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Deus ex machina, deus ex anima

May 14, 2013

This First Things article by Glenn Arbery is at times somewhat disorienting (I almost wonder if the editors took out some of the transition sentences and rhetorical cuing words), but It’s a fascinating meditation on the difference between divine and machine omniscience. Titled “Search Me, O God: The implicit theology of technological surveillance,” it touches on hacker culture’s dislike of authority, surveillance in the war on terror, and the theology of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter:

What if the understanding of God is confused by the political usefulness of belief? If God is Big Brother in any sense, then God’s omniscience is already surveillance, an externalizing “letter” of being judgmentally watched instead of sustained by the inner Spirit. It is certainly fair to say that many Christians have experienced their faith in precisely this way. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories about the theocratic New England Puritans suggest that their “fear of the Lord” is the cowed response to a panoptic regime rather than the beginning of wisdom. Arthur Dimmesdale agonizes about letting Hester Prynne take the whole blame for their adultery, but his real suffering begins when Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s estranged husband, arrives in Boston and puts Dimmesdale under his surveillance.


The fear of surveillance is what happens when you imagine God to be a machine. Something different happens when you imagine God to be an animal–but still something that makes you want to resist Him. Something like that seems to be going on in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (my review of which is here). For those interested, here’s an intriguing New Yorker article about Carruth and Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden plays a major role in the film. That article won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen Upstream Color, but if you have, it’s quite fascinating, though I’m not sure I agree with its conclusion. That is, I can respond positively to these rhetorical questions:

What if the blue neurotoxin secreted by the worm in Carruth’s movie is the Thoreau poison? What if memorizing “Walden” isn’t incidental to Kris’s infection with the worm but tantamount to it?

But I don’t see how that makes Upstream Color Thoreavian rather than anti-Thoreavian. In any case, however, it does seem right to me that the film contemplates a Thoreau-style gnostic pantheism, and that this pantheism is figured as an unwitting entanglement in the life cycle of an ageless organism, as the liner notes to the movie so helpfully put it.

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