[7] Unlike Friedman, Cobb Kreisberg sees a religio-spiritual solution to the vulnerabilities of terrorism, sickness, social inequalities, and mortality through welcoming and nurturing transpersonal consciousness. She describes the choice of approaching technologies to further create incapable barriers and illusive shields or “work with technology to build a world of ongoing integration and spiritual evolution…Technology can serve as one of our greatest tools or our greatest hindrances.”[8]  

Technology and religion in their worst portrayals can be reduced to ‘methods of control’, frames of utility that ‘get results’. In religion, the caricature of religion as control is adduced from colonization programs from Church missions to conservative hegemonic power stabilization. Such sentiments while stereotypes, are reactions to and in part supported by hierarchical theistic models. The transcendent God who is distant, all knowing, and directive was hinted at in Friedman’s article and can more easily play to top-down linear structures of power and oppressive, non-reciprocal control. “This is the God who knows all things, sees all things, and controls all things from [a] transcendent perch.”[9] This is a perspective that has faltered in theology as well as in positivist linear cause and effect mechanistic models. In both spheres, religious and technological, interdependence, complexity, and mutual-feedback relations are replacing Modernist worldviews. In technology, systems, interdependence, and mutual-feedback relationality can be used to express the newer view and in religion this can take on the language of the Process philosophy of A.N. Whitehead. When Process thinking is applied to theology it expresses God at work in every event and being influenced by the free choices of systems of relationality in the universe. Cobb Kreisberg relates Process to the ‘swarm intelligence’ of an ant colony and also the ‘bottom up’ emergent programming of artificially intelligent technologies. In this light, it is much more difficult to parody religion or technology as oppressive methods of control, and much easier to view them as expressions of the desires of bodies in time relating in vulnerability.    

            Technology qualifies as a religion itself in both substance and function, and in some cases an uncritical pop cultural appropriation of what are perceived as authoritative lessons can lead to ethical dangers. Technoscience as a source of communitas and meaning-supplying myth is prevalent and growing in contemporary America but it has been criticized from some circles as being oppressive in its current manifestations. Feminisms have pointed to the masculine privileging that has been injected into technoscience since the Modernist period. Aside from the language, projects, presuppositions, and essentialized dualisms Feminists have contested in technoscience, there are problematic ‘lessons’ that some derive from its applications. David Downs’ article “Video Gaming for Academic Credit” documents a UC Berkeley business class based on the precepts of the online game StarCraft. By class creator and instructor Alan Feng’s telling, StarCraft, an online game of interplanetary warfare, is ‘definitely applicable to life’ and holds ‘vital life lessons.’[10] Those lessons and applications to life include viewing life as a ‘resource battle’ in the midst of a game where players are in a race to ‘totally annihilate’ another planet’s species. The class and the students who pack its lecture hall seem to take for granted that the rules of competition, scarcity models, and win-at-all-costs found in StarCraft are accurate pictures of the ‘real world’. If so, they may be neglecting that the game operates on a program of narrow parameters. The only ‘reality’ it, or other technologies can ‘represent’ is the program given them by a very small cadre of computer programmers. When individuals look for the governing rules and meanings of reality along narrowly confined frames without engaging the context those frames arise from and abstracted from a wealth of voices including the marginalized, their ‘reality’ will be in service to oppression; whether derived from technological or religious frames. 

            The pop cultural myths and interpretations of technology are not limited to esoteric business classes within academia but gain credence widely throughout the American imagination despite critical analyses that would discredit them. One such myth is that the internet draws people closer. One articulation of this myth comes in the form of defending social tools such as Facebook or stating that circles of influence and connectivity are both broadened and deepened through online interfaces. This response, while absolutely correct misses the larger connectivity that critics are seeking. The social closeness that many people of faith are critiquing the internet as not yet providing is that which knits people together beyond class and race. Just as urbanization trends may open the residents of cities towards understanding and celebrating wider cultural expressions, this has not yet proven to ameliorate racism and classism. Exposure to and the awareness of other narratives does not necessarily lead to the ‘closeness’ that critics seek. It is an oft repeated statement that ‘the internet brings people together’ and while that is arguably so, what many from within religious traditions seek is a closeness that translates to solidarity and interpersonal intimacy. John Paul II wrote that solidarity is not a ‘shallow distress’ but “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.”[11] While the internet has facilitated solidarity movements’ organization, and causes of social justice being able to gather strength, it is questionable as to whether the internet can cause these movements. It is also questionable whether full impacts of disparities regarding race and class can be fully grasped without bodies in contact and the first-hand experience of sharing in solidarity the weight of social oppressions.

            Another implication derived from technoscientific advances that bears dangers is that humanity has entered a new stage of evolution. This is a conclusion that has its own movement and ideology which is spoken of under the umbrella terms of ‘trans’ or ‘post’ humanism. Adherents of these perspectives state that humanity is on a directed evolutionary path that will preclude the current physiological and philosophical understandings of the human body and is necessary. This view has its extremists such as proponents Hans Moravec, Michael Dryer, and Warren McCulloch is summarized by N. Katherine Hayles: “Humans can either go gently into that good night, joining the dinosaurs as a species…or hang on for a while longer by becoming machines themselves.”[12] One must not however go to the extremes of these to begin to feel the sens that posthumanism or transhumanism are the newest ‘isms’ to establish power.

            There are those who are asking who is being left behind in humanity when there are those charging forward into a ‘posthuman’ era. John P. Foley of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications writes of the ‘digital divide’ that is presently widening in many cultures whereby the unequal distribution and access to technologies has exacerbated poverty and exploitation. Though the internet’s egalitarian and decentralized structure, its absence in the lives of billions has played a divisive role. This technological divide is not limited to communication and information technologies: while many in America can expand their consciousness via the internet, more than 2.5 billion people do not have access to private or hygienic toilets[13] and lack of access to clean water is a still a leading worldwide killer. Foley and the Catholic Church understand the importance of first ensuring the benefit of all and advocate free internet access as a basic human right. The role of a deeper sense of human connectivity fostered both within and without religious traditions can continue to emphasize the connectivity of humanity in the face of those who would like to leave it behind.  

            This essay has undertaken to queer the rigid distinctions between technology and religion by emphasizing their connection as cultural expressions grown out of the imagination, as supplying meaning and myth, and prescribing avenues towards a more fully lived humanity. Seeing how an uncritical attention to technology by some can lead to a spiritualization or divination of its applications which enforce patterns of its blind acceptance. It also used examples from pop culture to find larger theological and ideological frames that can exist latently and implicitly in technology, its use, and the lessons it teaches us. It brought a lens of inquiry to the technoscientific that is especially needed in light of exponential innovation, and its saturation into nearly every reach of culture has included that of faith communities.

The need for intense and intentional reflection and critique for technology is always necessary but especially so for people of religious faith who identify as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. This is because as Jay Newman warns, “progress is normally a term strong in ‘emotive’ meaning but rather weak in ‘descriptive’ meaning.”[14] In the desire to deconstruct modes of oppression, and celebrate the human spirit’s venturing, people of progressive faith must be especially wary of the appeal of the novel. Between a neo-luddite escapism and an unwise leaping ahead in the desire for solutions for injustice and tyranny, there is a discerning critical vision that can create, disseminate, and use technologies for the betterment of all. Newman writes, this “spiritual vision is not only a protection against technology and progress but a way of invigorating them.”[15] In this way, our popular ‘ways of life’ whether technological or religious can retain whatever might be called divine in the connections built in ethical communities of vulnerability and compassion. 

-Ryan McGivern


[1] Jay Newman Religion and Technology (London: Praeger. 1997), 146.

[2] Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.06/teilhard.html

[3] Jennifer J. Cobb Cybergrace: The Search of God in the Digital World (New York: Crown. 1998), 85.

[7] Tim Weiner, New York Times Week in Review, Sunday, July 21, 1996, page 5.

[8] Jennifer J. Cobb Cybergrace: The Search of God in the Digital World (New York: Crown. 1998), 120-121.

[9] Jennifer J. Cobb Cybergrace: The Search of God in the Digital World (New York: Crown. 1998), 167.

[10] David Downs “Video Gaming for Academic Credit” East Bay Express March 11-17, 2009 Vol. 31, issue 22

[11] John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei Socialis, n. 38.

[12] N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999), 283.

[14] Jay Newman Religion and Technology (London: Praeger. 1997), 98.

[15] Jay Newman Religion and Technology (London: Praeger. 1997), 103.

“Showered”

when I sat on the couch I was in pain of denial
an orgasm withheld
flush with stomach-ache and tv drama

i had come close only once the bathroom tiles
seeming so cold and the grout a negative
space that my soul filled with fear
terry cloth was my accomplice

late in June with the windows that a bat had flown through
weeks earlier open my mother under army surplus blanket
says during a message from a drama’s sponsors

‘you know…its okay if you masturbate’
my presbyterian skin tightens up against my embarrassed body
‘i know’ i say just in time for theme music
to carry me away from minnesota

 from myself and the wine of youth
that strange drunk whose piety meets you each morning
oh what forgiveness the sobriety of age and
orgasm bring

I take pictures of the street that never get seen
the women I have loved never saw
a landscape that I will make between the fingers that I have
stretched for diminished chords

I have pictures in my heart
the woman I love can see them
they are blurry and badly lit but their meaning’s before me
because I took them when I was drunk or alive
and when my kingdom finally falls I will sing with her a song
to my poorly strummed guitar

my heart broke this morning outside a YMCA
and later the sleeping person outside the seminary didn’t wake
when I looked with a camera-eye and blinked a guilty picture

the way that my coffee-shook hands grab my face has changed
since seeing you last

oh my god just to smell you!
my pictures are waste 

the generosity of music has been stripped from me
the kindness of music a proximal kiss, untender but kind

I can picture in my mind a time when we once listened to music and my tremulous fingers found us on an untuned guitar with bends
frets are such forgiving things

out of trees and bad light you are in the background
singing

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