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Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information

Editor: Robert Mitchell, Phillip Thurtle
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: April 2005

 REVIEW 1: Dan Wright
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Robert Mitchell and Phillip Thurtle

We would like to extend our warm thanks to both Dan Wright for his kind review of our volume, and to David Silver and the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies for allowing us this opportunity to continue the conversation that Wright has initiated. As Wright notes, one of the challenges of an edited volume is that the diversity of its voices does not often lead to a limited and clear set of conclusions, as in the case of a monograph. We were encouraged to find that Wright understood this as a challenge -- that is, as "thought-provoking," and a call for further study. We would like to respond by pointing to several studies that have appeared since the publication of Data Made Flesh, and which, in our opinion, extend the insights of the contributors to Data Made Flesh and the work of "information studies" more generally. As Wright discusses in his review, Data Made Flesh is divided into three sections -- a historical section; a section on contemporary relationships of control, bodies, and information; and a section on art and the future of embodied information -- and it seems to us each of the studies we mention below can be read in productive collaboration with one (or more) of these sections of our volume.

As Wright notes, Data Made Flesh addresses both topical issues in, and the historical genesis of, our contemporary "information age." The volume outlines, in other words, current transformations of concepts and practices of information, but it also works to trace the genealogy of terms such as "information." As we noted in our Introduction, we were assisted in this effort by a number of authors who had mapped aspects of the rise of the concepts of information and information age (for example, Daniel Bell, James R. Beniger, Manuel Castells, N. Katherine Hayles, Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, Evelyn Fox Keller, Geoffrey Nunberg, John R. Pierce, Mark Poster, and Steven J. Heims, to name just a few). However, we would like to draw attention here to another book that appeared since the publication of Data Made Flesh, Alan Liu's The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). The Laws of Cool is a tremendously synthetic book, extending, for example, James Beniger's historical work on "the control revolution," Manuel Castells' sociological study of the information age, David Harvey's work on the logic of late twentieth century modes of production, Sherry Turkle's work on identity in the information age, as well as the work of a host of other theorists. The point of Liu's synthetic work is to enable us to understand the historical emergence of that central "aesthetic" category of our age: "cool." "Liu argues that "cool" constitutes the "paradoxy" of the information age, for, "[s]tructured as information designed to resist information, cool is the paradoxical 'gesture' by which an ethos of the unknown struggles to arise in the midst of knowledge work" (179). The Laws of Cool does a tremendous job of tracing the emergence of this category and linking it to the changing labor practices that led to modern "information work."

It seems fair to say that Data Made Flesh partakes of a more general contemporary interest, especially notable in humanities scholarship, in questions of the "body" and "embodiment." We are encouraged by the continued liveliness of this interest, though we share Vivian Sobchak's worry, expressed in her introduction to Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), that though many authors "try to redeem the body," they do so by treating the body "most often like a text and sometimes like a machine" (3). It was for this reason that we focused on embodiment, and stressed that there is not a body, but rather many bodies. We also noted in our introduction that we found it useful to acknowledge and combine four different understandings of the body -- that is, we "acknowledge[d] the biological aspects of the naturalists' view, the cultural reformatting of post-Foucaultian and Marxist readings, the relationship between human and non-human bodies emphasized by the notion of 'embodiment,' and sensate aspects of the phenomenological body." We continue to think of "embodiment" as the part that best represents (in metonymic fashion) this whole, and -- as Sobchak's recent work also suggests -- much of the impetus for the deepening of this concept of embodiment has emerged from a renewed engagement with (and re-reading of) the version of phenomenology developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Wright suggests at the end of his review that one of the most interesting questions opened up by Data Made Flesh was that of understanding "the fascinating emotional intersubjectivity proposed by [Kathleen] Woodward." The relationships among information, embodiment, and affect also strikes us as one of the key topics likely to guide future work in information studies (it is, for example, one of the guiding questions of Liu's The Laws of Cool). Two texts that explore this topic in fascinating and provocative ways are Richard Doyle's Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and Mark B.N. Hansen's New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004). One can already see in Doyle’s contribution to Data Made Flesh his fascination with combinations of information andaffects that overwhelm or disable, subjectivity. He takes up this theme in Wetwares through the theme of "abduction" and "seduction," noting, for example, that the "liveliness" of computer artificial life (alife) programs depend upon their power to "seduce" human users. "The alife organisms that achieve the most success in Darwinian terms," Doyle writes, "are those that are most readily and remarkably narrated or otherwise replicated" by human users (30). Hansen, for his part, develops in New Philosophy for New Media an extended and rigorous notion of affect and its connection to media in general (and new media in particular), drawing on Henri Bergson to develop a theory of "embodied perception" (4) that allows us to engage fruitfully with new media developments.

Finally, Eugene Thacker has taken the most direct strategy for investigating new relationships between embodiment and information in his important new book Biomedia. Thacker combines a philosophical enquiry into biomedia, where the "biological and the digital domains are no longer rendered ontologically distinct," (7) with a focused exploration of new developments in DNA computing, bioinformatics, systems biology, and nanomedicine. Most importantly, Thacker suggests that this is no longer the domain of the cyborg or hybrid but of new configurations between technologies and bodies that generate new biological possibilities. Thacker's term for this, biomedia, is surely less awkward than our term, the material poiesis of informatics.

This is simply a small sampling of the many exciting texts that are continuing to develop and expand the field of information studies (and any full account of the development of information studies would also discuss the plethora of websites and multimedia publications focused on these and related topics). We certainly hope that Data Made Flesh will continue to inspire interest in, and questions about, the field of information studies, and we again thank Wright for helping us to isolate several of the most interesting current directions of this endeavor.

Robert Mitchell and Phillip Thurtle


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