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How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

Author: N. Katherine Hayles
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999
Review Published: May 2000

 REVIEW 1: Andrew Kurtz
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: N. Katherine Hayles

First let me thank Andrew Kurtz for his thorough and enlightening review and to David Silver and the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies for featuring my book this month. My response to Professor Kurtz will not take issue with his comments and evaluations, which seem to me very fair, but rather will attempt to correct a few misunderstandings that readers unfamiliar with the book may read into his review.

In juxtaposing "information pattern" with "biological substrate," I hoped to make clear that this is a discursive distinction prevalent in contemporary discourses about information systems, including computer technologies, cybernetic engineering, and the body understood as a genetically encoded informational system. It is not a distinction present in reality, which is (if we can imagine such a paradoxical thing as reality in itself, without an observer) an unmediated flux of constantly interacting entities, environments, actions, etc. Making the distinction between pattern and substrate carries high theoretical rewards, for it enables complex situations to be handled theoretically in ways that would be impossible if the entire flux were to be considered. But the distinction also carries a cost, for it takes what is in reality an interacting whole and parcels it out into pattern and substrate, as if these were two separate entities. It is crucial, in my view, that we continually remind ourselves that information never exists solely as pattern. To exist in the world it must be embodied in material form. Here you can see how tricky is the language available for me to use, because I can speak about this matter only by using words which encourage you to believe that "pattern" and "substrate" are separate entities, when they are always already the same unified phenomenon.

Professor Kurtz alludes to this point in his review when he speaks of the "posthuman" as being "post in part because of the non-necessary character of this coalescence [between pattern and substrate], a process Hayles will later call 'embodiment.' In calling this coalescence "non-necessary," I think what he means is that embodiment of informational pattern need not take place in protein life forms but can be instantiated in silicon as well. This is true as a general proposition, since I accept that artificial life does in some sense qualify as life. But for me an equally important point is that the coalescence between pattern and substrate is precisely necessary, since there can be no pattern with substrate. Moreover, I argue in the book that many theorists currently writing about artificial life tend to elide the very real and significant differences in embodiment between protein and silicon life forms. It matters in all kinds of ways, for example, that emotions in humans are mediated through the hormonal system, whereas emotions in computers are created through feedback loops between algorithmically encoded goals, scripts, and personality parameters. One of the fields concerned with the creation of emotions within computers is informatics, which is not, as Professor Kurtz implies, a term that I (or Donna Haraway) coined, but rather an increasingly common name for the interdisciplinary programs creating artificial life, from computer science departments to autonomous agent modelings to the "humanistic informatics" now becoming common in European universities, which can be understood as a broadly ranging interdisciplinary field studying the interactions between humans, the institutions they create, and information technologies, especially computers.

Professor Kurtz suggests, in explaining my view that the dialectic between pattern/randomness is now displacing presence/absence, that pattern/randomness differs from presence/absence in being "complements or supplements to one another." This is not quite correct, since presence/absence, especially as Derrida wrote about it, is also a dialectic in which absence is the seemingly gratuitous but actually indispensable complement to presence. In fact, my use of "supplement" was intended as an allusion to precisely this argument by Derrida in his famous discussion of Rousseau's "supplement." What is at stake in the movement from presence/absence to pattern/randomness is not the dialectical nature of either pair, but rather a correlated shift in a number of important signifiers. For example, one consequence is a change in emphasis from possession, evoked by the idea of presence, to access, the term appropriate to pattern.

Finally, in Professor Kurtz's astute observation that I wanted to foreground the material conditions of subjectivity, I want emphatically to agree with him, adding only that the material conditions of subjectivity include for me not only the material media that allow me to write this response to you in Los Angeles, post it to a server at the University of Maryland, and from there to servers across the globe, but also the embodied processes that let me think thoughts and type them out, as well as the distributed environment that includes my computer as an independent cognizer performing cognitively sophisticated actions of which I am not even aware, although I rely on them so much that they have become part of my extended cognitive system. As Andy Clark eloquently puts it in his fine book Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, "Mind is a leaky organ, forever escaping its 'natural' confines and mingling shamelessly with body and with world" (53). In this regard I am glad to be seen as utterly shameless, reveling in the flexible assemblages of which my mind is only one part among many.

N. Katherine Hayles


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