Date: Sat, 10 May 1997 18:21:57000
From: Erik Davis

Technoculture and the Religious Imagination

Erik Davis

A Digitally Remastered Remix of an Improvised Word-Jam delivered by Erik Davis live at MetaForum III, October 1996

One of the main concerns in my work is the question of the religious or spiritual impulse in cyberculture, a topic I come to through the study of subcultures in America. In writing about and researching a number of different imaginative subcultures, including Neo-Paganism, Star Trek fandom, Grateful Dead followers, and psychedelic ravers, I came to recognize that even in secular subcultures, many elements -- the use of imagery, the notion of the tribe, of ritualized sociality -- resonated with popular religious practices. And this set of issues carries over to technocultural tribes as well, who have their virtual organizations and "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 rather frightening secular religion, with its own curious mysticism, but simply because we are grappling with the social, imaginative and "tribal" implications of technology.

Because of this, it behooves us 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 dialogue about religion, spiritual experience, 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 fact that religion conceives nihilism in a very different fashion than secular moderns do, because religion considers the wholesale embrace of the flesh, egoic desires, worldly power, and physical pleasure as something of a problem. "In terms of the Eastern theology," they write, "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."

I could go on, but I'm interested in just that one 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 from the earliest and crudest nineteenth-century Western interpretations of the dharma, interpretations which are dominated by budding Western notions of nihilism and the "void" as articulated by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Philosophically, the "void" of Buddhism is simply the absence of any abiding substance or essence to things -- the ultimate deconstruction and de-reification of existence. Though the quest for simple extinction in Nirvana is relevant to a discussion of Theravada Buddhism, it has far less relevance to Eastern wisdom traditions, with their Taoist inflections, or to the Mahayana or Vajrayana as a whole, both of which mightily complicate the question of desire, nihilism, and immanence. In the Mahayana, for example, the recognition that there is no abiding substance to the illusory self is accompanied, not by an escape to Nirvana, but by the bodhisattva's radical commitment to our world of suffering, where such illusions have real force. In the Vajrayana, all passions, including lust, are simply considered energies which manifest the ultimately nondual nature of existence. Dzogchen and Tantra are all about immanence, and Zen masters are particularly famous for their concupiscence and fondness for booze.

We dissipate the potential power of religious ideas by caricaturing them as the easy "enemy" of world-denying transcendence and mushy totalitarianism. A more interesting example of such caricatures is Richard Barbrook's ZKP piece on the sacred cyborg, which discusses a number of metaphysical and apocalyptic notions that are reborn, often crudely, within the frenzied edges of Extropian technoculture -- Artificial Intelligence, digital immortality, and the radical separation of body and mind. I am compelled by the connections he draws, by his analysis of "mystical positivism," and with his argument that these concepts 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 spiritual experience, the sacred imaginary, and cosmology (mystical positivism being at heart cosmological) 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 religion. 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. Besides, 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 some of the abiding concerns of humanity. Barbrook begins his piece with a Feuerbach quotation, and Fueurbach's analysis of the sociological and projective function of most religion remains extremely relevant -- as Blake opined, all gods reside in the human breast. On the other hand, I remind Barbrook that Feuerbach stops well short of hardcore historical materialism, and it is his notion of consciousness as immanent human essence that holds the potential tyranny of the social and science at bay (which is what Marx hassled him about). With a little imagination, we can even see in Fueurbach's desire to transform man's religious impulse the seeds of the human potential movement, and it is precisely this pragmatic and dialogic trace of idealism and spiritual "humanism" that I am interested in preserving, in part because it maintains the autonomy of consciousness against the totalizing tendencies of conceptual explanatory regimes and their corresponding institutions, whether social constructionist, Marxist, Lacanian, or sociobiological.

Barbrook's piece also relies on an interesting timeline, a deeply linear notion of cultural history which pegs such mystical and religious social formations as primitive, atavistic, and regressive. The idea here is that human civilizations arises from childhood 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 a solely 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, though it possess some spontaneous elements, this premodern return is not in any sense "pure" -- it is an articulated premodern, a reconfigured archaism, a morphogenetic medievalism. And yet it forms a vital dimension of the strange and mutant environment that we find ourselves in, and we lose touch with both the juice and the terror of the moment by adopting a strictly evolutionary -- or in the case of postmodernism, an exhausted and hopelessly fragmented -- 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 worldview, the how, under the Enlightenment, the new rhetorical and procedural constructions of modern science divided the world between nature -- a productive and determined reality articulated by science -- and the free range of culture and political self-determination. In his book, Latour contrasts this modern condition -- which he calls the "Great Divide" -- with what he calls "the anthropological matrix" of the premodern. Within the anthropological matrix, the Great Divide does not really exist. Things are not crisply divided between object and subject, but are hybrids: subject-objects, animist actors in a web of necessary relations. There is not nature and culture, but what he calls nature-cultures.

For a loose example, 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 pragmatic and 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 various symbolic, religious, and ritual dimensions which co-create the ontology of my world. Though subject to historical change, this network is inherently conservative. As Latour explains, every action of production, every technical development, and certainly every emergence of novelty, produces a new subject-object, a new technical actor that is registered and constrained by the entire matrix. It is this webwork that the Great Divide rips apart, allowing for the enormous and heedless productivity 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 an admittedly more nuanced manner than I am proposing here, 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 or cultural. 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, informational and imaginal conditions: the subject-objects constructed by an increasingly market-driven science, the explosion of new subjectivities, the collapse of modernist master narratives, new information landscapes, new cultural myths, etc.

We are surrounded by new dialogic 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 dissolution is terrifying, or at least disarming, as the uses to which "mystical positivism" are put amply demonstrate. 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 therefore 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 modernism.

Though it's 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 culture of tribes and nomadism and alterity is shot through with the premodern imaginary. Technoculture, especially its musical dimensions, makes it clear that information technologies provide a mode of regenerating "tribal" thought and practice, and even some post-rationalist intellectuals have established a relationship with partially mythic formations, formations that suggests new-old subjectivities and perceptions -- D&G's "witch's flight."

At the same time, one of the more ominous dimensions of this premodern return is that the spread of "postmodern" communications technologies will hardly prevent the most insidious elements of religion from reappearing: manipulative control, fanaticism, subject overcoding, and the violent imaginal divisions erected between self and other, earth and the beyond. At the same time that the Taliban hang televisions and VCRs from Afghani telephone poles like dead presidents, the Ayatollah Khomeini can lay the groundwork for the Iranian revolution through underground networks of cassette recordings -- an example of the "secondary orality" discussed by Walter Ong. With its sci-fi pop culture gnosticism, Heaven's Gate is a particularly "Western" example of this paradox, while another 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 modern Hindu movements are contemporary constructions, whose reactionary and 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.

One outcome of this line of thinking is that we must recognize that fundamentalism as we know it is a hostile component of modernity rather than a leftover or a holdout from the pre-Enlightenment stages of Barbrook's timeline. The religious imagination constantly reimagines and reinvents itself, and creates different relationships to the contemporary field of the possible -- fundamentalism is a dark imagination, but it is still symptomatic of the failures of modernism, not its inability to achieve dominance. This is important to recognize, because when 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 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. Hakim Bey's new book _Millennium_ has much to say along these lines.

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, especially in Europe. Because of this bloody tale, our dominant conception of religion is of a violent institutional belief system, a totalizing ideology that functions as a repressive social, intellectual, and imaginal control mechanism. There is much to mined from this line of critique, but we must be careful not to treat religion as we do other ideologies. It's very important to make a distinction between religion as a dogmatic belief system and the more experiential, imaginal, creative, and practical dimensio ns of religious life, dimensions which have little to do with ideological convictions and a lot to do with those amorphous potentials of consciousness we might describe with that rather weak and eviscerated term "spirituality". If institutional Christianity is the archetype of religious oppression and the iron glove, its history cannot be seen outside its own deterritorializations: massed peasant rebellions, mystical antinomianism, millennialist reform, and pagan compromises. Religion too is the story of nomads and states, the smooth and striated spaces whose strife makes up the self. Just ask yourself: how often has real immanence been produced in the name of a transcendence that never arrives?

Culturally, the relationship between religious practice and the dogmatic or conceptual level of religious ideology is very complicated. Too often critics and intellectuals only recognize the belief system, reducing religious phenomena as a whole to mere symptoms of reactionary ideologies that can be attacked on both philosophical and political grounds. The problem though is that when we examine religious phenomena, and especially with spiritual people who are extolling a certain kind of vision of the world, 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 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 definite kind of religious sensibility. 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. 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 herself 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.

So instead of looking at religion (in the narrow sense) as a belief system, we can 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, because critical discourse is not so hot when it comes to concrete individuals, their minds, souls, intuitions, energies, and altogether human potentials. Faced with these different dimensions of human experience, 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 paranoiacally, becomes in this a way of avoiding the existential recognition of our hopelessly concrete embodiment in ideas, practices, modes of awareness, and bodies -- a recognition which contains the seed of spirit. It's not that we should cease considering questions of power, of the hidden hand clutching our own thoughts as well as the thoughts and imagination of the culture at large. But it seems we can do a great deal by introducing a far more fluid, open-ended, and substantive multiplicity into our discourse, particularly when we are dealing with questions of ecstatic experience, of human subjectivity, of the imaginal and energetic potentials that make spirituality a living force rather than a dead husk of dogma. That such "premodern" material could return with a vengeance at this late date indicates to me that we cannot simply turn our backs on this stuff and let it fester in its most reactionary and misguided forms. It's part of who we are at this moment, and we need to engage and transmute, not simply attack out of some strained mixture of Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern cynicism.

We all know the neo-Luddites are wrong -- we cannot and should not escape technology. But neither can we escape the technologies of the self, the inevitable problem of how we engineer, direct (and release control over) our own emotions, intuitions, and energies, our own qualities of awareness and imagination. If we abjure one apparatus, we find ourselves plugged into another, so why not probe and explore the technologies of the sacred? In particular, it seems that the task of revivifying both our conception and practice of the imaginal becomes a non-trivial task. The imaginal will be a dominant factor in the mystification of the Internet, in the future possibilities of play and phantasmic resistance to reigning thought-forms, and in the re-engineering of the psyche by the new mechanisms of spectacular communication and control. I suspect that a frank, demystified look at mystical traditions, shamanic practices, popular occultism, and esoteric religions may well come in handy, because it is there that we find a rich store of imaginal technologies beyond the aesthetic discussion of the "Imagination" as a figure of Romanticism. Moreover -- and in this I could certainly be accused of romanticism -- the synthetic and spontaneous qualities of the imaginal may very well suggest their own avenues to overcoming Bruno Latour's Great Divide with grace and vision, enabling us to wisely play with the emerging patterns in the networks of thoughts, practices, images, and technologies we now, by necessity, must weave.

Given the psychodynamics of attention in the empire of signs, another "technology" that seems particularly important is the deepening and awakening of awareness itself, something that spiritual practice puts a premium on. As Bruce Sterling has pointed out, one of the secret equations that defines the future of the Net is that money is attention. Attention is the evanescent point of capture and resistance. The more awareness you have about the way your attention works on a moment-to-moment level, the more suppleness, the more space will form around that activity. Your tactics change. You notice absences. It's not that you are no longer captured, seduced or compelled, or that you escape somehow to some realm where you can completely control your experience of the world. But psychodynamic and contemplative practices which deepen awareness and attention give you a sort of edge, a more fluid and tactical intelligence. To speak mythically, this is not gnostic escape -- it is a gnosis that punctures the simulacra of the archons, and which discovers -- not the true representations that organize existence -- but rather the non-commodifiable networks that transcend representation and link us hopelessly to this real world, to this unavoidable here and now.