Black Transhuman Liberation Theology

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Philip Butler
Bloomsbury Studies in Black Religion and Cultures
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     2019.
     224 pages.
     $115.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350081932.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Philip Butler’s Black Transhuman Liberation Theology: Technology and Spirituality is a prescription for engaging intentionally and mindfully with technology as a method for pursuing Black liberation. A significant contribution reaching across many fields, Butler explores and imagines the development of Black posthumanism as merging spirituality and technology. Notably, race is marginalized or glossed over by many transhumanist authors; Butler makes Blackness central to this transhuman project. The book is designed to be easily accessible, picked up, and used; it contains the hope of being actionable. It balances sophisticated philosophy with an array of helpful tools, such as the glossary and overview of relevant technologies for brain analysis, intimate reflection, and short fiction.

In the introduction and overview, Butler lays out the ambition of the book: “This project is the construction of a practical approach to liberation for Black folks through the combination of technology and spirituality” (4). Here and throughout the book Butler demonstrates the themes of practicality and intentionality. Most of the devices and practices described in the book exist right now, and many of them are widely accessible. The project calls for Black folks to “embody a constructed theology that subverts technocratic attempts to control the human body and mind” (15). Each section of the book invites and provides support for the setting of various intentional behaviors that link technology and spirituality, all oriented toward Black liberation.

The first chapter, “Thinking of Black Transhumanism: Non-Humanity, Moving Away from Transhumanism’s Roots,” argues that letting go of the category of humanity serves to move Black liberation away from Eurocentric epistemologies. The transhumanism Butler argues for is not the various popular transhumanisms that are dismissive of race as a pressing concern. The book raises four linked objections to these transhuman visions: they are inappropriately universalist, they imagine that technologically facilitated utopia will wipe out race and racism, they are rooted in racist ideologies and histories of science and philosophy, and they do not engage with African innovation. Butler self-consciously engages in critique from a place of deep caring, pointing out the limitations and missteps of, for example, the Black church and contemporary transhuman movements, because of a focused desire to upgrade their efforts toward liberation.

The second chapter, “Foundations of a Black Transhumanism: Blackness as the Biotechnologically Mediated Experience of Black Vitality,” argues for a “Vitalistic panpsychic animism” (53) that is antihierarchical and immanent. Vitalism refers to “the underlying force that enlivens and permeates all existence” (51). Vitalism is “a central component to Black transhuman liberation theology” (51). Correcting the lack of engagement with African thought in contemporary transhumanism, the chapter discusses a variety of African vitalisms, especially Bantu and Yoruba. Where Butler’s transhumanism departs from them is in “Black transhuman liberation theology there is no gradation of God, or that which is beyond the self” (53). Butler quickly critiques purely biological and purely socially constructed conceptions of race, acknowledges the complexities of gender and sexuality, and explains why appeals for divine intervention are problematic for this transhuman theology.

The third chapter, “The Neurophysiology of Spiritual Experience,” further locates the project within religious studies, relative to the work of Ann Taves, Elaine Pagels, and Jeffrey Kripal. Butler helpfully clarifies that turning to physiological analysis “is not a discussion on the causation of spiritual experience. My emphasis is on intentionality” (73). This chapter includes a review of spiritual practices that have been examined by brain-imaging technologies. Showing the extensive correlates between spiritual practices and brain activity serves to further Butler’s aim of binding together spirituality and technology. Butler speculates on how Black practices of every kind, from cooking to protesting, would be better understood in terms of the neurophysiology of spiritual practice if examined with brain-imaging techniques. “This is an attempt to acknowledge rioting as a form of spirituality and validate its place in history and in the fight against overarching forms of everyday oppression” (90). What is the brain chemistry of a riot? The chapter boldly asks we consider vigils, protests, and riots as contemplative acts.

The fourth chapter, “Black Transhuman Liberation Theology,” provides a brief survey of technologies for brain and body imaging and modification (such as medical implants and prosthetics). It sketches how technologies are routine parts of Black life. The reader is prompted to see everything around them, even common foods and pets, as the result of sophisticated engineering. Recognizing the degree of integration with technology already present, Butler prompts, “Why not become intentional about the direction of the biotechnological evolution already taking place?” (113). Having established the significance of bioanalytic technologies for the project, Butler invites analysis of the “qualitative utility of Black spiritualities, putting them on the table of critique and empirical analysis” (114).  Butler’s physicalist theology, searching for techniques whose consistent efficacy can be validated by both experience and the laboratory, has interesting unexplored resonances with phenomenon such as the practical dharma movement, similarly focused on the efficacy of practices.

The fifth and final chapter, “Black Transhumanism as Revolt Spirituality,” runs through proposals for confronting oppression—love and peace, violent insurrection, assimilation, and Afro-pessimism—and introduces the Black transhuman liberation theology proposal of revolt spirituality. This is a long-term approach Butler lays the groundwork for throughout the book with three principles: particularity, integration of spirituality and technology, and intentionality. “The necessary coupling of patience and intensity that an intergenerational plan like revolt spirituality requires can be considered an upward apocalypse; accumulating positions of power and physically dismantling systems of inequity” (139). Butler effectively illustrates what a developed revolt spirituality could look like by genre shifting into a brief science fiction story.

I expect Butler’s work will inspire many important conversations. I look forward to teaching it. I also hope that in future work Butler engages with critics of contemplative and somatic practices as, for example, potential physical or psychological health risks. This work should be read widely. In addition to all practitioners and scholars of transhumanism, Black theology, and philosophy of religion, it will be of interest to many, including those in the fields of cognitive science of religion, critical theory and critical race theory, posthumanism, contemplative studies, new materialisms, and spirituality studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob Boss is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Butler is assistant professor of theology and Black posthuman artificial intelligence systems at Iliff School of Theology.

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