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My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts

Author: N. Katherine Hayles
Publisher: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005
Review Published: June 2008

 REVIEW 1: Michael Filas
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: N. Katherine Hayles

I want to thank Michael Filas for his comprehensive and thoughtful review of My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. There are two points I would like to clarify that are touched upon in the review but I think need further clarification. First, I am not a proponent of the Regime of Computation; I approach it with interest but also with skepticism. As I comment in the book, it indeed appears to be an over-determined metaphor (or as Filas puts it, "an analogy pushed too far"). Just as the eighteenth century saw the world as a clockwork, it is perhaps inevitable that the twentieth century would see it as a computer. The distinction between literal truth ("the universe really is a computational mechanism") and metaphor does not operate as a mutually exclusive binary, however, but rather as an entwined recursive dynamic. The metaphor is compelling because computation has become instantiated through powerful technologies penetrating and transforming nearly every aspect of global society. From the inverse perspective, the technology gains even more cachet when seen as partaking of the fundamental processes of the universe. The literal and metaphoric affect each other in a co-evolutionary dynamic in which each reinforces and extends the other. This kind of interplay is an example of what I call "intermediation," the dynamic and recursive processes in which constructions in one medium interact with and affect parallel constructions in another medium (in this case, theoretical physics and computer technology).

As Filas notes, one of my primary interests is the effect of such entwined processes on human subjectivity. From my point of view, literary texts are rich resources through which to explore such effects, for they engage the issues on multiple levels: in the nature of the fictional worlds, in the modes of representations, and in the mirroring structures they create between imagined situations and real-life complexities. Particularly interesting are narrative constructions, and I see these occurring in computer simulations as well as novels. Like the recursive dynamic operating between material technologies and metaphors of computation, narratives are both imaginative constructions and linguistic technologies capable of transforming how we see the world. These changed perspectives in turn lead to new narratives, and so the co-evolutionary spiral continues.

"My mother [was] a computer," a phrase initially coined by Anne Balsamo, hints at this co-evolutionary dynamic between human subjectivity and computation. As Filas notes, in the trilogy of which My Mother is the final volume, I see this dynamic as a historical trajectory that runs through cybernetics, autopoetic theory, artificial life, embodied inscriptions and finally computation as a much more general process than desktop computers. The effects of these intermediations has been not only to authorize views of subjectivity as computational processes, but also to evoke the possibility that computational processes may generate artificial sentience. The computational Other is becoming increasingly entwined with the computational Self. Because each recursively constitutes the other, these operate not so much as antinomies as entwined and inseparable co-evolutionary partners. This is the larger narrative that emerges from the trilogy, one that both fascinates and frightens me. My interrogations have not served to resolve my ambivalence, but they have helped to focus the issues and to identify the cultural, historical, and technologies processes that are co-constituting the world in which we live.

N. Katherine Hayles


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