JP Bishop: Death and the Technological Imaginary

This lecture was given at Durham by Dr. JP Bishop as a visiting scholar for the Christian Flourishing project. Click below to view the full lecture.

Technology tends toward perpetual innovation. Technology, enabled by both political and economic structures, propels society forward in a kind of technological evolution. The moment a novel piece of technology is in place, immediately innovations are attempted in a process of unending betterment. Bernard Stiegler suggests that, contra Heidegger, it is not being-toward-death that shapes human perception of time, life, death, and meaning. Rather, it is technological innovation that shapes human perception of time, life, death, and meaning. In fact, for Stiegler, human evolution has always been part of technological evolution. While, one can quibble with the notion of human-technology co-evolution, there is something to be said for the way in which human perception of time, of ageing, and of death seems to be judged against the horizon of perpetual evolution of technological innovation. In this technological imaginary, of which modern medicine is constituent, ageing and death seemingly may be infinitely deferred, and it is this innovating deferral that shapes the contemporary social imaginary around ageing and death in modern medicine. Yet, the reality of living (which is to say ageing) and dying always manifests itself differently than the scripts given to us by the technological imaginary with its myth of endless innovation. In fact, I shall argue that, where the Church created an ars moriendi, the technological imaginary gives us an ars ad mortem when it becomes clear that ageing and death cannot be infinitely deferred. And further, I shall argue that the Church must revivify its ars vivendi—that is to say, its liturgies, its arts, its technics—as a counter narrative to the myth of perpetual innovation that shapes the technological imaginary.

Dr. Jeffrey P. Bishop combines training as physician with his work as social and moral philosopher, teaching medical ethics and philosophy at Saint Louis University, where he holds the Tenet Endowed Chair in Health Care Ethics and is the Director of the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics. Bishop's scholarly work is focused on the historical, political, and philosophical conditions that underpin contemporary medical and scientific practices and theories. His interests are diverse, with publications in medical journals, philosophical journals, theological journals, and medical humanities journals. He has also written on diverse topics from transhumanism and enhancement technologies to clinical ethics consultation and medical humanities.

His first book, The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying, is a philosophical history of the care of the dying, from ICU care to palliative care. He is working on a second book with colleagues M. Therese Lysaught and Andrew Michel tentatively titled, Chasing After Virtue: Neuroscience, Economics, and the Biopolitics of Morality. Lately, his scholarship has been focused on the body, exploring how medical and scientific conceptions of the body shape the kinds of moral claims made by medicine, science, and bioethics.

Photo by Justin Schüler on Unsplash