Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Science Fiction and Human Becoming

Tron - Steven Lisberger (1982)

"We cannot get rid of our technology, for we can no longer survive without it. We depend upon the existence of technology, as much as our technology depends upon our cognitive abilities. Our relation to technology has become one of symbiosis between humans and machines."

- Taede A. Smedes, "Technology and Evolution: The Quest For a New Perspective," Dialog: A Journal of Theology 44:4 (Winter 2005), p. 359.

Starting out this study with the question "What does it mean to be human in a technologically-driven society?" presupposed a consideration of technology. However, it's become apparent to me that even if I were to ask the question without the qualifying second part - "What does it mean to be human?" - I would still have to consider technology. For example, a theological anthropology without reference to technology's impact on human beings and becomings would be unpersuasive. However, simply because we have to consider technology does not mean that there is not a place for legitimate struggle with Smedes' conclusion of symbiosis between humans and machines. Scott Bukatman, drawing on Freud, makes the suggestion that confronting this proposition of symbiosis is an ego-smashing moment on the level of Copernicus declaring that the earth is no longer the center of the universe or Darwin situating humans in an evolutionary process of descent from the animal world.1 I hope I have been demonstrating and continue to demonstrate the way in which sci-fi film and theology offer spaces to grapple with these issues. In this post in particular, I'm going to look at the way in which science fiction embodies this struggle.

Bukatman has a great deal to say on this subject. He says that science fiction is able to give us this wrestling space through "the narration of new technological modes of being in the world."2. Let's pick up on the narration part of that phrase first.

Indeed, it is apt that we would find a space for struggle through narration as story is a primary place for human meaning-making. For example, Christian biblical stories contain the primary myths and symbols relevant to the Christian faith. It is not a huge leap then to follow Philip Hefner's statement that "we are dependent upon story for the meaning of technology, or, we might say, of human meaning in a technological culture."3. Science fiction, according to Bukatman, remains the genre that has represented "the most sustained attempt to identify and narrate the ambiguities that mark the technological contours of contemporary culture."4 Sci-fi films frame an imaginative moment in our vision of technology through which we have the opportunity to engage in the filmic space to construct meaning.

However, the consequences of such an engagement are potentially much more explosive than I've been suggesting. Bukatman and Hefner might want to go further. One could look at the meaningful narration as a significant aspect of not only hypothetical, fairy-tale, technological modes of being in the world, but our potential technological modes of being in the world. In other words, referencing my previous post, such story-telling could be seen as part and parcel with a molecular conception of individuals: a conception of individuals that focuses on human becomings.

Terminal identity is the term that Bukatman uses (coined by the sci-fi author William Burroughs) to describe science fiction's role in human becomings. In terminal identity, "we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity," constructed by engagement with the wide range of media in which the sci-fi narration finds a home.5 In establishing a terminal identity, we construct a worldview in which traditional ontological understandings of body, mind, and memory are challenged and destabilized. Science fiction narrates this in part through a breakdown of dualities: male/female, organic/inorganic, image/reality, artifice/nature, human/nonhuman.6 Bukatman points to the symbiosis of humanity and machines when he concludes, "Terminal identity is a form of speech, as an essential cyborg formation, and a potentially subversive reconception of the subject that situates the human and the technological as coextensive, codependent, and mutually defining."7 It seems that through engagement with science fiction, we take on the speech of the cyborg's terminal identity, spurring a transformation in us. Perhaps, though, the transformation has already taken place and sci-fi terminal identity narratives reflect and consummate this fact.

Hefner has a somewhat similar notion of our becomings being connected to imagination and story. Imagination gives us stories about what the present could be like, and we construct technologies to make our imaginings a reality. Hefner says, "Stories are inseparable not only from the conception of our technology, but also from the uses we imagine for these technologies."8 Thus, in that stories help us realize technologies that become integral to who we are and who we want to be, stories are linked with our potential technological modes of being in the world. It is apt that Hefner engages with such sci-fi films as A.I., Blade Runner, and Gattaca to demonstrate his points about technology and human becoming. He is aware of the implications of this choice: he asks, for example, whether A.I.'s director Steven Spielberg has, "recounted the trajectory of human becoming that everyone of us, in fact, must say is our journey?"9 Implicit, I think, in his question is the idea that the sci-fi story is instrumental in this journey.

Can this journey of struggle and becoming through engagement with science fiction be a Christian journey?

Although there are good reasons for some level of skepticism, I believe that the kind of journey outlined above can be part of a faith journey. The reality is that we are dependent upon technology and must define ourselves as persons of faith in a new way as a result. Science fiction narratives give a space for struggle and redefinition, and persons of faith can use this space as well. Engaging with the space with others (as a community of faith, for example) can be especially helpful as dialogue brings fresh ideas and challenges.

We are dependent upon technology but not captive to it. By actively engaging with stories about our technology, and by making meaning out of these stories from a perspective of faith, we outline desired human becomings that are essential to Christian life. These becomings do not neglect traditional sources of theology - scriptures, for example - rather, the traditional sources are assumed as foundational for the community in which the person of faith participates. The suggested becomings outlined above are not the only aspect of human becomings sum total. They are an important aspect to consider in light of a highly technologized context.

Hefner offers an example of how this might be done. As he engages with the questions posed by the science fiction narratives (and other writings, art, and cultural artifacts), he notes the theological nature of these questions. He asks what all this means for God, creation (us included), and God's relationship with and intention for creation. These questions are essential for one's faith journey. No narrative has all the answers (not even the Bible!), but through our engagement with science fiction narratives, we can address these theological questions that are inevitably raised for us in struggling with the idea that our relation to technology has become one of symbiosis between humans and machines.

1Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p.8
3Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 65.
4Bukatman, p.6.
5Ibid., p.9.
6Ibid., p.10.
7Ibid., p.22.
8Hefner, p. 61.
9Ibid., p. 19.

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