ahorbinski: hulk smash male privilege! (hulk smash male privilege)
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

How we became posthuman )
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: A picture of Charles Darwin captioned "very gradual change" in the style of the Obama 'Hope' poster.  (Darwin is still the man.)
Bibliographic Data: Jones, Andrew F. Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Main Argument: "This book is a historical enquiry into the development of this discourse [of development] in the Chinese literary and media culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly as refracted through and subject to criqitue in the work of Lu Xun and many of his contemporaries" (3). "Development" is "a way of knowing, narrating, and attempting to manage processes of radical historical change" although "the term is haunted by its own semantic instability" (ibid). Jones notes that devleopmentalism has become the sovereign logic of China (and of other countries), with ruinous consequences; thus the book also "initiates a genealogical critique of developmental thinking by tracing its origins in the translation of evolutionary biology into Chinese letters in the late nineteenth century…and suggesting how it gave rise to new narrative forms, lent its structure to the historical imagination, and tragically limited ideological horizons" (4). Moreover, Chinese intellectuals were not doing this in isolation; it was part of global process in which evolutionary thinking "was translated and assimilated to local discourse throughout East Asia and a host of other locales" (5).

Historiographical Engagement: Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power; Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China; Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice; Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern; Shu-mei Shih, The Lure of the Modern

Might there still be someone who hasn't eaten human flesh? Save the children. )

Critical assessment: This is an excellent book that makes some very complex arguments, complex enough that these notes most assuredly do not capture all of what Jones is saying. I think the fact that there is no conclusion as such is very much on point--in its own way, this book is a critique of the present as much as of the past. "'Might there still be someone who hasn't eaten human flesh? Save the children.'"

Further reading: Miriam Hansen, "Vernacular Modernism"

Meta notes: Evolution has no preordained goal, and extinction is the fate of all species.
ahorbinski: a bridge in the fog (bridge to anywhere)
Bibliographic Data: Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Main Argument: Ramsay calls for an "algorithmic criticism" that "seeks, in the narrowing forces of constraint embodied and instantiated in the strictures of programming, an analogue to the liberating potentialities of art. … It proposes that we channel the heightened objectivity made possible by the machine into the cultivation of those heightened subjectivities necessary for critical work" (x). Furthermore, Ramsay argues, "scientific method and metaphor (or, more precisely, the uses of these notions within the distorted epistemology we call 'scientism') is, for the most part, incompatible with the terms of humanistic endeavor" (ibid).

Textual formations and deformations )

Critical assessment: This little book is a thought-provoking read and a good introduction to the digital humanities. I read it as part of my work with Prof. Gail de Kosnik on internet and fandom history last summer, and it's no accident that many of Ramsay's conclusions about digital humanities inquiry are ones we learned, so to speak, in our own bodies: first and foremost, the data by themselves are not sufficient to tell the story.

Further reading: Neal Stephenson, Anathem; Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician; Lucretius, De Rerum Natura; the I Ching

Meta notes: "If code represents a radical form of textuality, it is not merely because of what it allows us to do but also because of the way it allows us to think" (66).

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

August 2017

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