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Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman : Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and   Informatics. University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Chapter One: Toward Embodied Virtuality

  • H. begins by acknowledging that CMC has allowed the embodied nature of intelligence to be removed – abstracted into systems of symbolic communication (language) (xi).  In this way information has become immaterial[1. This is an interesting view that abstracts information from the material realities that shape it. . . in a sense denying the Marxist argument about dialectical materialism and reinstantiating a form of technologically mediated metaphysics.].
  • H. notes that the enacted body (what is enacted through CMC) and the represented body are brought together through the technology that connects them. . . in other words, the technology itself makes the production of identity a tenuous process that can no longer be separated from the human subject (xiii).
  • Pushing back against the first point I’ve made here, H. claims that embodiment actually directs thought (and information) in ways that make it always embodied. . . never free from the material realities that shape it (xiv).  In other words, the posthuman subjectivity is the connection between the embodied human experience and the immaterial flow of information across circuits of CMC.  As H. notes, “the important intervention comes when the test puts you into a cybernetic circuit that splices your will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system in which represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine interfaces” (xiv).
  • This book is divided into three stories:  1) how information lost its body; 2) how the cyborg was created as a technological and cultural icon; and 3) how the human is giving away to a construction called the posthuman (2).  What is the posthuman?  “First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life.  Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow.  Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born.  Fourth, and most important, by these and other means, the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.  In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (2-3).
  • The myth of possessive individualism:  The human being exists as sole proprietor of itself – human essence is freedom from the wills of others, and freedom is a function of this possession (4).  This idea of “owing nothing to society” before the market comes from Hobbes and Locke and creates the basis for the market system: labor.  Of course, this is a myth – the subject comes into being as a result of the market.  Of course, the posthuman dissolves this unified, autonomous, free self completely and replaces it with an “amalgam” of material-informational components that continuously undergoes reinscription (3).
  • The “post” in “posthuman” comes from the idea that there is no a priori self that existed free from the wills of others. . . we have always been networked through our informational and material connections to others that circulate in our orbit (4).  In other words, cyborgs aren’t composed of nonbiological components but are actually created through networked notions of subjectivity. . . there is no a priori self; rather, the self is a networked construction of heterogeneous elements that exists within layers and layers of information-materiality.
  • What is H.’s ideal version of the posthuman?  “my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival” (5).
  • The posthuman self also recognizes that each seemingly whole subjectivity is actually an aggregation of multiple autonomous agents that work together to make the self – the sleep agent, the food agent, the sex agent . . . all work together (and are collected and strung together) in what we call “consciousness” (6).
  • Methodologically, H. notes that her selection of theories and figures is directed by the desire to show “the complex interplays between embodied forms of subjectivity and arguments for disembodiment throughout the cybernetic tradition” (6).  The cybernetic tradition is broken up in three waves: 1945-1960 – homeostasis; 1960-1980 – reflexivity; 3) 1980-present – virtuality.
  • What is homeostasis?  The ability of living organisms to maintain steady states when they are buffeted by fickle environments. (8)  Made possible through feedback loops.
  • What is reflexivity?  Reflexivity is the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates (8).  Reflexivity tends toward infinite regress.  Examples:  (via Warner) the US Constitution creates the very people it presupposes, (via Latour) scientific experiments produce the nature whose existence they needed to take for granted as a condition of their possibility in order to make the scientific experiment (9).  Also shows up in Maturana and Varela’s work that demonstrates that “Organisms respond to their environment in ways determined by their internal self-organization” – an organisms only goal is to produce and reproduce the organization that defines them as systems (networks?)(10).  In this sense, organisms are autopoetic or self-making.  What this means is that we don’t see a world “out there” [1. Think the frog experiment in Maturana and Varela’s work]; rather, we only actually stitch together the world our systematic organization allows us to see (10-11).
  • Another goal of this work:  “My strategy is to complicate the leap from embodied reality to abstract information by pointing to moments when the assumptions involved in this move were contested by other researchers in the field and so became especially visible.  The point of highlighting such moments is to make clear how much had to be erased to arrive at such abstractions as bodiless information” (12).
  • To movements that have helped support the disembodied information theory:  1) Platonic backhand – This occurs when the simplified abstraction drawn from the multiplicity of realities becomes the generator of those multiplicities (noisy multiplicity to reductive simplicity); 2) Platonic forehand – the evolution from simplified abstraction to multiplicity that can be viewed as a world in its own (12-3).  Both moves privilege the abstract as the real and allow for the elevation of disembodied information as the ultimate ideal (the Platonic form) (13).  Yet, information must always exist in a medium – a body.
  • Virtuality: “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns” (13-4).  Video games are a prime example (the embodied movement of button pushing isn’t synonymous with the action of the virtual reality).
  • Seriation:  a set of attributes of an object that change over time.  This is remediation in media or the model of development through replication and innovation in cybernetics.  According to H., “conceptual fields evolve similarly to material culture” because of the continuous feedback loops that undergird the process of seriation.
  • Skeuomorph – A design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time (15).  (Think of simulated artifacts – the vinyl stitching that appears on a dashboard is a skeuomorph of the kind of stitching that might have once constituted the cover of a leather dash).  Skeuomorph’s “testify to the social or psychological necessity” of innovation tempered by replication (15).  Skeuomorph’s are also remediations.
  • Why is information thought of as pattern (rather than signal or material)?  Because if information is considered pattern it can be reliably quantified and theoretically generalized (18).  As H. notes, there’s a danger in this because the pattern of information can be more important than the presence of it . . . and as such, the material manifestation of information becomes less essential than the fact that it is mobile (19).
  • Virtual bodies – the historical separation between information and materiality and the embodied processes that resist this division (20).
  • While H. recognizes that her work can be read chronologically in time with developments in cybernetics, she also advocates a narrative reading that accounts for the various narratives in culture, about culture, in science, and about science that articulate a posthuman technical-cultural concept (21-2).  H. also uses narrative organization to contest the metanarrative offered by some cyberneticists of the human move toward the disembodied posthuman (22).
  • On method and textual selection:  “The scientific texts often reveal, as literature cannot, the foundational assumptions that give theoretical scope and artifactual efficacy to a particular approach.  The literary texts often reveal, as scientific work cannot, the complex cultural, social, and representational issues tied up with conceptual shifts and technological innovations” (24).

Chapter Two: Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers

  • Because of the presence of the mediator (the computer), the relationship between signified and signifier is made much more complex – word reverts to image, not script (26).  The presence of this mediator is the interface or boundary space that unites the technobio-integrated circuit (27).
  • How are the embodied and disembodied nature of information related?  “Different technologies of text production suggest different models of signification; changes in signification are linked with shifts in consumption; shifting patterns of consumption initiate new experiences of embodiment; and embodied experience interacts with codes of representation to generate new kinds of textual worlds.  In fact, each category – production, signification, consumption, bodily experience, and representation – is in constant feedback and feedforward loops with the others” (28).  In other words, the material and immaterial nature of information ecologies create our lifeworlds. . . to deny the materiality would mean abstracting information into dishonest areas (and perhaps encourage technological determinism?)
  • What is “informatics?”  The technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic, and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development – the network of relations that comprise the intersection of human bodies and information technologies (29).
  • H. uses the term “flickering signifiers” to describe how the gaps between signifier and signified are more than just an absence of correspondences between the network of signifiers (because language is an arbitrary system!); rather, the flickering signifiers refer to the idea that in informatic environments the changes in one signifier can have huge changes in other signifieds (such as chains of code that make personal computing possible).  The flickering signifiers make visible the “symbolic moment when the human confronts the posthuman” (33).
  • H. speaks of the shift from ownership to access on 39-40.  Because information is ubiquitous and infinitely replicable it moves away from possession (presence) toward pattern recognition (access).  This has important repercussions for the ideas of private/public.  As H. notes, “Whereas possession implies the existence of private life based on physical exclusion or inclusion, access implies the existence of credentialing practices that use patterns rather than presences to distinguish between those who do and those who do not have the right to enter” (40).
  • “Information, like humanity, cannot exist apart from the embodiment that brings it into being as a material entity in the world; and embodiment is always instantiated, local, and specific.  Embodiment can be destroyed, but it cannot be replicated.  Once the specific form constituting it is gone, no amount of massaging data will bring it back” (49).

Other Highlights

  • Wiener’s work on feedback and self-regulating systems results from a recognition that control is needed (because the world is dynamic and sometimes unpredictable); however, that control must be developed dynamically and capable of taking into account unforeseen developments.  As such, a self-regulating system of control based on feedback from the system itself should provide a way of reaching homeostasis (85-90).
  • In chapter 6 H. traces the interesting dilemma faced by Maturana & Varela:  continue “doing” science as an objective endeavor or discovery of the world “out there” or acknowledge what the frog eye experiments have foretold: consciousness is a biological process of cognition that constructs a worldview (and is infinitely different across agents).  This biological explanation of cognition and consciousness underscores the always active process of autopoesis or self-making.  Maturana saw autopoesis as a way to reunite ethics and science: observation doesn’t mean separation between observer and observed; rather, the two are “structurally coupled” and, as such, must enact ethics as first philosophy (care for the Other in Levinas’s terms) (142).  This also means that the structural coupling poses real problems for laissez-faire conceptions of capitalism.  How can autopoesis spell out a new world?  “the affinity of autopoesis is not for industrial capitalism but for utopian anarchy.  Autonomy is important not because it serves as the foundation for market relations but because it establishes a sphere of existence for the individual, a location from which the subject can ideally learn to respect the boundaries that define other autopoetic entities like itself” (147).  Summary of differences between 1st & 2nd wave cybernetics: 148-52.
  • Varela recognizes the Buddhist idea that “I” is the story that consciousness weaves together from cognition to infinitely delay the reality of no essential self (156).
  • H. rejects the Foucauldian view that the body is merely a discursive construct that evidences a play of linguistic systems (192).  In other words, H. argues against the idea that a body’s materiality is secondary to the semiotic, linguistic, or symbolic structures that are inscribed within/across it.  This is the subject of Chapter 8 – The Materiality of Informatics.  “Embodiment differs from the concept of the body in that the body is always normative relative to some set of criteria . . . embodiment is contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture” (196).  Embodiment is performative, and always – to some extent – improvisational.  The body is static and subject to dissolution into discourse while embodiment is always present and contextual.
  • Framework for thinking of embodiment in the age of virtuality:  1) understand the body as a complex interplay of cultural constructs and the experiences of embodiment that individual people feel and articulate; and 2) understand the “dance” between inscription (normalized and abstract – like the contents of a discourse) and incorporation (cannot be separated from the embodied medium – like a hand gesture saying goodbye) (198-9).
  • On incorporation and knowledge:

  • If “information” composes genetic and computer code. . . what exactly constitutes “life?”  Is it the medium wherein the code generates anew (carbon vs. silicon)?  (Chapter 9)  If bodies must be observed and if observers must be a part of the observation, then bodies can never be made of information alone – they require materiality.  Carbon embodiedness allows intelligence to unfold and emerge in new and different ways than silicon-contexts.
  • Why pattern/randomness instead of presence/absence?  In p/a meaning is front-loaded into the system and guaranteed a stable, coherent origin.  In p/r meaning is deferred and constantly emergent. . . randomness isn’t absence; rather, it is the “plasma” (Latour) or the chaos from which patterns emerge.  As H. notes, “Yet the posthuman need not be recuperated back into liberal humanism, nor need it be construed as anti-human.  Located within the dialectic of pattern/randomness and grounded in embodied actuality rather than disembodied information, the posthuman offers resources for rethinking the articulation of humans with intelligent machines” (287).
  • Repercussions of posthumanism for agency:  “Mastery through the exercise of autonomous will is merely the story consciousness tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dynamics and emergent structures” (288).  Emergence can replace teleology in science and offer a non-masculinist interpretation of science and human-machine relations.
  • On distributed cognition and the free will:  “No longer is human will seen as the source from which emanates the mastery necessary to dominate and control the environment.  Rather, the distributed cognition of the emergent human subject correlates with the distributed cognitive system as a while, in which ‘thinking’ is done by both human and non human actors. . . To conceptualize the human in these terms is not to imperil human survival but is precisely to enhance it, for the more we understand the flexible, adaptive structures that coordinate our environments and the metaphors that we ourselves are, the better we can fashion images of ourselves that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system” (290).

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