ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
Bibliographic Data: Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Public Culture 2, no. 2 (spring 1990): 1-24.

Main Argument: "The crucial point, however, is that the United States is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images, but is only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes" (4). Moreover, global cultural processes are now organized around what Appadurai terms "the imagination as a social practice," by which he means "a form of work (both in the sense of labor and of culturally organized practice) and a form of negotiation between sties of agency ('individuals') and globally defined fields of possibility. … The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order" (5).

Disjuncture & Difference )

Bibliographic Data: Latour, Bruno. “On Technical Mediation–Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29-64.

Main Argument: Latour talks about the relationship of people and τεχνη in its broadest sense, beginning with the myth of Daedalus and his δαιδαλια, his crafty inventions. As Latour summarizes, "that we are not Machiavellian baboons we owe to technical action," i.e. technical mediation, which is "a form of delegation that allows us to mobilize, during interactions, moves made elsewhere, earlier, by other actants. It is the presence of the past and distant, the presence of nonhuman characters, that frees us, precisely, from interactions" (52). Technique is thus "the socialization of nonhumans" (53). For Latour, then, "responsibility for action must be shared, symmetry restored, and humanity redescribed: not as the sole transcendent cause, but as the mediating mediator" (54).
The mistake of the dualist paradigm was its definition of humanity. Even the shape of humans, our very body, is composed in large part of sociotechnical negotiations and artifacts. To conceive humanity and technology as plat is to wish away humanity: we are sociotechnical animals, and each human interaction is sociotechnical. We are never limited to social ties. We are never faced with objects. This final diagram relocates humanity where we belong–in the crossover, the central column, the possibility of mediating between mediators. (64)
τεχνη και ανθρωπος )

Bibliographic Data: Law, John. “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” The new Blackwell companion to social theory (2009): 141-58.

Main Argument: Law offers a basic sketch of actor network theory, with the proviso that in some sense abstracting the theory from concrete examples is a betrayal of its first principles, one of which is the fact that there is no knowledge without exemplars. Actor network theory can also be understood as an empirical version of poststructuralism, because its approach "asks us to explore the strategic, relational, and productive character of particular, smaller-scale, heterogeneous actor networks," and thus "it can also be understood as an empirical version of Geilles Delueze's nomadic philosophy," because "both fever to the provisional assembly of productive, heterogeneous, and (this is the crucial point) quite limited forms of ordering located in no larger overall order" (145, 146). Since the early 1990s, actor network theory has moved in certain directions: one, to the idea of enaction or performance, because "we are no longer dealing with construction, social or otherwise: there is no stable prime mover, social or individual, to construct anything, no builder, no puppeteer. …In this heterogeneous world everything plays its part relationally. …all of these assemble and together enact a set of practices that make a more or less precarious reality" (151). Another direction is multiplicity, which argues that "most of the time and for most purposes practices produce chronic multiplicity. They may dovetail together, but equally they may be held apart, contradict, or include other another in complex ways" (152). A related notion is that of fluidity, which holds that objects may reconfigure themselves, that different realties may be loosely rather than rigidly associated, and that we do not have to imagine a single actor network. The point of all of this is that
This new material semiotics insists that the stories of social theory are performative, not innocent. It also assumes that reality is not destiny. With great difficulty what is real may be remade. And it is with this thought, the possibility and the difficulty of living and doing the real, that I end. … But, and this is the crucial point, the two are only partially connected: goods and reals cannot be reduced to each other. An act of political will can never, by itself, overturn the endless and partially connected webs that enact the real. Deconstruction is not enough. Indeed, it is trivial. The conclusion is inescapable: as we write we have a simultaneous responsibility both to the real and to the good. Such is the challenge faced by this diasporic material semiotics. To create and recreate ways of working in and on the real while simultaneously working well in and on the good. (155)
Actor Network Theory 1990 and Beyond )

Bibliographic Data: González, Jennifer. “The Appended Subject: Race and Identity as Digital Assemblage.” Race in Cyberspace (2000): 27-50.

Main Argument: González looks at the construction of avatars online [remember that this was well before Web 2.0] through the lens of two art projects and discusses the ways in which all of these examples present the body as an assemblage of parts--parts that can be swapped at will, along with somatic markers of racial and ethnic identity--as examples of "appended subjects," which she defines multiply as "comprised of appendages…or that of a subject or person who is defined by a relation of supplementarity," or "an object constituted by electronic elements serving as a psychic or bodily appendage, an artificial subjectivity that is attached to a supposed original or unitary being…In each case a body is constructed or assembled in order to stand in for, or become an extension of, a subject in an artificial but nevertheless inhabited world" (27-28). Drawing on Althusser as interpreted by Joseba Gabilando, González in fact argues that subjects in these arrays are interpolated not just by mimesis but also by position; with the result that "embedded in fantasies of collecting body specimens and creating hybrid subjects is a matrix of desire that seeks to absorb or orchestrate cultural differences" (46). Moreover, "by representing a shifting locus for a distributed subject–radical in the sense that it is perhaps shifting and changing, living, dying and nonessentiallized–the appended subject in the form of an online body also defines a relation to a so-called global interface as primarily one of consumption, not opposition" (47-48).

The appended subject )

Bibliographic Data: Morley, David and Kevin Robins. “Techno-Orientalism: Japan panic." Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes,and Cultural Boundaries (1995): 147-73.

Main Argument: Exoticism of Japan + technologically-inspired anxiety = techno-Orientalism.

Argument, Sources, Examples Japan has always been one of the West's Others, and in the 1980s, Japan seemed to be calling the terms of Western (and particularly American) modernity into question, partly through technological and economic advancement, but also partly through the perception of Japanese culture as fundamentally non-Western, i.e. non-individual ("domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!"). The trick, however, is that "the West both needs and wants its Japan problem," which of course is the point of Orientalism: the West constructed a mirror in which it could see itself in reverse and thereby construct itself as the obverse, with little if any reference to the actual "Orient." Another wrinkle comes from the fact that the West constructed itself as "modern," whereas Japan was the first society to achieve visible postmodernity, thus figuring postmodernity as other when in fact it is/was/shall be us. In other words, "what Japan has done is to call into question the supposed centrality of the West as a cultural and geographical locus for the project of modernity. It has also condoned the assumption that modernity can only be circulated through the forms the West has constructed" (160). The twist of techno-Orientalism, however, is that the association of high technology with Japan/eseness now serves "to reinforce the image of a culture that is cold, impersonal and machine-like, an authoritarian culture lacking emotional connection to the rest of the world" (169).

Further reading: Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age; Said, Orientalism; [personal profile] synecdochic, "Why Monetizing Social Media Through Advertising Is Doomed To Failure, Parts 1-3"; Nakamura, Digitizing Race; Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

Meta notes: "What you don't know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions, too." – Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass
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.)
Sarah Monette, who holds a Ph.D. in English literature from UW-Madison, recently posted a review of Richard Godbeer's The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England that thoroughly dissects one of the most common pitfalls of historiography, in my opinion: namely, the failure of the historian to take the worldview of her subjects on its own terms--not to share that worldview, which is impossible and would defeat the scholarly endeavor, but simply to grant it basic respect:

Now, I am not saying that historians of seventeenth-century New England have to believe in divination or witchcraft or any other point of their subjects' cosmology. But I am saying that they have to approach that cosmology, and all those beliefs, with respect and without trying to explain them away for post-Enlightenment readers. Because in so doing, all the historian accomplishes is to put another layer of obscuration and confusion over his or her analytical lens. And implicitly encourages the belief that his or her pre-Enlightenment subjects were a bunch of gullible fools. Which they were not.

Dipesh Chakrabarty talks about the failure to grapple with religious experience and non-human agencies as a consequence of historiography's origins in modernity, which is certainly true as far as it goes, but this is also on a certain level a fundamental pitfall of the human condition--certainly Herodotus assumes the basic superiority of his worldview over his non-Greek subjects', though he rarely insists on it explicitly. Along with certain other common pitfalls, it's one to perennially be on guard against.

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Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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