Born Again Ideology: 5. The Cosmological Compromise

CTheory Books: Born Again Ideology


Religion, Technology, and Terrorism

Arthur Kroker

The Cosmological Compromise

“We are witnessing a fundamental sea change in American politics,” said Allan Litchman, a professor of political history at American University in Washington. “The divide used to be primarily economics — between the haves and the have-nots. That’s changed now. The divide in American today is religious and racial… The base of the Republican party is not necessarily the ‘haves’ anymore — it’s the white evangelicals, white devout Catholics, white churchgoers. The base of the Democratic Party is not necessarily the ‘nots.’ It’s African Americans, Jewish Americans, those without any religious affiliation. Our politics revolve around a new cultural polarization.

Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 2005

The foundations of modernity have always been based on an underlying cosmological compromise. Confronted with the incipiently antagonistic relationship between science and religion, western societies have in the main opted for the safer, although definitely less intense, option of splitting the faith-based difference. Under the guise of political pluralism, freedom of religious worship has been consigned to the realm of private belief, whereas the arena of political action has been secured not only for the protection of private rights, but more importantly, for forms of political participation, educational practice, and scientific debates which would, at least nominally, be based on the triumph of reason over faith. If the cosmological compromise overlooked the inconvenient fact that the origins of science specifically, and modernity more generally, were themselves based on a primal act of faith in secularizing rationality, it did contribute an important cultural firewall against the implosion of society into increasingly virulent expressions of religious fundamentalisms. While modern society would no longer aspire, at least collectively, to the ancient dream of salvation, it would have the indispensable virtue of providing a realm of public action where faith-based politics would be put aside in favor of the instrumental play of individual interests.

Consequently, while Max Horkheimer, an early critic of European modernity, could revolt in his writings against the “dawn and decline” of liberal culture, his criticisms were tempered by the knowledge that left to its own devices, the forces of fully consolidated capitalism were as likely to tip in the direction of politically mediated fascism as they were to recuperate the divisive passions of religious idolatry. Like a beautiful illusion all the more culturally resplendent for its ultimate political futility, liberal modernity seemingly represented a thin dividing line between a history of religious conflict and a future of authoritarian politics. With the problem of religious salvation limited to private conscience, the history of western society was thus free to unfold in the direction of a regime of political and economic security. It was as if all modern history, from the bourgeois interests of the capitalist marketplace to the politics of pluralism, were, ontologically speaking, a vast defense mechanism whereby both individuals and collectivities insulated themselves against a resurrection of the problem of salvation in human affairs.

With a false sense of confidence, perhaps all the more rhetorically frenzied for its approaching historical eclipse, the discourse of technological modernism — western culture’s dominant form of self-understanding — has over the past century confidently predicted the triumph of secular culture and the death of religion. Indeed, when the German philosopher, Heidegger, remarked that technology is the language of human destiny, he had in mind that technology is both present and absent simultaneously: present with ferocious force in the languages of objectification, harvesting, the reduction of subjects to “standing-reserve”, and the privileging of abuse value as the basis of technological willing; but marked by an absence as well, namely the retreat of the gods into the gathering shadows of a humanity that has seemingly lost its way in the midst of the frenzy of technological willing. If Heidegger could write so eloquently about a coming age of “completed nihilism” as the key element of technology as our historical destiny, he was only rehearsing again in new key the fatal pronouncements of those other prophets of the future of technoculture: Nietzsche, Weber, and Camus. For example, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote not so much about the death of god, but about a more primary death, namely the death of the sacred as a resurrection-effect capable of holding in fascination an increasingly restless human subject in open revolt against the absolute codes of metaphysics. With Nietzsche, the modern century resolved to make of itself a fatal gamble — a “going across” — with technology as its primary language of self-understanding. Impatient with the slowness of the modern mind to grasp the truly radical implications which necessarily flowed from stripping the absolutes of theodicy from an increasingly instrumental consciousness, Nietzsche went to his death noting that as a philosopher “born posthumously” his intimations of the gathering storm of nihilism would be the historical inheritance of generations not yet born.

Equally, Max Weber, Germany’s leading social theorist during the fateful storm years preceding the Weimar Republic was perhaps the first to grasp deeply into his thought what it meant to live in the shadows of Nietzsche’s prophecy. When Weber wrote so chillingly about the approaching “disenchantment” of the modern age populated by “specialists without spirit,” he was only echoing in the language of social theory the image of impoverished (technological) being first glimpsed by Nietzsche. But it was left to another writer, the tragic sensibility of Albert Camus, to produce the capstone of the vision of technology as destiny that was the modern century. For Camus, modern subjectivity is the historical product of two great revolts of the human spirit: not only Nietzsche’s metaphysical rebellion against the sovereignty of the sacred; but also a more explicitly violent, and necessarily, historical rebellion in the name of ideology. With a sense of the indeterminacy of an absurd universe always proximate to his political consciousness, Camus was in effect the last Nietzsche. In Camus’ writings, Nietzsche’s dark vision of modern subjectivity as a melancholic mixture of active ressentiment and passive nihilism was summed up into a searing literary account of the human price to be paid for the age of absolute ideology with its cleansing drive to purity without limits and justice without reason — systematic, state-sponsored mass murder, and a culture of exuberant, populist irrationality.

After the prophetic visions of Nietzsche, Weber and Camus, the politics of technological secularism have generally been translated into the sanitizing language of liberal pluralism. Perhaps mindful of these earlier warnings concerning the gathering technological darkness as it penetrates human subjectivity, a pragmatic political settlement of Thus Spake Zarathustra was quietly achieved: in effect, postponing the metaphysical crisis in human affairs unleashed by the eclipse of the gods by the practical expedient of splitting the question of science and religion. With religion secured in the confessional of private conscience and science increasingly assuming the position of sovereign arbiter of questions concerning power — in technology, market capitalism, culture, and public policy — the question of theodicy was safely bunkered in the quiet suburbs of private faith, leaving the “question of technology” to be the spearhead of western historical destiny. This was a perfect historical compromise which, if it didn’t measure up to the soaring certainties of the language of the sacred, was, nonetheless, a powerful check on the violent excesses of absolute ideology. In retrospect, we might say that the twentieth-century was, at least in part, a long drawn out struggle between two fatefully opposing ideas — absolute ideology and absolute technology — both of which were posthumous products of Nietzsche’s understanding of the death of god, and each of which was by definition a monism studiously unaware of its limits. For example, definitely more metaphysical than purely technological, the digital euphoria which marked the twilight days of the twentieth-century represented in hindsight the simultaneous cultural triumph of pure cybernetic reason and the eclipse of the sacred in human affairs.

There the matter stood until, that is, the triumphant resurgence of god as the essence of twenty-first century political history.

The Flat World of Technology Has Just Been Thrown a Religious Curve

Viewed from a conventional progressive political perspective, the emergence of religious fundamentalism in contemporary politics represents a powerful reaction-formation against the forces of secular change, from the stresses accompanying technological innovation to the boundary disturbances in race, class, and gender variously symbolized under the signs of postmodernism first, and posthumanism later. In this scenario, the triumph of science, and with it the claims of reason, have provoked in their wake a powerful counter-reaction by those with the most to lose, whether materially or symbolically, by transgressions against the fixed borderlines of the dominant signs. While this thesis is chromatically illustrated by the division of the United States into a media psycho-geography of red and blue states, it also provides for a more global perspective, pitting, for example, the (digital) winners and losers of Thomas Friedman’s persuasive mapping of The World is Flat against a threatening world of religious fundamentalism, made all the more potent by the latter’s contribution of suicide martyrs, sleeper cells, and other spectacular expressions of viral terrorism to the media spectacle. It is as if the most recidivist tendencies of the middle ages have mysteriously risen from the dead to prevent the creative technological blast of the twenty-first century.

However, as with all tidy binary divisions of the world into two warring camps, this explanation has for all its compelling rhetorical force, the singular weakness of seriously misinterpreting the historical facts. For example, from country to country — from the professional workplaces of the American middle class to the new economy software portals of India, Canada, Israel and Australia — adherents of evangelical politics often represent less the losers in the “flat world” of digital innovation than the leading professional classes of society. Coders, designers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, military leaders, politicians, policy experts: the born again world of evangelical politics knows no strict borderline of the human heart. Strictly agnostic in relationship to race, class and gender, the world of the born again represents, as all powerful religious movements before it, a sudden, irreversible, rupture in the fabric of human belief. Definitely not a counter-reaction in the traditional sense, evangelical politics can be so charismatic, circulating today so effortlessly at the highest levels of politics, economy, media, and the military, because its formative sensibility is not simply reactionary, but transformational. When religion reanimates the solitude of a single life as its source of informing passion then we are suddenly present at the shattering of the closed episteme of modernist rationality, with the emergence, again and again, of the much rebuked problem of salvation. Irrespective of its particular religious expression — born again Christianity, Islamic fundamentalism, Israeli Zionism, Hindu fundamentalism — the reappearance of passionate religious conviction, simultaneously and across so much of the globe, represents a decisive challenge to the dominant ontology of contemporary technological society. To Thomas Friedman’s enthusiastic, but ultimately dismal, vision of a flat digital world of cutthroat global economic competition, the ontology of salvation opens up just the opposite: a transcendent world of delirious intensity and life-affirming meaning — in effect, a decidedly unflattened world involving individual participation in the deeper questions of life — life and death, judgment and rapture. From Pentacostal Inuits and Born Again Christians in the heartland of American empire to the fast currents of Islamic Jhihad, the problem of salvation is the dominant singularity haunting the twenty-first century.

Faith-Based IT

Consequently, the question: Why in the opening moments of the twenty-first century has what might be described as the cosmological compromise between the privatization of religious worship and an increasingly secularized global political economy been so abruptly pushed aside in favor of the resurrection of evangelical politics which paradoxically, rather than warring with the spirit of informatics, allies itself at a fundamental level with the historical project of the will to technology? Why, that is, is it possible to speak today about the rapid emergence of faith-based information technology as the spearhead of power, specifically the power of American empire? Could it be that under the double pressure of increasingly technological forms of secularism which inject elements of uncertainty, indeterminacy and undecidability into the posthuman condition, and the rapid emergence of right-wing expressions of religious fundamentalism anxious to transform essentially theological visions into global political projects, the mask of secular culture has been quickly stripped away, revealing underneath not so much the return of a recidivist religious past but something different, something more ominous and ethically disturbing — the resurrection of god as the spearhead of the technological future. Contrary to liberal-humanist ambitions which privileged the necessary opposition of reason and faith, is the second coming of god the final heir of the legacy of Enlightenment? Is the last ruse of the triumph of the age of reason that it was god after all who has been waiting all this time, patiently and not without a sense of humor, as the varied drama of the posthuman comedy rode the beam of (digital) light to a technological future fused with the energies of faith-based politics? It may well turn out out that god never really died but has only been endlessly deferred by the hubris of Enlightenment.

Consider the following example. As the dynamic spearhead of the will to technology, the United States has resurrected the traditions of imperial empire not in opposition to faith-based politics, but precisely because its evangelical fusion of the textologies of reason and faith, from Sunday pulpits of bible readings to prayer meetings in the suburbs, boardrooms, and fields of sport and entertainment, has in the ambitious ideology of the Project for the New American Century globalized the unique fusion of faith and technocracy that is what we have come to know as the civil religion behind the American dream. Governed by a Republican Party which declares itself to be one with god in the form of Christian fundamentalism, its public policy increasingly faith-based, its machinery of cyber-war intent on mapping an essentially cosmological vision of good and evil onto the skin of an unruly global village, the United States projects into history a new code of informatics: one which finds no essential difference between the ancient cosmology of Christian fundamentalism and the posthuman instrumentalism of cyberculture.

And not only the United States. Until recently, Indian politics has been dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party of Hindu fundamentalism bitterly opposed to the warring cosmologies of Muslim and Christian faiths. Less a counter-reaction than something fundamentally new in political history, the BJP was most strikingly the author of India’s pro-informatics movement: the India Shining Movement. Hindu fundamentalist on one side and actively allied with the global networks of the technocratic class on the other, the BJP, in a way which is remarkably similar to the Pentagon’s Project for the New American Century, represents a fusion of cosmology and secularism, this time in the monistic vernacular of Hindu fundamentalism. Equally, how to explain the essentially faith-based politics of contemporary Israel which has about it the historical singularity of fusing Zionism with the technological instrumentalities of cyberwar, seamlessly collapsing the ancient religious energies of messianic Judaism into the deployment of leading-edge informatics, including war, medicine, agriculture and aerospace. Finally, although nomadic, stateless, without fixed territory or officially authorized context, Islamic fundamentalism with its origins in the fundamentalist doctrines of the Wahibi sect, is deeply implicated in global networks of informatics. Working in the language of viral terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism reverses the logic of power against itself. Confronted with the predatory power of globalization, Al-Qaeda adopts the viral strategy of the parasite: seeking to move undetected within the circulatory systems of the social, silently embedding itself in the form of sleeper cells in the body politic, making missiles of civilian aircraft, always aiming for maximal effect in the specular universe of the mass media.

If we were only speaking about the second coming of god as an alibi for the formation of powerful right-wing coalitions, that would be both simpler, and certainly more comfortable in terms of the dialectics of modernism. But this is different. Definitely not a counter-reaction to the loss of an irrecoverable religious past, the cosmological projects of the Project for the New American Century, the India Shining Movement, the eschatological ambitions of the Likud, and what one commentator has described as the “Islamofascism” of the Wahibi sect represent, each in its own way, the spearhead of the technological future. Drawing from leading elements, sometimes disaffected, of the technocratic class, working within, and against, the discourse of globalization, faith-based politics is perfectly allied with the dynamic unfolding of the will to technology. Basing its economic hopes now on the possibility of outsourcing code work for the virtual class and, in the future, projecting the creation of a distinctively Indian virtual class, the BJP spearheaded the project of informatics in the Indian imaginary. So too in the cases of faith-based politics in the United States and Israel. In the former, evangelical belief can fuse so easily with the missionary consciousness of American empire precisely because religious faith provides the historical project of armed globalization with a renewed sense of purpose, a goal, a self-validating belief in its own moral rectitude. Having achieved maximal velocity in the 1990s with the virtualization of global political economy, could it be that in the 21st century informatics, moving at the speed of light, is itself tracing a fatal curvature, arching backwards to a fateful reencounter with its originating religious ambitions? In the latter, the messianic dreams of Likud steeled in the burning fires of monistic moral politics are less the past of a forgotten politics than one possible future of a rearmed (Israeli) technological future. If the story of informatics is, in essence, metaphysical, having more to do with the “question of willing” than with the triumph of the code; then the resurgence of faith-based politics in technocratic form has everything to do with relieving the fatal absence at the heart of informatics: namely substituting abolute theodicy for the necessary uncertainty, undecidability and indeterminacy of technological willing. Fatigued with the imminent stresses of its historical project, bored with its logic of triumphalism, and perhaps alarmed at its own nihilism, the will to technology yearns to relieve itself of the burden of undecidability. Ironically, cybernetics, etymologically the language of the steersman, wants a goal, a purpose, a direction. In the political form of the BJP, Likud and evangelical American Republicanism, the will to technology cloaks itself in its own resurrection-effect. The will to technology welcomes the second coming of god as shelter from the posthuman storm of its own making. And al-Qaeda? It represents a fatal curvature in the logic of informatics: that point where the open field of IT as the ruling host is suddenly invaded by the counter-logic of viral terrorism, its circulatory systems reversed against itself, its data streams infected with fear, its “chokepoints” invitations to viral penetration, and consequently, increasingly armed bunkers of surveillance.

The Double Cone Theory of the Propagation of (Political) Light

Everything’s relative. Speed, mass, space and time are all subjective. Nor are age, motion or the wanderings of the planets measures that humans can agree on anymore; they can be judged only by the whim of the observer. Light has weight. Space has curves. And coiled within a pound of matter, any matter, is the explosive power of 14 million tons of TNT. We know all this, we are set adrift in this way at the end of the 20th century, because of Albert Einstein.

Frank Pelligrini, The Time 100, March 29, 1999

The alliance between the second coming of god and IT is not understandable in the modernist, which is to say Newtonian, certainties of absolute time and absolute space. Perhaps more than we realize, we are now living out the radical implications of quantum mechanics first stipulated by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. What was originally presented as a decisive overturning of the dominant scientific discourse of Newtonian physics has now become the cultural physics of the posthuman condition. Quite literally, the lasting lesson of the historical project of informatics has been to map the speed of light onto our bodies, economy, politics, culture, entertainment and religion. We live now in the universe of the special theory of political relativity where power accelerating at the speed of light reaches its maximal velocity, distance expands, gains (ideological) weight, and just as suddenly reverses, time-traveling to the supposed past of religion and mythology. In this new universe of political relativity, light-through power is both wave and particle, globalization is another name for the spacetime fabric of electronic politics, only opposites exist simultaneously, and the “science fiction” of wormholes and warp speed becomes the normal political reality of power, which under the influence of informatics, approximates the cultural physics of the Special Theory of Relativity. In the century which followed the rebellion against the Newtonian episteme that was constituted in all of its intellectual daring by the Special Theory of Relativity, the symbolic iconography of absolute space and absolute time has dissolved into a more fluid field of ‘worldlines’ and ‘wormholes’ and ‘spacetime fabrics,’ and light that slows down and distances that shrink, and sometimes stretch, the greater the acceleration of the universe.

Thinking about the radiating matter of religious fundamentalism seemingly everywhere now which has suddenly reappeared from the supposedly buried past to form the essence of the unfolding (technological) future, I know that physicists today privilege the “double cone” theory of the propagation of light waves: namely that the immense whirlpool of black holes populating the spacetime fabric of the universe are accompanied by corresponding white holes — singularities through which the light-through past slipstreams through to the future riding the beam of light. And I speculate: Could it be that history today is not understandable in the Newtonian terms of absolute time and absolute space, but should be reconceived as a unitary fabric of spacetime, where the light-time and light-space of power moving at the speed of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity can be stretched and bent and reversed and twisted? And if this is the case, then why can we not think of the fabric of political spacetime as filled with galactic singularities: intense centers of centrifugal political energy, such as ancient religious cosmologies, which suck the passing matter of politics, identity, culture, and society into the dark immensity of the act of faith? Myth breaks through into history. Religious fervor renews its long forgotten affiliation with the art of politics. Understood through the prism of Einstein, immensely dense blackholes of religious belief follow worldlines which burst into the future through corresponding whiteholes of technocratic ideology. Having reached its maximal velocity with the triumph of the virtual class in the 1990s, the speed of light-through power instantly reverses course, slows down, goes backward, double-cones its way into that more abiding source of energy: religious faith. Which is not to say that ancient religious epiphanies suddenly appear on the technocratic horizon as images of a faded, idealized past, but as immensely energetic religious projects intending to get it right this time. No longer the separation of Church and State, but wormholing religious cosmology directly into the eye of power, hooking theology to the unfolding spacetime fabric of the future. Viral, recombinant, creative, powerful, essentially religious eschatologies such as the Project for the New American Century, India Shining, and dreams of a New Jerusalem are variations on a common theme: the resurrection in the distinctively posthuman vernacular of IT of the vision of the Second City of God, this time in alliance, as in the American situation, with the New Rome. In the contemporary historical epoch, conservative discourse is intent on getting it right: the Christian project as the essence of the New Rome — taking over the reins of government, infiltrating the administration of public policy, filling the airwaves with the Christian project of historical redemption masked as “war on terrorism”, installing evangelical Christians in key positions of executive power, and using every instrument of IT in support of the creation of the new surveillance state. In the Einsteinian spacetime fabric of contemporary technoculture, mythic time breaks into historical space. And it is only now beginning: the first, tentative stages of recovering the missing mass of god on behalf of the project of technocracy.

The historical project of technology generally, and the utopian revolution of information technology specifically, have always represented an extended period of mourning for that which has been lost in the rationalist triumph of modernism. We are at the end of a period of sacrifice which has had its own historical periodicity — Nietzsche, the first witness to the freshness of the sacrifice; the bountiful years of reaping the materialist rewards of splitting open the horizon; literally vivisecting earth, animals, planets, the common genetic heritage; and resequencing the sky, the body, gender, class and race with new codes of informatics. But for all its ecstasy, the project of technology remains a mourning ritual, an indefinite deferral of the sacrificial absence at the core of the will to technology. Or perhaps something more psycho-ontological: a massive cultural displacement of the language of sacrificial absence — the death of god — into sublimated expressions of the will to technology. In this case, the language of seduction is the wormhole between the rationality of the sign and the forbidden language of symbolic exchange. Sexual puritanism is haunted by the spectre of debauchery. Violence is instantly undermined by the slightest trace of peace which is why, for example, military machineries so deeply fear the reappearance of the symbolic language of peace in the form of human rights workers, nuns and priests spilling vials of their own blood on the awesome silence of missile silos, or student protesters at the School of the Americas in Georgia who were arrested recently for reenacting rituals of mourning for victims of death squads. So too, the modern project of technology began with a primal symbolic murder — the death of god. In the curious, but predictable, mythology of the sign, it is the absence marked by this sacrificial act of genocide which haunts the story of technology, and, on behalf of which, information technology once released threw the light-through physics of the Einsteinian universe, draws closer, almost irresistibly, to the tangible sign of its missing origin: the primal act of religious faith. When the missing mass of god touches the full spectrum dominance of cyberculture then we are suddenly launched into the closed universe of posthumanism, into a strange spacetime fabric which is simultaneously mythic and historical, past and future, technocratic and religious.

Paradoxically for all its technological pretensions, the twenty-first century is coded by all the signs of Born Again Ideology, from the “cosmological compromise” in its past to the “twisted strands” of religion and technology in the controlling rhetoric of American empire. While Nietzsche could only think posthumously about a future time oscillating between passive and suicidal nihilism, our present time, this specific historical epoch, witnesses the gathering storm and offers its theoretical diagnosis: The American Republic moving at the speed of light towards the gathering shadows of an ominous darkness.

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