(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited)
The study of angels, angelology, is seldomly taken seriously. Instead, it is seen as the topic of ridicule, exemplifying the irrelevancy and unworldliness of some academic questions: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would angels have knees? Do angels have sexes? Further, angels often reference disembodiment and neutrality, ideas any decent posthuman scholar seems to abhor.
Nevertheless, I would argue that angels are a fruitful way to critically assess our posthuman condition. Angels embody a number of valued characteristics of our posthuman selves, but also a number of transformations in how science is currently practiced– what I would like to call technoscience. Technoscience refers then to a range of new disciplines, such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, robotics, or data science. These are new disciplines where classic distinctions between science and technology, nature and artifact, are disappearing.
Posthuman thought and technoscience have remarkable similarities, but, in contrast to posthumanism, our attitude towards technoscience is ambivalent. Do we really want that kind of science for our future? Or, differently put, do we really want to become angels?
Living in the Cloud
Let me convince you that thinking of ourselves as angels is not farfetched. Don’t we live in a network society, where everything is stored in ‘the cloud’, and where our existence is increasingly virtual and global – exemplified by the current COVID-19 pandemic? Why not conceptualize this transformation into something ‘more than human’ as becoming angels? In 1993, the French philosopher Michel Serres, turning away from his fascination with Hermes, the god of messengers, wrote a beautiful book called La Légende des Anges, raising the exact same question:
Why should we be interested in angels nowadays? […] Because our universe is organized around message-bearing systems, and because, as message-bearers, they are more numerous, complex and sophisticated than Hermes, who was only one person, and a cheat and a thief to boot. Each angel is a bearer of one or more relationships; today they exist in myriad forms, and every day we invent billions of new ones. However, we lack a philosophy of such relationships (Serres 1993: 293).
Let me, therefore, in the light of Serres, sketch four elements of such a philosophical angelology, as a tool to capture our current posthuman condition.
Messages in all forms
A first central characteristic of angels is the simple idea that angels are, in essence, bearers of messages.
Now, messenger, in Greek, is angelos, so it’s an angel. And that’s why I dedicated an entire book to angels, because the vocabulary of medieval angelology allows us to understand our universe of communication (Serres 2016: 114).
Following Serres, we can notice the similarity between the logic of angels and the current popularity of a relational ontology: entities are defined, not by an essence, but by their relations. They are defined by what they do, how they act and affect. For posthumanist scholars, this agency is not limited to humans but distributed over all entities. Why not think of our phones, computers, and planes as our angels, carrying our messages?
Similarly, technosciences are also characterized by a focus on action, instead of description. Synthetic biologists want to do things with synthetically constructed cells. Data scientists are not so much interested in what algorithms are, but what they do.
Engineering concepts, such as ‘control’, ‘feedback,’ or ‘robustness’ occupy the central stage. And technoscientists are remarkably aware of how their research is a part of the network that they study. They, in fact, study by intervention. Only through intervention can we know what life, matter, behavior, or intelligence is.
Orders, not information
But angels are not just bearers of information. They typically communicate commands. This is how Bruno Latour explores the figure of the angel in a number of fascinating texts.
Angels do not carry an indeformable message through space-time, they interpellate and always say: ‘Attention! Take care! He’s not here! That is not the question! It’s about you! We will talk to you! Do not leave! …’ Angels are not messengers, but meta-messengers (Latour 1990: 52).
Angels transform, translate, and distort messages, rather than just pass on the content. They typically do so without us noticing that we’re being steered.
The good Angels pass, in silence, we forget them; the others appear and become our gods (Serres 1993: 104).
Angels thus pose the question of how messages are mediated and distorted, and whether that’s a problem. Latour, therefore, wonders whether we not too often reduce everything to one mode of existence, that of scientific networks, focused only on communicating information faithfully. Perhaps, there are other practices that have different understandings of what ‘faithfulness’ entails:
We can hardly imagine a representation regime that would not track the path that leads to an object. For us, who are permeated by science, fidelity can mean nothing but the intact movement of an inscription. We cannot read intentional distortion along the way other than as a lie – an unfounded belief – or as aesthetics – a figment of the imagination of the artist (Latour 1990: 52).
Posthumanism is about the exploration of that plurality of faithful transportations: in science, but also in religion, in fiction, in affect. Instead of seeing ourselves as faithful representers of a given world out-there, we become transformers of the world, in all its pluralities. In fact, maybe we are only faithful if we transform, change, affect the entities that we encounter.
Again, the same is at work in technoscience where we also see a blurring between representation and intervention, between science and technology. New sciences such as nanotechnology or robotics are in essence aimed towards transforming parts of our world. But do we want that kind of science? Do we want to live in such a world?
Angels as shapeshifters
Next, angels tend to appear to us in numerous shapes and forms. They have no fixed essence. This also shows itself on the moral level, in the theme of ‘fallen angels.’ Angels are morally ambiguous; their messages are not necessarily to be trusted. From this point of view, the once ridiculous question of ‘whether angels have sexes,’ suddenly makes sense.
Most of the tragedies in history are related to misunderstood, scrambled, faked or undelivered messages. Contrary to what one says, therefore, the problem of the sex of angels is a major problem of communication. It is even the central problem of communication! (Serres 2016: 114)
The question of sex confronts us with the question of embodiment: we are no perfect transparent messengers, but distort and transform all that we pass on.
Posthumanism is similarly fascinated by hybrids, often combined with distrust in fixed structures and identities. More abstractly, it endorses an ontological primacy of the unstable, the queer, and the hybrid: what is real, is mixed. Well-defined entities are illusions, the products of repression and reduction. The ontological primacy is thus often combined with an ethical primacy: the mixed is not only more real, but also morally superior. To show plurality is the task of the posthuman scholar.
But angels can fall. Synthetic cells, nanomaterials, artificial intelligence: are they natural or artificial? Does that distinction still hold? Also, technoscience celebrates these mixtures. But do distinctions not also serve a purpose, for instance by putting limits on what science and capitalism can dream of? Jean-Pierre Dupuy, confronted with nanotechnology, articulated this risk:
I am less disturbed by a science that claims to be the equal of God than by a science that drains one of the most essential distinctions known to humanity since the moment it first came into existence of all meaning: the distinction between that which lives and that which does not; or, to speak more bluntly, between life and death (Dupuy 2018: 152).
Angelology as government
Not only Serres and Latour are fascinated by angels, so is Giorgio Agamben. His fascination with angelology was mainly a political matter: God commands the world through His angels.
Angelology is, in this sense, the most ancient, articulated, and detailed reflection on that particular form of power or divine action which we could call the ‘government of the world’ (Agamben 2011: 118).
Here we face the problem not just of ambiguous angels and orders, but also of political resistance: angels as potential unruly messengers. How do we know whether an angel really, faithfully, executes God’s orders, or instead not deviates from it? How does God control His angels?
From this perspective, it is possible to put forward the hypothesis that angels are originally cosmic powers which the celestial God needs to subject in order to govern the world (Agamben 2011: 120).
In the short story ‘Hell is the absence of God,’ Ted Chiang imagines a world where Heaven and Hell are visible, and souls are seen to ascend or descend, depending on the virtue of their lives. However, there is one exception: once in a while, angels visit earth, in a big spectacle of fury and thunder. Even the most wicked person can enter Heaven, regardless of their past, if they are touched by the holy ray of these heavenly visitors. As a consequence, desperate people who want to join their loved ones in heaven, risk their lives, like tornado hunters, by chasing them. Unruly angels as salvation.
Posthumanism and technoscience raise similar questions: the control of information as a question of power. Power and politics, thus, do not only enter the picture when we wonder what we can construct – and how matter and society resist our efforts – but also in who owns the means of construction. Who determines which transformations, which hybrids are acceptable? Must we be the unruly angels, disturbing the plans by this Invisible Hand?
Similarly, why is science becoming technoscience? Who or what is ‘sending out these orders’? What power regime is behind the reorganizations of our institutions of learning? The question of technoscience, thus, becomes the question of what to do with the commodification of knowledge, the rise of the knowledge economy, and the increasing links between capital and research. And here, again, we must raise the question: do we, the individual researchers, need to become fallen angels? How do we turn ourselves against what still too often is portrayed as a divine plan of the goddess TINA, which we all must follow?
Agamben, G. (2011). Angels. Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities, 16(3), 117-123.Dupuy, J. (2018). Cybernetics is an Antihumanism. Technoscience and the Rebellion against the Human Condition, 139-156. In: French Philosophy of Technology, edited by Sacha Loeve, Xavier Guchet, and Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent. Cham: Springer.Latour, B. (1990). Quand les anges deviennent de bien mauvais messagers. Terrain: anthropologie et sciences humaines, 14: 76-91.Serres, M. (1995) . Angels: A Modern Myth. Flammarion: Paris.Serres, M. (2016). Pantopie ou le monde de Michel Serres, de Hermès à Petite Poucette. Paris: Le Pommier.