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Bibliographic Data: Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Main Argument: This book is the interrelated story of three stories: one, "how information lost its body" and "came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded;" two, "how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon" after WII; and three, "how a historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman" (2). The posthuman is a complex field, but it generally has the theme of the union of human and machine, and as a view it usually shares the following assumptions: one, it "privileges informational pattern over material instantiation," with the result that embodiment is seen as historical contingency rather than biological inevitability; two, it "considers consciousness…as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow;" three, it "thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate;" and finally, it "configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" (2-3). Thus, "the posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction" (3). The posthuman subject is in some senses a critique of the liberal subject, but "to the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiaton of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupts it" (5). Hayles is here critiquing the posthuman dream of nothing less than immortality: "the point is not only that abstracting information from a material base is an imaginary act but also, and more fundamentally, that conceiving of information as a thing separate from the medium instantiating it is a prior imaginary act that constructs a holistic phenomenon [i.e. information, which must always be embodied in something] as an information/matter duality" (13). Information, understood holistically, is "a complexity too unruly to fit into disembodied ones and zeros" (ibid).

Historiographical Engagement: New media theory, science, philosophy, science fiction

Preface: Argument, Sources, Examples
Rather, embodiment makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it. This realization, with all its exfoliating implications, is so broad in its effects and so deep in its consequences that it is transforming the liberal subject, regarded as the model of the human since the Enlightenment, into the posthuman.

Think of the Turing test as a magic trick. Like all good magic tricks, the test relies on getting you to accept at an early stage assumptions that will determine how you interpret what you see later. The important intervention comes not when you try to determine which is the man, the woman, or the machine. Rather, the important intervention comes much earlier, when the test puts you into a cybernetic circuit that splices your will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system in which represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine interfaces. As you gaze at the flickering signifiers scrolling down the computer screens, no matter what identifications you assign to the embodied entities that you cannot see, you have already become posthuman. (xiv)
Chapter 1: Argument, Sources, Examples Inspired by her horrified reaction to Hans Moravec's Mind Children, Hayles realized that "a defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates" (1). Her resistance to this assumption led, among other places, to the origins of the field of cybernetics, one of the important foundations of which was the idea of feedback loops, and specifically feedback loops as information. From κυβερνητες," cybernetics signaled that three powerful actors–information, control, and communication–were now operating jointly to bring about an unprecedented synthesis of the organic and the mechanical" (8). Equally importantly, the notion of the informational feedback loop quickly led to "the more threatening and subversive idea of reflexivity," which Hayles defines as "the movement whereby that which has been used to generated a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates" (ibid). By the 1980s, the second wave of cybernetics took reflexivity and generated the idea of auotpoiesis, in which the feedback loop no longer connected the system to its environment because the environment "merely triggers changes determined by the system's own structural properties," thus shifting the center of interest "from the cybernetics of the observed system to the cybernetics of the observer" (11). In this formulation, information is indistinguishable from the system's organizational properties. In the third wave of cybernetics, focused on the quest for AI, "self-organization began to be understood not merely as the (re)production of internal organization but as the springboard to emergence" (ibid). Along the way, we should note Hayles' definition of virtuality: "the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns," which plays off the information/matter duality at its heart [remember, the Internet is a real place] (13-14).

Chapter 2: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at the development of information theory, and notes the paradox of information: though it provides the basis for contemporary U.S. society [and capitalism!], "it has been constructed never to be present in itself" because "it is a pattern rather than a presence, defined by the probability distribution of the coding elements composing the message" (25). Hayles argues that "the contemporary pressure toward dematerialization, understood as an epistemic shift toward pattern/randomness and away from presence/absence, affects human and textual bodies on two levels at once, as a change in the body (the material substrate) and as a change in the message (the codes of representation). The connectivity between these changes is, as they say in the computer industry, massively parallel and highly interdigitated" (29). The ultimate point is that an alternative against the nightmare/dream of the body as information is "attending to the material interfaces and technologies that make disembodiment such a powerful illusion. By adopting a double vision that looks simultaneously at the power of simulation and at the materialities that produce it, we can better understand the implication of articulating posthuman constructions together with embodied actualities" (47). One way to think about this is in terms of functionalities, or affordances--and to recognize that some important ones are lost in the transition from, say, print to digital.

Chapter 3: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at the history of the illustrious Macy Conferences on Cybernetics and their role in the construction of information as a disembodied medium. The Macy Conferences' theorization was not inevitable but was rather contingent, based on the participants themselves and their competencies (and disciplines), on the method they used to speak to each other across those divides--namely, metaphor, which in the process created networks of conceptually linked meaning beyond previously narrow and technical definitions–and in the end, "reification [of information] was triumphant not because it had no opposition but because scientifically and culturally situated debates made it seem a better choice than the alternatives" and thus owes much to "the circumstances of the U.S. techno-scientific culture during and immediately following World War II" (50). The arguments made at the Macy Conferences can be summed up along three fronts: "the first was concerned with the construction of information as a theoretical entity; the second, with the construction of (human) neural structures so that they were seen as flows of information; the third, with the construction of artifacts that translated information flows into observable operations, thereby making the flows 'real'" (ibid). This chapter also investigates Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who were present at all ten Macy Conferences, and at Gregory Bateson and his daughter Catherine Bateson, herself an anthropologist, who both attended the "reunion tour" conference Bateson organized in 1968 in an attempt to construct the reflexive theory of cybernetics that could provide a basis for a new epistemology. The trick, however, as the example of the female secretary responsible for the Macy Conference transcripts shows, is that epistemology, just like information, is never disembodied, and it "isn't a word floating through the thin, thin air until it connected up with incorporating practices" (83).

Chapter 4: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at the writings of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, as an example of the promiscuity and the pleasurably destabilizing valences of the cyborg: "mingling erotically charged violations with potent new fusions, the cyborg becomes the stage on which are performed contestations about the body boundaries that have often marked class, ethnic, and cultural differences. Especially when it operates in the realm of the Imaginary rather than through actual physical operations (which act as a reality check on fantasies about cyborgism), cybernetics intimates that body boundaries are up for grabs" (85). Not coincidentally, Wiener's writings are shot through with the anxieties that this promiscuity engenders in the classic liberal subject, who since the C18 has been marked by his capacity for self-regulation. [And oh listeners, you can bet your ass that I am using that pronoun deliberately.] Wiener's early work was in probability, and this had important effects for how he conceptualized information, and his analogical mode of thinking quickly extended this conception to wildly diverse realms, articulating both ends of the relationship with new meanings. As Hayles notes, for Wiener, "envisioning relations on the macro scale as acts of communication was thus tantamount to extending the reach of probability into the social world of agents and actors" (90). And by extension, "messages are constituted, measured, and communicated not as things-in-themselves but as relational differences between elements in a field. Communication is about relation, not essence" (91). Using analogy, the flip side of which is boundaries, Wiener attempted to set limits on cybernetics, and his "boundary markers implied larger assumptions about the nature of the universe (probabilistic rather than deterministic), about effective strategies for dealing with this universe (controlling randomness through negative feedback), and about a system hierarchy that had moral connotations as well as practical values (flexible systems using negative feedback were better than mechanical devices that did not use feedback)" (97). The problem with this mode of thinking, and with the shoehorning of discrete things into the same categories, was that it tended to erase real embodied differences in materiality, differences that matter. Another crucial problem was Wiener's conceptualization of entropy, which took after the 19thC Victorian conceptualization of chaos as associated with "dissipation in the Victorian sense dissolute living and reckless waste," rather than as "the thermodynamic motor driving systems to self-organization rather than as the heat engine driving the world to universal heat death," "associated with dissipation in a newly positive sense of increasing complexity and new life" (103, 102, 103). Thus, for Wiener, the "noise" of the signal/noise dichotomy was a force for the dissolution of the body as informational pattern because it was the handmaiden of entropy, which went to war against life and homeostasis, which were viewed as analogous in the Macy period. Moreover, for Wiener, "the danger of cybernetics…is that it can potentially annihilate the liberal subject as the locus of control," particularly if it engages too widely with other disciplines; Wiener preferred to stick with the autonomous self, and keep cybernetics disciplinarily celibate. But cybernetics, even though he fathered it, was not under his control.

Chapter 5: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter is an investigation of the 1952 novel Limbo by Bernard Wolfe, ranked by some as one of the top three dystopian novels of the C20, considered by others to be a frustrating panoply of misogyny and paranoia, and deeply influenced by Norbert Wiener.
What is distinctive about Wolfe's use of the correlation [between the imaginative world of the signifier and the physical body of frint] is the suggestion that the bodies in the text and the body of the text not only represent cyborgs but also together compose a cyborg in which the neologistic splice operates to join imaginative signification with literal physicality. In this integrated circuit, the physical body of the text and the bodies represented within the text evolve together toward a posthuman, post-typographic future in which human and intelligent machine are spliced together in an integrated circuit, subjectivity is dispersed, vocalization is non-localized, bodies of print are punctuated with prostheses, and boundaries of many kinds are destabilized. (130)
Chapter 6: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at the second wave of cybernetics and its move from reflexivity to self-organization as the guiding principle of the same. In particular, it looks at the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who "probed deeply into what it means to acknowledge that the observer, like the frog, does not so much discern preexisting systems as create them through the very act of observation" (131). The concrete issue was how to operationalize the new epistemology--recall Gregory Bateson's insight that "the internal world of subjective experience is a metaphor for the external world"--"by integrating it with an experimental program that would replace intuition with empirical data" (132). Recall to that the problem the Macy Conferences highlighted was how to talk about reflexivity without descending into either solipsism or psychoanalysis, and the provisional solution was to keep the observer and the observed as separate systems, thus reducing the problem of reflexivity to a problem of communication between those systems. Working on the neurophysiology of a frog's visual cortex, Maturana realized "each living system thus constructs its environment through the 'domain of interactions' made possible by its autopoietic organization. What lies outside that domain does not exist for that system" (137). Additionally, he had to develop a new language to attempt to express this insight, because "since it is partly through language that humans bring worlds into being for themselves, he was in the impossible position of pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, trying to articulate the new by using the only language available, the lingua franca whose meanings had long ago settled along lines very different from those he was trying to envision" (ibid). An important difference between Maturana and Wiener et al is that "whereas the latter argued that it is the system's behavior that counts, Maturana argues that it is the autopoietic processes generating behavior that count" (141). And although Maturana in some respects sought to uphold the autonomous liberal subject, he also challenged it in important ways stemming from his insistence that, quote, "the observer is a living system and any understanding of cognition as a biological phenomenon must account for the observer and his role in it" (qtd. 143). For Maturana, the opposite of objectivity was not subjectivity but relativism, and he sought to ground the autonomy of living systems in the premise that "living systems are living because they instantiate organizational closure"--which is not actually a tenable definition by the terms of autopoietic theory: "if the theory says that the observer creates the system by drawing distinctions, it risks undercutting the ontological primacy of organizational closure. If if says that autopoietic processes are an essential feature of reality, it risks undercutting its epistemological radicalism" (145). Regardless of whether this dilemma can be resolved, the important point is that the subject's autonomy is now not predicated on self-possession, but on closure and recursivity. The problem of second-wave cybernetics, then, is not ignoring embodiment and the observer, but on its inability to account for "living systems' explosive potential for transformation," or "dynamic interactions that are not circular in their effects" (147). Unsurprisingly, Maturana had trouble both with evolution, and with the dynamic interactions of language. Thus, "the paradigmatic cyborg for autopoiesis is the state" and "it sees thinking as a secondary effect that arises when an autopoietic entity interacts with its own representations" (149). Indeed, Maturana and Varela were consciously trying to create a theory that would de-emphasize evolution and reproduction as the defining characteristics of life and the importance of DNA, partly by insisting on the holistic nature of living systems. Varela, however, went on to change his thinking about autopoiesis, arguing at the end of his life for "the constructive role of embodiment in ways that go importantly beyond autopoiesis," namely through the concept of "enaction," which "sees the active engagement of an organism with the environment as the cornerstone of the organism's development" (155). Moreover, contemporary cognitive science validates Varela's description of consciousness as an illusion as "awareness realizes itself as a part of a larger whole–unbounded, empty, and serene," an explicitly Buddhist cast on the fact that "contemporary models of cognition implicitly deconstruct the notion of a unified self by demonstrating that cognition can be modeled through discrete and semiautonomous agents. … In this model, consciousness emerges as an epiphenomenon whose role it is to tell a coherent story about what is happening, even though this story may have little to do with what is happening processurally" (156, 157).

Chapter 7: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at the classic mid-60s novels of Philip K. Dick from the perspective of "boundary work:" according to Hayles, "both Dick and the creators of autopoiesis were responding to the problem of incorporating the observer into the system and, as a result, with more or less radical epistemologies" (161). Hayles characterizes these novels in particular (written with the help of a massive amount of amphetamines) as typified by the figure of the "schizoid android," which is "a signifier that enacts as well as connotes the schizoid, splitting into the two opposed and mutually exclusive subject positions of the human and the not-human" and which allows Dick "to combine a scathing critique of the politics of incorporation with the psychological complexities of trying to decide who qualifies as an 'authentic' human" (162). In these novels, Dick arrived at opposite conclusions from Maturana and Varela; he used the "domain of the observer" to "estrange further consensus reality," and though he shared their passion for systems and building them, he solved the problem of the infinite regress of observers not by limiting the observer (Maturana's solution; what we see does not exist) but by creating ever more inclusive systems, ultimately naming the reflexive spiral itself "God" after a visionary experience in 1974 (which, ironically, may have been a physiological symptom of the abnormal neurological activity that would ultimately kill him).

Chapter 8: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at the materiality of informatics by way of an analysis of William S. Burroughs' cybernetic trilogy, the details of which need not detain us. Rather, the important part comes at the beginning of the chapter, when Hayles demolishes some foundational canards of critical theory no less than of informatics:
One contemporary belief likely to stupefy future generations is the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction. Coincident with cybernetic developments that stripped information of its body were discursive analyses within the humanities, especially the archaeology of knowledge pioneered by Michel Foucault, that saw the body as a play of discourse systems. Although researchers in the physical and human sciences acknowledged the importance of materiality in different ways, they nevertheless collaborated in creating the postmodern ideology that the body's materiality is secondary to the logical or semiotic structures it encodes.


The very theorists who most emphatically claim that the body is disappearing also operated within material and cultural circumstances that make the claim for the body's disappearance seem plausible. The body's dematerialization depends in complex and highly specific ways on the embodied circumstances that an ideology of dematerialization would obscure. … This chapter suggests a new, more flexible framework in which to think about embodiment in an age of virtuality. This framework composes two dynamically interacting polarities. The first polarity unfolds as an interplay between the body as a cultural construct and the experiences of embodiment that individual people within a culture feel and articulate. The second polarity can be understood as a dance between inscribing and incorporating practices. Since the body and embodiment, inscription and incorporation, are in constant interaction, the distinctions forming these polarities are heuristic rather than absolute. (192, 193)

Chapter 9: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at the narratives of Artificial Life and what they reveal about posthumanity, as well as about the third wave of cybernetics, which can be figured by a spiral and which emphasizes "getting the system to evolve in new directions. … The third wave wants to impart an upward tension to the recursive loops of self-organizing processes so that, like a spring compressed and suddenly released, the processes break out of the pattern of circular self-organization and leap outward into the new" (222).
For most of the researchers discussed in this chapter, becoming a posthuman means much more than having prosthetic devices grafted onto one's body. It means envisioning humans as information-processing machines, especially intelligent computers. Because of how information has been defined, many people holding this view tend to put materiality on one side of a divide and information on the other side, making it possible to think of information as a kind of immaterial fluid that circulates effortlessly around the globe while still retaining the solidity of a reified concept. … The narratives of Artificial Life reveal that if we acknowledge that the observer must be part of the picture, bodies can never be made of information alone, no matter which side of the computer screen they are on. (246)
Sidebar: Descartes was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Chapter 10: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter attempts to map the then-current state of the posthuman, however crudely, partly through an analysis of the (quite interesting) novel Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, Blood Music by Greg Bear, and Cole Perriman's Terminal Games, and Neal Stephenson's classic Snow Crash. Hayles constructs a semiotic square consisting of the dynamic interplay between the complementary spectra of presence/absence and pattern/randomness, and the four terms that emerge from these syntheses: "the synthetic term that emerges from the interplay between presence and absence is materiality," which Hayles uses to refer to both "the signifying power of materialities and to the materiality of signifying processes;" "the interplay between presence and randomness gives rise to mutation," which is "the mark that randomness leaves upon presence" indicates "that when randomness erupts into the material world, mutation achieves its potency as a social and cultural manifestation of the posthuman;" "the interplay between absence and pattern" is hyperreality, borrowing from Baudrillard; and "the interplay between pattern and randomness" is information, which includes "both the technical meaning of information and the more general perception that information is a code carried by physical markers but also extractable from them" (250). This map is not the territory, and nor is it definitive, but together, these texts indicate some of the directions into which the posthuman goes.
But finally the answers to questions about the posthuman will not be found in books, or at least not only in books. Rather, the answers will be the mutual creation of a planet full of humans struggling to bring into existence a future in which we can continue to survive, continue to find meaning for ourselves and our children, and continue to ponder our kinship with and differences from the intelligent machines with which our destinies are increasingly entwined. (282)

Chapter 11: Argument, Sources, Examples
…the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice. What is lethal is not the posthuman as such but the grafting of the posthuman onto a liberal humanist view of the self. When Moravec imagines "you" choosing to download yourself into a computer, thereby obtaining through technological mastery the ultimate privilege of immortality, he is not abandoning the autonomous liberal subject but is expanding its prerogatives into the realm of the posthuman. Yet the posthuman need not be recuperated back into liberal humanism, nor need it be construed as anti-human. Located within the dialectic of pattern/randomness and grounded in embodied actuality rather than disembodied information, the posthuman offers resources for rethinking the articulation of humans with intelligent machines. […] Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the anti-human and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves. (286-87, 291)

Critical assessment: This is an excellent and revolutionary book; Hayles is so smart that I am sure I have failed to capture all of its implications in thees notes. Equally to the point, as I typed these notes on my laptop, I found myself stroking the pages of the paper book I was reading, reminded by her words of "the fragility of a material world that cannot be replaced" and given a new appreciation for it and for its imperfections (49). Beyond that very material operation on me and my embodied self, this is the first book I've read for my exam that has given me hope: I think that Hayles here may have found a way out of the tightening net of informational capitalism and post-postmodernity, because the body is not an informational pattern but a real thing that exists, and because cognition is epiphenomenal rather than sovereign, which means that the liberal subject, much like the center, cannot hold. It will take a while, and it will require much thought and work, and thought-work, on the part of many people. But eventually, with these two truths, we will be able to get out if we try. (Whether this can happen before capitalism destroys the planet via unchecked climate change is, of course, another question.)

All that having been said, Hayles could stand to read some SF books that aren't by straight white guys, IJS.

Further reading: Joan Slonczewski, Brain Plague; Gibson, Neuromancer; Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Blade Runner; Stephenson, Snow Crash; Sherry Turkle, Simulation and its Discontents; Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think"; Catherine Bateson, Our Own Metaphor; Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto"; James Beniger, The Control Revolution

Meta notes:
Although I think that serious consideration needs to be given to how certain characteristics associated with the liberal subject, especially agency and choice, can be articulated within a posthuman context, I do not mourn the passing of a concept so deeply entwined with projects of domination and oppression. … If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival. (5)

"And there was a moment. There was a moment, dear listeners, when I considered it. I considered joining Carlos and becoming perfect. But I’ve come to know something after these months together with dear Carlos.

"Perfection is not real. Perfection is not human. Carlos is not perfect, no. Even better — he is imperfect.

"Everything about him, and us, and all of this, is imperfect! And those imperfections in our reality are the seams and cracks into which our out-sized love can seep and pool. And sometimes we are annoyed, and disappointed, and that too is part of how love works. It is not a perfect system, but oh!

"Oh, well.

"And so I resisted.

"I fought off the vision of the shrouded figures and the dark planet and all that was perfect and I held close to imperfection.

"To my own imperfection.

"To my imperfect Carlos.

"I took him, and I carried him out of the cube. I came up, heaving, into this world that will disappoint us.

"Finally, free." – Welcome to Night Vale, "Condos"


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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