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
The title My Mother Was a Computer sounds like a punch line to a joke, and the ironic humor is not lost on N. Katherine Hayles. But for the most part, she is being dead serious. She means to convince us that, in fact, we should consider her mother, and our own mothers, and ourselves, as computers. It's a grand theoretical gesture, and coming from the scholar who was so instrumental in introducing the concept of posthumanity, we expect as much.
With this critical volume Hayles completes a trilogy that began with her seminal 1999 book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, and was followed by Writing Machines in 2002. In Posthuman, Hayles laid a theoretical groundwork that began the difficult and cumbersome ideological process of wrenching qualitative cyborg studies from the maw of postmodern critique. Among other resonant provocations, Hayles proposed reconfiguring the study of human-technology hybrid visions from a presence/absence binary to an information/noise binary, and in doing so freed the analyses of hybrid possibilities from the burden of the post-Marxist capitalist critique. Without discounting theories such as Baudrillard's "desert of the real," and other readings of human subjectivity being exterminated in endless reproduction and syntheses with and through technology, Hayles proposed a new theoretical perspective in which humanity and technology might coexist and complement each other. Posthuman proposed a new way of understanding hybrid configurations, from the founding of cybernetics through contemporary literary representations, so that the hybrid agent could be seen as benefiting from the connections that are so feared in the postmodern analysis.
In Writing Machines, Hayles shifted her focus to "medial ecology," the mediated relationship between narrative levels in hypertextual stacks and connections, both electronic and material, in the layers and levels of print texts, art books, and Internet-based content. Published as part of an MIT pamphlet series and cleaved with an innovative companion web site, Writing Machines is a performance piece through which Hayles laced creative autobiography, critical discourse, and design innovations to show how medial ecology can represent and enable rich new forms of textual subjectivity.
My Mother Was a Computer closes the trilogy with a return to straightforward critical discourse, building on the notion of medial ecology by shifting the focus from writing and hypertext to modes of information creation, storage, and transmission. As always, Hayles does not stop until she has processed the implications of her research as it pertains to human subjectivity. This work follows a "trajectory that moves from binary opposition between embodiment and information through an engagement with the materiality of literary texts to a broadening and deepening of these ideas into computation and textuality" (3). Speech and writing are placed on a continuum that leads to code. And when code is considered in terms of information storage and transmission, the study turns to an unexpected structure based on the relationship between digital and analog information, which to some degree reflects the new reality of human subjectivity that spans both the computational universe and biological embodiment.
Rejecting the presiding notion that digital is displacing analog, Hayles shows how the two realms of information rely on each other and are as intertwined as are biological humans with the machinery we have invented, and with which we've changed both our environment and our form of embodiment and subjectivity. Ultimately, the analyses culminate in a theory of recursive emergence, a complex and ongoing process through which human ontology shifts and adapts to its own inventions for the storage and transmission of human subjectivity -- regardless of platform, computer or biological, and inclusive of both digital and analog mediation.
Key to Hayles's approach is the concept of "intermediation," a blanket term (invented by Nicholas Gessler) for "complex transactions between bodies and texts as well as between different forms of media" (7). Although this basic description is not terribly profound on its own, what Hayles uncovers in the transactional and transformative space of intermediation is revolutionary. The materiality of the text (or subject) is one dimension but no longer the essential dimension. Instead, the focus shifts to the relationship between the original instantiation of a text and its adaptations or mutations in whatever form. These multiple versions or elements of a text are referred to as "clusters." Hayles here provides a new way of thinking about a particular work not on the level of one particular form or inscription, but of all of them at once, simultaneously, as "Work as Assemblage." Using a familiar example, Hayles argues it is akin to dispensing with the notion that the print version of any narrative is better than the online version, or that the novel is better than the movie, to set aside the entrenched value of original inscription. Instead, the collective instantiations work together as a cluster -- this leads to a new sense of the text not as an original and copies, not as a platform-specific inscription, but rather the work as being freed of media specific intentions: "change the emphasis from objects to processes, and from hierarchical structures to rhizomatic ones. [Examples of] Work as Assemblage [illustrate] clusters of texts that take the distinctive form of rhizomatic tendrils branching out from one another in patterns of fractal complexity" (106). The emphasis moves from a deep fixation on one version or instance of a text towards the intricacies of how the text (or subject) is converted to and between alternate instantiations:
[Work as Assemblage] derives its energy from its ability to mutate and transform as it grows and shrinks, converges and disperses according to the desires of the loosely formed collectives that create it. Moving fluidly among and across media, its components take forms distinctive to the media in which they flourish, so the specificities of media are essential to understanding its morphing configurations. (107)The text itself becomes a life force. "The New Materialism I am [advocating] insists that technologies and texts be understood as mutually interpenetrating and constituting one another" (142). Hayles is here focusing as much on the platform as on the content and on intertextuality, which when it crosses platform divides, when it toggles between material and immaterial instantiations, becomes intermediation. One useful example of such analysis is Hayles's analysis of Karl Sims's evolutionary simulation "Evolved Virtual Creatures," through which she looks at analog human consciousness interacting with digital simulations inside the computer. Sims's digital creatures are rectangular agents interacting with each other through a coded program, but the received meaning is something more. When people view Sims's project, they interpolate narrative into the events happening in the virtual world, project meaning into it. "Human intentionality, then infects the [virtual] creatures, marking them with a trace that cannot be eradicated" (200). She invents the word "computationalizing" to mark the way the human mind and consciousness invests meaning into the virtual information, which does not have the same significance in digital isolation without the human component in the loop, and how this process draws the human into a sort of computerized state of consciousness.
As with her previous work, Hayles uses the methods of literary criticism to broach much larger issues of human identity and ontology. In a few chapters, she provides deft summaries of the theories that have made her perspective possible: both critical theory and technology theory, including a wonderful examination of the fragmentation and recombination inherent in object-oriented computer programming architecture, and how that fragmentation and recombination implicit in code reflects the digital world's relationship with the inherently deeper interiority of the analog world. Most chapters are organized around literary criticism and the sample includes in-depth readings of works by writers such as Greg Egan, James Tiptree, Jr., Neal Stephenson, Stanislaw Lem, and others. She delves into the nuances and possibilities with material that is as pre-computer age as Henry James, to contemporary virtual literature like Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl. At its core, however, this book is important even for those who are not inclined to seek out literary criticism as their route to comprehending humanity in the context of digital information. For example, I predict that Hayles's deployment of the "Regime of Computation" will prove quite useful to a variety of scholars and researchers. For, she goes beyond thinking of computation as a process encased in a computer box or laptop, or even in circuits and electronics. Rather, the Regime of Computation is an overarching philosophy that renders the world, biological and otherwise, as code. The Regime of Computation
provides a narrative that accounts for the evolution of the universe, life, mind, and mind reflecting on mind by connecting these emergences with computational processes that operate both in human–created simulations and in the universe understood as software running on the "Universal Computer" we call reality. [...] Code is understood as the discourse system that mirrors what happens in nature and that generates nature itself. (27)While this might sound like an analogy pushed too far, in fact Hayles does a great job investigating and pressing on the Regime of Computation to demonstrate its utility. Not only does she suggest, with the book's title, that human subjectivity can be usefully conflated with computerization, she also delves into specific examples that allow her to test out the idea more thoroughly. For example, she discusses the way that DNA replication is understood to operate as a digital code, but without the analog process of protein folding, the understanding of DNA sequences would be hamstrung. "The combination of the two processes, the digitality of DNA sequences and the analog process of protein folding, gives the gene its remarkable power of information storage and transmission" (29). The digital-analog dynamic in genomics becomes a matter of intermediation, through which she emphasizes the combination of digital-analog in a style similar to the way she combines biological-computational life forms elsewhere. Both realms provide complementary attributes: "digital representations allow for precise error control, extreme fragmentation and recombination, whereas analog processes have the advantages of the continuum, including the ability to transmit informational patterns between differently embodied entities" (29), but the real focal point is how they transmit to and support each other, the intermediation. Hayles moves beyond the ways of linear causality, or worldviews skewed towards one perspective, and resituates our attention to how the various elements blend and separate. Thus she argues for a shift
not merely from analog to digital subjectivity, both of which could be described as realist entities. Rather, the more profound change is from form to process, from preexisting bodies to embodied materialities that are linked to one another by complex combinations of processes based both in analog resemblances and coding relationships. When we inscribe ourselves as actors in these distributed cognitive environments, we become neither the interiorized analog subject of print culture nor the binary code of the digital subject; rather we become a hybrid entity whose distinctive properties emerge through our interactions with other cognizers within the environment. (211)The Regime of Computation, thus, is not as autocratic or monolithic as it sounds. Rather, it is a theoretical model that promotes examination of the connections and intermediation between agents. To the degree that this book frames hybridity as an open and ongoing enterprise, then, it follows the constructivist impulse of Posthuman, and the feminist origins in the latter are echoed in the newer book as well.
For newcomers to Hayles, a fair concern would be if My Mother Was a Computer would be a good place to start; does one need to have read the first two installments to comprehend the third book? Not necessarily, but it helps to have the context. Her methodology is always dazzling, combining deft summaries of related theory and criticism with useful, if not complex, logical models that she uses to structure her arguments. For those concerned with the study of posthuman ontology, with how we might explore the shifting boundaries between biological embodiment and computerized consciousness, I think the new book works better in conjunction with its predecessors, especially Posthuman because it has served as a canonical reference in the field of cyberstudies. However, for those interested in cutting edge literary criticism of the emerging world of electronic texts and digital subjectivity, this last book is as good a place to start as any. Regardless of where you begin, Hayles's work here seems essential: she not only reviews how we got to this stage in our relationship with technology, she also maps a conceptual survival guide for going forward. With complex theoretical concepts such as clustering, the Regime of Computation, and intermediation, Hayles moves us further along the spectrum through which we can constructively understand the terms of posthuman existence without feeling damned to technological extermination by doing so.
Michael Filas is Professor of English at Westfield State College in Massachusetts, where he teaches courses in post-evolution, writing, literature, and film. He has also recently served as Chair of the Cultural Studies Association Technology Division for 2007 and 2008. Previously, he reviewed Writing Machines for RCCS. <MFILAS@wsc.ma.edu>
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