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Negative Capabilities: Investigating Apophasis in AI Text-to-Image Models

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jats:pThrough a case study of images generated by Swedish artist Steph Maj Swanson using an AI text-to-image (T2I) model, this article explores the strategy of negative weight prompting in T2I models as a phenomenon of apophasis. Apophasis is a linguistic strategy commonly deployed in texts of mystical theology to express the ineffability of God through negative concepts. In this article, a comparison of apophatic strategies in mystical texts and T2I models is engaged to highlight the mutual benefit of theorising AI with the help of religious theory and concepts. With this, the article builds on previous work on the New Visibility of Religion, enchantment, and post-secularism—especially the research of Beth Singler on religious continuities in representations of AI. Recent work on AI prompt engineering, computational linguistics, and computational geometry is invoked to explain the linguistic processes of T2I models. Poststructuralist semiotics is then employed to theorise the search for the Transcendental Signified in apophatic theology. The article concludes that linguistic theology can help to elucidate technological use cases, subsequently arguing for further dialogue between scholars in artificial intelligence and religious studies, and for a revaluation of religion in the technological sphere.</jats:p>


Peer reviewed: True


artificial intelligence, religion, apophasis, mysticism, mystical theology, negative theology, semiotics, large language models, Julian of Norwich, medieval literature

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