Jon Bialecki

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Ethnographic Futures for the Anthropological Present

For the first time in a while, I’ve begun a new field project: I’ve started studying religious transhumanism, with a particular focus on the Mormon Transhumanist Association (though I’ve also been paying close attention to other much more recent, though just as interesting, attempts to collectively imagine religious transhumanisms). On one hand, this has been a terrible amount of fun; everyone I have spoken to has been generous with their time, and religious transhumanism is a field that is definitely undergoing some intellectual ferment at the moment. It is also a bit contentious, as many secular tranhumanists – and perhaps most, though it is hard to say – tend to be critical of religion in general, and sometimes specifically of religious transhumanism. And finally, there is a tendency for this legitimate interest in the intersection between orthodox religion and new technological to be castigated by the secular media (as one thoughtful Christian Transhumanist has discovered).

On the other hand, it’s the sort of study which has several veils to it, or alternately gates that have to be traversed before one can even truly begin; in talking to colleagues, I’ve found that not only do I have to explain what Mormon Transhumanism is, I also have to explain secular transhumanism and the mainline LDS as well. Similar challenges arrises when I try to convey that this is not a ‘fringe’ phenomenon. For reasons having to do with some specific features of the Mormon Religious imagination, producing a Mormon-compatible articulation of transhumanism is easier than might be imagined, which is to take nothing away from the rigor being shown in that effort. This compatibility, the care with which it is thought through, and finally the steadfast drive to producing a working organizational infrastructure, has given the Mormon Transhumanist Association an influence out of proportion to its demographic size in a much more complicated and varied secular transhumanist community.

All this complexity is a part of the fun, naturally. However, with one very important exception, there are basically no other anthropologists working on transhumanism to be in dialogue with. This, in combination with all the layers/veils/gates just mentioned, has meant that there have been few ‘big picture’ moments with the project so far. But there have been one or two times where I like to think I have somehow managed to see a bit more forest than tree. This is because while working on this project, I’ve also continued to write ethnographic and theoretical material on my previous large-scale project on The Vineyard, a Southern California originated, but now global, Charismatic Evangelical denomination/movement. And this has made me have to pull back a bit, to think of what unlikely elements these two groups may share.

Though this may sound a bit too dramatic, I think its easy to say that they are booth rooted in a sense of crisis. For the Vineyard, the crisis was theological and generational: given the explosive growth of Pentecostal-type spiritual practices, how does one engage them while still holding onto a theological and cultural evangelical inheritance? And while this is a preliminary judgement, it seems to me that something similar is taking place with the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Here, the challenge is how to negotiate a founding claim in Mormon thought that there is no tension between science and religion, with make that be at peace with a large segment of the LDS which is dead set against evolution, and other scientifically derived claims regarding general human capacities, histories, and futures. This tension is made all the more exquisite because despite this common anti-evolutionary stance in the LDS, LDS-associated educational institutions such as BYU have invested heavily in the evolutionary sciences; similarly, science intensive hi-tech has also done quite well in the some of the urban parts of the “Mormon corridor,” perhaps because of the relatively higher levels of education in the wider Mormon community. One can imagine the hermeneutic challenges that this poses to those who want to retain a degree of orthodoxy, yet still retain a deep investment in some of the more radical possibilities being opened up by contemporary science and technology. Of courses, not all of the members of the MTA work though this problem and remain orthodox Mormons (and there are other reasons why some Mormons may be reluctant to continue to embrace orthodoxy right now as well). Even in these instances, however, the existence of ‘ex-Mormons,’ ‘cultural’ Mormons, and ‘new-order’ Mormons as cogent social categories, the tightly-knit nature of Mormon kinship, and the issue of access to Mormon Temples for rites such as marriage, means that many who break with the Church still have to be able to articulate themselves in a manner which is deeply influenced by LDS categories, assumptions, and aesthetics. This is important because while the MTA does labor to be a place where someone can maintain an orthodox Mormon identity, it also works just as hard to be a place that can serve as a home to those with a more complicated and problematic relation with the Church.

Another surprising shared element is the degree to which ‘progressive’ political thought can flourish in both the Vineyard and the MTA. This not to say that all members of either group are “good” religious liberals, nor that those who might lean towards the progressive side of any kind of culturally constructed bipolar scale have a politics that maps on exactly to the politics of the secular left. But there are more points of correspondence that one might imagine. In the Vineyard, this is in part a function of intellectual history – many Vineyard members like to emphasize the Quaker past of John Wimber, the person who give the Vineyard much of its character. But it is also a function of the structure of the Vineyard’s imagination. The Vineyard’s progressive eschatology means that they believe that God works in effect by continually manifesting miraculous breaks within the contemporary fallen order; this sense of a continuing possibility of a divine disruption marked by surprise, and of an ever-insisting supernatural potential, mitigates against an easy Burkean conservatism. Something similar is taking place with the MTA. The MTA draws on elements of Mormon thought that allow for progressive revelation, and also on an evolutionary view of the human that culminates in theosis. This open swath of possibility and change also stands in the way of a Burkean conservatism, and also continually threatens to unmoor any fundamentalism.

But this is also a ways of saying that these groups have different senses of the possibilities of the future – different, that is, from the sense of temporality that we see in much of secular euro-american discourse. Anthropology has been spending a great deal of time lately wondering if Western temporality has been curtailed in some way by shifts in the global economic order; the claim is that the middle-term future has evaporated, leaving only short-term gains and long-term fantasies. Others have argued that the social sciences themselves are too much faced towards the past rather than properly anticipating the future, or alternately have suggested that anthropology deadens time by looking for deep running continuities, rather than disjunctive events (which is a way of saying that anthropology does not really believe in change at all). Of course, this is not uniformly the case; there has been some work in articulating truly singular anthropological ontologies of time, and outside of anthropology we do see moments of radically different Euro-American temporal imaginaries. But these are often rather elaborated and self-conscious exceptions, and in no way representative of what the zeitgeist is (if I can use such a clumsy term as zeitgeist).

If we don’t have futures, then what do we have? Instead of far off or even middle term futures, what we seem to have is sets of broken paleo-futures, still-born hauntological shards of futures that never came into being. Or rather, that is what we have when we are not held down by a pessimistic nihilism that destroys any sense of futurity at all. If anthropology is about seeing other orders of possibility, then this sense that a future is still imaginable may be the chief lesson that these two movements have to teach us. Of course, that is not their only lesson. The Vineyard has much to offer on new ways to apprehend the sensorium, on different ways of relating to religious authority, and even has new ontological frameworks to offer. And while I have just begun the work, it is clear that the MTA has other lessons to offer as well. It can, for instance, point to how to construct a religious, confessionally-orientated democratic intellectual community that is also open to and accepting of heterodox Mormons, ex-Mormons, non-Mormon Christians, and atheists (not to mention social-science researchers!). And it most definitely has a view of the vexed issue of science and religion that overcomes the intellectual dead-end of ‘non-overlapping magisteria.’ But both these groups offer lessons in a faculty that seems to be hypertrophied these days, the simple capacity of  having a sense of the future at all – which is, after all, just another way of having a belief in this world, right here and right now.

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2 Comments

  1. […] was already coming to Provo be a part of 2016 Mormon Transhumanism annual conference (as part of my larger field project on Mormon transhumanism), so it was remarkably good timing (though I would have accepted the invitation more or less […]

  2. […] also includes an essay of mine on the Mormon Transhumanist Society, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog, and which gets plenty of press on its own; this piece is on how, for this group of […]

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