Born Again Ideology: 2. Twisted Strands: Covenant Technology & the American Mind

CTheory Books: Born Again Ideology


Religion, Technology, and Terrorism

Arthur Kroker

Covenant Technology and the American Mind

The (American) Spirit of Technological Innovation

Why is the United States the spearhead of the technological future?

Beyond its massive power as the leading empire of 21st century political economy, what explains the remarkable historical situation that since its Puritan origins America has actually innovated the future thanks to a seemingly singular cultural genius for innovation, creativity and (patent-driven) consumer practicality? Here, seizing upon the language of technological innovation as its primary means of expression, what might be described as the discourse of technology and the American mind has become both the essence of American drive towards the fully realized technological future and increasingly, due to its hegemony as a dominant political power, the dominant cultural code of global society.

Value-driven by missionary consciousness first articulated by Puritan pilgrims, enabled by the rhetoric of (propertied) freedom enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, implemented by a creative spirit of (technical) innovation, and morally legitimated by the justificatory claims of redemptive empire, the discourse of technology and the American mind represents the speed of light interfacing the national project of the United States. Breaking with the slow movements of exclusively social history, migrating beyond land-based agriculture, factory-based industry, and now even beyond human-based interactivity, the spirit of American (technological) innovation may well constitute that moment when two ancient cosmologies — religion and science — finally conjoined as twisted strands at the advancing tip of the once and future history of the 21st century.

Technological pilgrims swept along in the slipstream of technology and the American mind, we, the inhabitants of the contemporary planetary epoch, have come to know its mediations and contradictions as our very own. Refusing to be silenced by the spirit of technological enthusiasm, we turn to the most enduring counter-practices of critical thought. Namely, if we cannot assent to the ascendant technically-driven future, we will critically probe the granularities of history for clues concerning how best to navigate the civilizational crisis that is the world today. In the unfolding story of technology and the American mind, the act of counter-thinking against the currents of technology delivers thought to strange shores. Software, wetware and hardware as competing world-philosophies; the biological model of the “double helix” as perhaps culturally anticipated by the political logic of the American Republic; Harvard Puritanism as an important migration point for the crossing-over of religion and science in the American mind; and the twisted strands of rapture and imperialism as key threads in the technological project that is the United States today. Like all counter-histories, this act of brushing critical, speculative thought against the technological blast is epistemologically relativistic. Faithful to its origins in the quantum philosophies that launched the postmodern era, there can be no pretence that the act of thinking the question of (American) technology does not somehow disturb the field, making of the discourse of technology and the American mind both the (anterior) subject and (imaginary) object of its focus. But then, more is at stake here than the historical fate, narrowly conceived, of the American Republic. If technology is the name given today to the ancient language of metaphysics, then what transpires in the technological framing of the American mind is also a larger story of the history of being itself. Ironically, the counter-practice of thought which asks of the discourse of technology and the American mind only that it reveal itself in its history and its practices, may also be the method by which the spark of being crosses over to a future discourse, yet undiscovered.

Clashing World (Techno) Projects

Hardware, software, wetware are the three forms which the human/machine can take in the New World Order. This trinity possesses its own geographical and historical coordinates. The hardware on which we play out all our culture and communication comes from Japan. The programs which make it possible for us to read, see and hear all this precious data come from the United States. And finally, the role of Europe is to deliver the necessary cultural products for shipment. Wetware?s task is to cough up culture, which will be run on the Japanese hardware with the help of American software. In this international division of labour, what is expected of Europe is that she properly administer the legacy of Bach and Beethoven, maintain the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gough, and extend the Shakespeare-through-Beckett theatre tradition into the future. This is just as true for the media art which has appeared over the last few years. The Europeans must figure out what things of beauty can be coaxed out of all this new equipment, for there is little pleasure to be derived from the functional use of the technology.

— Geert Lovink. “Hardware, Software, Wetware.” [1]

Following Lovink’s analysis, while Europe has, in effect, a brilliant wetware tradition of critical cultural reflection which has thought deeply about the cultural genealogy and social consequences of the universal technological state, and while emergent nations of the east — China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Singapore, and Malaysia — have political economies specializing in the production of technological hardware, the United States is the world’s leader in software culture. Not software culture in the exclusive digital terms of Windows, Dreamweaver, Final Cut Pro, Tiger and Java, but America as a software culture in the more inclusive sense of specializing in a style of thought and habit of (technological) creativity which literally grabs illusive scientific concepts from the mental vapor of the times, materializing them in a stunning series of technological inventions which come to represent the architecture of daily life in the contemporary century. From the Pony Express and the wagon train to jumbo jets, container ships, and the International Space Station; from typewriters and telephones (Edison’s vision of “talking with electricity”) to xeroxography, integrated circuits, zipcodes, microprocessors and ArpaNet; from flash bulbs, phonographs, and “talking motion pictures” to MS-DOS, hypermedia, and wireless mobiles; the endlessly inventive American mind has literally challenged the boundaries of the new, the innovative, the transformative.[2]

In a global culture which typically adopts the second law of thermodynamics — the tendency towards entropy — as its default position, the United States is different. Its historical vocation — its singular energy-force — is transformative, technological, teleological. Transformative because its unfolding history of sheer technical inventiveness has created not only a new economy, but the boundary conditions for a new (biogenetic) body, new (mobile) media; and new (communicative) politics, indeed for a propensity for continuously reinventing itself under the rubric of “newness.” Technological because, dispensing with the necessarily solitary routines of cultural introspection as well as the economic routines of manufacturing, it has made of itself a constitutively technological nation-state, and then cyber-empire. And teleological because the American project of technology is not separate from the quest for religious salvation, but represents that historically momentous cross-over point where religious salvation comes to be expressed in the double language of technological rapture and technological violence.

Beyond both Isaac Newton’s discovery of light as divisible into a full-color spectrum and 20th century quantum physics with its universe moving at the speed of light, the singular gift of the American spirit of technological innovation has been to quickly transform epochal scientific insights into accessible, practical consumer products that literally light up the future. Einstein’s theoretical splitting of the atom might have produced most immediately the post-nuclear wasteland of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it also unleashed the creativity of networked communication. In America, the long (European) history of photography extending from the pinhole camera and the camera obscura to the “magic lantern” has been blasted into global popular culture by disposable cameras, cell phone videos, and web cams. What was once only of speculative interest to mathematical theorists is now the everyday communicative world of complex computer search engines literally driving the knowledge-base of future human intuition. Taking its place in the ancient history of writing — from Sumerian cuneiform writing and the Phoenician alphabet to Egyptian hieroglyphics and papyrus rolls — American digital innovation has written the world anew in the rhetoric of the Electronic Word.

While the human nervous system might well have been extended by electronic technologies of communication in the 20th century, in the contemporary era we have actually put on the new (wired) nervous system generated by the American spirit of technological innovation as our electronic exoskeleton. In ways more pervasive than Marshall McLuhan could predict, America’s spirit of technological innovation has literally transformed its gift for invention, its cultural predilection for “killer apps” into the ruling world environment. Inhabitants of technoculture we have Microsoft (security) upgrades; Fox vision; Intel routines; space shuttle dreams; Hubble visions; Entertainment Tonight gossip; Entourage comedy; iPod, iTunes, iSight, iChat creativity. Indeed, who today can say with any confidence that they are exempt from the three most dynamic tendencies unleashed by software culture — invisibility, miniaturization, and the question of the interface. When the (consumer) gifts of the American spirit of technology are tattooed onto the skin of (global) culture, it is the object of the gift — the individual human subject — who is rewritten by the silent, but pervasive, software codes — becoming an increasingly invisible part of the network of technoculture; becoming an economic interface between machineries of production and advertising; becoming miniature in its social and political power in the face of massive technologies of surveillance, databasing, dissemination, and automation.

Covenant Technology

Accordingly, these questions: Could the lasting cultural importance of the United States be that of a great transitional phase, marking that point where centuries of human diversity and cultural singularity have finally been successfully channeled into the historical project of technology, sometimes by killing, sometimes by fun? Could American (technological) creativity and innovation have in the end less to do with the accelerating force of an expanding political and commercial empire, than constitute a great retrospective movement attracting the dark mass of the (missing) social into the arid residue of technoculture? While the world has never experienced an empire generated under the sign of what Martin Heidegger has described as “completed nihilism,” we do know this in advance concerning the likely fate of American empire. The key feature of “completed nihilism” as the final, most mature phase of the historical project of technology is that it will be characterized by the coming to be of a society which is simultaneously subject and object of the technological dynamo. It will be subject of the historical project of technology because it will adopt as its deepest autochthonon the language of technical striving. And it will be object of the completed technological experience because it will make of its rhetoric, government, economy, media and social institutions shining examples — a “City Upon the Hill” — of the fully rationalized, yet intensely sacrificial, future of technological willing.

Consequently the proposition: What makes America America, what really animates the discourse of technology and the American mind, is that its political culture represents a dynamic historical expression of Heidegger’s concept of “completed nihilism.” Not nihilism in a solely negative sense, but American nihilism as possessing a double meaning — the twin drives to technological imperialism and technological rapture. Co-present, deeply entwined, clashing yet interdependent, the drive to technological imperialism may express the relentless logic involved in delivering individuals to the lip of the data(net) by strategies ranging from mass consumption to ubiquitous surveillance, but the moment of technological rapture is different. Here, the spirit of nihilism manifests itself in a culture continually reinventing itself from nothingness in creative, transformative directions. Not content with subordinating the question of technology to strictly materialist ambitions, American discourse ultimately resolves its (technological) fate in the direction of religion, broadly understood. From the media rapture in minor key of advertising-driven consumption and the body rapture of successful cosmetic surgery to the digital rapture of all the Silicon Valleys of the mind, what differentiates the American project of technology is its deep implication in the overall political eschatology of America’s redemptive covenant. To speak of technology and the American mind is also to rapidly move beyond the strategies of elite-driven political economy involved in technological imperialism to an understanding of covenant technology.

Covenant technology? That’s the fusion of covenant theology and the will to technology as the essence of the American Republic, from its religious origins to its technocratic future. Here we are in the presence of a momentous alliance of two great historical forces — evangelical theology and technological experimentalism — which, putting aside their traditional differences, fuse the fierce ontological vision of covenant theology with the equally dynamic epistemological drive towards technological mastery of nature — human, post-human, and physical. Sworn on the bible at the time of the Mayflower Compact, emboldened by the successful political rebellion represented by the War of Independence, sanctified in sacrificial blood by the Civil War, hardened by the territorial conquests of the Indian Wars, brutalized by a long succession of colonial conquests, strategically confirmed by the extraordinary economic domination of the American empire of advanced capitalism, the American covenant was never a narrowly religious or even ideological affair, but emphatically techno-religious. Animating faith in the moral rightness of the American Republic powered by the spirit of technological innovation is the essence of what might justifiably be described as American-ness. While covenant theology is the ontological condition necessary to kick-start the “American dream,” brilliant technological innovation is the epistemological condition required to translate the terms of the covenant into the imaginary of the American Republic. Fear of the wrath of a righteous god mingles with inspiring visions of redemptive empire from the very inception of the American mind.

America as a Shining Body Upon a Hill

In a very real sense, American cultural history might be viewed as a vast, long-range eugenic experiment implicating the American public as an active test-bed for producing experimental prototypes of future bodies. Understood as a cultural as opposed to simply an economic phenomenon, mass consumer culture has since it gained escape velocity post-WWII literally grown a new American body: equipped with mobiles, interfaced by the Net, possessed by electronic media, alternatively splurging and purging in its dietary patterns, veering between individual self-help/self-loathing books and collective support for aggressive foreign policy, medicated, mediated, and (ideologically) interpellated.

While other nations might exceed the United States in sheer speed of technological innovation (wireless Philippines, Japan’s early adoption of mini-DVD’s), American culture excels in the transformation of new consumer peripherals into products of mass consumption. For example, consider contemporary triangular trade patterns among Japan, China and the United States. China is heavily dependent on Japan for new machinery and advanced electronic hardware. Japan is consequently co-dependent on China as its major trade partner. As for the United States, its imports of inexpensive consumer items from China have left it with a $60 billion monthly trade deficit, with China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea as America’s key creditors.[3] Quite literally, if global political economy is not to sink into a potentially catastrophic deflationary cycle, prevailing patterns of American consumption must be maintained, if not intensified. Japan as a specialized hardware-function, China as an inexpensive labor-function, and the United States as a consumption-function represent the lynchpins of contemporary global economic triangulation according to the logic of advanced capitalism.

However, beyond the strictly economic considerations underlying the logic of consumption (specifically inexpensive labor and cheap imports), America’s psychological preparedness to play the role of mass consumer — to wrap the mantle of consumption around American identity — is, I believe, fundamentally about metaphysics. From its very beginning, the invention of the American self is a classic example of the medieval philosophy of creatio ex nihilo — creation out of nothingness. After all, that is what a covenant is. It is a creation document, detailing the terms of the collective agreement, ostensibly in the name of god, but ultimately with the chain of metaphysics delineating the terms of creation. While America’s political destiny will be linked to the redemptive vision of the collectivity as a shining example of a “City Upon a Hill,” American individualism places its faith in instrumental activism: from reinventing the self and repurposing the Republic to ultimately restrategizing the empire. Of the great trinitarian triad at the basis of all metaphysics, secular as well as deeply religious societies — will, intelligence, emotion — the American covenant is signified by faith in the language of the will.

How could it be otherwise? The Puritans that struggled to the shore of Plymouth Bay already had the spirit of (technological) willing burned into their flesh. They had made of their bodies, intentions, desires a great migration — a tremulous sign of something else that was to come. Consider the immense discipline imposed on the body by their religiously inspired belief in rules, orderly conduct, frugality, doing good works. Before they set about reworking the land, Puritan pilgrims had already reworked the body by imposing a disciplinary strategy upon its desires and appetites. While they were quick to speak of indigenous peoples as “savages,” they were themselves the first of all the technological primitives, primed to impose on anything that stood in their way the same redemptive violence that they had already experienced as the essence of their existence. Unlike Europe which would finally liberate itself from the bitter internecine struggles of Protestantism and Catholicism, Reformation and Inquisition, by a growing belief in the death of god and which ever since has had to reconstitute its cultural identity in the ashes of non-belief, America has never experienced the death of god. Its foundational logic has always been pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment, pre-rational. Ultimately, this would be a culture haunted by biblical primitivism yet open to all the instrumentalities of the (technological) future; wed to an enthusiastic, affirming belief in the eventual triumph of the sacred, yet accelerated by advanced technologies of communication, finance, genetics, and power. Whether adopted as the ruling rhetoric of official ideology with the dutiful genuflection of presidential candidates to the words “God Bless America,” “God Bless the American People;” experienced as the animating faith of religious communities, both evangelical and regular church; or expressed in popular culture as a seductive mixture of technocratic savvy and unshakeable optimism of the will, faith in the redemptive power of the will is the essence of American self-confidence.

Literally created out of nothingness — born out of the willful determination of the original Puritans to create a religious society in strict covenant with biblical scriptures, the American experiment can always only go forward, extending the power of its essentially messianic vision of the will upon the land, its inhabitants, and ultimately upon itself. Bonding fervent acts of individual faith with rapturous visions of redemption from a sinful world, Puritanism made of radical negation the “right stuff” of American being. Here, there could be no going back — to hierarchy, to priestly mediations, to ceremonial rituals. There could only be a going forward — to the “City Upon a Hill,” to individual redemption, to the heroic image of the American frontier “taming the wilderness,” to the creative act of reinventing the self. Like the dramatic originality of the American covenant itself, each individual would also constitute a “new beginning,” later commonly struck on the political anvil of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but fashioned in the founding terms of the Mayflower Compact as an imminent sign of covenant logic. Of course, in the absence of the assertive language of the (crusading) will, the American experiment is always under imminent threat of instantly retracting into the spirit of radical negation from which it first emerged. Courageously rebelling against British colonial domination, mindful that a commercial empire was waiting to be gained in the western lands, nourished by dreams of harvesting the natural energies of the “wilderness,” Americans truly were the first republican citizens of the New World. Not simply by virtue of historical chronology, but metaphysically.

Europe was truly the Old World because it was the world of the broken will, divided initially between the nostalgia of Greek lament and the pragmatism of Roman power, and later between Kantian aspirations to universal community and Sadian visions of the triumph of the irrational. Never capable of fully absorbing the consequences of the death of god into its political philosophies, Europe could be the land of the broken will because successive European political experiments failed to create a directly experienced mediation of the will. Here, the fundamental division of reason and passion in the wavering of the human heart — so presciently identified by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment as the “dialectic of reason” — would be forced to find an external principle of unity: from the cruelty of the Inquisition and the counter-discipline of the Reformation to the failed experiments of fascism (populist counter-reactions) and communism (totalitarian bureaucracy) and thereupon to the new political artifice of the European Community which, for all of its aspirations to replace the American dream with the European social alternative, is probably only the latest manifestation of a continuing metaphysical crisis that is the true European legacy. Ultimately the death of god in the European heart and with it Europe’s increasing disdain for the messianic logic of covenant theology carried with it a heavy philosophical, then directly political, price. When Christian confessionality lost its emotional hold as an internal principle of European identity, when the European history of will disconnected from the holy trinity of intelligence, will and emotion under the sign of god, then power was forced to play its political games on the outside, to find in alternative spasms of overbearing (state) reason or (individual) psychological counter-reactions a way of restoring the lost unity of the Christian confessional. Lacking an internal cultural principle of mediation, swinging randomly between a politics of democratic universalism (disconnected from the harsher vicissitudes of life) and the upsurge of the irrational (unchecked by the moderating claims of reason), the modern history of Europe is that of an endlessly deferred civilizational crisis. Its future surely lies in its past. A political chronology of the broken will: a political culture radically divided between the political artifice of imposed social unities and radical political expressions of the irrational.

Not so America. For better or worse, the United States has evaded the deferred cultural crisis haunting Europe because the founding of the American republic brought together two clashing ideas, previously separate and mutually hostile — the messianic passion of covenant theology and the new frontier reason of the will to technology. Refusing the European post-Christian model of a solely external mediation of reason and passion, the New Republic did something strikingly different. It made of the felt subjectivity of the individual American citizen the directly experienced ground for mediating (technical) intelligence and (missionary) emotion. From its Puritan origins to its wireless future, Americanness would come to represent a stunningly original form of identity — a fused will — in which passionate commitment, whether progressive or conservative, to the ideal of the City Upon the Hill would mix in equal measure with loyalty to the spirit of (technical) innovation. Consequently, what was experienced in Europe as antitheses — the death of god and the age of progress — was literally reconfigured across the Atlantic as the reanimated god of the American covenant fused with a breathtaking cultural openness to innovation, enterprise and creativity in the leading form of contemporary subjectivity known as Americanness. Once blended with both a national mission (the founding of the Republic) and personal ambitions (innovation in science and technology driven by acquisitive capitalism), technology ceased to be a project external to the question of identity, becoming something internalized with the deepest formation of American identity itself. Once released from its European constraints and connected with the salvational language of the founding political covenant, it was as if American identity could finally express itself fully only in the language of technology. In the American mind, there is always only a new (technological) frontier: the early colonial crossing of the western lands of the Mississippi River, the shores of the Pacific Ocean cresting on the beaches of California, the Space Race, the first “Man on the Moon,” the projected manned exploration of Mars. Here, the meaning of the frontier in the American mind is not something that can ever be physically achieved, representing instead an always receding possibility. Chase this possibility across the American land mass to the Pacific Ocean, conquer a whole planetary world of the American empire, whereupon it immediately disappears into the stars — an illusive new frontier of deep space to be pursued anew across an infinity of dark galaxies.

The first of all the essentially technological subjectivities, Americanness refers now, as much as in its historical origins, to an incipient form of identity waiting to be mobilized, activated, ordered: in effect, prepared for full participation in the greater historical (technological) project of imposing its framework of (missionary) understanding upon the world. Self-confident in its moral correctness, measuring its success by its degree of mastery of a universe always understood as imminently hostile, threatened by any resistance to its hegemony, critically paranoid to the extent that it uses panic fear as a way of confirming the ethical necessity of the next crusade, Americanness fused religion and science into a dramatically new form of (technological) willing. Possessing no (European) home to which to return, this lonely, aggressive band of American pilgrims also had no future except for their own ability to blend the vision of a righteous god and an innovative cast of mind into a winning political formula. Subjects, who by virtue of intentional exile had freed up everything of themselves to be mobilized, ordered, repurposed, reconfigured, they were held together less by the gathering dreams of federalist democracy than by a covenant which was as intensely personal as its was inspiringly collective. Viewed historically, the great American advantage is that this is less the story of a political culture born at the very inception of the age of progress and thus capable of leapfrogging ahead in industrial technology, than a more enduring discourse concerning the formation of American identity as born again technology. Theirs was a unique world-character type for whom the otherwise chilling Heideggerian terms of “setting-upon,” “standing-reserve” and “injurious neglect of the thing” could be immediately experienced less as ethical inhibitions against the language of (technological) progress than pragmatic descriptions of the world-view necessary for disciplining the self in the age of acquisitive capitalism and, in the process, acquiring an empire through a culture of permanent war.

Ultimately Americanness is the necessary cultural outcome of a society which wagers its fortunes upon the metaphysics of the will. Created as a powerful, but necessarily imperfect, expression of the fused will, (American) technological willing synthesizes strong personal ambitions, commercial calculations and immense technical creativity into a distinct style of instrumental activism — at times strictly capitalist, at other points militaristic — which comes to be known colloquially as the American way. In its early aggressive moments, the American expression of the will can win the War of Independence, the Civil War, Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and from the ruins of WWI and WWII garrison the world with the complex military apparatus essential to American (commercial) empire. Indeed, more than simply winning wars on the field of military struggle, American war culture takes Heidegger’s concept of “harvesting” to a new extreme. For Heidegger the language of (technological) harvesting refers to the reduction of all sources of energy — human, animal, and nature — to passive “standing-reserve,” always on-call to be ordered, mobilized, drained of energy by the historical project of technology. When applied to an understanding of American war logic, Heidegger’s harvesting has an added cynical twist: namely the active digestion by first colonial, later post-colonial, and now the American imperial empire of the warrior spirit of the conquered as a way of animating the machinery of harvesting anew. From sports teams to military divisions, the landscape of American culture is populated by the ghostly specters of defeated Indian tribes just as much as the messianic spirit of southern confederate forces during the Civil War continues to deeply inform the crusading political strategies of the contemporary Republic. With its twofold political logic of scapegoating and parasitism, sacrificial violence is the real psychological nomenclature of Americanness.

Yet for all its outward materialist accomplishments, the underlying metaphysics of the American expression of the will cannot, in the end, be denied. At some indefinable point in its cultural history, possibly bored with its accomplishments, fatigued with its obligations, perhaps contemptuous of the ease with which it has conquered a colony and then an empire, the American will inevitably folds back on itself. Thus begins the era of soft decadence when the will, dispensing with extrinsic objects as ultimately unsatisfactory forms of satisfaction, begins to feed on itself. Literally, America begins to make itself sick as a way of energizing the next phase of its historical project. While the American will in its political infancy is nourished by the language of expanding capital — the aggressive construction of a coldly functional empire of social, economic, cultural and political power — the fully mature expression of the American will does just the opposite. In these desolate, skittish days at the end of empire, American power feeds on the eschatology of postmodern phantasms: the death of the social, the end of politics, the virtualization of capital, the disappearance of culture. Reality shows on television are practical substitutes for social capital. Dense networks of expressways linking gated suburbs to downtown financial skyscrapers represent the architectural remainder of urban capital. Breast augmentation as the leading present by parents to graduating high school women constitutes the real language of body capital. Evangelical preachers, stock manipulators, and powerful vested interests feeding on the “common” body of the government perfectly express the death of politics as itself a way of renewing the language of power. While conservative political rhetoric appeals to the unity of American community and progressive thought continues to dream of social justice, the real driving force of American popular culture champions the death of the social. Exclusionary politics, political scapegoating, collective anger directed against the weak, posses of middle-class self-described “vigilantes” on the Arizona border with Mexico, drinking rates among some high school students declining because they are reported as spending more time popping prescription pills from their parents’ medicine cabinets, television news of mass outbreaks of syphilis among the children of Baptists in Atlanta suburbs, newspaper chronicles of monster homes, abandoned families, and vacant relationships. A pleasure dome and a torture chamber, the Body Upon a Hill increasingly takes delight in its own humiliation. Its mass entertainment from CSI to the galaxy of reality shows can be death-oriented because in its last decadent phase power always prefers to speak in the language of thanatos. With a thin veneer of piety covering an inner reality of political cynicism, scenes of torture, death, accidents, mass plague, natural catastrophes are transformed into entertainment spectacles. In the mass media, false prophets abound while false gods are proclaimed just before being debunked. In its foreign policy, America throws off the legitimating language of democratic freedom, revealing itself to be a cold-eyed will to power, subordinating when necessary the (domestic) rhetoric of freedom and democracy to doing what’s necessary to preserve an increasingly hegemonic world empire. In its domestic policy, the leaders of the Republic encourage its population to make a media spectacle of the spirit of negation within. Violence becomes the essential moment of rapture in the last decadent phase of American empire, with panic fear and panic deflation as oscillating moments in the public mind.

Or perhaps something more psychologically complex as the American boundary condition: a strange combination of activism and panic fear, transformation and negation. Which explains why, for example, there can be such violent counter-reactions against any breaches of the closed boundaries of the American covenant. This is a political system wound up so tightly in a twin logic of violence and negation that the slightest hint of catastrophe threatens to draw out the panic fear within. Long before the projection of American power harvests the world in the pursuit of its imperial ambitions, the terms of the original Puritan covenant — codified by the language of the American Constitution and sanctified by the official rhetoric of the Civil War as sacrificial violence in the interests of an indivisible Union — specify that the American self will be a sacrificial offering — a will and nothing but a will. Later, during the decadent days of empire, when the strategic interests of American power have been achieved and the middle-class population assured of the practical successes of the high-intensity consumer marketplace, it is difficult to rearticulate the original animating vision of the burning will that is the essence of American exceptionalism. More profoundly a metaphysical rather than a narrowly political rupture with its European origins, what really migrated with Puritans first, and waves of immigrants later, was a fundamentally new expression of the language of the will — a will to survive, to create, to conquer, to dominate — which carried in its path both a new form of (technical) knowledge as power as much as a new form of (crusading) emotion motivated by unbending determination American-style.

The Double Helix

A transformation matrix, the dominant American cultural pattern holds direct opposites in creative tension. This is the source of its fierce internal political debates, its messianic militarism, its scientific creativity, its dynamic capitalist experimentation, its often visionary art. Simultaneously pious and cynical, philanthropic and war-like, manipulative and generous, proselytizing and fearful, American culture intensifies extremes and laughs away the difference. Long before the science of evolutionary biology envisioned the model of the “double helix” as the basic building block of human life, American culture emerged full-blown as a society of twisted strands. Refusing to be enframed by the frozen binaries of Enlightenment logic, blasting away the philosophical obstructions between a vengeful god and an optimistic science, always in creative tension, always on the move towards the next frontier, the discourse of technology and the American mind was a brilliant scientific idea first experienced as a daring political project. For example, while the biological model of the double helix could be brilliantly proposed fifty years ago as the basic (DNA) building block of all life, perhaps in a strange case of science lagging behind life, Crick and Watson’s discovery (with the unacknowledged, but indispensable X-ray photography by Rosalind Franklin) was anticipated by the political history and cultural logic of the United States.

The American Republic of Bio-Power

Sometimes, scientific consciousness articulates a vision of the future which, while ostensibly emergent from the physical universe actually represents a fantastic crystallization of a ruling idea, that had until that point been suspended in the cultural atmosphere. Like an intangible idea, floating everywhere, expressible nowhere, the double helix could perhaps be received with such instant global acclaim because it gave voice to a dynamic cultural representation which until that moment was unrecognized as the “building block” of modern (American) culture. In the same way that Lewis Mumford could note that the industrial model of the factory was anticipated by medieval practices of the monastery with its strict division of time, disciplining of labor, and specialization of work function,[4] so too the biological model of the double helix was anticipated by the singular way of being that is American identity. Could it be that what is most exceptional about American exceptionalism is that this was a culture which, from its inception, had somehow stumbled upon the language of biology as its ruling metaphysic? In this case, we might conclude that while Europe could rightfully be the originating continent of physics, the United States would be the culture born under the sign of genetic biology. When Michel Foucault spoke so eloquently about the movement from “power over death” to “power over life” as the essence of power/knowledge, he might well have been rehearsing in his thought the political creed of the United States: namely that this would be a culture where power would wager itself on the invention of a distinctive style of life itself, what is described colloquially, not without a certain sense of national pride, as the “American way of life.” The passionate combination first of Puritan missionary consciousness and scientific experimentalism, and later of mass consumption and electronic gadgets, that would come to characterize the American eruption in an otherwise hostile, if not indifferent, world found its formula, and appropriately so, in the famous “Declaration of (Technological) Independence” with its bio-political rhetoric of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What finally appeared in the 20th century language of genetic biology as the famous image of the double helix — two twisting strands of nucleotides, strictly anti-parallel, connected by four base pairings — is, I believe, but a scientific expression of a bio-political revolution that occurred much earlier with the founding of the American republic. Here, like a cultural precession of the scientific imagination of biotechnology, the dominant pattern of American discourse is structured in the form of a double helix whereby two great curving strands of cosmology — faith-based religion and scientifically authorized reason — follow a twisting, spiraling path from past to future: co-present, bound together in creative tension, decidedly not binaries, determining in their oppositions and continuities the specific codes of American political culture. Always running anti-parallel to one another (religion versus science, liberalism versus conservatism, individualism versus collectivity, nature versus culture, faith versus reason), the genetic memory of American discourse is connected by four base pairs: economy, politics, society, and culture. Like DNA, the base pairs of American culture — its seductive model of political economy, social logic, media networks, and cultural values — can be easily clipped and transplanted into colonized (alien) bodies. It was not for nothing that Marshall McLuhan described the United States as the “world environment.” With a strikingly original “building block” of political life (the constitutional theory of the American Republic), genetic social memory (the “American dream”), great twisting strands of thought, and clashing ideological currents which run deep and always run anti-parallel, America was fated by its origins in genetic logic to be the ascendant ruling empire of the 21st century. More than its own imperial leadership may suspect, America was literally engineered for world power from its inception. In this continental nation, in this global empire, a dynamic genetic idea — the building blocks of life itself as twisting strands of great codes, anti-parallel, connected by base pairs in constant motion — somehow jumped from the sphere of biology to the world of political theory. Imprinting itself deeply in the language of American identity, arming itself with the religious fervor of the American dream, structuring a whole society with its biological rhythms, the double helix finds in the American Republic a way of coding that which is most vital, most powerful, most eschatological into a resilient, always expanding, body of (imperial) politics.

As a nation the history of which begins not only with a fateful rupture with Europe but with a dynamic will to create a new society out of the twisting strands of fierce religious conviction and equally determined pilgrim energy, we are dealing here with the sudden eruption in the “New World” of an evolutionary break in the building blocks of (European) political and social life. Breaking with the fetters of monarchy, refusing the land-based fatalism of feudalism, placing its confidence in the bible and the axe, pushing westward, then global, then galactic, towards an unattainable imagination of the American spirit, the “New Republic” is possessed by the language of bio-politics. Ostensibly, we are dealing here with the social construction of American identity, the political constitution of mixed government combining executive, legislative and judicial powers in equal, measured proportions, the ideological formation of the American colonizing project from “Manifest Destiny” to “Redemptive Empire,” and the invention of a style of capitalist initiative that is as creative, inventive, and transformative in its entrepreneurial energy as it is harsh, cold and calculating in its drive to quarterly profitability. All this may be true, but still there is something else, more subliminal, harder to detect, practically invisible because it is so omnipresent; and that is, the actual genetic constitution of the sustaining spirit of America as a way of being. Here, each person, each identity, each animating political idea, each cultural image, each entrepreneurial project, each cybernetic vision will either be a twisted strand containing clashing, brilliantly anti-parallel possibilities, or, as Puritan futurists declaimed: “it would perish from the face of this good earth.” Catastrophe and rapture are the twisted song-lines of American being.

Catastrophe and Rapture

Who could have conceived of a society which would structure principles for its own undermining, for itself as a brilliantly creative accident — always about to happen, always happening, always in the process of being redeemed — for the auto-destruction of any tendency towards permanent stability, into its deepest constitutional principles? It’s one thing to speak with awed reverence at the supposedly flawed Kantian marvel that is the United States where the (modernist) vision of universal human community of freely acting citizens invested with inalienable natural rights is somehow held to be threatened by faith-based, bible belt political insurgencies running straight from the pulpit to the White House, from Fox News to the deepest subjectivity of the inhabitants of the new middle class gated communities of this good (suburban) land. But it’s quite something else, when taking off the blinkers of conventional modernism, to realize that with regard to the question of American being, something genuinely unique is happening here, that this is one culture which is structured by a very singular social history, namely that the only national constant in American history — economic, political, social and cultural — is the capitalist equivalent of Maoist “permanent revolution.” Call it what you will — Schumpeter’s principle of “creative destruction, ” Reagan’s “New Morning for America,” Microsoft’s competitive software scorched earth policy symbolized by its “Windows on the World,” the tabloids’ daily spectacle of the dramatic burnout and eventual redemption of celebrity icons, or small business entrepreneurs who get up everyday with gritty dreams and mission statements to deconstruct, derail, and devolve what has gone before in order to reconstruct, realign and repurpose enterprise economy into something absolutely new, absolutely profitable. American rhetoric might wear the symbolic garments of Kantian universal freedom to the altar of political respectability in the community of (democratic) nations, but the essence of American identity lies elsewhere, precisely in the almost ecstatic collective pleasure taken in accidenting the future, crash-testing the economy, accelerating the body, abandoning culture, evacuating the social, harvesting the brain by new sciences of neuro-genetics, vicariously sharing in the rise and fall of celebrity icons. Fear Factor and Entertainment Tonight are not just prime-time TV shows: they also capture something of the element of radical deconstruction central to the American geist.

The spirit of permanent revolution at the heart of American identity might be explained away by Rene Girard’s concept of sacrificial violence — namely that this is one culture which, perhaps exhausted with sacrificial rituals carried on at the (media) edges of its colonial borders, finally makes a sacrificial wasteland of itself, finding in the moment of sacrificial expenditure the real social capital of an advanced technoculture dying of its own boredom. But perhaps there is something about American identity that is post-Girard, that the ecstasy of sacrificial expenditure — the insatiable drive to transform, undermine, innovate, create, destroy — is not the empty symbolic ritual of an exhausted culture which desperately requires sacrifices (of always accidental others) as a means of internal moral cohesion, but the essential genetic logic of its historical drive to empire. This dynamic fusion of sacrificial logic and natural rights into the same political body, investing American identity, business, war, culture, knowledge, media with the twisted strands of different futures — order and chaos — always anti-parallel, always threatening to implode, to reconfigure, to instantly field-morph into a radical change of state is the essential creative energy driving the American dream. Neither exclusively political nor biological, American being is born bio-political. Here the future always accidents itself — destabilizing, conflagrating, deconstructing — in order to give rise to something greater: that is its energy, its creativity, its innovativeness, its undeniable seduction, its dark charisma. Reluctant to slow down sufficiently to develop a stable (modernist) Freudian ego, this is one culture which operates at the speed of light between a full-octane id and an aggressive cultural superego.

Three Twisted Strands

USA: An Open, Closed or Flat Universe?

After the Big Bang precipitated by the meeting of covenant theology and the spirit of technological innovation in the American mind, what is the future of the United States? Is it an open universe rushing outwards in ever expanding concentric circles, radiating its implosive energy at the speed of light, burning up its material base until at some point in the indefinite future it will be left floating among the planets as an empty remainder of that which once was the leading 21st century empire of spacetime? Or is it a closed universe violently collapsing into itself, the infinite curvature of its spacetime fabric compressing into the dense, dark material of a black hole from which no light can escape? Or is the American future that of a flat universe with no real expansion nor necessary contraction, only an indefinite struggle between inflationary and deflationary forces, a prolonged political stalemate punctuated by violent event-horizons.

Understood as an open universe, the secret of American power is that it always seeks to inflate beyond its controlling codes. The military projection of the American will to empire by sea, land and air always exceeds the more constrained political vision of the founding constitutional order. The political economy of advanced capitalism that has come to be known as the logic of globalization is always functionally bankrupt, incorporating a permanent liquidity crisis of over-indebtedness as its necessary motive. The greater the expansion of American influence off-shore, the more severe the internal legitimation crisis undermining American authority. The more universal the declaration of American values, the more intense the domestic debate concerning the ends of American political morality. In its expansive, inflationary phase, the fabric of American culture expands to consume the universe, investing societies seemingly everywhere with a unitary fabric of (American) spacetime linking together imperial power, capitalist profitability, media influence and messianic vision.

Viewed as a closed universe, American culture is in the process of violently collapsing into itself, like a dead and dying star attracting into its dense, twisting spiral all the passing material of the social universe. Here, the language of redemptive empire can be revived as a way of signaling the swift contraction of the American experiment into its base elements of physical power, primitive capitalism, crusading morality, and imposed influence. Massively deflationary, inward looking, mistrustful of outsiders, increasingly paranoid about breaches of its (political) bodily boundaries, America as a closed universe has only one certain future. When the liquid growth of the symbolic media of power, money, influence and values are forced to contract towards their controlling codes, a critical tipping-point is quickly achieved. Here, America becomes a quantum singularity: a crushing density of political energy around which light-waves from other stars are forced to bend, disappearing into such an infinite immensity of darkness that America henceforth will only be known at second-hand by the astronomical signs of what is missing when other planets cross between outside observers and its violent event-horizon.

Envisioned as a flat universe, America is a culture of twisted strands struggling to stabilize clashing pressures towards full (political) inflation and total (cultural) deflation. Possessing neither the pure energy of an open universe or the dense matter of a closed universe, the flat universe of America is something different. It is that moving point where the centripetal energies of an expanding (political) universe fold back into centrifugal matter of a deflationary (economic) culture to create an event-horizon that is known as the American singularity. Positioned on the outer edge of the spiral, marking a threshold between the black hole of the American religious past and the white hole of the American technological future, the American singularity is a warp hole between history and the present. Enter the American singularity, fully immerse yourself in the fusion of closed universe covenant theology and open universe technological innovation that is the American field of spacetime today, and you will find yourself instantly tunneling between religious time and technological space.

Following the lessons of quantum physics which hold that every quantum singularity is accompanied by an event-horizon, could it be that America in all of its violence and seduction is the unique event-horizon which emerges from the convergence of covenant belief and creative technology, in North America first, in world history later, and perhaps in the deep space explorations, migrations and colonizations of the future?

The New Puritans: Twisted Strands Take Root on American Soil

Harvard University, which celebrated its 350th anniversary in 1986, is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Founded 16 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the University has grown from nine students with a single Master to an enrollment of some 18,800 degree candidates, including undergraduates and students in 10 graduate and professional schools. Six presidents of the United States — John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Rutherford B. Hayes, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy — were graduates of Harvard.

Harvard College was established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was named for its first benefactor, John Harvard of Charlestown, a young minister who, upon his death in 1638, left his library and half his estate to the new institution.

During its early years, the College offered a classic academic course based on the English university model but consistent with the prevailing Puritan philosophy of the first colonists. Although many of its early graduates became ministers in Puritan congregations throughout New England, the College was never formally affiliated with a specific religious denomination. An early brochure, published in 1643, justified the College’s existence: “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.” [5]

While the mythic Puritan story of the ‘first encounter’ at Plymouth Rock is a familiar part of the American foundational narrative, what is less remarked, but of probably greater lasting cultural importance, is that there was actually a second ‘first encounter’ in American discourse: this time not between Puritans and indigenous peoples, but between faith and reason, between Puritan missionary consciousness so necessary to the immediate development of born again ideology in the American mind and scientific reason so vital to its future ideology of technological liberalism, and all this within the famous brick walls and ivy-leafed square of Harvard University. Here the missionary zeal, disciplinary energies, and crusading spirit of the Puritan moment would meet up with a style of (Enlightenment) thought which in its rationality, pragmatism, and pluralism would soon seemingly best it to become the official intellectual core of the American mind. There the story might have ended except for one curious eventuality. What emerged as the liberal side of the American mind was, I believe, always deeply touched by American covenant theology. God is not a passive witness to the unfolding story of American power, technology, and liberalism, but a co-present, anti-parallel, and much called upon, active partner. Definitely post-Enlightenment in its ruling scientific epistemologies and creative technological innovations, America is equally, and this most definitely, pre-Enlightenment in its popularly subscribed messianic vision. Here the high tech marvels of the 21st century are always in the way of hurrying back to resolve the original terms of the 17th century Puritan covenant. American culture was born with a (covenant) debt which it can never satisfy, and on behalf of which it is fated to be that most singular of all nations: simultaneously part-quantum/part-confessional.

Now I do not mean this in a reductive sense implying either the subordination of the Puritan outlook to the world-vision inspiring the American liberal imagination or, for that matter, the reduction of technological liberalism to its Puritan foundations. America has always had about it the barely discernable hint of enigma: namely that what would set it apart as a colonial, then national, and now empire, project, is that this would be a culture of twisted strands: the twisting together in an ascending spiral of two conflicting motivations — religious and secular, puritan and scientific, born again and pragmatic — which, taken together, constitute the core code of what for some is the rapture of the American dream, but for others the apocalypse of American imperialism. Long before 20th century quantum physics would envision the physical universe as always composed of opposite changes of state — a world of both/and, not either/or — American political reality would build, from its Puritan origins in the 17th century to the crusading military spectacles of the 21st century — a society, culture, and political economy firmly based on the basic quantum principle that in life, as in science, only contradictions are true, that the ineluctable differences between religion and science confirm their necessary partnership in the deepest (political) affairs of the American mind.

So then, to return to the original question concerning the Puritan roots of Harvard University. The question of technology and the American mind begins with what, at first, appears to be a historical curiosity, but upon further reflection reveals itself to be a cultural puzzle, then a still unresolved political predicament. The historical curiosity is this: What explains the fact that the Massachusetts Bay Company — the emblematic sponsor of crusading, disciplinary Puritanism, shortly after the so-called “First Encounter” at Plymouth Rock also established Harvard University, now in its own publicity terms the “oldest corporation” in the New World. The cultural puzzle: Is the genealogical relationship between Harvard University, widely viewed as the intellectual spearhead of what might be viewed as technological liberalism in the United Sates, and the missionary spirit of Puritanism simply a historical coincidence — what might be called a discursive situation in which the religious foundations of American knowledge migrated with the slow passage of time into a style of thought — rational, experimental, pragmatic — in short, scientific? Or could this meeting of the religious foundations of the American Republic and the epistemological model grounding its scientific future represent something more world-historical, more metaphysically convulsive, in its cultural importance? Was this meeting of Puritan faith and liberal thought a great metaphysical fusion of the divided European will? Were what might be called the Harvard Puritans a New World solution to a metaphysical problem which, while it may have had its historical origins in a European culture marked by the absolutist wars of religion and the creative, speculative dreams of the Renaissance, could not be solved within the closed orbit of European thought? And the political predicament? Once having come to full maturity as the historical embodiment, not only of a new (republican) political idea but, more importantly, of a new expression of the metaphysics of the will — technology and the American mind — what will impede the present American experiment in playing out the inevitable end-point of that story, what Heidegger described as “completed nihilism”?

In seeking to understand the question of technology and the American mind, one fact is dramatically clear. Namely, that what truly distinguishes American thought, what really lies at the roots of American exceptionalism, is that this is not, and never was, a traditional European story of warring binaries — faith versus reason — but a complicated fusion of these two master narratives into the cultural idea of the American Republic. Even in its most eugenic, rationalist, and clinical manifestation the driving force of the American mind has always had about it the animating spirit of missionary consciousness, the epistemological activism of a moral crusade and the tangible smell of imperial rapture. Unlike other societies where understanding technology is a learned method, American culture is a technology. From the war technology research of MIT, the pioneering developments in genetic biology at Harvard University, the information technology of Stanford University to the leading-edge neuro-science of UCLA, American technological reason has always operated in active alliance with covenant theology. Certainly not in the simplistic, reductive sense of reason as passively subordinated to proselytizing religious sects, but definitely in the more invidious sense: namely that the overall historical project of the official American knowledge enterprise has deeply aligned itself as the level of value-preference and epistemological direction with the moral ends of covenant theology — the creation in “this good land” of a form of thought which in its brilliantly vivisectionist-logic will universalize the American future.

Consequently, regarding Harvard’s Puritan origins: are we presented here with a simple case of intellectual coincidence — the migration of two great master discourses, one religious, the other secular, wherein Harvard University itself is simply symptomatic of the greater passage of American society from its faith-based origins to its scientifically envisioned future? In this case, the story of Harvard University would be a representative case of the comforting discourse underlying America’s received (official) culture, namely that what we have here is a fateful contestation over the space of four centuries between two warring discourses — religion and science — with the technological primacy of the scientific imagination gradually eclipsing the Puritan foundations. This is a truly comforting discourse because it would confirm the essentially binary character of American thought — reason versus passion; nature versus culture; science versus religion; individuality versus collectivism — which has always structured progressive (liberal) political thought in America, sustaining it in the present in the midst of the current resurgence of the religious right.

But what if we were to consider another possibility? Could the Puritan origins of Harvard possibly be a story of the injection into the bloodstream of American thought, politics and culture of a new metaphysical virus: the folding together of faith and reason into the governing framework of American consciousness? In this case, if there can be such a peaceable shift from the founding Puritan spirit to the contemporary secular spirit of Harvard, could it be because there is no essential difference between the founding spirit of Puritanism and scientific knowledge, only a subtle shift of discourse as Puritanism ceases to wear its crusading (religious) spirit and takes up the garments of reason — nominally secular, rational and (eventually) liberal, but in essence the epistemological spearhead of the civil religion that is America? In the genealogy of Harvard University are we really present at the birth of the discourse of technology as religion, replacing the original religious origins of American consciousness with pluralistic, rational, but competitive and always epistemologically redemptive knowledge?

Again, this is not an argument for a narrow understanding of religion and technology, but something more constitutive. Namely, that what happened at the moment of Harvard University’s Puritan origins was a dramatic rip in the space-time fabric of American culture, instantly linking the redemptive language of the covenant theology with a (rationalist) epistemology of discovery, invention, dissecting research logic. Understood in quantum terms as a warp-hole in the space-time fabric, the cultural importance of Harvard University was that it was the specific historical site where the past of religious enthusiasm and the future of epistemological discovery somehow fused on the common ground of (technological) knowledge as a key aspect of the civil religion of America. Here, the strictly Puritan religious creed could gradually disappear in the 18th century because an arc of intellectual electricity had already passed between the religious eschatology of the Puritan founders and intellectual Puritanism as a distinctive form of American thought. What might be described as the original Puritan habit of mind — disciplined, vivisectionist, morally righteous, convinced of its redemptive singularity — migrated easily and without a murmur of discontent into the ruling self-consciousness of American technological knowledge. Consequently, the project of technological reason, of which the scientific imagination is its leading epistemological spearhead — could be viewed as the leading contemporary expression of religious enthusiasm. Conversionary, probing, proselytizing, tautological in its founding assumptions, powered by its moral self-confidence and linked to human (scientific) redemption in the name of technological freedom, Harvard University’s lasting cultural importance is as the first historical singularity — the original tear in the space-time fabric where (Puritan) ontology migrates into (technological) epistemology. Here, the twisted strands of faith and intelligence — covenant theology and the rights of reason — first took root in American soil, and while they would never be fated to find common ground in the surface clashes of Church and State, their common eschatological aspirations for the founding of the New Republic in a hostile world would definitely have common purchase in their strange alliance as twin vectors — one a faith-based electorate, the other reason-driven science — in the American imperial project. In American culture, god comes to wear the mask of reason, just as much as the spirit of religious enthusiasm is projected globally by a discourse of (technological) knowledge which is the culturally genetic expression of the American war spirit.

The Double Helix as American Identity

Understood as a quantum culture, American identity thrives on instant, total changes of state.

Technologically, the intense digital euphoria of the late ’90s was instantly replaced post- 9/11 by the hard politics of the “War on Terrorism.” In finance capital, the speculative bubble of the new economy was washed away by an American political economy which went to ground in earthly energy resources, with oil commodities leading the way. In politics, just as the economic conservatism of the Bush administration replaced Clintonian social liberalism, so too the contemporary wave of evangelical Republicanism will undoubtedly be succeeded by a moderate Democratic regime focusing on the valorization of social capital and solutions for the approaching crisis of over-indebtedness. In space exploration, the Columbia Shuttle can explode across the empty skies of Texas while the Hubble Telescope can fade away with the passage of time, but still the International Space Station approaches its moment of architectural realization and plans are well underway for manned missions to planet Mars. In music, Seattle-based grunge, itself the death-note of ’80s psychedelia, can be blasted away by the street rap of hip-hop with its seductive combination of fourth-world inner city violence and a first-world gated community iPod audience. In architecture, the tragic days of 9/11 with its spectacular glimpses of suddenly vulnerable New York skyscrapers quietly gives way to the fluid, configurative, free-floating architecture of Frank Gehry. A culture operating under the sign of the double helix, America always oscillates between the referential extremes of hyper-deflation and hyper-inflation — between the expansive world of code and the deflationary forces of value-principle — in culture, finance, architecture, art, politics, and maybe even in life itself. This is one country that will only be all ground or all figuration, with absolutely nothing in-between.

Ironically, like the space-faring nation that it seeks to be, America succeeds in playing the extremes of inflation and deflation because of a stunning, but reliable, astronomical manoeuver. Like a space ship on a voyage to deep space which seeks out distant planets only to immediately sweep around them, using their gravitational fields as a way of accelerating towards the next galactic destination, the American mind uses the gravitational forces of cultural extremes as a way of animating its collective energy. The (stock market) excesses of the last great wave of tech euphoria taken to its logical (virtual) extreme reverses field, with the business world imploding into the grim scarcities of a commodity-based economy. The real estate bubble will likely collapse in the direction of a chronic crisis of consumer debt. Shuttle disasters inspire the sacrificial fervor of unlimited galactic explorations. Opposition to the moral relativism of liberal politics instantly mutates into bible belt visions of a redemptive empire. The psychic shock of 9/11 flips within the same week into proposals for the high-tech security apparatus of the new biometric state.

Again, all ground and all figuration with no stabilizing mechanisms to split the difference, the American mind has only always known the logic of the double helix as deepest identity. Indeed, if it is possible to speak meaningfully of a social identity like Americanness, it would inaccurate to reduce its immense diversity to either of its extremes. America has never been exclusively fundamentalist or relativist, rock ‘n’ roll or country & western, biblical or scientific, suburbs or trailer parks, the working culture of bars, strip malls, and Wal-Marts or the professional culture of law firms, ad agencies, and exclusive consumer brands. Americanness means being always in motion, in competition, in flight, in careers — moving fast from one change of state to another, perhaps caught up in traffic jams, plane vectors, taxi runs or high-speed trains, but always making of the speed of a single life a brilliant metaphor for the velocity of the entire culture. Americanness means actually making a double helix of your personality, ambitions, career, identity, relationships — always being prepared to flip to the other side in the game of life: rewarding those who have succeeded in morphing the poles of American culture, whether in space, business, entertainment, sports; bestowing fame upon those who have failed most spectacularly; admiring those adept enough to have instantly changed states in order to survive, perhaps to play another day.

Today instrumental activism refers to the expression of the scientific logic of the double helix in the cultural form of American identity.


[1] Geert Lovink,, June 17, 1996, “Hardware, Software, Wetware,” by Adilkno (The Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge)

[2] For an extensive survey of the history of technological innovation, see the Business and Finance section of “The History of the Telegraph and Telegraphy”

[3] The triangular trade relationship among China, Japan and the United States has, for example, been the focus of special business reports in The New York Times since 2004.

[4] For a superb analysis of technology and culture, see Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962. The significance of Mumford’s cultural analysis of technology has also been discussed in Arthur Kroker, The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism: Heidegger, Nietzsche and Marx, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, pp.208-209.

[5] For an extended account of the Puritan origins of Harvard University, see:

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