Katherine Hayles on Posthumanism

Hayles’ describes her project in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics as an intervention.  “I view the present moment,” she explains in the first chapter, “as a critical juncture when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity.” (5)  Later on at the close of chapter two she writes, “I believe that our best hope to intervene constructively in this development is to put an interpretative spin on it – one that opens up the possibilities of seeing pattern and presence as complementary rather than antagonistic.” (48-49)  Writing in the late 1990’s, she clearly believes the shape and form of posthumanism to be as of yet undetermined.  No doubt she would acknowledge a multiplicity of possible and complex paths along which posthumanism might evolve, but she tends to speak in binaries.  Dream or nightmare, terror or pleasure – these are the options.  (4, 5, 47, 284-285)

As the first quotation above suggests, the preservation of embodiment is among Hayles’ chief objectives.  She notes that one prominent way of rendering posthumanism – the nightmare scenario in which bodies are regarded as “fashion accessories rather than the ground of being” – is not so much a posthumanism as it is a hyperhumanism, an extension and intensification of the modern, humanist notion of possessing a body rather than being a body.  (4-5)  This dualism has deep roots in the Western tradition; we may call it the Platonic temptation, or the Gnostic temptation, or the Manichaean temptation, etc.  Viewed within this genealogy, the cybernetic construction of the posthuman shares core assumptions not only with Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism, but it betrays a pedigree reaching much further back still into antiquity.

Against this long standing tendency and building upon the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Pierre Bourdieu among others, Halyes masterfully argues for the significance of embodiment, for the formation of thought and knowledge.  The body that “exists in space and time … defines the parameters within which the cogitating mind can arrive at ‘certainties.’”  (203)  Citing Johnson, she reminds the reader that body writes discourse as much as discourse writes the body.  Briefly stated, embodied experience generates the deep and pervasive networks of metaphors and analogies by which we elaborate our understanding of the world.  Hayles goes on to add that “when people begin using their bodies in significantly different ways, either because of technological innovations or other cultural shifts, changing experiences of embodiment bubble up into language, affecting the metaphoric networks at play within culture.”  (206-207)  In this light, Electronic Literature can be understood as part of an ongoing attempt to direct posthumanism toward embodiment.   Hayles theorized electronic literature as a category of the literary that performs the sorts of ruptures in code (introduction of noise?) which make us conscious of our embodiment and embodied knowledge nudging us away from the disembodied nightmare scenario.

I’m cheering for Hayles’ version of the posthuman to win the day (if the outcome is still undetermined), but I am less than hopeful.  Not that I believe the Moravec scenario will in fact materialize, but that it will remain deeply appealing, more so than Hayles’ vision, and continue to shape our imaginings of the future.  For one thing, the dream of disembodiment and its concomitant fantasies of “unlimited power and disembodied immortality” have a long history and considerable momentum as was noted above.  For another, this dream has roots not only in Gnostic suspicion of the body and Cartesian dualism, but also in the modern apotheosis of the will which also has a long and distinguished history.  Embodiment in this context is the last obstacle to the unfettered will.  Hayles’ dream scenario includes the recognition and celebration of “finitude as a condition of human being,” but the entanglement of technological development with current economic and cultural structures and assumptions hardly suggests that we are in the habit of recognizing, much less celebrating, our limits.  “Mastery through the exercise of autonomous will” may “merely be the story consciousness tells itself,” but consciousness is a powerful story teller and it weaves compelling narratives.  (288)  These narratives are all the more seductive when they are reinforced by cultural liturgies of autopoietic consumption and the interests that advance them.

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