An Interview with Kat Poje

Could you tell us about your project?

The project is inspired by the news articles about Facebook memorial pages that have been making headlines over the last few years. After you die, your Facebook page may be turned into a ‘memorial page’ by your designated ‘legacy contact’ (a sort of executor of your social media will) so that your friends can continue to view your page and share tributes, without receiving birthday reminders or other updates particular to the living on Facebook. Explicitly public ‘in memory of’ pages may also be created on Facebook. Neither of these are memorials, however, in the sense of static obituaries or abstracted monuments. The pages enable the contents of the deceased’s original Facebook page their virtual life and virtual corpusto remain visible and interactive. The posthumous tributes share timeline space with prom pictures, funny animal videos, and political posts. The timeline, the lifeline, literally extends into death and beyond. And yet Facebook itself is ephemeral: a digital platform contingent on the continued interest of viewers and the money powering servers. The afterlife of the Facebook dead is thus inextricably linked to the vitality of Facebook and the as of yet underdeveloped archival possibilities for social media.

My project is an investigation of the temporalities and subjectivities cultivated through the transformation of the living body into a posthumous body gone live in the world of Facebook memorials. I aim to question the ritualization of the body and technology through digital space, and aim to understand how we might forge new paradigms for the relationship between media (the means, the simulacrum) and the supposed real, the body. Moving from Marcel Mauss’s famous description of the body as a “technical object,” I wonder how we may theorize the body when the body is not only a technology, but when technology is the body?

What led you to work on this project?

For my undergraduate thesis, written this past year, I explored the contemporary canonization movement for Isabel of Castile; my thesis, in turn, was tangentially inspired by research I did on discursive violence in the Westboro Baptist Church. Several themes emerged from the projects. In the case of both the WBC and the Isabelline movement, I discovered that the message is inseparable from the medium, from the media. The modes of communication, ranging from twitter to frankensteinian e-magazine amalgamations, are poised to manipulate and at the same time condemn the conditions of modernity enabling the groups’ evangelizing. Both focus on bodies--sexual behavior, gendered comportment, and the (un)holiness of bodies--as markers for the state of the world in relationship to the divine. And both make their presence globally conspicuous through the establishment of highly developed digital and literary corpora, corpora that exceed the last breath of the founding members of the communities from which the virtual and print bodies were produced. After working on these papers, I had lingering questions about digital embodiment, and digital temporalities. Faceboook memorials seemed an intriguing topic to pivot to, to further explores these questions.

What drew you to the SRC fellowship? And how do you see it contributing to your work?

The interdisciplinary learning community SRC fosters was a major draw. I believe an atmosphere of open exploration, collaboration, and debate with peers and academic mentors leads to more nuanced and innovative work. I am excited to learn about other scholars’ projects, and get a sense of the frontiers of research on the intersections of science and religion. And I hope that this impacts not only my immediate project, but my frame of reference for future possibilities in religious studies research.

How do you see your work benefitting from or addressing questions of science and religion?

For my project, I want to understand theories of (virtual) reality, (artificial) life, and (post)humanism, which means probing into the history of cybernetics and informatics. My preliminary research towards that end (especially my reading of N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman and of Bruno Latour’s On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods) has been a fascinating window into the entanglement of scientific and religious discourse in the development of digital technology.

What lessons does your project provide for scientists, historians, religious scholars, or the general public today?

The entanglement of science and religion I mentioned above provide a major incentive to question the technocratic monopoly on visions of the future, a monopoly frequently defended by claims to optimization and objectivity. With the growing mythologization of Silicon Valley, I think there is sense that a group of elite white men can (and maybe should) control the means by which we define and then approach “progress.” It is not just that a computer is so often a “black box,” but that the digital society we live in is one, too.

I hope my project opens the pandora’s box. I want to bring attention to the ways people create technological lives that exceed and contend with a given technology’s intended use. And at the same time, I want to carefully consider the potential risks we take on when our communities and selves are bound to corporate, capitalistic platforms. In doing this, I think we can attend the very real biopolitics at play in a digital age.

What else would you like our readers to know about your work?

I am very open to suggested readings and to exploring public Facebook memorials others have encountered. If you would like to be in dialogue about my project, please feel free to contact me at kat_poje@mail.harvard.edu.

Published in the SRC Newsletter, September 5, 2016

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