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Semiotic Flesh: Information and the Human Body

Editor: Phillip Thurtle, Robert Mitchell
Publisher: Seattle, WA: Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, 2003
Review Published: December 2003

 REVIEW 1: Sarah Stein
 REVIEW 2: Anne Beaulieu
 REVIEW 3: Simone Seym
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Phillip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell

We are very pleased to be given the chance to respond to the reviews of Sarah Stein, Anne Beaulieu, and Simon Seym. We found each review detailed in description and sympathetic to the goals of the volume, and we thank these authors for the thought they put into their reviews. We also wish to express our high regard for the RCCS for promoting such work. There are few other academic journals that would have taken the care in choosing the correct reviewers, compiling multiple reviews, and then soliciting a response from the authors or editors of the reviewed work. Not only does the RCCS provide a model for successful online scholarship, it provides a model for thoughtful and engaged scholarship in any format.

The reviewers' careful descriptions of the contents of the volume allow us to develop the conversation they started. We would like to continue this conversation along two lines, one focused on the format of our book, and the other on the moral implications of our treatment of information.

The format of the book

We were especially pleased by Sarah Stein's affirmation that the slimness of the volume is a benefit. Brevity is one of the driving ideas behind the Walter Chapin Simpson Center's "Short Studies" volumes, for their goal is to provide an outlet for the dissemination of important work in a compact format. (This strategy has been adopted by a number of other publishing houses -- Verso's volumes on September 11, 2001 are a good example). The larger implication is that comprehensive readers on a single topic (such as David Bell and Barbara Kennedy's extremely useful The Cybercultures Reader) can be complemented with smaller volumes on specific topics that can be used in a more modular fashion in many different classes and contexts. We do not see these as either/or alternatives -- our forthcoming Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information (Routledge, 2003), for example, contextualizes some of the material in Semiotic Flesh in a much broader context -- but it instead highlights the need for multiple formats for the publication of research.

We were also reassured to see that the reviewers understood our decision to include responses to each of the essays. Although adding a significant amount of work in assembling the volume, we were convinced that the responses helped convey the rich intellectual exchanges that have marked the projects sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. As Sarah Stein observed: "The volume thereby reads more like a dialogue, a research colloquium in which one is privy to engage with eminent scholars in the emerging field of information studies." The assumption behind the inclusion of responses is much the same as the assumptions behind RCCS's invitation to authors to respond to the reviews of the book. There is a value to exploring an intellectual terrain through differential expression (as opposed to oppositional expression) and this value can be promoted through the material organization of the volume (and thus serve as an example of informational poeisis, that is the "moment when flesh and information merge and begin to signify"). This distributed model of authorship is especially important for a field such as "informational studies" which has significantly added to existing disciplines but often looks so different when embedded within the matrix of different disciplinary interests.

The (multi) disciplinary locus of information studies

Anne Beaulieu notes that "[t]o many readers of the RCCS, the label of information studies may already be a familiar one. Many schools and departments of what was traditionally called library science were reborn in the nineties under that very heading." Beaulieu describes these departments as concerned with "the constraints and possibilities of various forms of infrastructure, intellectual property, and archiving and retrieval (broadly defined)" in application to "the world of publishers and e-journal databases." She notes, however, that the approach promoted by Semiotic Flesh, highlights "[l]iterary and cultural studies figure prominently, with a largely textual approach." Beaulieu convincingly argues for a cross pollination of these two approaches that could "reconnect detailed cases studies and an analysis of cultural, political, and economic structures" as well as "studies of the new digital forms, and of electronic networks for the circulation of information, would gain by being understood as connected to shifting cultural patterns." Having witnessed much of this transformation on campuses (and in full allegiance to Beaulieu's call for "merging" these two approaches), one needs to ask: why this merging hasn't occurred more often over the last decade?

One answer can be found in the disciplinary basis for political power in many institutions of higher learning. These tend to protect the interests of the disciplines, sometimes at the expense of those who attempt to reach out to other fields. There is also a barrier at the level of understanding basic goals and concepts, however. Key terms and literatures have very little overlap. In a sense, the very usefulness of information as an analytical heuristic is to blame for this. Since information can mean so many different things in many contexts it can also fit well within the existing goals of departments.

It is not so much an issue, therefore, of one school or another possessing "information" (as is often seen in the disciplinary politics of the academy) but of many different disciplines acknowledging the debt to "information" as a means of analysis. Also, it is not so much that information "wants to be free," as often claimed by John Perry Barlow, but that information can't stay in one place. Information arises out of difference. If one pays attention to the relationship of bodies to information one sees how information arises because of the differences between bodies (similar bodies contain little information). Consequently it is inherently a relational concept. Noticing differences between bodies is also a moral act, although as Timothy Lenoir notes in his essay "The Virtual Surgeon," it doesn't provide us a morally neutral ground from which to make judgments.

The Imperative: the "material poeisis of information" as a "moral poiesis"

How, then, can we begin to think the moral dimension of information studies? Simone Seym notes that N. Kartherine Hayles in "Flesh and Metal" positions the moral imperatives of information relations, noting that "Her final statement -- 'We do not exist in order to relate; rather, we relate in order that we may exist as fully realized human beings' (67) -- reflects an astonishing conceptual analogy to Kant's famous categorical imperative." While this is accurate, in a way, we would place less stress on the "realization" of "human beings," and more stress on the way in which Hayles ties moral thinking to relational thinking. More specifically, Hayles offers a means for making moral judgments based not on an attempt to occupy a "neutral" place of objectivity but rather from within, or on the basis of, the passage of time. From this perspective, we would encourage a reading of Kant's imperative predicated upon Alphonso Lingis's (1998) rethinking of it as a property of embodiment and not just ideas. Here we do not attempt to subsume moral imperatives under universal law (divorced from phenomenological experience); rather, the imperative emerges as a call to work and service (as can only be gauged through phenomenological experience). In other words, from our perspective, moral value emerges from the search for the proper behavior and not from any disembodied directive. This perspective is profoundly indebted to what Rich Doyle calls "the pragmatics of information" where one sees what one can do with information as opposed to understanding what information can signify. It is also similar to what Espen Aarseth (1997), employing information theory, has called the "ergodics" of information, where one needs to exert non-trivial effort to move from place to place in an informationally rich field. This allows for a form of moral behavior predicated on process and not categories. This is the moral poiesis of information, an emergent property that shouldn't be separated from navigating the embodied relationship to others but must also avoid being reduced to it.

Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Lingis, Alphonso. The Imperative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Phillip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell


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