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Issue Seven


Issue Seven: Religion Online & Techno-Spiritualism



Book Review by nat muller <Nathalie.Muller@skynet.be>
N. Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1999.

In her new book How We Became Posthuman N. Katherine Hayles (http://www.english.ucla.edu/HAYLES) addresses the question of how information lost its body. The incentive for the book was Hayles being shocked into awareness after reading Hans Moravec's book Mind Children, wherein he envisions the possibility of downloading human consciousness into a computer. Such a scenario regards human consciousness as informational patterns, which can be materialised and dematerialised at any chosen location. Whether this materialisation takes places in an organic body or a silicon body is of no consequence. The locus of human subjectivity thus becomes the disembodied mind, again re-enacting that same old Cartesian split our culture just cannot seem to rid itself of.

Hayles is worried about prevailing scientific and cultural discourses which render the body as excess "meat", and view consciousness as entirely separated from the body. She is eager to bring the body back into the picture in order to demonstrate that there is an interactive dynamic between seemingly disembodied information, and the material substrates which carry and convey them. In her book she sets out to examine how information came to be treated as a disembodied entity. This leads her to research the history of cybernetics through scientific and literary texts: moving from historical accounts about the legendary Macy Conferences on cybernetics (1945-1960) to the SF-novels of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson, to Rodney Brooks' artificial life experiments. Hayles weaves a dense narrative wherein scientific and cultural discourses interlace.

Through a process of seriation (a term taken from archaeological anthropology wherein the developments of artefacts are traced through replication and innovation). Hayles wants to entangle abstract form and material particularity in her text, so that the reader will find it increasingly difficult to maintain the perception that matter and information are separate (23). However, such literary strategies do not always contribute to the strength and the lucidity of her argument. This is perhaps due to the fact that Hayles has taken her archaeological trope a bit too literally, and has excavated several essays she had written in 1990 (Chapter 4) and 1993 (Chapter 2, Chapter 8) and turned them into chapters. The replication part of the seriation strategy works well here, but I am not too sure whether there is too much innovation involved here. Though the scientific chapters and literary chapters are incorporated in the same "body" of the book, there is still a clear division between them. Structurally they do not really make up part of the same system, since the literary texts still seem somehow subordinate to the scientific ones. Their function is to illustrate, rather than instantiate. The chapter sequence re-enacts this logic: scientific chapters are followed by literary ones and not the other way round.

Nevertheless, this doesn't diminish Hayles' fascinating account of how science and culture have privileged the abstract as the Real, and have downplayed materiality. She identifies 3 major chronological stages, where she respectively addresses 3 central questions: how did information lose its body, how did the cyborg become an icon, and how did we become Posthuman. The first stage covers the period from 1945 to 1960 (Macy conferences on Cybernetics). This is the foundational era of cybernetics where people such as Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, John von Neumann and Gregory Bateson play a starring role. Our current state of virtuality is a product of historical factors and decisions, which started out at the first Macy conferences. Wiener and Shannon theorised information as something devoid of meaning. This had to effect that information was decontextualised (read disembodied). Not everyone agreed with this point of view. Donald MacKay for example, wanted to get meaning back into information. However, this meant that context (read embodiment) should be taken into account, and that information should be treated as something specific and situated. Situatedness means that universalisation and quantification become near to impossible. Scientists didn't like to walk the murky paths of the specific…no wonder Wiener and Shannon's voice prevailed.

Hayles calls the second stage (1960-1980) one of reflexivity. Whereas in the first wave of cybernetics humans and machines were perceived as analogous, and embodiment was discarded, the second wave emphasised the latter. Reseachers such as Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela re-introduced the notion of the observer, as constructing an abstract notion of information in order to make sense of the world. Thus here information does become specific to what the observer makes out of it. For example, Maturana states that systems always behave as they should, for they operate in accord with their structure at the very moment. For example, if my car doesn't start in the morning, I (the observer) experience this as an error because my car doesn't behave according to a certain pattern of expectation. But actually my car is behaving in accord with its structure at that very moment. It is the observer who perceives this structure as broken or malfunctioning. Here the novels of Philip K. Dick are used to exemplify the role of the observer in the construction of reality. In contradistinction to Maturana and Varela, who utilised the domain of the observer to recuperate everyday notions of cause and effect and even establish a sense of reality; Dick uses it to estrange every consensus on reality.

The last stage where we find ourselves in now, is that of virtuality. Hayles rightly critiques the contemporary belief that the body is primarily a discursive and linguistic construction. She blames post-modern theory for concentrating on discourse rather than on embodiment, and thus highlights once again how seriation functions. This is to say, post-modern theory replicates once again the Cartesian mind/body split, wherein philosophy cannot conceptualise itself as having a body. She draws an interesting distinction between "body" and "embodiment", the former being an abstract idealised form, a discursive universal construct. Embodiment, on the other hand, is always contextual, enmeshed with the specifics of place, time, etc. Experiences of embodiment are always imbricated within a culture, it never coincides fully with the abstract pure ide a of the body. No wonder then that theorists writing on corpo/reality choose to avoid (again!!) the messy specificity of embodiment, and prefer to write (like Foucault) on the universality of the body. The third wave is typified by the different developments in the field of artificial life. As Hayles points out, some researchers choose to concentrate on screen simulations (like Thomas S. Ray's Tierra program), and thus on disembodiment. While others, like Rodney Brooks (mobots) emphasise the importance of physicality and environmental interaction.

What becomes clear at the end of Hayles' narrative is that the future of human subjectivity need not necessarily be contained in a silicon vessel as Moravec predicts, but that other alternatives are available as well. I fully support Hayles' project to promote the contention that human beings are first and foremost embodied, and that embodiment - and the actions deriving thereof - are located and specific. However, the aspiration of distancing oneself from "disembodied" universalising discourses proves difficult. Perhaps seriation isn't the most effective strategy, since an archaeological trope reeks always more of the replication of things past than innovation.


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Issue Seven