TOPIC: Technology Before and After Monotheism
Bronislaw Szerszynski is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University. His research seeks to situate social life in the longer perspective of human and planetary history, drawing on the social and natural sciences, arts and humanities. He is co-author with Nigel Clark of Planetary Social Thought (2021), author of Nature, Technology and the Sacred (2005), and co-editor of Risk, Environment and Modernity (1996), Re-Ordering Nature: Theology, Society and the New Genetics (2003), Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance (2003) and Technofutures: Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Nature and the Sacred (2015). As well as academic publications, his outputs also include performances, creative writing, art-science exhibitions and events, and experimental participatory workshops. He was co-organiser of the public art–science events Between Nature: Explorations in Ecology and Performance (Lancaster, 2000), Experimentality (Lancaster/Manchester/London, 2009-10), and Anthropocene Monument, with Bruno Latour and Olivier Michelon (Toulouse, 2014-2015).
How can the study of religion help us understand the past, present and future of technology on a changing planet? Traditional techne, or craft, can be seen as a three-stage process – the taking of raw materials out of nonhuman nature, their transformation into made things, and the latter’s incorporation into the nexus of human action and meaning – a process that recapitulates cosmogonic dramas, is beset with spiritual dangers and thus requires ritual. I explore how this traditional cosmotechnics was transformed in the West by the development and spread of monotheism. Modern technology promises to reconcile religion (canonical rituals that affirm and reproduce cosmic and social order) and magic (situational, ends-oriented rituals addressing needs and desires), by offering ways of achieving specific goals that also affirm the regular, lawful character of the cosmos. The hope embedded in modern tools and machines was that, just as angels were the extensions of God, tools and machines would be the ‘extensions of man’. However, modern technologies refuse to be contained within this cosmotechnical regime, generating ‘techno-demonic’ phenomena. A technology after monotheism would involve a partial return to traditional techne: seeing technology not merely as instituted order (religion and societal reproduction) but as instituting order (magic and radical novelty), and learning from non-western peoples about nonhuman figures that appear and offer guidance when passing through thresholds – either spatial ones into and out of nonhuman nature, or temporal thresholds between operating states of the planet.