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
"Their nightmares are about hemorrhages of information; channels screwed up, plans misimplemented, garble creeping in. Their gigantic wealth only worries them, it keeps opening new vistas of disorder." -- James Tiptree Jr., "The Girl Who Was Plugged In"
In a discipline characterized by its "posts" it would seem inevitable that cultural studies announce finally the "posting" of the human, a material category not to be confused with its abstract counterparts, humanity and humanism, which Marx "posted" 150 years ago. Indeed, it is clear that certain strands of cultural studies, informed mainly by the "posting" of history and modernity, have been leaning in this direction. For example, the metaphysics of Jean Baudrillard, with his glib and often ill-conceived reification of everything from images, bodies, and geographies, has followed this trajectory for years without precisely naming it as such. So for those of us in cultural studies who feel that such seemingly antiquated ideas as history and modernity have yet to become irrelevant, N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, will come as a pleasant surprise, even more so as its topic -- subjectivity and technology -- has elicited more than its share of metaphysical critiques.
Hayles spends the first two chapters of her book describing the theoretical contours of the posthuman and its conceptual relationship with information theory. Setting this discussion against the backdrop of more traditional (i.e. Western) understandings of humanism, and of liberal humanism in particular, Hayles argues that the discursive production of the cyborg through its concomitant discipline, cybernetics, forces us to reconsider the human as a cultural construct and, more importantly, human being as a material process. This line of argumentation stems from an observation regarding the nature of information flows between cyborgs and humans. Hayles writes: "Central to the construction of the cyborg are informational pathways connecting the organic body to its prosthetic extensions. This presumes a conception of information as a (disembodied) entity that can flow between carbon-based organic components and silicon-based electronic components to make protein and silicon operate as a single system" (2).
The "singularity" of this system is what Hayles dubs the posthuman, a peculiar mode of subjectivity, in which "informational pattern" finds purchase in a "biological substrate" (2). The posthuman is "post" in part because of the non-necessary character of this coalescence, a process that Hayles will later call "embodiment." And for this reason, because informational pattern may coalesce in silicon as easily as carbon, the posthuman supersedes the various Western humanisms in which organizing principles (informational patterns) such as consciousness and self-determination are a priori manifested in the human.
In describing the transition from human to posthuman, Hayles is well aware of the material complexities underlying her analysis. For example, she is careful to acknowledge that "'human' and 'posthuman' coexistence in shifting configurations that vary with historically specific contexts" (6). In other words, the transition is not a clean break as in a Foucaultian epistemic shift; it is not Lyotard's postmodern condition. Rather, it is a mode of subjectivity whose emergence is complicated by the political, cultural, and economic structures endemic to late capitalism. Hayles, therefore, sees her title, How We Became Posthuman, as partially ironic, "positioning itself in opposition to the techno-ecstasies found in various magazines, such as Mondo 2000, which customarily speak of the transformation into the posthuman as if it were a universal human condition when in fact it affects only a small fraction of the world's population..." (6). Hayles calls this approach "informatics," arguing from Donna Haraway that information technologies impact and are impacted by "biological, social, linguistic, and cultural changes" (29). On a more disciplinary level, Hayles understands her intervention in the context of others that have sought to describe the underlying assumptions and discursive tensions found within Western humanism, theories emanating from such areas as feminism, postcolonial criticism, and cultural studies.
Hayles' attention to the material implications of the posthuman also plays a crucial role in her description of the signifying processes that inform and construct posthuman subjectivity. If Western discourse, and thereby subjectivity, is founded upon what Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence/absence, then its corollary in the posthuman is the materiality of pattern/randomness, the primary systemic conditions of information. However, pattern and randomness differ from their Derridian counterparts in that they are not binary opposites but are dialectical "complements or supplements to one another," to the extent that "an infusion of noise [randomness] into a system [pattern] can cause it to reorganize at a higher level of complexity" (25). Hayles more clearly demarcates the differences between human/posthuman signifying systems by suggesting that the floatingsignifier, a conceptual mainstay of literary and cultural studies, is effectively superseded in the posthuman by the "flickering signifier." According to Hayles, the flickering signifier evolves from its Sausserian counterpart through the development and experience of information technology. If floating signification was conceptualized to explain the arbitrary interconnections between signifier and signified, then Hayles' flickering signifier makes these connections even more precarious through the introduction of randomness and uncertainty into the signifying equation, making it possible for the individual subject to experience signifying systems that shift or mutate, an impossibility in the Saussurian model.
Flickering signification is one of the most crucial theoretical component of Hayles' analysis. Unlike more traditional semiotics and theories of semiosis, in which the relationship between subjectivity and the material situation of the individual subject is more often than not an afterthought, flickering signification (along with the pattern/randomness dialectic) evolves from historical and material conditions to inform the theory of subjectivity (posthuman) which accompanies it. Hayles writes: "Flickering signification extends the productive force of codes beyond the text to include the signifying processes by which the technologies produce texts, as well as the interfaces that enmesh humans into integrated circuits. As the circuits connecting technology, text, and human expand and intensify, the point where quantitative increments shade into qualitative transformation draws closer" (46-47).
It could be argued that Sausserian linguistics opened the door to the textual reifications of Baudrillard and others. By connecting the signifying process, and thereby subjectivity, with the actual technologies of signification, and further suggesting that the technologies themselves are not only transmitters but may also reorient, reprocess, and reinterpret the system, Hayles foregrounds the material conditions of signification and subjectivity. By suggesting that humans are moving in a direction such that the mode of semiotic transmission becomes indistinguishable from the embodiment of the transmission by the individual subject, Hayles moves from a radical critique/revision of Sausurrian linguistics and into an even more radical envisioning of everyday life.
Hayles maps the emergence of the posthuman through a number of different stages, corresponding with major shifts in focus within the field of cybernetics. By choosing cybernetics as the privileged discourse of the posthuman, Hayles does not seem to be saying that the posthuman evolved out of the texts and tensions of the cybernetician. Rather, the history of cybernetics should be understood as symptomatic of the interplay between subjects and technologies -- of the emerging posthuman. Adopting vocabulary from within the discourse, Hayles charts the history of cybernetics along accepted lines: first wave cybernetics being characterized by homeostasis; second wave being characterized by reflexivity; and third wave being characterized by virtuality. Each wave's relation to the posthuman is measured by the extent to which it diverges from humanistic impulses, in both its scientific procedures and in its epistemological assumptions.
In her analysis of cybernetics Hayles adopts a strategy that will seem familiar to many in cultural studies. Like Stuart Hall and the early Laclau and Mouffe, Hayles understands that the hegemony of a discursive formation is a tenuous condition characterized by a sense of seamlessness made possible through disavowal of signifiers which threaten its coherency. The articulation of such signifiers, either by outside, contestary forces or, interestingly, by the hegemonic formation itself, demands that the discursive formation regroup and counterattack or lose its hegemonic status. According to Hayles, cybernetics was in a precarious situation from the beginning, at once imbuing the machine with human characteristics (however primitive) and at the same time maintaining a humanist orientation. Of note here is a chapter entitled "Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled," an analysis of Norbert Wiener's confrontation with the posthuman and his subsequent reinscription of liberal subjectivity. Hayles argues that throughout Wiener's career and in all of his major writings cybernetics was both a source of professional pride and a source of intense anxiety. The anxiety felt by Wiener was born out of a recognition that the rational end of cybernetic thinking was a situation in which the human is supplanted, or at least made indistinguishable, from the machine. According to Hayles, Wiener's texts suggest that at certain moments of crisis, with the posthuman staring him in the face, Wiener's reaction was to erect a series of crucial discursive boundaries, beyond which the cyborg could never travel. For example, Hayles argues that in The Human Use of Human Beings Wiener acknowledges the possibility of engineering a "cybernetic machine" that will mirror the most complex of human responses -- memory. Such a machine is possible when one begins to understand human thought processes through the lens of cybernetic discourse -- emotions become "control mechanisms governing learning" (104). However, Wiener injects the cybernetic machine with moral imperatives, conceiving of a moment when such a machine becomes "evil," when its boundaries become unmoving, inflexible, HAL-like, "co-opting the flexibility that is the human birthright" (105). Wiener's moral boundaries are meant to preserve the dominion of liberal subjectivity, to keep the discourse of liberal subjectivity from unraveling under the contradictions precisely underscored by the discipline of cybernetics.
While Hayles continues this discussion through the various stages of cybernetics, linking them to literary texts that both enact and critique cybernetics' vexed relationship with the posthuman, arguably the most important contribution of this book comes in chapter 8 in which Hayles sketches the "materiality of informatics," the actual cultural processes involved in the experience of the posthuman subject-position. Hayles begins by constructing a series of binaries which correspond to the general binary abstract/material. The first of these binaries, body/embodiment, follows from a critique of Foucault in which Hayles argues that Foucault's tendency to abstract the body "erase[s] the contextual enactments embodiment always entails" (194). Hayles' solution to this erasure is to look at other critics, notably Elaine Scarry, whose work on torture makes it impossible to deny the materiality of the body, or in Hayles' words, embodied practices. Hayles writes that, "embodiment differs from the concept of the body in that the body is always normative relative to some set of criteria" (196). In other words, the body is an abstraction, an object of discourse, whereas embodiment is the practice of the body, the articulation of discourse at specific historical moments. The upshot of such a binary is that embodiment (embodied practices, embodied discourse), individual and historical, may disrupt the cultural imaginary inherent to the body: "Yet because embodiment is individually articulated, there is also at least an incipient tension between it and hegemonic cultural constructs. Embodiment is thus inherently destabalizing with respect to the body, for at any time this tension can widen into a perceived disparity" (197).
Because Hayles is concerned that the move from body to embodied practices may result in a further abstraction in which the cultural imaginary of the body is seamlessly transmitted to the individual articulation, she further specifies this process by developing the binary inscription/incorporation. Homologous to body/embodiment, inscription/incorporation points to the technique, if not the technology, of embodiment. A semiotic binary, "incorporating practices are in constant interplay with inscriptions that abstract the practices into signs" (199). Hayles further specifies incorporation/inscription by makingthem function dialectially within the purview of embodied practices, so that "incorporating practices perform the bodily content; inscribing practices correct and modulate the performance" (200). However, incorporating practices rarely need inscription. This, because they are generally habitual, are enactments of inscribing practices. Hayles arguesthat incorporating practices are therefore resistant to change, though "when changes in incorporating practices take place, they are often linked with new technologies that affect how people use their bodies and experience space and time" (205).
Embodiment/incorporation are the factors mediating between the practice of new technologies and the construction of those technologies within discursive systems. Because it anchors the posthuman to the material through a dialectical process involving subjectivity and discourse, this chapter is the most powerful and useful moment in Hayles' book. However, I see Hayles' model as the first step toward a more comprehensive understanding of the linkages between posthuman subjectivity and larger cultural processes. For example, although I think it is clear from my brief review that Hayles' analysis remains absolutely tied to the material, a theory of ideology and ideological processes still needs to be considered. This is important, not only because we have yet to experience postcapitalism, but also because ideology is that necessary component to any theory wishing to explain the reproduction of hegemonic relations. But how are we to consider ideology? Which version do we enact? Where does it fit in this model? These are questions that can only be answered through further assessment and testing, through the application of Hayles' ideas to cultural texts in which the relationship between subjectivity and technology is the major thematic. There can be no doubt of the explanatory power of Hayles' work when seen in relation to literary texts -- which, ostensibly, is a major goal of the book (193). However, if this is a theory of cultural processes, which I believe Hayles makes clear that it is, then it must be assessed through the analysis of historical moments that obtain at the level of everyday life -- the experience of technology, of technological awareness, and of the (re)production of technology in discourse. Hayles cannot be faulted for not having taken up such a project, for not having given us all the answers. It remains the work of others to complete the project begun in How We Became Posthuman, to further answer the question, how?
Andrew Kurtz is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Bowling Green State University, Firelands College. Kurtz teaches in a variety of fields including popular culture, literature, and cybertheory. He is currently working on an article looking at the convergence of ideology and the posthuman through first-person gaming systems. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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