Science Fiction Studies

#92 = Volume 31, Part 1 = March 2004

Javier A. Martínez

Technology and Theology (or Lack Thereof)

Elaine L. Graham. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002. xi + 259 pp. $60.00 hc; $23.00 pbk.

Elaine Graham’s book is most impressive in a way she never intended, as a thorough overview of postmodernism in a technocratic age, and less striking in what the book promises to do, namely, “to examine the impact of twenty-first century technologies—digital, cybernetic and biomedical—upon our very understanding of what it means to be human” (1). This is not to say that Graham’s work is a failure; it is generally engaging and covers much ground. But other writers, specifically Sandra Harding, N. Katharine Hayles, and Donna Haraway, all of whom are cited and oftentimes heavily quoted, have already explored much of this ground. Most disappointing, however, is Graham’s failure to apply her theological framework to her subject matter.

Graham’s book is divided into three parts. Part one, “Science Fantasy,” attempts to establish “the inter-relationship between the institutions and practices of contemporary technoscience and the genres of science fiction, myth, and literature” (19). Key to her discussion in chapter one, “Representing the Post/Human,” is the by now obvious observation that definitions of the human are rooted in cultural contexts, not in a priori knowledge. In order to highlight this understanding, Graham proposes the term “post/human” as an “occasion for acknowledging what has always been the case—that ‘human nature’ is as much a piece of human artifice as all the other things human beings have invented” (37). I certainly do not disagree with this observation, but I’m somewhat skeptical of the efficacy of the term “post/human.” Do we really need yet another way of referring to what we all understand is the socially constructed nature of the subject? Chapter one could have been much stronger if the need for this new term had been justified in a more robust way. Instead, what the reader finds leading to this pronouncement is a series of very cursory commentaries on David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ (1999), the Human Genome Project, genetically engineered food, early sf, Constance Penley’s use of the term “NASA/Trek” (also the title of her fine 1997 book), and the theories of Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour.

In many ways, chapter two, “The Gates of Difference,” extends some of the flaws found in chapter one: heavy summary of existing theories—in this case Michel Foucault’s ideas of archeological and genealogical critique—and some cursory discussion of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1991) that ends at the point where it becomes interesting. What I found most compelling in this chapter was Graham’s connection of Foucault’s already much discussed ideas (and some would claim overly so) with the field of teratology, the study of monsters. The result of her move is, unfortunately, a series of not-so-original statements, such as “creatures on the margins of acceptable humanity—the monstrous, the ‘other,’ the pathological, the almost-human—thus serve to delineate the fault-lines of exemplary and normative humanity” (19) and “The beings who occupy these positions ... are ‘monstrous’ in that they destabilize evolutionary, technological and biological hierarchies that serve to privilege the rational male subject” (60). I certainly do not disagree with Graham, but at this point I’m sixty pages into her study and have found nothing that wasn’t said a couple of decades ago.

Part two of her book, “Monstrosity, Geneology, and Representation,” begins with the third chapter and a question, “What Made Victor’s Creature Monstrous?” Apparently, the answer is that it “manifest[ed] a disordered physiognomy conditioned by the transgression of a moral and theological order” (62). Again, I agree with her completely, as I did with the various other critics who have over the years argued the same position. This chapter, and the central idea of the book, could have benefited from a more focused discussion of the notion of the “post/human” in relation to her reading of Frankenstein (1818). Instead, for twenty or so pages, we get what is actually a very nice discussion of “the creature’s monstrosity [as] stem[ming] from his being a mixture—uncomfortably and impossibly so—of speech and embodiment, of conceptual and material imagination. The mismatch between physical ugliness and intellectual beauty becomes the source of his displacement and exclusion” (65). Nicely put, but chapter three remains nothing more than a traditional close reading of a text, bolstered by Graham’s polished prose and keen analytical mind.

Graham’s fine writing shines in chapter four, but it is not enough to salvage a chapter that really should not have been included in this study. ”Body of Clay, Body of Glass” attempts to examine how the “attributes of the golem are remolded and reshaped over the centuries, [and how] it is possible to see them as vehicles for human reflections on the origins of the cosmos, on human liberty to emulate divine creativity and the problematic character of post/human identity in a technoscientific age” (86). Instead, what we find is a fascinating chapter on the history of the golem that borders almost on the esoteric, with its obscure references to and lessons in occult history. The irony here is that this chapter is one of the most fascinating sections of the book, but really has no place in it and serves only to distract the reader from the main purpose of the project.

In chapter five, “In Whose Image: The Power of Representation,” Graham examines the social effects of the “medicalization” of reproduction and childbirth. Key to her discussion is Foucault’s notion of bio-power, “the mechanism by which regimes of coercion and control are mediated through the emergent human sciences” (115). Her discussion of how medical rhetoric reinforces conservative notions of gender and family, while not entirely original, is nevertheless well laid out. I found especially fascinating her discussion of the gene as a social construct and how it has come to represent erroneously the biological essence of humanity in the modern technocratic age. Also included in this chapter is a section on AI and how most contemporary research in the field assumes that “intelligence operates according to essential formal principles which transcend their specific material circumstances” (124). Fascinating, yes, but again this is all ground that has been covered before, most notably by N. Katherine Hayles, whom Graham refers to at various points in her discussion. Perhaps of more direct interest to the reader of sf criticism is Graham’s very brief commentary on the film GATTACA (1997), which “plays on audience fears of a totalitarian society founded on the dehumanizing ... criteria of invasive technoscience” (110), and Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), which “may be read as a series of cultural incidents in the growing discontinuity between robotic motivation and human comprehension” (130). Graham is juggling many topics here—genetic research, reproductive technologies, AI, sf—and her attempts at critiquing the politics of representation at work in each of these can sometimes be dizzying. As with earlier parts of the book, I wish her discussion of the chosen texts were more fully developed.

Part three of the book, titled “Post/Humanities,” moves nearer to fulfilling the promises made in the introduction. Graham posits that all responses to technology fall between two poles: technophobia, the resistance to technology and the changes it initiates, and technophilia, an uncritical adoption of technology and the promises it presents (131). While not original, this observation does set up her engaging discussion of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG 1987-1994). Chapter six, playfully titled “Much Ado About Data,” effectively argues that the character construction of the ST:TNG android

corresponds to a strongly secular humanist vision of what it means to be human, as refracted through Data’s cravings to understand and emulate human subjectivity. His contested status as a free person, his longings for a family and the delicate negotiation between exemplary qualities of rationality and affectivity, all illustrate how the principle of infinite diversity is overshadowed by the values of conformity. (133)

Graham discusses the political views of the series’ founder, Gene Roddenberry, before moving on to close readings of several ST:TNG episodes that feature Data in his quest to become more human. Graham argues that the popular series “celebrates a humanity defined by a unitary high culture untroubled by cultural difference,” a position best illustrated by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (a Frenchman with a British accent, the height of Western sophistication). Data’s quest to become more human, as defined by a “White, rational masculinity” cuts short any true engagement with the possibility of a new and emerging identity (141). The posthuman, or post/human as Graham prefers, is subsumed under the traditionalist rhetoric of liberal humanism.

I enjoyed Graham’s critique of the annoying elitism that runs throughout ST:TNG, but I was surprised to find her sympathetic to the latest installment in the ST mythos, Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). ST:V takes place in a universe, Graham argues, where “geographical estrangement from the Federation diminishes the power of external authority” (149). In this situation, Seven of Nine, the Borg character, is free to explore what is for Graham the most human of elements, the value of belonging (152). Whereas Data’s journey toward the human is little else than a “perpetuation of modernity’s most highly valued precepts of human nature” (153), Seven of Nine comes to embody the show’s driving idea, “the quest to discern some degree of purpose to the universe amid the complexity and fragility of everyday experience” (153). While I agree with Graham’s reading of Data, I do not share her enthusiasm for ST:V, nor am I convinced by her reading of the show. Still, Graham does a nice job in this chapter and I certainly recommend it to students and critics of the Star Trek mythos.

Chapter seven is perhaps the most engaging chapter in the study. Titled “Nietzsche Gets a Modem: Transhumanism and the Technological Sublime,” the chapter examines the trend of futuristic optimism in popular culture, especially in cyberpunk literature and culture. Graham explores here the rhetoric that promises the transcendence of the physical world through the use of technology, especially the disembodied states of cyberspace, the revolutionary potential of nanotechnology, and fringe sciences like cryogenics. She asks some important questions in this chapter: “Who gets to participate in the post/human future? Whose desires fuel the priorities of technoscience?” (155). Her answers indicate some disturbing patterns of thought in contemporary scientific geekdom, especially the disregard for ethnic, gender, sexual, and economic difference that often result when entertaining fantasies of technologically-based physical transcendence. Most disturbing is her insightful observation that such rhetoric has an origin point in the pseudo-scientifically legitimated racism of the late nineteenth century: “Such a vision of the post/human era is therefore in many respects a cybernetic version of social Darwinism, anticipating a future meritocracy founded upon the survival of the fittest, represented by the intellectual and psychological superiority of postbiological humanity” (160). Graham drives her point home when she cites some frightening numbers: over 93 percent of Internet users originate from the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s nations (164). While the developed West engages its various fantasies of downloading its collective consciousness into a quantum hard drive, “the technologically rudimentary prospect of furnishing every man, woman and child on the planet with clean water goes unaddressed” (165).

After reading this chapter it seemed that Graham would end strongly, but chapter eight, “The End of the Human?,” is a step back, unfortunately, in part because some of her arguments contradict the points she so effectively made in chapter seven. I’m left a bit bewildered by such statements as “The sentiments of cyberpunk mount a rebellion against the increasing commercialization of science fiction, and in particular against the humanist utopianism of much mainstream science fiction” (195). What happened to that long list of problems created by cyberculture that was just covered in the previous chapter? I don’t think such a blanket statement can be made without addressing “‘The Gernsback Continuum’ and William Gibson,” Gary Westfahl’s devastating comparison of Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984) to Hugo Gernsback’s seminal pulp sf work Ralph 124C 41+ (serialized 1911-12); or Carol McGuirk’s pithy observation, found in “The ‘New Romancers’: Science Fiction Innovators from Gernsback to Gibson,” that cyberpunk situates itself firmly within traditional sf rhetoric when claiming revolutionary status (both essays are collected in George Slusser’s and Tom Shippey’s Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative [1992]). Nor, oddly enough, does Graham comment on the sexism at work in most cyberpunk novels written by men. I’m left with the sense that she is neither familiar with cyberpunk nor with the hefty body of criticism that is in dialogue with it.

Graham is familiar, however, with the work of Donna Haraway and she proves it with an intriguing reading of Haraway’s famous essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991). Chapter nine, “Cyborg Writing,” is nicely balanced, taking into account the influence of Haraway’s work, but not being limited by it or blinded by its influence. Graham refers to her reading of Haraway as “heretical” because she seeks to bring “to the surface the implicit and buried religious allusions” in Haraway’s writing (218). The strength of Graham’s reading lies in her explication of how Haraway’s cyborg is able to offer a kind of transcendence while remaining lodged firmly in the realm of the physical. This “sacramental sensibility” affirms “the existence of the cultural and manufactured products of human labour while placing them within a horizon of sacred value which speaks of a transcendental—but not other worldly—mode of being. Sacraments are thus sign of the ‘transfiguration’ of the material and not of its effacement or denial” (218-19). Here, finally, we begin the move toward a theology of the post/human, one that promises to be as controversial as it is engaging. Note how Graham ends this chapter:

Commodities and material artifacts are, potentially, redolent with sacred power; and transfiguration and redemption can be achieved within, not beyond, the realms of technologies, human agency and material culture. It is imperative to rethink the model of ‘transcendence’ that informs representations of the post/human premised on a vision of immortality, omniscience, omnipotence and incorporeality. The task is not simply to interpret the symbolic of transcendence in whose image technoscientific desire for omniscience and necrophilia are legitimated, but to change it. (220)

This is fascinating ground we’re moving into, and ground that promises to be developed in chapter ten, “Gods and Monsters.” Unfortunately, I’m again left frustrated with a chapter that only highlights the main points of the book—“representation, monstrosity, alterity, the contingency of human identity and the resurgence of the sacred” (225, emphasis in original). The provocative ideas that close chapter nine are never fully developed nor are they placed in any dialogue with theology or postmodern theory, and this is precisely the main problem with the book.

In her introduction, Graham cites Ronald Preston as one of her main influences. Preston is author of several books on Christian social thought, one of the best being Religion and the Ambiguities of Capitalism (1993), which rigorously explores from a Christian perspective the current world economic systems and their impact on the lives of people. Much as that book builds a bridge between two sometimes opposing ideas, Graham intends to bridge theology with science studies by “continu[ing the] tradition of constructive theological conversation with the disciplines and institutions of contemporary society” (x). But such a theological conversation is mostly absent from her work. This is truly unfortunate because her aims are laudable and the project necessary, but the end result is so heavily weighed down by summaries of pre-existing theories and constant reminders of the constructed nature of reality that a theological reading of the subject matter is never presented. How does theology address technology in a postmodern age? If the postmodern human subject is a result of numerous socio-political influences rather than a set of pre-established and constant verities, then how does theology view this development and how has it affected contemporary theological thought? How do we go about changing the symbolic of transcendence as Graham says we must, and just what does this mean in relation to traditional theology? Other contemporary Christian scholars have tread these waters, including Alister E. McGrath, especially in his most recent work, The Future of Christianity (2002) and the first two (of a projected three) volumes of his Scientific Theology series (Nature [2001] and Reality [2002]), Alan Jacobs in his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (2001), and Stanley Hauerwas in his numerous writings. Of more interest to sf criticism proper is Stephen May’s Stardust and Ashes: Science Fiction in Christian Perspective (1998), but Graham only mentions his work once and in passing. The point here is that there is a tradition of work in theological studies that engages the postmodern while remaining rooted in theology.

Graham’s book is an elaborately and well-written summation of how we read technology in a postmodern age, with some commentary on sf texts thrown in for good measure. I’m disappointed the book does little more. As the Samuel Ferguson Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology at the University of Manchester, Graham is eminently qualified to speak on theological issues. I get the sense, however, that the emphasis of her research the last few years has been in the area of science studies. She’s learned this material well, but is unable to mesh it with her theological background. This came as something of a surprise for me, since she did such a fine job of showing the interplay among postmodernism, gender, and theology in her 1996 book Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood, and Theology, a work that achieves a richness and coherence of vision lacking in this most recent effort.

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