In his delightful book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte--the Director of MIT's Media Lab--introduces a beautifully simple and powerful model for describing and predicting the effects of electronic media on information exchange; he suggests that we're moving from a time where information is traded as atoms or Evian bottles to a time where information is traded as bits. He suggests further that moving from atoms to bits will have a particular sociological effect: "As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role" (7).
In order to speak about "nation" and "community," Negroponte extends his use of the term, "atom," to include contiguous spatial relationships, such as "nation" and "community." I would like to continue to extend "atom" along these lines to include "homeland," allowing me to suggest how Negroponte's descriptions and predictions reflect and are reflected by the development of Christianity as a radical form of Judaism.
Now, why would I want to do such a thing? First of all, discussions of the effects of technology on society rarely take into consideration the role religion plays in constructing and bearing the burden of communal effort. Secondly, the current ethnographic and phenomenological bias of rhetorical work (that is, work that presumes or attends to "the Other") has followed the lead of anthropologists and contemporary critical theorists in denying/omitting/not bothering with the possibility of an autonomous Jewish voice (for an example, see Dyson 75). The assumption has been for the most part: technological culture has nothing to do with religion, and religion has nothing to do with Judaism. In the first section of this essay, I will present a model for the examination and description of the emergence of Pauline theology in Western religious culture. The second section of the essay will identify how contemporary theories of technological progress and reform may have assumed the language of Pauline theology, perhaps even making Christianity the universalizing discourse of progress in technology and social reform.
I. Religious Culture: People of the Book? People of the Prophets?
There has been no prophet of the book age because there is no book that asks us simply to close it. Imagine a new beginning to Plato's Phaedrus: "I want you to close this book before you can no longer think. I want you to close this book before you believe there is an author. I want you to close this book before you believe you are the author. I want you to get out of your chairs, right now. Open a window. Or just get out of the house. And scream, `I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more.'" But we find only the markedness of such a move in Calvino, "You are now reading a novel by Italo Calvino called If On a Winter's Night a Stranger." And we find only the impossibility of such a move in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: the book will always find its home in us, whether as readers or writers, because there's no other place for a book to go. The promise of metalanguage (either its impossibility or possibility) is that books will never end, so there can be no book prophets. But books do end, even the novels of Samuel Richardson, and we (not the books) are left hanging--suspended from our desires (Why did it have to end?) and our memories (Oh, that's why! . . . and that's why . . . and that's why . . .).
We're never given the chance to ask about ourselves, "Why did it (our lives) have to end?" So, we never get to answer, as we often do with books, "That's Why! . . . And That's Why!." Prophets, however, don't suffer from this lack of imagination; they can conceptualize our deaths and live to tell about them: "All your fortresses shall be ravaged as Beth-arbel was ravaged by Shalman on a day of battle, when mothers and babes were dashed to death together" (Hosea 10:14). For prophets, having conceived of our deaths, interpretation can end and reading can be endless. This is not to say that prophets read books, since the truth of the matter is that prophets do read books but only when there aren't any. I'm not suggesting that an oral-traditional culture is a necessary, material condition for prophecy. Quite the contrary, I'm suggesting that the book takes the place of prophecy and that prophecy takes the place of the book; literacy has very little to do with the point at issue. In fact, questions concerning Biblical prophecy have been formed, over the years, around this very assumption: When did Israel become the people of the book? Are the highest achievements of Hebraic law, particularly in the Decalogue (Ex. 20.2-7), and the Book of Deuteronomy, dependent on the teaching of the great prophets, or vice versa? The people of the prophets, or the people of the book?
Now we can see what has been hiding behind this discussion of prophecy and book: people, more particularly, the question--where do "people" come from? We seem to know where individual persons come from. But what is the origin of a "people?" What is more, isn't this "where" and "what" question really a question of when? When is the origin of a "people"?
One might observe that the relationship of book and prophecy is central to the construction of a people as a collective through continuity rather than contiguity (Jonathan Boyarin xvii). Without a nation or a homeland, how can there be a people? One answer provided by Hebraic tradition: through story. Through a "narrative of . . . exile [that] offers no expectation of return to its chronotopical referent" (Berger 136) creating "the textual home where all good landless Israelites still live" (Berger 119). However, at this point, there can be no more prophets, since prophets require a home-land or nation to enter from the wilderness. Of course, one might at this point suggest that if the book is the homeland, then there must be prophets of the homeland of the book? Following a Pauline line of thought, one might say that the book is a conceptual condition (kata pneuma) for prophecy, and prophecy is a material condition (kata sakra) for the book: "Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people to whom it came? If anyone claims to be inspired or a prophet, let him recognize that what I write has the Lord's authority. If he does not acknowledge this, his own claim cannot be acknowledged. In short, my friends, be eager to prophesy; do not forbid speaking in tongues; but let all be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:36-40).
II. Electronic Culture: Virtual Prophets of the Book? Prophets of the Virtual Book?
Paul, I would suggest, is the first "virtual prophet" because he opened up the possibility of prophesying without a homeland or book--essentially arguing that a religious community does not require (although it may accommodate) "prophecy" nor "book." Let us now consider the relationship between Paul's conversion of prophecy and book and current representations of electronic culture. Notice, for example how Pauline prophecy assumes many of the cultural affects we now attribute to cyburbia.
Cyburbia and Dis/Embodied Subjects (1): "It is important to distinguish between the cybersubject as a figure produced by current thought about cyberspace and the actual people who enter cyberspace everyday. . . . Cyberspace is built for [the] unified subject, but inhabited by a happily chaotic range of subjectivities" (Cameron Bailey, "Virtual Skin" 36).
Cyburbia and Time (2): "Cyberspace represents a quantum leap forward into the technological construction of vision. . . . Reduced to a point, the point of view is abstracted into a purely temporal entity with no spatial extension; metaphorized into an interactive space, the data space is narrativized by the pov's movement through it" (N. Katherine Hayles 83-84).
Cyburbia and Community (3): "A question that VR poses, in its full positivity, is where to locate the community. Because we are vanishing. In the absence of the polis, something like VR obligates us to pose ethical questions about contact. . . . Can there be an atopicality of the community that nonetheless gathers, a community going nowhere, but ecstatic, a community of shattered egos, where the control towers come tumbling down, and where the other is genuinely anticipated?" (Avital Ronell 126).
Virtual Prophecy and Dis/Embodied Subjects (1): "Accordingly, if one belongs to Christ, then one participates in the allegorical meaning of the promise to the 'seed,' an allegorical meaning of genealogy already hinted at in the biblical text itself, when it said that in 'Abraham all nations would be blessed,' and even more when it interpreted his names as 'Father to many nations.' The individual body itself is replaced by its allegorical reference, the body of Christ of which all the baptized are part. This is what the 'putting on' of Christ means, which is certainly a reference to the topos of the body as a garment. . ." (Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity 23).
Virtual Prophecy and Time (2): Readers from Luther to Nietzsche to Albert Schweitzer have observed that Pauline theology does not invoke the law. For this reason, Pauline prophecy is not spatial but temporal. It does not bring the law from the wilderness back into civilization--orienting us within a communal space.
Virtual Prophecy and Community (3): In fact, from the point of view of both Levitican sacrifice culture and talmudic textual culture, there is no civilization or wilderness within Paul's scheme--leaving Augustine, Aquinas and others to deal more directly with the anxiety and embarrassment of conceptualizing the possibility of a Christian community (Metzger forthcoming).
To borrow the language of Avital Ronell, Pauline's prophecy runs the risk of "blurring the distinction between simulation and the operational work" (120). Of course, as Ronell rightly points out, blurring the distinction between simulation and operational work is not something new; it is the starting point for Western philosophical discourse. And it is, I would suggest, a universalizing figure for technological change. But I wonder if in our present conceptualizations of technological change, we have been so afraid of repeating the terror of Western metaphysics (Die, Descartes! Die!) that we have ignored the influence of religious discourse. In other words, as theorists of culture and technology, we may have risked a good deal more than we had thought: while arguing with Descartes, we hoped that technological progress would fulfill the virtual prophecies of Paul, making Christianity the universalizing promise of technologies, radicalization, and social reform: