Posts Tagged ‘ katherine hayles ’

Hayles and the Erasure of Embodiment

In the prologue to How We Became Posthuman, Hayles proposes two different definitions of intelligence: 1) “a property of the formal manipulation of symbols”, and 2) “enaction in the human lifeworld”, that is “embodied reality”.  The first, ‘disembodied’ version of intelligence, she suggests, occurs in Turing’s imitation game as described in “Computer Machinery and Intelligence”, identifying that seminal paper as the historical moment in which intelligence—and information—is separated from the body.  Historically, Turing’s paper is positioned at the forefront of the first wave of cybernetics, which inspired Claude Shannon’s theory of communication and the notion of information as something that can be codified and transmitted from and through one body to another, as “an entity distinct from” the physical media that carried it.  Based on her argument one would infer that, before Turing, intelligence and information were embodied.  Only definition #2 applied pre-Turing.  However, Humanism and Modernism as we’ve seen them discussed both contributed to the definition of information and intelligence—at least in the way both concepts help define us as ‘human’ and ‘modern’—as separate from material reality, predating Turing’s imitation game.

I would propose that this disembodiment takes place with Burkhardt’s historiography of the Renaissance (Davies, 16-17) and the creation of “the myth of essential and universal Man” (24):

Above all, Burkhardt’s Renaissance was the epoch of the individual.  …the concept, the central one in his understanding of the period, denotes not just those heroice or demonic uomini universali, the gifted brutal Sforzas, Borgias and Medicis who haunt the popular histories of the period, but the development of a universal capacity to think of yourself, in a fundamental way, as a free and unique being: not as Florentine or Marseillais or a sailor or a Roman Catholic or somebody’s daughter or grandson, important though all those affiliations might be, but as a free-standing, self-determining person with an identity and a name that is not simply a marker of family or ‘occupation’, but is ‘proper’… (16-17)

I’m also sure that each one of us could think of at least one other example in the history of Humanism or Modernism (or elsewhen/where) that could account for the disembodiment of intelligence/information.

Hayles even contradicts her own construction in chapter 1 by acknowledging that the “erasure of embodiment” is common to both Humanism and Posthumanism, that the humanist ideal presupposes that you possess your body but are more than just the sum of your parts (4).  Whatever part of you that makes you “you”, that is, an individual, lies beyond the material realm; and you share this ephemeral quality—let’s call it ‘identity’, or ‘self’—with all other humans.

Here’s a thought: the capacity for identity implies ‘intelligence’, in the way Hayles uses it (which I’d suggest is subtly yet distinctly different than the way Turing uses it).  For Hayles, does the reverse also follow?  That is, does intelligence imply ‘identity’?

Does the probability that the “erasure of embodiment” is not localized in the historical moment of the birth of cybernetics (but possibly in the historical construction of humanism and modernism!) invalidate her premise that intelligence should be embodied?  Is Hayles’ desire to re-insert intelligence and information in the body justified, or are Moravec’s mind children not only plausible but represent the natural (if I can use such a word) evolution of the human into the posthuman?  Another way of phrasing this question would be to ask: do you agree with Kurzweil, the transhumanists* and the notion of the Singularity, or not?  If yes, how does this change how Hayles defines the posthuman?

*as an aside, we’ve talked a lot about antihumanism, humanism, posthumanism (not to mention (premoderns, moderns, postmoderns, nonmoderns and cyborgs)… but we really haven’t said a lot about transhumanism.  What’s the deal with that, Harvey?

A Sudden Insight on Cyborgs

Cyborgs actually exist. About 10 percent of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin. (N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 115.)

It’s sometimes hard for me to distinguish the difference between this technical definition of the cyborg and the more elusive, metaphoric definition. Probably because, writing about narratives and cultural constructions, I trade mainly in metaphors. But the fact remains, and it should be made perfectly clear, cyborgs are a reality.

A much higher percentage participates in occupations that make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including the computer keyboarder joined in cybernetic circuit with the screen, the neurosurgeon guided by fiber-optic microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game player in the local video-game arcade.

In this way– as Haraway’s chimera, as the ever-shifting figmental blur– we are all cyborgs. In the way that Pattie Belle Hastings’ cyborg survey defines it, we are cyborgs. Is it okay for us to think of ourselves in this way? Does it mean anything that I can quite easily define myself and most of the people around me as cybernetic (wo)man-machine organisms?

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Who/What is Posthuman?

The first book on my reading list is Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. She sums up the concerns of her book by describing how her research resolved itself into three categories:

  1. how information lost its body
  2. how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon
  3. how the historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman.

Intersecting these three categories is the overarching project of rescuing embodiment in cybernetics and the posthuman paradigm.

What is the posthuman? According to Hayles it is a point of view that a) privileges informational pattern over material instantiation (biological body); b) considers consciousness as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow; c) 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; d) configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. She adds that the posthuman signals a shift in assumptions about subjectivity, what it means to be an individual.

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English 532: Defining ‘Cyberliterature’

It is my hope throughout this course to evolve a definition of “cyberliterature”. The idea is that I’ll start with two or three basic principles, and as I continue with my research, the concept will flesh itself out into something that approaches a veritable object of study.

As always, the best place to start is the dictionary. Obviously, there is, as yet, no dictionary definition of “cyberliterature”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cyber-” as:

Of, relating to, characteristic of, or involved in (the culture of) computers, information technology, and virtual reality; futuristic.

The OED also defines “literature” as:

a. Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect.

b. The body of books and writings that treat of a particular subject.

c. colloq. Printed matter of any kind.

By inference, we could then define “cyberliterature” as the body of writings produced by (the culture of) computers, information technology, and virtual reality.

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