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"

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

May 2016

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