The Cyborg: Technological Socialization and Its Link to the Religious Function of Popular Culture
by Brenda E. Brasher
Brenda E. Brasher is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy of Mount Union College. She did her undergraduate study at I.U.P.U.I, an M.Div. at Christian Theological Seminary, and took her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California in Religion (Social Ethics). She is the author of Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power (Rutgers University Press, 1998) and Give Me that Online Religion: Churches, Cults and Community in the Information Age (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
"Thoughts on the Status of the Cyborg: On Technological Socialization and Its Link to the Religious Function of Popular Culture" was originally published in a Religion and American Popular Culture thematic issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 64:4, (1996) 809-830. An earlier version of the article was presented at a conference on "Media, Religion and Culture" held at the University of Colorado, Boulder, January 11-14, 1996.
In science fiction films and novels cyborgs are technological golems that haunt dystopic and utopic chimerical worlds. Futuristic fabrications, cyborgs in this subgenre of the arts are imaginative admixtures of humans and machines that mimic human life but remain outside it. The replicants of "Blade Runner," the T800 of "The Terminator," Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation: though different in composition, each belongs to a rank of fictive entities which comprise the general class of the part-machine/part-human artistic fantasy known as the cyborg. Amid the narratives through which they saunter, cyborgs frequently serve as a counterpoint to humanness which, by contrast with it, reveals being human as a desirable or (more rarely) an undesirable trait. In the process, cyborg narratives raise essential religious questions by marking the boundaries of humanness most often against technology.
The birth date of the cyborg in the arts like much of its profile is somewhat in dispute. In literature its genealogy is linked to the onset of industrialization (Rushing and Frentz). Here, the cyborg's inception occurred in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein (Shelley). Not long after Friedrich Schleiermacher penned his speeches in defense of religion arguing for an identity between the human self and the divine (Schleiermacher), Shelley wrote a very different tale of human alienation rendered through the crucible of a human cyborg. Stitched together by the surgical skill of a young doctor named Victor Frankenstein, Shelley's cyborg was a lumbering assemblage of human parts made mobile and sentient by a fledgling surgeon's collection of "instruments." As Shelley's tale unwinds, the nameless cyborg and its/his creator, Dr. Frankenstein, clash over the cyborg's desire for human sociability. Consistent with the romantic era of its/his genesis, the cyborg in Frankenstein longs to be recognized as human or at least to have a human companion; however, Dr. Frankenstein feels such revulsion for the creature from the moment he spies its/his opened "dull yellow eye" (Shelley: 86) that he rejects and abandons his creation, refusing to assume responsibility for the techno-life he assiduously had evoked. Chaos results. Enraged at the callous rebuff of its/his creator, the cyborg kills the doctor's family and loved ones. The doctor retaliates by attempting to track down and kill his cyborg creation.
At the novel's close, neither the doctor nor his creation triumphs in the outrageous struggle between the two for control over the other. The doctor dies from exposure and exhaustion suffered in his frustrated hunt for his creation. The cyborg discovers the doctor's dead body and in sorrow leaps onto an ice floe that drifts off into darkness. Thus, Shelley's imaginative investigation of the interrelationship between humanity and technology via the fiction of the cyborg proved inconclusive; nonetheless, in the popular imagination of the West, it is the cyborg which has had the last synthetic laugh. Seemingly deathless, Shelley's cyborg has coopted its/his fictional creator's name and with it manifested a greater cultural saliency than even the author's own. For in Shelley's morbid account Frankenstein is the surname of the doctor; but as anyone who has shopped for a Halloween mask can attest, in common idiom it is the cyborg who is Frankenstein.
In film the genesis of the cyborg can be traced to 1926, a year before the medium saw its first talking film. Here it is linked to cultural reactions against the mass routinization of labor entailed in World War I. In the U.S. religious responses to the war ranged from Walter Rauschenbusch's social gospel (1918) to the rise of a militant, anti-modernist movement that would come to be known as Christian fundamentalism (Marsden). But mass-mediated culture was the site of a powerful response as well. Less than two decades after the first Ford Model T was sold, a startlingly futuristic female-appearing robot named Hel eerily materialized on the screen in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. In Hel, Lang visually presented the cyborg as an explicit mechanical/human synthesis. At first an awkward-moving, metal-skinned machine, Hel receives a transfusion of bodily liquid involuntarily removed from the saint-like but very human Maria. As fluid drawn from Maria floods Hel's metallic structure, Hel is transformed into the first screen cyborg. Upon receiving an infusion of humanness, Hel's countenance changes such that it/she appears human, though not uniquely so. Hel becomes a defective copy of Maria and proceeds to wreak havoc on the city of Metropolis for much of the rest of the film. The director, Lang, makes no attempt to use Hel's post-infusion mirroring of Maria's countenance to thrust the audience into a state of suspense. Instead, he presents the audience with the entire alteration process, forcing viewers into a constant awareness that the human-looking Hel is not human but a hybrid of human and machine. Given Hel's subsequent destructiveness and the Luddite philosophy that drives the film's plot (quietly undermined by the technological medium and artistry of Metropolis itself), the evil resonances Hel's name set off cannot be dismissed as coincidence. Throughout Metropolis, humanity is far from perfect; but, Hel[l] is a cyborg, humanity gone amok due to unrestrained technological prowess.
While many scholars of religion are not strangers to science fiction, the cyborg is an unusual topic to receive serious academic attention from a religious studies scholar. No inscrutable mystery lies behind this fact. The cyborg sprang into existence as a literary and film fiction; therefore, the cyborg has been on the academic turf of literature and film scholars. One of the principal points of my analysis is that this exclusive categorization of the cyborg as a fiction no longer holds (if it ever did). Today the infiltration of technology into daily life is transforming our patterns of play, work, love, birth, sickness, and death such that the cyborg is not an imaginative plot device but a metaphor that is lived by (Lackoff and Johnson). The cyborg is a term of and for our times that aptly maps contemporary bodily and social reality as a hybrid of biology and machine. From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Shelley's and Lang's fictional cyborgs appear Cassandra-like warnings of what was to come. Consequently, the cyborg is, as never before, a concept of vital consequence for religion scholars.
How has life managed to imitate art in this way? The cyborg's bridge across the fictional/real divide that enabled it to be replicated as both fiction and fact, and the study of its character to be approached both as mythology and anthropology have a fascinating history. Intriguingly, although the cyborg concept initially developed in the arts, the term cyborg originated in the sciences. Its first appearance was in 1960 in a speculative article on the future of space travel authored by two research scientists (Clynes and Kline). Rather than developing human-friendly environments to travel through space, Clynes and Kline made the unorthodox proposal that scientists try to alter the human body so it could thrive in space. They referred to these space-adapted humans as "cyborgs." In the sciences the term stuck. As advances in medical technologies enabled medical specialists to replace certain defective or deficient human organs and limbs with artificial or animal implants, the specialists involved referred to implant recipients as cyborgs (Rorvik; Halacy). Soon, this concrete "cyborg" became the standard dictionary definition of the term. By 1977 Webster's Dictionary defined a cyborg as, "a person whose physiological functioning is aided by, or dependent on, a mechanical or electronic device."
Though the sciences gave birth to the word 'cyborg,' they quickly lost definitional control of its meaning. As Shelley's and Lang's works illustrate, the aesthetic idea of the cyborg existed long before the term 'cyborg' was introduced; therefore, it was perhaps not coincidental that the pragmatic, scientific use of the cyborg was rapidly joined by its use as a metaphor of cultural semiotics. Still, since the cultural cyborg concept developed before cyborg terminology itself was generated, many of the earliest works analyzing the cultural cyborg lack specific use of the term. In anthropology the work of French semiologist Roland Barthes falls into this category. Though never explicitly employing the 'cyborg' term, Barthes culturally decoded Albert Einstein as a kind of natural cyborg. Too intellectual to fit comfortably within any normal range of humanness, Einstein was dismembered in popular imagination to become signified by his brain according to Barthes. In this detached state Einstein's brain was culturally venerated as a remarkable robotic object, a marvelous human-machine (ergo, a cyborg). To the public, Einstein's brain produced thought "as a mill makes flour" (Barthes:69).
Furthering the linguistic transformation of the cyborg from a biological to a cultural metaphor, a small group of scholars enthusiastically began to evaluate the cyborg as a symbol of cultural modernity. One who achieved great notoriety in this regard is historian of science Donna J. Haraway. In the 1980s Haraway laid out a thorough framework of the cultural cyborg concept in her now renowned cyborg manifesto (1985). A pivotal article in cyborg deliberations, Haraway's manifesto detailed many of the acute ethical issues modern technology induces, including the militarization of human imagination by new media technologies. In spite of the problems she foresaw, Haraway ultimately took a stand endorsing technology's influence on human life. She insisted that cyborg imagery offered "a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves" (81). In a move that simultaneously anticipated and ignored poststructuralist concerns, Haraway not only invoked the cyborg in her analysis; her work overtly and playfully celebrated its existence.
Another who, like Barthes, never employed the term 'cyborg' yet whose work offered an important, early contribution to cyborg discourse is Naomi Goldenberg. Five years after Haraway's cyborg-celebratory "Manifesto," Goldenberg offered a substantially gloomier prognosis of the cyborg based on what she perceived to be the psychological implications of human/machine interdependency ( 1993). Contra Haraway, Goldenberg decried the enlarging role of machines in human socialization. The philosophical and religious heritage of the West, Goldenberg claimed, leaves Westerners predisposed to form harmful attitudes toward the technologies overtaking their lives. This heritage has taught us "that human life is a rough copy of something out there¾something better, wiser and purer... " (17). Consequently, Westerners possess a cultural proclivity to respond to machines not as tools to use but as role models to emulate. As people act upon this proclivity, the isolation and loneliness of modern life are being increased. Given the pro-technology direction of Western development, Goldenberg's prediction for the future is a somber one: "We are, I think, engaged in a process of making one another disappear by living more and more of our lives apart from other humans, in the company of machines" (11).
As academic decoding of the cultural cyborg progressed, poststructuralists began to raise concerns about the project. Jamison argued that writing on the cyborg was, itself, cyborgian, a novel form of human-machine symbiotic pleasure (Jamison). Under an aegis of dispassionate inquiry into technology's affect on human identity, cyborg discourse was constructing an uncanny symbolic world that furthered human dependency upon machines. For academic discourse this poststructuralist concern posed an unanswerable challenge. If to write on the cyborg was invariably prescriptive, the only viable option might be to halt the discussion; yet, the effect of this cessation would be to stifle academic analysis of what those involved in cyborg discourse believed to be a crucial cultural phenomenon. Thus, academic analysis of the cyborg continues, although no convincing response to Jamison's poststructuralist challenge has emerged.
For a substantial portion of human history overt, substantive religious groups have functioned as the cultural institutions where the boundaries of the human customarily have been addressed. Among the many cultural tasks religious institutions historically have performed, each invariably has provided potential and actual adherents with a communal response to the question of what it means to be human. In fulfillment of this cultural role, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and other world religions possess the common characteristic of a well-developed religious anthropology that situates the human being in relationship to the world and to the wider universe. It is precisely because of this that the cyborg a term through which the character of contemporary humanity is being deliberated is a consequential topic for religious studies research if only to note the dearth of participation by religious institutions in ongoing cyborg deliberations.
How to Build a Cultural Cyborg
To build a cultural cyborg you must start with an awareness of the profound dependency upon others that marks all human life. Years ago, social constructivists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann detailed the dialectical processes at work in human identity construction (1967). As lucid as their analysis was, it really only delineated what life experiences teach everyone: becoming human is a social endeavor. People determine who they are through interaction with the environments they encounter and, in turn, shape by their actions and inactions with and toward them. Now, poised on the brink of the third millennium, it is technology, material and ideal, that structures social life in the West. It begins with artifacts, but technology is more than artifacts. Technology is a culture. It is a "signifying system through which... social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored" (Williams:13). Technology is an epistemology, a way of knowing in which new technologies materialize as the most plausible response to problems that arise. It is also a quality of social relationships that demand the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services using technology to survive (Gell). A flagrant result of this technological saturation is that people are being transformed into cyborgs: the simultaneously imaginative and real creatures evoked into existence through human/technology semiotics. A quasi-human self, cyborg-identity is fed by the technological organization of contemporary life as well as by the material products of technology. From traffic lights to advertising, from television to automated banking, a logos-like list could be extended indefinitely that would make the homogenization of the human by the technological into the cyborg readily intelligible. Though some cannot afford or care not to invest in modern technology's seductive products (and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories), no one evades cyborgian symptoms. Because it calls attention to the tremendous impact technology is having on us, the cyborg which conceptually debuted in the arts has become a key interpretive symbol for the human self. Like vassal, lord, citizen, and proletariat before it, the cyborg paints humanness in a historical context. It discloses how the organization of contemporary social and political life is working in consort with the reigning means of production to influence the range of humanness possible in our era.
Technology's rapid progress in the late twentieth century in this regard is not accidental. Within the economic paradigm of late capitalism, Disney/America, Microsoft, IBM, Eli Lilly, SONY/Columbia, and a host of other techno-capitalists survive and thrive by hastening the cyborging process. To generate profits they offer us sounds better than life. They compose images more beautiful, more awesome than anything we can naturally see. They design and produce drugs that make us more social, thinner, happier, sexier, putatively more ourselves. Even "nature" is not natural anymore (i.e., changing and evolving in response to the biological balance of ecosystem paradigms). It, too, is being cyborged as techno-agriculturalists slowly configure the seed market to privilege hybrid plants that require farmers to purchase patented seeds each year. As a result, we who act and interact in the contemporary world are becoming "borged."
Cyberpunk simultaneously developed as a science fiction subgenre and an outlaw youth identity that gloried in "the postmodern identification of humans and machines" (Hollinger:30); however, the confusion of boundaries between humans and technology underway that produces exhilaration for some brings distress to others. The research of Shoshana Zuboff into the affect of computerization on office environments disclosed how technological developments introduced to expand worker skills can have an implosive affect on worker sociability. At one company Zuboff studied office employees who had interacted as a team with ease to solve problems before their office was computerized abandoned interactive sociability once computers were introduced. Compelled to develop new work patterns centered around a reliance upon machines, the newly computer-outfitted workers would, when problems arose, try to resolve them on their own via individual computer-data links rather than ask the person sitting in the cubicle next to them for help (Zuboff). Access and Cyborg-Types
Although I characterize the incursion of technology into human socialization processes in a massive way, I do not mean to imply by this that all cyborgs are identical. Demographic factors constrain the presence and composition of biology/machine mixes, while widespread resource imbalances serve up divergent experiences of cyborg socialization across the globe. Consider computer-mediated communications (CMC), for instance. A substantial amount of recent public discourse in the U.S. has praised the informational, commercial, and even the social justice potential of CMC. From personal experience, I can attest that cyborg experiences on the World Wide Web can be exhilarating. One can tour the Vatican museum, order airline tickets, or research aboriginal tribes all without leaving one's chair. The fusion with technology that yields this techno-marvel can seem a wondrous thing; but these experiences are available only to those who can read English, who have a chair, a desk, a computer, a modem, an available telephone line, and enough computer savvy to put everything together and make it work. Billions do not possess these resources; and global biases are evident in their unequal distribution. Computer owners are primarily northern, white, middle-class males. In many parts of the world, most notably in the southern hemisphere, the existing infrastructure simply will not support the spread of CMC. In southern Africa there is one telephone line for every 5,000 people. In Peru there is one telephone line for every 30 people. In locations where the public infrastructure is so limited few readily surf the net. To privileged first-worlders cyborg identity can bring with it an explosion of the self, an expansion of the human beyond precyborgian limits. To those less privileged becoming borged can entail one's humanity being annexed by machines.
Traditional Religions, New Religions, and the Cyborg
For the world's traditional religions cyborg-identities raise profound issues. Foremost, they broach questions of normative human identity and social ethics, given the problematic public and private values entailed in their development; yet, cyborg-identities simultaneously challenge the foundational theologies of traditional religions in ways that can impede the capacity of the organic intellectuals (Gramsci) of these religious faiths to locate within the religious assets of their tradition the meaning resources necessary to rejoin the ethical issues involved. A notable measure of the internal cohesion of the world's major religions derives from concrete texts that represent layers of oral traditions that were the products of pastoralist and agrarian peoples. While they are neither consistently nor uniformly regarded as authoritative, canonical texts bind each of the world's traditional religions together. These texts provide shared stories for believers that set out norms for human-to-human relationships as well as for human relationships to the divine. The religious messages they contain and convey assume embodied human existence as a given; but, for cyborgs, universal embodiment is not the defining situation. Instead, embodiment is a preeminent moral question as selves ambiguously colonized by technological tools confront unique border quandaries: concerns about the quantity and quality of their humanity in light of their symbiotic relationship to technology, ambiguity over the loss of self that follows fusion with technology, the challenge of cyborg intimacy, confusion over techno-blurred boundaries of life and death, worry over the vague duplicity involved in spending eight-plus hours a day watching television or a computer monitor in contrast to an average of four minutes a day conversing with one's partner or children, sins such as dis-embodiedness, data lust, flaming, cracking, releasing viruses, excessive upgrading. For agrarian and pastoralist-linked traditional religions to be able to address these concerns, changes may need to occur within their symbol systems changes that may be beyond their capacity to make.
Christianity, the most prevalent religion in the U.S., poignantly illustrates this dilemma. A focal religious idea of Christianity is incarnational theology. In all of its diverse manifestations Christianity pivots around the idea of the embodiment of the divine in human form; however, this notion is problematized by the coupling now underway of human and machine. Ian Barbour, who has made one of the most serious attempts to draw from Christian tradition ethical guidance for contemporary technological society, ends up offering an excellent appraisal of the problem but little normative counsel (Barbour). He chiefly recommends reading biblical literature through the lens of process theology to glean from its stories of small communities which survived countless crisis how to survive in our own. Yet Barbour provides no explanation of how reading these stories will accomplish what he, himself, diagnoses as the critical problem: "to redirect technology to realize human and environmental values" (24). Though Barbour submits that Christianity contains religious resources sufficient to address the ethical quandaries of a technological society, he does not exhibit them. He also concedes that churches as Christian delivery systems are woefully unprepared to carry out the tasks his ethical assessment prescribes. Barbour states, "The churches, themselves, will have to change drastically if they are to facilitate the transition to a sustainable world... " (26).
Technological socialization places theological and sociological obstacles before Barbour that hinder his ability as a Christian ethicist to construct a viable, persuasive Christian moral response to technologically-derived dilemmas. Not only must he attempt to develop a response to the problems of a modern technological world by drawing upon the religious resources of a symbolic pool stocked with agrarian-based images and stories, he must subsequently turn to Christian communities nurtured by the contents of this same pool for the initial support of any moral vision he manages to forge. These groups are ill-prepared to confront technological issues as an outgrowth of their faith, because their faith has taken shape in response to agrarian/pastoral-rooted tales. The two poles of this theological/sociological quandary feed upon each other unrelentingly, muffling Christian moral contributions to technological ethics throughout the world. Since it is only through the physical coalescence of humans and technology that cyborg identities become possible, progress in Christian ethics may necessitate this state of affairs being reconceived of, not in terms of the classical theological anthropology, but perhaps as something along the lines of theological cyborgology; however, this would require a decisive paradigm shift that will not easily be made. To put it metaphorically, the question technological society poses to Christian foundational theology is, if a cyber-savior logged on and opted to echo Jesus in Matthew 8:29 by querying her/his/its list members regarding their understanding of her/his/its being, would the question this cyborg savior necessarily asks be [Who] or [What] do you say that I am? To paraphrase Yeats, the fearful question of the day for Christians is less who than what creature from cyberspace slouches toward a virtual Bethlehem to be born.
In the U.S. traditional religions are largely techno-avoidant. Still, a small number of the adherents of the world's traditional religions have plunged into new technologies with enthusiasm. In the rapidly growing environment of computer-mediated communications one can find Lubavitchers in Cyberspace, ongoing sessions of Torah instruction, a weekly class in Buddhist meditation, and the Al Zafa Matrimonial Service for Muslims. There are web pages for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), United Church of Christ, Moravians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of the Nazarene, and so on. There are countless traditional religion discussion lists ranging from a group reading Calvin's Institutes on the Internet, to Christian singles on America OnLine, to interactive prayer groups on Compuserve (Kellner). Still, this techno-skimming does not transform a traditional religious community into a cyborgian church, synagogue, or mosque. The vast majority of these efforts by traditional religious groups imitate in-real-life events rather than reconfigure them. On the Net it is new religious movements untethered from ancient texts that appear most at home. Synthesizing multi-dimensional, real-time rituals, neo-pagan cyborg ritualists play in the medium they inhabit. The few traditional and new overt religious groups exploring the potential of technology tend to consider themselves "cutting edge" and generally acquiesce to technological products, making little or no attempt to reflect upon their economic, philosophical, or social price tags. In the electronic discussions of even the most adventurous traditional and new religious groups, moral questions about technology¾about its influence on the determinate factors of humanness, about its worrisome capacity to commodify life experiences, about its frightening potential to erode individual and group privacy, about whether its expansion necessarily entails the devaluation of human bodies¾these questions are almost totally ignored.
The extent to which technological socialization habitually distances cyborgs from religious institutions is not a universal given. The understanding of religion that people acknowledge is an important determinant as well. A strict Barthian Christian or a traditional Muslim might dismiss technology's influence as religiously irrelevant or, at best, a concern that affects the means by which one conveys to a proto-believer the sacred Words that are assumed unchangeable in content and meaning; however, for those who bracket religion's substantive character to concentrate on the serious cultural role religious institutions customarily have fulfilled, the challenge technology presents is not so easily dismissed. If a primary cultural function of religious institutions is to respond to the existential questions of their age as the twentieth-century theologian and cultural critic Paul Tillich would have it (1980), or, if the cultural role of religious institutions is, as Clifford Geertz has contended, to proffer a symbol system that welds together a description of the world and prescriptions for action within it (Geertz), then the technologization of daily life appears to be undermining the ability of religious institutions to fulfill these cultural functions. Moving into the cultural space they are vacating, as Frankenstein and Metropolis insinuated in their day, is a thriving and vibrant popular culture. Popular Culture's Religious Function
While overt religions have either inadequately constructed or left unconstructed timely moral responses to the intricate changes in human identity and community being induced by technology, cultural dread and excitement over the transformation of people into cyborgs have exhibited a postmodern independence from frameworks by surfacing not in techno-avoidant or techno-manipulative religious groups but in multiple locations in the U.S.'s techno-celebratory popular culture. Consequently, an undetermined number of cyborgs have turned from what Baudrillard once cynically described as "the desert of the real" (in this case, the symbolic goods of real-life religious groups) to the hyperreal in order to locate meaning resources sufficient to respond to technology's incursion into their lives (1987). Their concerns about techno-life ignored or shunted from overt religious realms, an unknown number of modern technologically-socialized people are practicing religion by creatively reusing the artifacts of contemporary mass-mediated culture. These cyborgs find viable solace for their dreams and nightmares about modernity more in the images, stories, and songs of cable and broadcast television, radio, Zines, and other alternative media than in the metaphysical meaning offerings of overt religious institutions.
From the Frankfurt school, Adorno, Lowenthal, Herzog, and Horkheimer called attention to the social conservatism of escalating culture industries. Coupled with the loss of what they rather idealistically assessed as "autonomous art," Horkheimer and Adorno most notably decried the social power that culture industries wielded and that they believed siphoned off humanity's liberatory energies (Horkheimer and Adorno). More recently, Fiske has countered this stance by insisting that people can and do appropriate mass culture products in ways that contravene their producers' intentions. Rather than being bound by the intentions of its producers, Fiske contends, many moderns utilize the products of mass-mediated culture to construct a popular culture of their own (Fiske).
In assessing the religious function of popular culture, Fiske's cultural theory is quite useful. Confronted with the absence of viable moral voices from overt religious institutions addressing technology-provoked issues, cyborgs so appear to be extracting symbolic raw material from the beguiling entertainment artifacts of mass culture and transforming it into religions of their own devising. Maneuvering among the contradictory images, ethics, and narratives of technologically-mediated popular culture, such meaning-seeking cyborgs reconfigure the bits and bites of mass-produced culture into popular culture faiths. Evidence attesting to the religious function of popular culture abounds. It has spawned prophets in African American rap music (Kellner). It has given birth to a zealot: the Unabomber, a bizarre, antisocial cyborg trying to usher in a technological apocalypse on his own. Today's borged humans may or may not attend an overt religious group; but they probably do view "Seinfeld" or Star Trek: The Next Generation or "Oprah" "religiously" and discuss them with others, treating their fictional or quasi-fictional scenarios as a base for determining behavioral norms and creating new visions of community. I suggest that these cultural transactions constitute a form of religion; that for a select group of cyborgs' human-technical interactions constitute the social origins of much of their morality; and that, as a result, America's diverse religious marketplace now incorporates a plethora of distinct popular culture faiths alongside its more traditional religions.
The eclectic popular culture religions cyborgs are assembling are unlike any others. They have no priestesses or priests, no canon, no creation story; but they do have sacred images, sacred music, and sacred theology. As Thomas Jefferson once treated the Bible, cyborgs razor through the technologically-mediated offerings of popular culture to select what they find religiously useful. Developing their social ethics on television talk shows, their theology in science fiction television shows, movies, and books, and their sacred songs in the explosively growing rock music industry, cyborg religionists refashion the pleasure offerings of modernity into an anchor composed of the world to ground themselves within it.
If language frames action, cyborgs on the leading edge of this trend tellingly betray their religious bent by the traditional religious language that permeates fandom argot. Quentin Tarantino admirers on the World Wide Web do not describe the web-pages they have constructed in homage to this unlikely celebrity as fan sites but as the Quentin Tarantino worship page, the Quentin Tarantino church, and even the Quentin Tarantino world. Trekkers, Elvisites, and other well-defined groups represent the extremes of this trend (Jindra). More difficult to assess but more sizable is the umbrella of cyborgs who participate in the movement without totally capitulating to it. Where popular culture religions' "true believers" may dress like Romulans or invest days of their lives to construct a Nicole Kidman worship page, there is a larger number for whom popular culture functions mostly as a religious stop-gap. Such moderate believers simply turn to the stories, personalities, and songs of popular culture to articulate the content and meaning of their lives when other cultural sources fail to perform.
This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. A variety of literary, film, and cultural theorists have tackled the topic of the excess meaning function of popular culture; yet perhaps because few of those who have taken up this work have been scholars of religion, often there has been scant attention given to the implications of this development for the historic cultural role of religions. Sometimes hints of its impact can be gleaned from the marginal comments of cultural critics such as when Hugh Ruppersberg observes, with thinly veiled disapproval, that today's extraterrestrial films are the contemporary equivalent of Bible stories; and that the aliens they feature are modern-day messiahs (Ruppersberg in Kuhn). At other times the impact must be surmised, as in the work of Janice Radway who depicts how bold romance heroines inspire some female fans to negotiate less patriarchal bargains with their spouses (Radway). Occasionally, a straightforward address of the religious function of popular culture is made, such as Peter Brooks's argument that melodrama provides the emotional excesses necessary to help its audiences make moral and ethical decisions in a post-sacred age (Brooks).
As insightful as Fiske's interpretive theory can be in understanding the mechanics of how elements of mass-mediated culture can be transformed into popular-culture religions, the cautious conservatism of the Frankfurt theorists cannot be completely dismissed. The liberatory capacity of these emergent, popular culture faiths remains unclear. A suggestively positive clue, however, can be found in the theology of popular culture religions primarily drawn from the subgenre of science fiction. During its brief history this theology has not remained static but has shown signs of creative, intellectual development. Where early science fiction offerings such as Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" portrayed the key problem of techno-future as one of human identity, more recent science fiction novels and films accept the premise that cyborgization is present and have moved techno-sins to center stage. This is especially notable in post-urban films such as "Johnny Mnemonic" directed by Robert Longo and Kathryn Bigelow's "Strange Days." Here, human encounters with invasive cybernetic technology are portrayed as providing novel sites of economic-political exploitation and horrible new dimensions of criminality. In "Strange Days," this includes a Mandelbrot fractal rape and murder. In "Johnny Mnemonic," the lead character, Johnny, acquiesces to a surgical brain implant that removes his personal memories but enables him to function as a human diskette. Giving in to postmodern historical depthlessness (Jameson), Johnny trades in his personal identity to become a human product. During the film flashbacks of Johnny's childhood hint of his loss. The disorientation they cause Johnny each time they occur provokes a moral question: who are you if you do not know who you have been? Longo's answer reflected in Johnny's disposability is, you are merely one more purchasable product. Moving to address the ethical limits of techno-capitalism, cyborg popular culture theology shows signs of expansion encompassing practical as well as foundational theological concerns.
Religious studies scholars have been quick to note the religious implications of the excess meaning function mass-mediated culture has accrued. Gregor Goethals, for one, compares the cultural role television and other popular arts now play to that of the friezes of ancient Greece. She writes: Although separated by centuries of symbolic and technological revolutions, the beautiful depicted on the Parthenon frieze and those represented in TV commercials are comparably value-laden. In both instances the visual images assist in performing the latent, legitimating role of religion: the framing of "reality," the shaping of a commonly understood world. (162)
Taking a stand in significant accord with Barbour, Goethals asserts that traditional religious institutions should learn to use new technologies to convey their messages while at the same standing "... a prophetic watch over the making of meaning by the media" (188). By this Goethals suggests that a sanguine response by Christian institutions to technological socialization is possible; however, like Barbour's, Goethals' prognosis regarding the amenability of Christian adherents to following through on such a program is equivocal. According to Goethals, the believers who make up the delivery systems of traditional religions "may have little or no desire to take on either task" (189).
Summary and Conclusions
It was almost thirty years ago when Robert Bellah's indispensable article on civil religion in the U.S. was first published. In that article, Bellah harkened back to Rousseau for the term "civil religion" and depicted what he asserted was an often unnoticed phenomenon: that the living faith of the majority of American citizens was "an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion... " (1967). My article extends a comparable assessment of religious life in the U.S. It calls attention to a phenomenon many have seen but few have written about: the rise of an elaborate and well-institutionalized popular culture functioning as a source of religious ideas and experiences for countless millions as technology permits its products to infiltrate the structures of daily life. In "Civil Religion in America" Bellah predicted that the chief change ahead for civil religion would be its metamorphosis from a national to a global scale. Almost three decades later, it is true that a global religious movement has developed as Bellah inferred; however, it is not the expanded American civil religion he anticipated but the mining of popular culture by technologically-socialized people for religious meaning that crosses the political boundaries of nation-states nearly to encompass the globe.
Contradicting the pervasive pessimism of cultural critics from Lasch to Baudrillard, there is much that is agreeable in this situation as well as much that is troubling (Lasch; Baudrillard). Technology can be fun. Popular culture can amuse, entertain, instruct, and relax us. If it inspires us as well, is this necessarily bad? Though the ramifications of this development for overt religious institutions as well as for American civil religion remain unclear, the fact that popular culture has taken on important religious functions for a technologically-socialized populace is one of the most unlauded but consequential developments in religion of the past century.
Postscript on the Cyborg
As technological incursions into daily life increase, the cyborg may become a key metaphor for those soon to comprise the pioneer generation of third millennium society. To the extent the cyborg accurately represents human selves as affected by techno-life and thus reliably orients us in the world we inhabit, this development could be deemed a positive one, albeit one that entails considerable ambiguity. As Haraway has noted, the cyborg is inherently pluralistic. Rather than employing the foundational Western dualistic strategy of identity that achieves definitional clarity through a hierarchical contrast of paired terms (male/ female, human/beast, self/other, white/black), the cyborg incorporates dualism within itself by insisting upon an integral identity between people and their material environment. Presuming an inseparable connection between the self and other, the cyborg offers a metaphoric platform upon which complex human identities might be developed whose connective links could stretch out like the World Wide Web itself to embrace and encompass the world. Because it directly faces and accepts the material components of human life, the cyborg as a root metaphor for contemporary human identity offers the capacity to encourage a responsible awareness of and interaction with the material world.
For the better metaphoric promises of the cyborg to be realized, the destructive potential of technology must be politically restrained. Given the prevailing global skewing of technological distribution, the current situation is one where the "liberation of the few" is being bought at the "expense of many" (Balsamo:161). Since it is unlikely that the growth of technology will abate, political will must be brought to bear upon the substantial biases presently inherent in technological socialization such that the enlivening possibilities of technology are not the limited province of northern, male elites but are reasonably available to all. The design, production, cost, distribution, and access issues integral to new technologies are much more than market concerns; they are among the most important public policy issues that now confront us.
If all contemporary people are cyborgs, techno-beings whose identities are admixtures of the human and the technological, then it is I, a cyborg, who constructs this article and enters it into academic discourse; therefore, cyborg identity does not necessarily preclude intellectual freedom or critical reflection. Will consciously claiming the cyborg metaphor as an intentionally-bodied self foster the formation of the micro-and macro-political efforts necessary to restrain and direct technocapitalism to address the common good, or will it instead work to undermine them? Here, the religious function of popular culture may play a pivotal role. Because of their profound intimacy with technology, those who produce the artifacts of mass-mediated culture are among those most keenly cognizant of technology's many pitfalls. They also have advantageous access to its abundant outlets. Were these artists and technicians to craft products that consistently supported technological ethics (a move that films like "Strange Days," "Johnny Mnemonic" and "The Net" reveal is possible), they might generate sufficient symbolic cyber-manna to nourish the development of a moral consensus on technological ethics. Should these artist-technicians take up the task, and were artists and audiences to come to a moral accord, the capitalist marketplace must say "yes." Religious believers have changed the world before. Perhaps cyborg religionists, inspired by their eclectic mixtures of popular culture faiths, will prove they can do so again.
Anderson, P., B. Holmqvist and J. Jensen, 1993, The Computer as Medium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arizpe, Lourdes, 1993, Foreword: Democracy for a Small Two-Gender Planet. In Women and Social Change in Latin America. Ed. by Elizabeth Jelin. London: Zed.
Balsamo, A., 1996, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham: Duke University Press.
Barbour, Ian, 1993, Ethics in an Age of Technology: The Gifford Lectures, Vol .2. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Barthes, Roland, (1957) 1972, Mythologies. Trans. by A. Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.
Baudrillard, J., 1987, Cool Memories. Trans. by Chris Turner. London: Verso. Bellah, Robert, 1967, Civil Religion in America. Daedalus 96:1-21.
Benedikt, M., ed., 1991, Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann, 1966, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Bolter, J., 1984, Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. London: Duckworth.
Brooks, Peter, 1976, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melo- drama and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Clynes, M., and N. Kline, 1960, Cyborgs and Space. Astronautics September:26-27;74-75.
Dean, W., 1994, The Religious Critic in American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Dick, P., 1982, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Random House.
Fischlin, D., and A. Taylor, 1994, Cybertheater, Postmodernism and Virtual Reality: An Interview with Toni Dove and Michael Mackenzie. Science Fiction Studies 21:1-23.
Fiske, J., 1989, Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman,Inc.
Gell, A., 1988, Technology as Magic. Anthropology Today 4:6-9. Geertz, Clifford, 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.
Goethals, Gregor, 1990, The Electronic Golden Calf: Images, Religion and the Making of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Dowley.
Goldenberg, Naomi, (1990) 1993, Resurrecting the Body: Feminism, Religion and Psycho analysis [Returning Words to Flesh]. New York: Crossroad.
Gramsci, Antonio, 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Ed. and trans. by Q. Hoare and G. Smith. New York: International Publishers.
Halacy, D., 1965, Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman. New York: Harper & Row.
Haraway, Donna J., 1985, Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminist Perspective in the 1980's. Socialist Review 80:65-108.
Hollinger, V., 1990, Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Post modernism. Mosaic 23:29-44. Hoover, Stewart, 1988, Mass Media Religion: The Social Sources of the Electronic Church. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Horkheimer, M., and T., Adorno, 1972, Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder & Herder.
Jameson, F., 1984, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. New Left Review 146:53-92.
Jamison, P., 1994, Contradictory Spaces: Pleasure and the Seduction of Cyborg Discourse. Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture, 1. Electronic document available from EJVC-L@KENTVM.BITNET.
Jindra, M., 1994, Star-Trek Fandom as a Religious Phenomenon. Sociology of Religion 55:27-51.
Jones, S., ed., 1995, CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kellner, D., 1996, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern. New York: Routledge.
Kellner, M., 1996, God on the Internet. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide.
Kuhn, A., 1990, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso.
Lackoff, G., and M. Johnson, 1980, Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lanham, R., 1993, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lasch, Christopher, 1995, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Laver, M., 1975, Computers, Communications and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
Marsden, George, 1980, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mitcham, C., 1986, Computers: From Ethos and Ethics to Mythos and Religion: Notes on the New Frontier Between Computers and Philosophy. Technology and Society 8:171-201.
Mullins, Phil, 1996, Imagining the Bible in Electronic Culture. Unpublished paper presented at the Conference on Media, Religion and Culture, Boulder, Colorado.
O'Leary, Stephen and Brenda Brasher, 1996, The Unknown God of the Internet: Religious Communications from the Ancient Agora to the Virtual Forum.In Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Com munications. Ed. by C. Ess. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Penzias, A., 1989, Ideas and Information: Managing in a High-Tech World. New York: Simon & Schuster. Radway, Janice, 1984, Reading the Romance: Feminism and the Representation of Women in Popular Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Rauschenbusch, Walter, 1918, Theology of the Social Gospel. New York: Macmillan Company.
Rheingold, H., 1993, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
Robinson, W., 1992, Computers, Minds and Robots. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Rorvik, D., 1971, As Man Becomes Machine: The Evolution of the Cyborg. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Rushing, J., and T. Frentz, 1995, Projecting the Shadow: The Cyborg Hero in American Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rushkoff, D., 1994, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace. New York: Harper Collins.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich, 1988, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Trans. by R. Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, (1835) 1968, Frankenstein. New York: Lancer.
Tillich, Paul, (1952) 1980, The Courage To Be. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Turkle, S., 1984, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Warrick, P., 1980, The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Williams, R., 1974, Television, Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken Books.
Zuboff, Shoshana, 1988, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books.
Viewed 35912 times.