Hayles, Katherine.  My Mother Was a Computer:  Digital Subjects and Literary Texts.  University of Chicago Press,  2005.  Print.  (Excerpts)

Part I:  Making – Language and Code

Prologue: Computing Kin

  • The “postbiological” – the idea that the human consciousness could be disembodied and placed into computers/machines.  Hayles argued against this idea in How We Became Posthuman.
  • H. notes that the original conflict between liberal humanism and posthumanism continues to fade as we move further into the 21st century.  She claims that competing versions/traditions of the posthuman now constitute the grounds of disagreement in philosophical debate.
  • H. revises her original articulation of posthumanism as embodied toward a more nuanced perspective that repositions “materiality” as distinct from physicality in order to re-envision the “material basis for hybrid texts and subjectivities” (2).
  • Materiality:  “an emergent property created through dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies.  Materiality thus marks a junction between physical reality and human intention” (3).  In other words, materiality (following Latour) is the construction of matter that matters for human meaning (3).
  • The computational universe:  the idea that the universe is generated through computational processes running on a vast computational mechanism that underlies the entirety of physical reality (3).  Relying on this definition, H. notes that the title of her book is an implicit not to the displacement of “Mother Nature” by “Universal Computer” (3).  This kind of claim is buttressed by work in complexity theory and the fractal composition of ecologies.
  • What is the goal of Hayles work with respect t the Computational Universe?  “I am interested in the complex dynamics through which the Computational Universe works simultaneously as means and metaphor in technical and artistic practices, producing and also produced by recursive loops that entangle with one another and with the diverse meanings of computation as technology, ontology, and cultural icon.  This dynamic interplay of recursive multiple causalities becomes, I argue, the fertile ground for re-envisioning and remaking a wide variety of cultural artifacts, including computer simulations and literary texts” (4).
  • H.’s notes that literacy acquisition now occurs most often on the computer; as such, the subjectivity constructed in the acquisition of literacy is linked to the electronic environment (as opposed to the mother/teacher) from the get go.  As such, humans are connected to the “Computational Universe” by the computer-interface as literacy sponsor (of a sort).  So, human subjectivity is co-constructed by technological/digital/electronic environments from the beginning of that subjectivity’s consciousness of itself (4).
  • “Digital Subjects” : this alludes to the dialectical positioning of humans and artificial creatures in relation to each other (5).
  • Three modalities working in Hayles book:  the traffic between language and code (making), the interpenetration of print and electronic text (storing), and the dialectic between analog and digital representations (transmitting) (6).  Making, storing, and transmitting are the “modalities” related to information and they constitute the subjects and texts that make interpenetrated, subjective bodies.
  • Intermediation:  “complex transactions between bodies and texts as well as between different forms of media.  Because making, storing, and transmitting imply technological functions, this mode of categorization insures that the different versions of the posthuman will be understood. . . as effects of media” (7).  H. notes that media effects must be located in the embodied human world  . . . and those effects are complex, irreducible to linearity.
  • Organization:  the three parts of the book are organized around the processes of making, storing, and transmitting.
    • Chapter 1:  develops the concept of intermediation and posits that code is the lingua franca of nature.
    • Chapter 2:  Considering Saussure’s semiotics, Derrida’s grammatology, and programming languages, Hayles claims that traditional ideas of signification don’t hold for understanding the operations of code.
    • Chapter 3:  This chapter demonstrates how bodies are interpolated in passive forms (telegraph) to active forms (cybernetic simulations) in the work of James, Dick, and Tiptree.
    • Chapter 4:  Theory chapter that argues that we should take materiality more seriously in order to develop a notion of subjectivity in interaction with textual assemblages whose “dynamics emerge from all the texts participating in the cluster” without privileging the original more than the copy (9).
    • Chapter 5:  This chapter considers whether the digital production of a text via electronic circuits has any bearing on the print-based product that comes out of it.
    • Chapter 6:  This chapter argues that code goes farther in the direction of “making discrete” than speech in writing by considering how Mark Rose’s historical tracing of copyright as a result of Romantic genius/liberal humanist subject is disrupted by the ideology of Shelley Jackson’s e-text Patchwork Girl.  This chapter demonstrates how intermediation is at play in the complex entanglement of print, electronic text, continuous and discrete consciousness, and language and code (10).

Chapter 1:  Intermediation:  Textuality and the Regime of Computation

  • H. hopes to develop a theoretical framework in this chapter that will allow code (as the domain of computer programmers and software engineers) and language (as the domain of linguists and humanists) to be thought systematically together (16).
  • What is computation?  It is a “process that starts with a parsimonious set of elements and a relatively small set of logical operations.  Instantiated into some kind of platform, these components can be structured so as to build up increasing levels of complexity, eventually arriving at complexity so deep, multilayered, and extensive as to simulate the most complex phenomena on earth, from turbulent flow and multiagent social systems to reasoning process one might legitimately call thinking” (18).
  • Hayles’ description of the Principle of Computational Equivalence that she borrows from Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science[1. Does this sort of work explain why an object oriented ontology/rhetoric provides solutions to problems that quantum mechanics and tiny-particle research cannot?]:

  • H. doesn’t argue whether the computational universe is metaphor or actual means of understanding; rather, she uses the tension in this disagreement as a place to consider how the metaphor might make the means through “feedback loops that connect culturally potent metaphors with social constructions of reality, resulting in formation that imaginatively invest computation with world-making power, even if it does not properly possess this power in itself” (20).
  • Code is a synecdoche for information.  As such, as information is elevated to the status of ontological prime, the importance of code is fed beck through to the present in order to reorganize resources, institutional structures, and military abilities (21-2).  The ontological requirements of code are tiny: no God or Logos but a simple distinction between something and nothing (1,0).  In some senses, this idea of computation – or digital philosophy – carries atomism all the way down, making everything a state of being discrete (as opposed to analog assemblages of vast amounts of matter) (23-4).
  • Emergent properties:  properties that aren’t inherent to the components of a system but arise in their interaction (25).  The “noosphere”: postulated by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – this is the “distributed global intelligence” that exists in the ether of the internet (26).
  • A key claim:  The Regime of Computation provides a story about how the evolution of reality has come to be through processes of emergences in complex computational processes.  H. situates code as this special, latest stage of emergence because it is the discourse system that provides the backbone of emergent simulations . . . simulations that anticipate the reflexive, autopoetic 4th stage of complexity (the ability to use computers to generate simulations that allow for new emergences . . . the stage of reflexivity) (27).
  • H. notes that it is important to recognize how feedback loops connect humans and machines at the level of Derridean-Saussurean semiotics and code.  There are multiple causalities in complex systems; as such, it is a fundamental mistake to link a single semiotic system to the production/evolution of a single cause. . . there are no single causes.  In this claim she negates Manovich’s argument that all mediums are flattened into one in the 21st century: the computer.  As H. notes, “Recognizing entangled causalities and multiple feedback loops enables us to understand how media can converge into digitality and simultaneously diverge into a robust media ecology in which new media represent and are represented in old media, in a process that Bolter and Grusin have called ‘remediation'” (32).  H. ultimately rejects the term “remediation” because it favors a starting point of some sort.  Her term “intermediation” instead draws attention to the infinite number of multiple feedback loops that cause multiple/infinite causalities.
  • On the posthumanist discourse:  Kittler’s perspective is that media (not subjects) speak within discourse systems and technological apparatuses enable media to operate.  As such, for Kittler, media determine our situation – our bodies and subjectivities.  For Kittler, media technologies produce discourse systems.  Hansen’s perspective attacks Kittler for taking a linear causal perspective on the development of discourse systems.  In other words, Hansen rejects the idea that man is simply a subjectivity produced as byproduct in the latest stage of information evolution.  Hansen instead poses embodiment as the locus of subjectivity and considers new media through its effects on embodied users (30-35).  As an alternative, H. offers something of both: human beings are effected and constituted by media but they also constitute media through their embodied actions (sometimes as media).

Chapter 2: Speech, Writing, Code – Three Worldviews

  • H. urges scholars to consider the overlaps, disjuncts, and gaps/discontinuities in the processes of signification as one moves from speech to text to code and back again . . . especially considering how often these elements are in contact with one another in the contemporary age (39).  In this sense, H. claims that code always changes the print/speech that comes out of digital media.
  • Much like Derrida argued that writing exceeds speech, H. argues that code exceeds writing and speech (40).  Derrida noted that writing is not confined to the event of its making (unlike speech); as such, it is constantly deferred from its original encounter (difference).  Code is different from both because it speaks to both humans and machines.  H. asks the question, “Where does the complexity reside [considering code is, at its heart, 1/0 and a few simple operations] that makes code (or computers, or cellular automata) seem adequate to represent a complex world?” (41).  H. claims that this complexity resides in the “labor of computation” that continuously (and very quickly) calculates differences in code to create a complex picture . . . this picture is the emergent property of computation (41).
  • In Saussure’s linguistics meaning is the result of referential relations between linguistic signs . . . not between signs and their arbitrary referents.
  • Code – as opposed to Saussurean speech of Derridean grammatalogical writing – depends far more on materiality in order to function meaningfully.  While materiality exists in speech (but is erased in linguistic theories), the materiality of code via the hardware that process it determine its ability to function.  As H. puts it, “In the worldview of code, materiality matters” (44).
  • In the context of code, H. claims that signifiers are voltages (1/0 corresponds to 5 volts/0 volts).  Signifieds are the interpretations that other layers of code give those voltages (45).  The signifieds become signifiers for higher levels of processing languages that eventually work their way toward human-renderable translations.
  • The connection between Saussure’s linguistics and code is problematized when we turn to Derrida as the relation between the signifier and the signified is not the locus; rather, it is the differance or absence between the differential relations of signifier and signified that actually gives the two meaning (but this absence is infinitely deferred . . . and, as such, meaning is also always indeterminate and infinitely deferred).
  • How is code different from speech and writing?  Like some kinds of theoretical writing, it is understandable by a fairly small group of experts; however, unlike speech/writing, that small group of experts can significantly alter code in order to produce different results (it is much more difficult to alter a language/writing system).  Also, breaks/revisions in code by experts are far sharper and more complete than in speech/writing (people can still reason out Middle English; however, the difference between a version or two of a programming language has profound material effects (51).  As H. notes, “As we have seen, code differs from speech and writing in that it exists in clearly differentiated versions that are executable in a process that includes hardware and software and that makes obsolete programs literally unplayable unless an emulator or archival machine is used” (52).
  • H. notes that the syntagmatic (sentence level, horizontal) and paradigmatic (synonymous/interchanable) elements of Saussure’s linguistic system are also operative in code; however, they are in reverse.  The paradigmatic are realized on the page through database queries.  The syntagmatic are produced through choices from the paradigmatic (Manovich, qtd. in H. 53).  This quality of code structures how databases and narratives operate/interface in concert in the production of electronic texts.
  • The process of digitization:  the act of making something discrete rather than continuous, that is, digital rather than analog (56).  By making discrete, digitization extends across various levels of scale from bits to terabytes and beyond.
  • H. notes that the world – as we experience it – is essentially analog; however, we’ve digitized it in various ways by splitting it up (Aristotle right on through to contemporary Western philosophy); however, Eastern philosophy has often recognized analog ontology.
  • Object-oriented computer languages are modeled after natural languages – they contain nouns (objects of code that are often hierarchies of shorthand) and verbs (processes in system design).

Chapter 4: Translating Media

  • H. claims that the transformation of a print document into an electronic text is a form of translation she calls “media translation” . . . it is also an act of interpretation (89).  H. claims that our work with electronic texts is shot through with assumptions based on a print literacy.  As such, we have an opportunity to remake what it means to read and write in electronic environments if we can recognize the process of media translation in the creation of new electronic literacies.
  • H. notes how the Platonic, pluralist, and anti-realist positions on what constitutes a “text” all sidestep the question of materiality in the constitution of a text.  In this sense, they all assume there is a textual “essence” that can be transported from print to digital media; however, this idea depends on an immaterial conception of a text that divorces textual contents from the substrates in which they are contained (97).
  • H. claims that it is more accurate to call an electronic text a process rather than an object because if any of the components necessary to produce the text are absent (data file, program, display monitor, etc.) are absent, the text cannot be produced (101).  Because of this, H. claims that we must think of electronic texts as materialized – that is they are dependent on the substrate in which they exist and must be produced in process (102).  H. notes, “The materiality of an embodied text is the interaction of its physical characteristics with its signifying strategies” (103).  In other words, this is the object-oriented, networked, posthuman conception of the text as an object whose materiality depends on its physical characteristics along with its relation to human reality/experience.  Said differently yet again:  a text’s materiality is discovered through its distributed physical characteristics working in concert with embodied human engagement (103).
  • On the nature of textuality as dispersed, fragmented, and heterogeneous (or, toward a better definition of a text):

  • Thesis of chapter:  “Through feedback loops in which electronic text recycles print and the programs generating electronic text recycle code, we glimpse the complex dynamics by which intermediation connects print and electronic text, language and code, ‘original’ and translation, the specificities of particular instantiations and the endless novelty of recombinations.  These dynamics open out onto fundamental questions about the nature of texts, the relation of materiality to content, and the specificities of media” (116).

Chapter 6:  Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl

  • In this chapter H. pushes Jackson’s work (a posthuman hypertext electronic fiction) up against the traditional narrative of the development of literary property (itself the result of an intermixing of economic, class, and literary interests) in order to demonstrate how the digital is fundamentally transforming the intellectual property and subjectivity of the print tradition.
  • Relying on Mark Rose’s Authors and Owners, H. demonstrates that the development of copyright did more than provide a legal basis for IP; in fact, it solidified ideas about what counted as creativity, authorship, and proper literature (144).  In fact, the materiality of textual production was disassociated with the text at this juncture as the publisher, book binder, paper maker, printer, etc. were removed from the status of authors and the text took on its immaterial nature as a mental construct of a gifted authorial genius.  It is here that style becomes the most prominent rhetorical cannon as it is the way that the author “dressed his thoughts” toward the production of art (145).
  • On 145 Hayles presents a description of why Lockean doctrine was so central to the development of IP law:  physical “labor” is equated with authorial “style” to take ideas/land and turn them into private property.  H. points out that both of these perspectives are problematic because they posit that authorial genius/personal labor exist somehow before the things necessary for their existence:  the wealth of socialization that contributed to that genius and free-market relations that allow for the “sweat of the brow” doctrine (146).
  • H. claims that Jackson’s work challenges the 18th century development of author and IP because it makes real those material aspects of literary production that were suppressed by the likes of Locke et al.:  materiality of the medium, the technological and economic networks that produce the work as commodity, the collaborative nature of many literary works, the appropriations and transformations that were ignored/downplayed in the interest of originality, and the slippage from book as material object to work to style to face (author) (147).
  • Jackson’s work is important because it posits the idea of subject as assemblage as the naturalized position while subject as unity seems a “grotesque impossibility” (150).  H. notes that “flickering signification” is the “fluidly mutating connections between writer, interface, and user” (161).  Flickering signification is responsible for the construction of the multiple subjectivities embodied in the materiality of the immaterial document that is Patchwork Girl.  This is the posthuman in action:  literature refigures the human reader as multiple, author/reader and problematizes any Romantic notions of authorial genius or copyright/IP.


  • Ultimately, the only way that code can make complexity is through its feedback relations with writing and speech (42).  This is demonstrated in the section where she talks about lower and higher level programming language that move from programmatic to object oriented formats.

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