Spiritual machines: An interview with John Lardas Modern

posted by Nathan Schneider

John Lardas Modern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College, draws on Beat poets, phrenologists, prison reformers, and Moby-Dick to show why taking technology seriously forces us to think differently about the boundaries of religion. His article “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan” appeared in the December 2008 issue of Church History. His book Haunted Modernity; or, the Metaphysics of Secularism is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.—ed.

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Salvador Dali, Discovery of America (Wikimedia)

NS: How did technology become such a central concern for you? Are you a tinkerer? Do you like gizmos, or fear them?

JLM: I definitely have deep, deep ambivalence—well, ambivalence is always deep. But I am a would-be tinkerer. Right now I’m trying to refurbish a pair of Epicure speakers from the seventies. I also subject myself to mass mediation as co-host of a local radio show. I’ve always been taken with gadgetry in a lot of ways, but at the same time I’m also afraid of my television set. My academic interest in technology stems from a personal love/hate relationship with technology in general. This has drawn me to writers and artists who are also interested in the relationship between technology and the way we practice our humanity: people like Herman Melville, Don DeLillo, Laurie Anderson, Thomas Pynchon, and Ralph Ellison. They each inquire into what constitutes agency. What is it? Is it possible? If one takes into account technology, it’s no longer quite as clear that there is a single human actor that is determining what is in front of him or her. This doesn’t negate agency, but it definitely makes things more complicated. In the process, we find that the distinctions between the religious and the secular, or science and theology, aren’t quite as definitive as we would like them to be.

NS: This approach leads to apparent contradictions. Evangelicals, for instance, are generally thought of as promoters of a religious social order rather than a secular one. What, then, do you mean when you write of “evangelical secularism”?

JLM: My work on secularism gets at discourse, in an old Foucauldian sense: that there is a field of statements afoot in our world that determine how the concept of religion is understood, how people live it and breathe it. Obviously, you would be hard-pressed not to call evangelicals religious. But at the same time, they are at the cutting edge, in the 19th century, of disseminating and advancing different aspects of what we understand as the secular—thinking in terms of the population, statistics, mechanical Utopias, and religion being an integral part of cognitive action and political access. More significantly, this takes place as part of a larger discourse. Their religiosity is related to the way in which religion is being defined beyond evangelicalism as well: within liberal circles, Catholic circles, emerging discourses of anthropology, and the penitentiary movement, we can see something emerging in the antebellum period which we now call secularism. In part because of technological advancement, religion was being coded in a particular way and for particular purposes. It happened across a wide variety of fields, such as conservative evangelicals and Unitarians, or phrenologists and prison reformers.

NS: How does the category of “religion” relate to that of “spirituality,” which is increasingly popular lately?

JLM: I’m actually writing now about the emergence of that term in liberal Protestant circles in the 19th century, among Unitarians, mental scientists, and moral philosophers. They were talking about spirituality much like it is often understood today—as a style of piety, a mode of being religious that is more true than religion itself. In phrenology, for example, the organ of spirituality was an invention of a man named Orson Fowler in the 1840s. He took templates that were operative among European phrenologists and replaced their faculty of Marvelousness with the faculty of Spirituality. His discovery was a matter of empirical science—inducing magnetic states among patients and then activating different mental organs. This is a wonderful, crazy example of my larger point. Not only is spirituality coming to exist as a word in the world, a purification of religion, but it’s also located on both sides at the very top of your head. As I sayin my Immanent Frame piece, there are neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania doing much the same thing now, and without any irony.

NS: The way your rhetoric in that piece operates, the mere fact of a historical precedent casts suspicion on their whole enterprise.

JLM: In so many ways, spirituality, as a marker of one’s religiosity, contains within it the implicit denial of the effects of tradition, politics, the public, and the past. I stand back and am amazed that people could imagine themselves in that way. That’s something that was going on in the mid-19th century, but you see it very much going on today.

NS: A lot of these movements—contemporary evangelicalism and also the ideologies wrapped up in technology—rely on an appeal to novelty. Pointing out the historical ironies could appear like a threat.

JLM: I see the threatening nature of my work sometimes in my students. I’m sure many religious studies professors will say that. We are historicizing religion and that can pose a challenge to students about the newness or integrity of their own piety. But more often, I’m attempting to threaten existing scholarship in American religion about the ways we tell the grand narrative of the past two or three centuries. Evangelicalism, liberal Protestantism, Catholicism, and so forth, are often seen as threads of a larger picture, but threads that are nevertheless distinct. What I’m really interested in doing is asking whether they have more in common with one another than not.

NS: I hear the influence of Catherine Albanese in the effort to explore what is tying these separate threads together.

JLM: Well, I think I owe a great debt to Cathy. She not only got me thinking about spiritualism and metaphysical religions, but she also imparted her deep interest in historiography. She’s an ironist. And I think she got that from her mentor, Martin Marty. Cathy is somebody who recognizes that the promises of the past never worked out the way they were supposed to, and that it is the historian’s duty to go back and look at the counter-intuitive moments that made the difference. Not just to say, “Look what happened in 1850,” but rather, “Look at what happened in 1850, and does that not change who you are and how you think about yourself and your world right now?”

NS: Your interest in historiography certainly comes out in your Epoché article, which mentions Walter Benjamin’s reference to the historian as “midrashic interpreter.” That essay and your essays for The Immanent Frame are unusually playful and lyrical.

JLM: Writing and the process of representing ideas is something that I take very seriously. The style of an argument is, in a sense, part of the argument. Since this binary between the religious and the secular isn’t as definitive as we expect it to be, the way I write is meant to blur these boundaries. I think of my own writing as almost the opposite of a scientific article, with its 200-word abstract at the beginning. To have an abstract is to assume that there is a point, bereft of ulterior signification so that you can quarantine it. I find that disturbing. Cathy Albanese, I think, taught me this lesson about the false clarity one achieves with just a snapshot of a moment or an idea. It’s false. And we should call it false.

NS: I am also struck by how you write, in passing, of Mircea Eliade as a “theologian in denial,” which always seems like a latent aspiration in religious studies.

JLM: I’m definitely interested in the relationship between what constitutes theological inquiry and what constitutes academic inquiry. If you look at someone like Walter Benjamin—he is all things. He’s a wonderful case study of the fluidity between materialist Marxism and a theological sensibility. He gives the lie to that easy binary. In my own work, I’m very much interested in, at least at this point, evoking what have been considered theological modes of inquiry. In my Church History piece, I suggest that secularism, as a discourse, resembles what evangelicals and a lot of other people have called divinity. In the mode of someone like Marx, in order for us to talk about this and to discuss the power of certain ideas, we do necessarily have to evoke qualities that have been attributed to divinity by those within certain traditions.

NS: You write that you’re “committed to the indefensible and ridiculous proposition that the human is a malleable thing in the world,” that “neural activity is dependent,” in part, on words, ideas, and actions. To what extent is your view of the human continuous or not with technology? Are we technology? Or spirit?

JLM: I do not believe that technology is guiding human hands, making us over in its own image. At the same time, I don’t believe that humans are at the helm. My sense is that the human has a spirit of agency. It’s not the agency we’ve inherited from Descartes or Locke, or these Enlightenment cats who gave us a sense of the human as capable of knowing itself and knowing why it makes certain decisions. There is something in the middle there that, I think, advancements in technology bring out very clearly.

NS: We see it all around us today, don’t we?

JLM: One of the things that has recently brought out the ambiguous space of agency is the iPhone. In the last few months, I’ve noticed an uptick of stories about people getting into car crashes because of their iPhones, while checking their email or something like that. There is a moment of incorporation that happens to people when they’re on an iPhone. It literally becomes a part of them. It is the latest manifestation of something I always talk about: the Greek root of “technology,” τεχνολογία, which means systematic treatment. It is something that is designed to encompass you, so much that it blurs the line between itself and you. People know that they shouldn’t be looking at their email while they’re driving, but they can’t help themselves. A major influence on my recent work, the writer William Burroughs, described language as a virus and the human subject as an addict. On some level, we are addicted to technology. But it’s not a pathology; it’s not an errant situation. It is what it is.

NS: When you compare 19th-century technologies to their present-day counterparts, do you think of them as similar in kind, or are we in a totally different order now?

JLM: On one level, there are certainly many parallels and many things that resonate. There was an article a few months back on neuroenhancers in the New Yorker (“Brain Gain,” April 27, 2009). Pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs that are going to make us smarter or allow us to be more efficient with our time. They’re very popular among white-collar knowledge workers. You don’t see things like that, at least as clearly, in the mid-19th century. But it does remind me of these spiritualists in Massachusetts, during the 1850s, led by John Murray Spear and Sarah Newton, who were building a perpetual motion machine that was going to be run on spirit power. One of the rituals that they performed before initiating the machine was to literally ingest parts of it. They ground down the metal and ingested it in silk packets. I always remember that example when I think of people who are hopped-up on Ritalin and feverishly efficient. The placebo effect was probably pretty strong in 1854. If you think you’re a part of a spiritual machine, you might be able to physically perform at a very high level.

NS: Having studied the technology of 19th century evangelical publishing, what do you think current transformations in publishing are leading to?

JLM: Something is going change pretty radically in terms of how academics do their work and publish it. Buried in your question, there’s hope, but there’s also something a bit ominous about the whole prospect. In a wonderful interview by an Italian journalist in the ’70s, Don DeLillo is asked about the future of television. Cable was on the horizon. DeLillo says something to the effect that, pretty soon, everybody is going to have their own TV station. All the golfers will be able to go home watch the golf channel, and all the people who love cooking will be able to go home and watch the cooking channel. At the time, DeLillo was saying this with a nod to fascism, in an ominous way. But it sounds pretty quaint now. It’s really interesting to think about what constituted something ominous then and what constitutes a fearful scenario now.

NS: A friend, who works in academic publishing, recently told me that Google is the thing that makes her reluctant to bring a child into the world. It struck me as a particularly religious statement.

JLM: The promise of total information, total transparency, is embedded within the promise of secularism: everything will be transparent, open, and revealed. Google, obviously, is working toward that goal. It is a promise that has been deeply held by many, many people over the past few hundred years.

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