Positive theological anthropology often finds itself in a conundrum in its attempts to craft a clear hermeneutic for what we call the human. While it longs for definable categories that are proper to the human figure, it is often at a loss when pressed to postulate just what, exactly, secures any boundary between the human and other creatures. The imago Dei thus increases in mystery to the extent that it is interrogated for affirmative, substantive definitions of what actually makes us human. The anxiety produced by this quandary has seemingly increased in light of 20th-century techno-scientific developments, the formation of a global ecosystem built upon digital networks, and the emergence of various posthumanist discourses.
Scott A. Midson’s book, Cyborg Theology: Humans, Technology and God, is an intriguing attempt at reorienting theological anthropology around the figure of the cyborg. However, Midson’s text is neither an apologetic for a positive theological anthropology that is somehow constructed upon a (falsely) stable cyborg figure, nor is it a dive into the indeterminate, apophatic depths of a negative theological anthropology with the cyborg as one’s guide. Instead, Cyborg Theology is somewhere in the middle: it is both an exploration into the ways in which the cyborg and the human merge into the same materialist figure, as well as an examination of what that figure might have to say about our theological renderings of what makes us human. Moreover, this sort of theologizing also contributes to a critical rethinking of our contemporary cultural technologies, and how we might reorient the human’s relationship to them.
This might appear as a strange synthesis upon first blush, especially in light of Donna Haraway’s “blasphemous” (11) theorizing of cyborgic hybridity and theology’s Aristotelean penchant for definable qualities. In order to best articulate his theory, Midson strongly emphasizes narrativity, especially the ways in which our stories initiate us and shape us. Each of us is the beneficiary of sedimented (hi)stories, or meta-level “bigger histories” (15) that orient and shape us through their transmission through culture and time. These (hi)stories are non-fictional, mythological, metaphorical, allegorical, and “everything in between,” (15) facilitating the deployment of a collective memory in order to compose meaningful symbolic practices. Theology and posthumanist discourses are two significant examples of these pervasive (hi)stories that are, in our current age, crashing together in order to influence our contemporary attitudes and understandings on any number of issues.
As it concerns Western Christian theologies, Midson’s (hi)story par excellence is the Edenic narrative, which is paradigmatic in shaping our historical (and thus, contemporary) attitudes toward issues such as human nature, intersubjectivity, the essence and character of nature, and how artifice differs from each of these. Edenic theological anthropology is especially significant in the way it tells “particularly pervasive stories that shape our attitudes and understandings, even without us perhaps realizing so at a more manifest level” (14). Forged and sedimented through years of cultural interpretation, we are the beneficiaries of a narrative that grants credence and authenticity to supposedly static and immutable agents (i.e., human beings) while stripping it from others (pretty much any other element of the creation).
This dominant, substantive theological (hi)story of Eden sets into motion an anthropocentric apparatus that permits the generation of difference. Via Haraway’s cyborg, Midson attempts a new reading—a “theological cyborgology” (161)—that reconsiders the imago Dei in terms of its relationalityand not its substance. This paradigm not only decenters the substantive subject of Western humanist traditions, but indeed circumvents any attempt to somehow re-situate the anthroposas the measure of all things. After all, to eschew substance and foreground, and emphasize the human’s relationality, is also to draw attention to the hybridity of the human and its cyborgic character. What we are can never be postulated outside of the assemblage of (hi)stories, connections, and fusions that mold us throughout the flux of human becoming. We are a part of the other just as the other is a part of us, and according to Midson, this critical relationality “work[s] difference differently” (189) and generates the sort of hybrid hermeneutic that a substantive approach cannot truly account for.
Midson’s text demonstrates a nuanced and devoted reading of Haraway’s corpus that also leaves room for critical pushback to the latter’s theologophilia. Midson introduces thoughtful critiques of various theologies of the cyborg that often implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, reify a human figure that remains in control above and against its surroundings. Pointing to relational processes via the cyborg corrects this sort of anthropocentric mastery, and allows us to focus less on starting and ending points and more upon the incapacity of the human to ground, master, or even conceptually comprehend itself outside of its processes of creativity and its hybrid relationality, or creatureliness.
One limitation of Cyborg Theology is that in movingfrom a substantive set of interpretations to a relational one, Midson begs an important (hi)storical question that is rarely discussed: namely, political narrativity. Haraway’s writings on the cyborg are constructed upon an unapologetically political horizon; while Cyborg Theology gestures at the political import of a theological cyborgology here and there, there is little connection between the political ramifications of the cyborg á la Haraway and what a political theology derived from this figure might look like. However, this is only a minor limitation of the text; Midson is attempting to introduce a concept into theological discourse that will most likely invite more critical questions and conversations.
Jeff Appel is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies Joint Program at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology.
Date Of Review:
June 1, 2018
Scott A. Midson is Samuel Ferguson Research Assistant in the Department of Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester, where he obtained his PhD in 2012. Specializing in religion and technology and religion and new media, he is a member of the Society for the Study of Theology, where he delivered a paper in 2016 on the topic of 'Black Mirrors.' Cyborg Theology is his first book.
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