A will to vulnerability? Lessons from the #DigitalHumanities and #1Samuel

 

Julia Margaret Cameron, photographer (British, born India, 1815 - 1879) I Wait (Rachel Gurney), 1872, Albumen silver print Image: 32.7 x 25.4 cm (12 7/8 x 10 in.) Mount: 43.3 x 31.6 cm (17 1/16 x 12 7/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Julia Margaret Cameron, photographer (British, born India, 1815 – 1879)
I Wait (Rachel Gurney), 1872, Albumen silver print
Image: 32.7 x 25.4 cm (12 7/8 x 10 in.) Mount: 43.3 x 31.6 cm (17 1/16 x 12 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The will to power is what it is all about – so said Nietzsche. So says 1 Samuel?

1 Samuel explores upgrading to kingship: does Israel need a king – a real king, not one in the sky – not a theocracy but a kingdom. Should Saul and then David be upgraded?  Should they have a mighty palace, should they wage wars as kings and become like all the kingdoms around them. Should they follow society’s inbuilt will to power. And, of course, the prophets are none too pleased.  Has Israel learnt nothing?  Why does humanity constantly build their towers of power, their babel towers? Is humanity so insecure as to need such signs so often?

I’ve been reading up on Digital Humanities all week and so some of my updates on Facebook and Twitter may have been a little incomprehensible at times. A kind of intellectual will to power? An attempt to show how I am not really still signed off work, with little resolved, suffering the ignobility of all that comes with the word on my sicknote: “depression”. Quite a bit of my reading has been about the provisionality of contemporary human identity…that’s a crazy phrase. Speak English, Phillips!

OK, so I kept tripping up over the issue of human upgrades. You know the sense that nowadays we always need to be improving ourselves – getting fitter, thinner, more skilled, less stressed. Society seems to have a compulsive need to see us constantly bettering ourselves. Someone argued that humanity has become nothing other than a resource to be updated. Some talked of post humanity – when humanity finally drops the wetware and is absorbed into the singularity of artificial mechanical intelligence. When wetware is absorbed completely into the hardware and software we put all around us all the time. (Cory Doctorow’s novel, Rapture of the Nerds, is a good place to see the implications of this). Wetware needs happy pills and counselling too much.

Who can disagree that a constant upgrade is what we are all about – an ongoing process of sanctification. David wrote all about the need for it in Psalm 51, didn’t he? We are called to get better and better and better and surely the upgrade impulse in our society is simply part of that…or is it?

Robbie Griggs, a PhD student at Durham Uni, came back to one of my tweets and said: “I suppose I still believe in the old-fashioned notion that it is precisely our limitations that make us human.” I need to have some coffee with Robbie pretty soon to tease that one out.

Our limitations.

Paul, of course, says that it is in our weakness that we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). Indeed, “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9). When we are able to acknowledge who we are, warts (and mental health issues?) and all, then we are truly human because we have stopped trying to be God? But rather strangely in the Christian faith, in this moment of weakness and vulnerability, we suddenly realise or are made to realise that we have drawn so close to being like God himself – we have taken on the mind of Christ. For as Philippians 2 points out, it was when God emptied himself, even to death upon the cross, that he was given the name above every name. Not by strength, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.

Some of the conversations about digital humanities has focussed on the temporary, ephemeral nature of the digital (see the Manifesto). Blogs are not printed volumes (see Stanley Fish’s grumpy acknowledgement). They don’t carry the authoritative weight of a hardback academic book. They are updated by the next thought that comes along. The digital pixels flicker across our screen and flash away bringing us the latest status updates and tweets. It’s all so fragile. Too fragile? Too temporary to build anything upon? Academic sand rather than concrete of longform scholarship?

The Mocking of Christ; Unknown maker, Rembrandt Pupil, active 1650s; about 1650 - 1655; Pen and brown ink; 18.1 x 24.6 cm (7 1/8 x 9 11/16 in.); 83.GA.358

The Mocking of Christ; Unknown maker, Rembrandt Pupil, active 1650s; about 1650 – 1655; Pen and brown ink; 18.1 x 24.6 cm (7 1/8 x 9 11/16 in.); 83.GA.358

But doesn’t that mean that the digital properly reminds us that all of us and everything we do are/is ephemeral and temporary – like the grass here today and gone tomorrow (Psalm 103:15). In other words, our involvement with the digital actually makes us so much more aware of our own limitations, our own weaknesses, our own vulnerabilities. But in turn that means that the interweb is a place full of weakness and vulnerability – where such are accepted not as something wrong but as the norm. It’s a place to celebrate the provisionality of wetware, the limitations of the human condition.

I like that thought.

Perhaps what the Bible is telling us is that we need to focus more on being ourselves than on being masters of the universe?

Pete

 

The photo and picture are taken from the Open Content Collection from the Getty Museum.

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About pmphillips

Pete Phillips Biog: I'm into the New Testament (especially John's Gospel), technology, literary theory, postmodernism, football and that kind of stuff. I am married to Theresa and we have three great kids (and a Westie called Grace). I'm a Christian and love the whole church thing, which is good because I also work for the Methodist Church in the UK. My formal job titles are: Director of Research for CODEC at St John's College, Durham University and Secretary to the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church.