Religion & Technology (Methodological Considerations) (Jeremy Stolow [ed.], Deus in Machina)

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Read with great pleasure Jeremy Stolow’s edited Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. The essays are almost all terrific. Some are more theoretical, some more ethnographic, some historical. Jeremy’s introduction is worth the price of the book. The contributors explore not just the interconnection between religion and technology, but the interface by which one might properly understand religion as a kind of technology, or techne, in the ancient Greek philosophical sense (p.65).

The sense of “technology” is expansive, including materialities, techniques, instruments, and expertise, drawn away from a single-minded focus on utilitarian function and towards the capacity of technology to incite wonder. What religion and technology (are supposed to) (are said to) share are the displacing of human agency before overwhelming powers and forces, ruptures in and communications and communions across space and time, fundamental laws of mutual attraction and repulsion governing the universe, constituting a kindred “signaling system [that links] the ‘immanent’ corporeal processes of sensation, impulse, and reaction, to the ‘transcendent’ symbolic processes of cognition, representation, and memory,” the opening to radical otherness (p.96, cf. 5-6, 92, 187, 208). The effect is to spiritualize technology and to materialize religion.

If I’m going to be a little gruff about the book, it is because I like it so much. It is good in both what it sets up to do, as well as to alert more critical readers to the limits of its own discourse.

About the emergent discourse interconnecting religion and technology, I guess I’m very suspicious of big claims, especially ontological ones, that simply declare the affinity between religion and technology, theoretical claims that are impossible to verify one way or the other,  and historical-cultural claims regarding this intersection which I am unable to assess myself.

The problem is this. Despite the obligatory nods to contemporary theories of religion whose proponents seek to destabilize and undo the concept, religion actually appears in this book as  farily stable complex of objects: relating to gods and spirits, and texts, and rituals, and other practices. Unlike religion and art, these two topoi, religion and technology, might be too hard to track, historically and theoretically, precisely because “technology” is such a vague and open term that can include the primitive tools used by primates to hi-tech and information technologies, and everything in between, including that cultural systems and systems of spiritual practice that we identify as “religion” with relative ease most of the time, if not always.

I tend to be cautious with these kinds of interfaces, unlike many of the contributors to this volume and to its discourse who tend not to want to see any line dividng religion and technology. I’ll agree that this line is not clear and distinctive, not always and perhaps never. But I’d nevertheless suggest that [1] historically, it’s helpful to distinguish them, [2] there are, in fact, unclear and loose distinctions that are worth considering, [3] these unclear and loose distinctions might be ontic as opposed to ontological, meaning that I would be very careful with the use of the verb “to be” in any statement connecting religion and technology.

In the end, it all comes down to “metaphor” or “figure.” So it’s worth paying attention to those points in the text or anywhere else where an author claims that the relation between “religion” and “technology” “is” not “just a metaphor” (pp.65, 69, 88, 89, 98). Examples include the notional image of the Holy Spirit as “electric power” or telegraphy as spiritualist, supermundane “lines” of  communication (69, 92-4). Maybe it’s just a metaphor. Maybe there’s no such thing as “mere metaphor.” I don’t know, but I do know this book is not going to decide this question, most likely because these kinds of questions are ultimately undecideable.

As a general rule, I’m in inclined to at least entertain, to seriously entertain the argument that this type of analogical thinking “is” “more” than “mere metaphor.” I’m gullible this way. At some very clear way, religious systems “are” technological, and not “merely” mental, that what we call “spiritual” and “material” are impacted into each other.

I’m thinking that maybe the trick is to distinguish between [1] hard claims to an “actual” “experience” of the divine or spiritual things by means of a technology and [2] the “sense” of a said kind of experience. The latter would be a softer kind of claim than the former. While the former is almost impossible to verify, the latter is not. These kind of “things,” these kind of sensations and the semblances of such sensations “happen” all the time. And that’s why, as the editor and contributors assume, it might always be worth looking for “Deus” in the machine, not outside. That’s why, phenomenologically, I’m inclined to bracket the ontological claims, and stick with intentional and non-intentional forms of consciousness and their noetic objects.

If you are interested in religion and aesthetic, technology is the next obvious step after art.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. He works in religion, continental philosophy, theoretical aesthetics, and visual culture.
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