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<nettime> Technocult/Religion (1/3)

Technoculture and the Religious Imagination

A Digitally Remastered Remix of an Improvised Word-Jam delivered live at
Metaforum III, October 1996

By Erik Davis

[The following is an expanded version of the piece that ran in ZKP4. So as
to avoid stuffing your mail-box, I've broken it up into parts.

Again, this is an edited version of the (kindly-provided) transcript of an
off-the-cuff talk, so I'd ask the razor-sharp minds out there to remember
the tentative and probing qualities of my presentation before they get down
to slashing. As Alexei says, critiques ultimately boil down to axioms, and
sometimes it's more interesting simply to watch what a different set of
axioms than your own can carve out of the plenitude of thought.

What especially disappoints me is when thinkers, rather than tentatively if
critically relating to the inevitably faulty intellectual suppositions of
their opponents, violently turn away with arrogance and spite. Maybe I'm
just a mushy-hearted Californian, but it genuinely disturbed me when
Richard Barbrook, with his characteristic meanness of spirit, snidely
denigrated Alberto Gaitan's "piece of biobabble" with his question about
whether "these people ever read any history?" Rather than directly respond
to Gaitan's post (which was an acceptably intelligent and careful post from
a person influenced by the legitimate if problematic arguments of systems
theory), Barbrook turned to rest of the list to brand the man as one of the
stupid (and most likely American) "them." In response to Barbrook's haughty
question, I could only think: and do you, my friend, ever read any good
non-specialist science? At their root, the questions in the
"Declaration..." thread bubble down to some mighty tough and intriguing
problems about the construction of scientific knowledge, the nature (and
culture) of complex systems, the relationship of mind and nature, and the
rigorous but always questionable analogies that drive scientific theory.
But it's so much easier to invoke your own canon, isn't it?

Enough already. Now you can read some stuff about religion.]

Technoculture and the Religious Imagination


There's one very clear distinction I'd like to make up top, and ask that
you keep in mind. Usually when we talk about anything religious, we focus
on well-organized belief systems and the institutions that embody and
enforce these beliefs. But it's very important to make a distinction
between religion as a dogmatic belief system and the more experiential,
imaginal, creative, and practical dimensions of religious life, dimensions
which have little to do with ideological convictions and everything to do
with what I'll call, using a sadly eviscerated term, "spirituality." Within
the phenomena of religion, the relationship between these two modes is very
complex and tangled, and not nearly so straightforward as is often assumed.

One of the main concerns in my work is the question of the religious or
spiritual impulse in cyberculture, a topic I come to more through the study
of subcultures than through questions of theology or metaphysics. In
writing about and researching a number of different imaginative
subcultures, including Neo-Paganism, Santeristas, Rastafari, various media
fandoms, Deadheads and punks and psychedelic ravers, I came to recognize
that even in modern and secular subcultures, many elements -- the use of
imagery, the notion of the tribe, of ritualized sociality -- resonated with
what I would call popular religion. This carries over to technocultural
tribes, who have their own "technologies of the self". Religious discourse
-- and here I mean something quite broad --  is an inevitable and vital
part of our discussions about technoculture, not only because contemporary
technology has become a secular religion, with its own curious mysticisms,
but  simply because we are concerned with the social and imaginative
implications of technology.

Because of this, it is on our shoulders to become a bit more sophisticated
about how we talk about religion. Numerous critics of the wackier elements
of cyberculture have recognized strong elements of mysticism,
apocalypticism, millenarianism, and what Richard Barbrook artfully calls
"mystical positivism". And yet I find that the ensuing dialogue about
religion and the sacred is often very simplistic. One example is the
Critical Art Ensemble and their piece in ZKP3, "Nihilism in the Flesh." At
one point this theoretically sophisticated crew discuss the way that
religion relates to nihilism in a very different way than secular moderns,
in that the wholesale embrace of the flesh, the ego, and the physical world
is considered to be something of a problem. "In terms of the Eastern
theology the situation of subject/object is mediated by the Hell of desire
which can be only be pacified when the subject is erased, and thereby
returned to the unitary void."

There's more, but I'm interested in just that sentence. Besides the
silliness of referring to a clearly Buddhist paradigm as being "theology"
-- after all, Buddhism has no God -- CAE's notion of Buddhism derives
directly from the earliest and crudest nineteenth-century Western
interpretations of the dharma, which are dominated by budding Western
notions of nihilism and the "void" as filtered through Nietzsche and

Philosophically, this "void" is simply the notion that nothing at all has
any abiding substance -- the ultimate de-reification of existence and the
thought. Though the quest for simple extinction into Nirvana is somewhat
relevant to Theravada Buddhism, it remains a crude depiction of Eastern
wisdom traditions, and is devoid of any mention of Mahayana or Vajrayana,
both of which mightily complicate the question of desire, nihilism, and
immanence. In the Mahayana, for example, the recogniztion that there is no
abiding substance to the illuosry self is accompanied, not by an escape to
Nirvana, but by the bodhisattva's radical commitment to the world of
suffering, where such illusions have real force. In the Vajrayana, all
passions, including lust, are simply considered energies which can be
tapped and alchemically transformed towards spiritual goals -- which can
include sexual union. Dzogchen and Tantra are all about immanence, and Zen
masters are known for their concupiscence and fondness for booze. Moreover,
all these traditions insist that enlightenment occurs in the body, and in
the human community of the sangha.

And so religious ideas emerge into a very important discussion, and yet
their power dissipates by their being caricatured as the easy "enemy:"
world-denying transcendence and mushy, always-authoritarian unity.

Another example, which is more interesting, is Richard Barbrook's ZKP piece
on the sacred cyborg, which discusses a number of crude metaphysical and
apocalyptic notions that are reborn within the frenzied edges of
Extropian-styled technoculture -- Artificial Intelligence, digital
immortality, and the radical separation of body and mind. I am compelled by
the connections he draws, by his sharp analysis of "mystical positivism,"
and with the fact that these things are deeply problematic. And yet, for
Barbrook, the error is simple: these images are utterly false irrational
fantasies that deny the cold hard facts of historical -- i.e., economic --
materialism and the necessity of a social democratic grand narrative that
has no recourse to such pesky atavisms.

But spirituality, the sacred imaginary, and cosmology (which is what his
mystical positivism boils down to) are not atavisms, though they contain
seeds of all sorts of violent, stupid and authoritarian possibilities --
just as surely as historical materialism does. By saying this, I'm not
attempting to defend the power structure of established religions. I just
want to point out that one can mount critiques of the sacred cyborg from
within religious language just as easily as you can from without -- and
many do so. For me, this material is very much along the lines that Toshiya
Ueno described in another context: a medicine and poison situation, a
radical double bind. The mysticism that Barbrook describes is strange and
powerful, and makes up a rather significant dimension of cyberculture. So,
you might ask, where does it come from? As an intellectual I can critique
these "illusions" all I want, but there is something rather significant
going on here on a sociological, psychological, and imaginal plane that
takes us beyond the critique of concepts into the abiding concerns of
humanity as they have unfolded over millennia.

Barbrook's piece relies on an interesting timeline, a deeply linear notion
of cultural history which pegs these mystical elements as primitive,
atavistic, and regressive. The idea here is that human civilizations arise
from childish elements and then mature into modern self-consciousness, at
which point we realize that the premodern worldview is no longer evident or
relevant, that it erodes our own political autonomy, and obscures the real
forces in the world. There's much to be said for this scenario, though to
my mind it results in a bit of the throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater
effect that Barbrook has criticized vis-a-vis the "postmodern" critique of
leftism. One of the things I like about the Nettime discussions, in fact,
is how unwilling they are to be satisfied with either the postmodern or the
modern, as well as their willingness to mix these periods in very strong,
exciting and open-ended ways. But I would add that one cannot really engage
the sociological and imaginal hybrids of cyberculture without also
including the premodern -- not as an atavism, but as a positive,
productive, and dangerous regime -- just like all the others.

Of course, this premodern that is not a pure return -- it is an articulated
premodern, a constructed archaism or medievalism. And yet it forms a vital
dimension of the strange, mutant environment that we find ourselves in, and
we lose touch with both the juice and the terror of the moment by cluthing
a strictly evolutionary -- or in the case of postmodernism, a rather vapid
if exuberantly eclectic-- timeline.

Perhaps the most interesting theory about the functional presence of the
premodern I've come across is the interpretative matrix proposed by the
great French historian of science Bruno Latour. In his book _We Have Never
Been Modern_, Latour talks about the emergence of the Enlightenment, the
how the new rhetorical and procedural constructions of modern science
divided the world between nature -- a productive and determined reality
articulate by science -- and the free range of culture and political

This "Great Divide" works in many different ways, and continues to inform
many different questions. A crucial contemporary example, which is not
Latour's, arises in gender studies. We recognize that gender is very much
of a construct, and yet critics of radical social constructionists insist
rather obviously that we remain saddled with physiologically and
genetically differentiated bodies, limits that are succinctly and
productively articulated in many ways by science. Unless you are willing to
argue that your own death is merely a social construction, then you find
yourself hopelessly entangled with a carnal organism with its own specific
histories and limits. At the same time, the moment we speak of the body and
make decisions about how we narrate its apparent limits, we are already in
the realm of discourse and construction, including all of the dreadful
power-games that are implied with the language of natural law. On the other
hand, critics who deny the enormously productive and articulate activities
of science in order to serve the idols of semiotics and hardcore relativism
wind up with a distinctly unpersuasive combination of linguistic idealism
and pessimistic irrationalism. And so we shuttle back and forth across the
Great Divide, shifting the arrows of our causal explanations from society
to nature to society again.

In his book, Latour contrasts this modern intellectual condition with what
he calls "the anthropological matrix" of the premodern. Within the
anthropological matrix, the Great Divide does not really exist. There is
not nature and culture, but what he calls nature-cultures. Things are not
crisply divided between object and subject, but are hybrids:
subject-objects, animist actors in a web of necessary relations. Say that I
am a traditional Inuit and I kill a polar bear. What is the polar bear to
me? At one level the polar bear is a perfectly useful material object that
I manipulate in perfectly rational ways in order to fulfill perfectly human
needs and desires -- nothing mystical about it. At the same time, and
inextricably, the polar bear is a figure in an imaginal cosmological
network, a slowly-shifting set of relationships drawn between material
practices and all sorts of symbolic, religious, and mystical elements which
co-create the ontology of my world. Though of course subject to historical
change, this network is inherently conservative, because every action of
production, every technical development, and certainly every emergence of
novelty, is immediately registered and constrained by the entire matrix as
a new subject-object, a new technical actor. It is this webwork that the
Great Divide rips apart, allowing the astounding productivity -- in the
broadest sense of the term -- of the modern world. One need only compare
the hermetic and alchemical science of the Renaissance to the sciences of
Boyle, Descartes, and the Royal Society to see this.

What Latour wants to suggest, in a subtler way than I am proposing, is that
today the Great Divide is breaking down. And it's breaking down because of
the incredible complexity of the networks of inter-relationships that we
find ourselves submerged in now, an ever-expanding network of mutating
hybrids that cannot be captured by modernist disciplinary matrices or their
underlying causal axioms. We must genuinely engage the new hybrids, which
are most emphatically not simply semiotic cross-breeds of floating cultural
signifiers that smash into one other and produce new cultural mutations.
That kind of "postmodern" hybridity is fine and very fascinating, and makes
for an exhilarating if overly-engineered cultural stew.

But there is a far deeper kind of hybridity as well, which has to do with
the way that cultural practices, images, technologies, knowledges, and myth
fuse into novel and open-ended material and informational conditions: the
subject-objects constructed by an increasingly market-driven science, the
production of new goods and services, the explosion of new subjectivities,
the collapse of master narratives, new information landscapes, new gadgets,
etc. We are surrounded by new networks of subject-objects, and the animism
that drives "mystical positivism" is not simply an ideology but a
fundamental symptom of the fact that the conceptual reality constructed by
the Enlightenment can no longer keep its act together. In many ways, this
is terrifying, or at least disarming. But if you acknowledge the
irreducible ontological, sociological, and imaginary force of this
premodern return -- which is of course a return with a difference, and no
longer definable as antecedent -- than the questions of the religious
imagination -- of mythic perception, of technologies of the self, of
radical interiority, of ecstasy, even of faith -- can no longer simply be
written off as a set of dodgy concepts, reactionary ideologies, or
regressive retreats from the intellectual and existential rigors of

Though it's still fruitful to do so, one need not delve into the vatic
utterances of Marshall McLuhan to recognize examples of this premodern
return. Our whole Deleuzian, postmodern language of tribes and nomadism is
shot through with the premodern imaginary. This language resonates because
even intellectuals have established, in however constructed and articulated
a fashion, a relationship with a partially mythic formation, one that
suggests new-old subjectivities and perceptions -- D&G's "witch's flight".
That doesn't mean that we can't use it in theoretically sophisticated ways,
for one aspect of this return is that it is imbued with a new technical
sophistication. I was very interested and very pleased that Heiko Idensen
included the Torah in his hypertext project, for the traditional packaging
of the Jewish scriptures is a great example of hypertext. In New York, you
peek into these tomes that the Hasidim read on the subway: these books are
stunning, as aggressively dense as Ted Nelson's _Computer Lib_, with
patchworks of different typefaces to indicate the nested levels of
interpretation and commentary. The mystical Kabbalah is full of
recombinatory elements, full of codes and ciphers and deconstructions of
the Book. Obviously, hypertext is not necessarily a religious mode of
writing. But there is a strange technical resonance here that is very
important, and it raises many questions about hermeneutics, the tactics of
interpretation, the social construction of texts, and the ambiguous status
of the author. Again there is a return, but with a difference -- an
articulated return.

One of the more ominous aspects of all this is that, if I am partly correct
and the logic of the religious imagination gains steam as we plunge ahead,
then the spread of "postmodern" communications technologies will hardly
prevent the most insidious elements of religion from reappearing:
manipulative control, fanaticism, and the violent imaginal divisions
erected between self and other. One interesting example is discussed by
Ravi Sundaram in his article in ZKP3, where he draws attention to the fact
that it is the Hindu nationalists in India that dominate the Net. Of
course, these movements are contemporary constructions, whose reactionary
and quasi-nationalist politics have nothing necessarily to do with the
blooming mosaic of cults, practices, and metaphysical jewels that we rather
simplistically call "Hinduism." And yet these groups are also certainly
religious, and they can dominate the Net partially because they are able to
exploit its symbolic and imaginal possibilities. Specifically, Sundaram
discusses how they project into the nomadic plasticity of the Net the
virtual image of a nation unified by their version of Hindu culture.

That information technology allows a premodern return of religious reaction
should only really surprise us if we are under the mistaken assumption that
the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not part and parcel of
modernism. Whatever wellsprings of interiority it draws from, the exoteric
forms of fundamentalism always take place within a contemporary context.
Though you wouldn't guess it from listening to the U.S. media, Islamic
fundamentalism is fundamentally a product of modernism -- or rather, of its
failures. Such a return to foundations has next to nothing to do with Islam
before the twentieth century -- a religion that, after its initial
centuries of bloodthirsty expansion, is historically far more tolerant than
Christianity. These things are still constructs of the now; they select and
remix the past in extremely powerful ways, and they are very schizophrenic
when it comes to communication tools. While the Taliban hang televisions
and VCRs from the telephone poles like dead presidents, he Ayatollah laid
the groundwork for the Iranian revolution through underground networks of
cassette recordings -- an example of the "secondary orality" discussed by
Walter Ong. New information technologies may continue to prove quite able
to simulate and recrystalize "tribal" thought and practice.

One important element follows from this line of thought. If we reocgnize
fundamentalism as a hostile component of modernity rather than a leftover
or a holdout from the premodern, that means that everytime we run across a
contemporary religious formation with a political tinge, we should not
necessary call out the dogs with cries of "Reactionaries!" If that is your
instinct, then you should sit down and have a long hard look at the
Zapatistas. And once again, I say this not as a defender of tradition, but
as someone who is rather desperately interested in the various forms of
resistance and revival that might take as we plunge into something that may
well take the form of Mark Stahlman's New Dark Ages.

Of course, one of the reasons we instantly launch into critiques of
contemporary religious formations, and react to religious motifs and
spiritual language with an instinctive horror, is that we are still
reacting to the historical nightmare of institutional Christianity. Because
of this, our dominant idea of religion considers it as violently
institutional belief system, a totalizing ideology that functions as a
repressive social, intellectual, and imaginal control mechanism. That's all
very true and very accurate, but we must be careful not to treat religion
as we do other ideologies. Culturally, the relationship between religious
practice and the dogmatic or conceptual level of religious ideology is very
complicated, producing many different problems and possibilities. Too often
critics and intellectuals only recognize the belief system, reducing the
whole complex of religious phenomena to symptoms of reactionary ideologies
that can be attacked on both philosophical and political grounds.

For example, both Richard Barbrook in his piece and Mark Dery in _Escape
Velocity_ discuss various aspects of cyberculture that are apocalyptic,
millenarian, New Age, gnostic, etc. They then radically critique these
cultural phenomena, arguing that such ideas and dreams are obviously
illusory, and that they absorb energy from the real world where we have
work to do to resist noxious forms of power and to help the lives of a lot
of suffering people. But techno-spirituality is not just some unthinking
atavism. If I had time I would go into some detail and show the historical
and psychological background of these phenomena, their roots in American
spiritual heteroxy (which was once shot through with progressive elements),
and how these tendencies wind up being so strangely intermingled with
today's technology. Though I do not agree with the anthropological and
psychological axioms that underlie Barbrook or Dery's critiques, I agree
very much with many of their political concerns. The problem though is that
you have to ask what the function these notions, experiences, or
imaginations serve within a set of very different and open-ended kinds of
practices and conditions. The problem with examining religious phenomena,
and especially with spiritual people who are extolling a certain kind of
vision of the world, is that we tend to respond to their level of discourse
and not necessarily to their level of practice and experience.

Things look very different if we take a broader, cultural studies
perspective. In this regard, it's interesting to compare technopagans,
Extropian transhumanists and the like to non-elitist and secular
subcultures, particularly those associated with popular music. If we are
coming from an older perspective of cultural critique -- the Frankfurt
School/Debord model -- the spectacle is so dominant, the commodity is so
dominant, that it seems impossible that anything organically cultural or
subversive or revivifying could emerge from these mechanisms. The
industrial production of popular music, the fetishistic consumption of
records, the mindless fandom encouraged around stars -- how could this
possibly be a site of anything interesting?

And yet we know from cultural studies that there are a whole number of
fascinating forms of resistance and of cultural re-creation found within
the social consumption of recorded music. Moreover, many of these
subcultures are also inflected with a certain kind of religious
sensibility, and not just in terms of the "cults" composed of "fans" --
from the Latin _fanaticus_, used to describe inspired members of mystery
cults. For example, you have the phenomena of reggae music in the
seventies, a deeply religious and millenarian music whose political and
spiritual force fed directly into all sorts of contemporary
anti-colonialist cultural movements, and even the British punk scene --
superficially a most anti-spiritual subculture. The utopian ecstasies of
the Deadheads are another example (a secret history of what we too often
and too crudely call the "California Ideology"), and the Goa-style techno
scene is very much an example now.

What I draw from all this is that, just as we have to look at the imaginal
and social practices of fans engaging commodities, poaching and
reconfiguring signs, and developing relationships within the belly of a
dominant commodity culture, so too should we bring more care and attention
to the imaginal and social practices of people engaged in what we would
recognize as religious or spiritual "ideologies" -- including those we
discover in technoculture.

All this brings to mind some of Michel de Certeau's notions about the
practice of everyday life as being a locus of both resistance and creative
accommodation -- notions that are certainly inflected by de Certeau's
religious background and researches into mysticism. In a passage in _The
Practice of Eveyday Life_, he talks about how, in our radically
electronicized, technological, and engineered environment, the individual
cannot  so much directly resist these forces as attempt to detach
themselves from them, to outwit them, to play games with them, to recreate
within a technological environment the art and practices of earlier hunters
and of rural people. It's a striking image, if a politically pessimistic
(I'm tempted to say pragmatic) one. And yet it resonates with the tribe,
the gang, the technopagan, the raver, any number of exuberant "atavisms"
reconstellated in the postmodern ruins. But in order to uncork the essence
of these phenomena, it behooves us to look at them through an imaginative
as well as a critical or ideological perspective.

All this becomes more interesting if we cease looking at religion as a
belief system, and look at it instead as a kind of congealed institutional
response -- a kind of apparatus of capture -- to the extraordinary
psycho-spiritual potentials we carry within ourselves. It's tough to talk
about these potentials these days. Despite the sophistication of critical
discourse, it often displays a tendency to reduce complex, multi-layered
networks of forces and agents to plots of land controllable inside certain
disciplinary or theoretical languages. And this is particularly the case
when we are talking about ideological or social formations, and how they
interact with concrete individuals, their minds, souls, and altogether
human potentials. How do we relate these two levels of reality, discourse,
and experience? How do we relate the ongoing fact of our conscious,
subjective, creative lives with these huge abstractions, warring
ideologies, and complex media fields of simulacra?

Faced with this situation, there is a very strong tendency to collapse
levels, to reduce everything to an abstract field of ideological wars.
Ferreting out the ideology embedded in cultural formations, often
paranoically, becomes a way of avoiding the existential problem of our
concrete embodiment in ideas, practices, institutions, and the flesh. The
intellectual sits there and looks at a particular cultural formation and
says: ah, I see the secret hand of ideology at work, reproducing its
unwholesome notions beneath the surface. And so we lose touch with the
lifeworld. It's not that we should cease considering questions of ideology,
of the hidden hand clutching our own thoughts as well as the thoughts and
imagination of the culture at large. But we can introduce a far more fluid,
open-ended, and substantive multiplicity into our discourse, particularly
when we are dealing with questions of experience and human subjectivity. It
becomes a question of how you fit the enormous energies released by
ecstatic experience, or the endless productions of the creative
imagination, or the perceptual and philosophical changes introduced through
hardcore contemplative self-examination, into the more mundane frameworks
of life and thought, politics and art.

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