“The Things We Make, Make Us”

A while ago I posted about a rather elaborate Droid X commercial which featured a man’s arm morphing into a mechanical, cyborg arm from which the Droid phone then emerges.  This commercial struck me as a useful and vivid illustration of an important theoretical metaphor, deployed by Marshall McLuhan among others, to help us understand the way we relate to our technologies:  technology as prosthesis.

This weekend I came across another commercial that once again captured, intentionally or otherwise, an important element of our relationship with technology.  This time it was a commercial (which you can watch below) for the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  The commercial situates the new Grand Cherokee within the mythic narrative of American technology.  “The things that make us Americans,” we are told in the opening lines, “are the things we make.”  In 61 seconds flat we are presented with a series of iconic American technologies:  the railroad, the airplane, the steel mill, the cotton gin, the Colt .45, the skyscraper, the telegraph, the light bulb, and, naturally, the classic Jeep depicted in World War II era footage.  As if to throw in the mythical/American kitchen sink, at one point the image of a baseball hitting a catcher’s mitt is flashed on the screen.

(Never mind that a rather dark tale could be woven out of the history of the development and deployment of many of these technologies and that their sacred quality was lost on some rather consequential Americans including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  For more on the place of technology in American history and culture take a look at David Nye’s American Technological Sublime and Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America.)

In any case, the commercial closes with the line, “The things we make, make us.”  I suspect that this is an instance of someone speaking better than they know.  My guess is that the intended meaning is something like, “Making and inventing is part of what it means to be an American.”  We build amazing machines, that’s who we are.  But there is a deeper sense in which it is true that “the things we make, make us.”  We are conditioned (although, I would want to argue, not wholly determined) creatures.  That is to say that we are to some degree a product of our environment and that environment is shaped in important respects by the tools and technologies encompassed by it.

Nothing new here, this is a point made in one way or another by a number of observers and critics.  For example consider the argument advanced by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy.  The technology of writing, Ong contends, transforms oral societies and the way its members experience the world.  Ong and others have explored the similar significance of printing to the emergence of modern society and modern consciousness.  Lewis Mumford famously suggested that it is to the invention of the clock that we owe the rise of the modern world and the particular disposition toward time that characterizes it.  Historians and social critics have also explored the impact of the steam engine, the car, the telephone, the radio, the television, and, most recently, the Internet on humans and their world.  Needless to say, we are who we are in part because of the tools that we have made and that now are in turn making us.  And as I’ve noted before, Katherine Hayles (and she is not alone) goes so far as to suggest that as a species we have “codeveloped with technologies; indeed, it is no exaggeration,” she writes in Electronic Literature, “to say modern humans literally would not have come into existence without technology.”

Now this may be a bit more than what Jeep had in mind, but thanks to their commercial we are reminded of an interesting and important facet of the human condition.

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.

Theory and Electronic Literature

What is theory?  It is, at least in part, an effort to make explicit what is implicit and to expose what is assumed but unspoken. To paraphrase Niklas Luhmann, theory seeks to perceive the reality which one does not perceive when one perceives it.  If so, then Katherine Hayles is offering us a theory of electronic literature that renders electronic literature an embodiment of theory.  Not, however, in the sense early theorists of hypertext imagined, but in a way that is more consonant with the anti-speculative perspective advocated by Jerome McGann in Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web.

Early hypertext theorists such as George Landow enthusiastically read electronic literature as an embodiment of poststructuralist theory.  It appeared that electronic literature manifested on the surface everything Roland Barthes painstakingly sought to reveal about traditional literature and the author.  This reading of electronic literature, however, appears now to have been stillborn because of its identification of the hyperlink as electronic literature’s “distinguishing characteristic,” a move which Hayles shows was beset by serious problems.  (Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, 31)  Likewise, McGann seems intent on moving past this mode of theorizing.  As I read him, it is not so much theory itself which McGann repudiates, but a certain way of constructing and applying theory.  As I’ve noted in response to radiant textuality, theory for Mcgann is best aligned with the kinds of knowledge that arise from performance/deformance because Mcgann envisions theory as poiesis rather than gnosis. The kind of embodied knowledge or theory that arises from acts of making or performance “makes possible the imagination of what you don’t know” because it elicits knowledge from failure and also from serendipity. (radiant textuality, 83)

McGann’s notion of imagining what you don’t know recalls Hayles’ clever appropriation of Rumsfeld’s Zen-like categorizations of knowledge.  As she puts it, “I propose that (some of) the purposes of literature are to reveal what we know but don’t know that we know, and to transform what we know we know into what we don’t yet know.”  Further resonating with McGann, she sees literature achieving this knowledge by “activating a recursive feedback loop between knowledge realized in the body through gesture, ritual, performance, posture, and enactment, and knowledge realized in the neocortex as conscious and explicit articulations” in much the same way that McGann sees theory arising through “the kinds of knowledge involved in performative operations.”  (Electronic Literature, 132; RT, 106)  In one sense I would argue that as Hayles describes the effects of electronic literature it functions in a way reminiscent of McGann’s practices of deformance.

For both Hayles and McGann, theory is bound up with the body, with the material, and with action.  For McGann, deformance is a practice which leads the reader to tap through performance the kind of embodied knowledge that helps them reckon with the materiality of the text.  For Hayles, electronic literature already requires or is intended to force the kinds of interactions that deformance is attempting to artificially elicit in the context of print.  Put otherwise, the productive disruptions code introduces into narrative awaken us, according to Hayles, to the reality of the human life-world’s integration with intelligent machines in much same way that the disruptions of deformance awaken us to the material realities of the text according to McGann.

Electronic literature as Hayles’ theorizes it draws into the open features of human existence that previously lay below the level of awareness.  At its best then electronic literature, like good theory, reveals what is not always perceived, but always present.  And this, according to Hayles, it accomplishes by “creating recursive feedback loops between explicit articulation, conscious thought, and embodied sensorimotor knowledge.”  (Electronic Literature, 135)  Or, as McGann might put it, through poiesis and not merely gnosis.