Posts Tagged ‘ posthuman ’

The Commonplace Book—extinct form of critical reading and sensemaking?

I found Robert Darnton’s chapter on the Renaissance tradition of the commonplace book an interesting insight into how people made—and make—sense of what they read.  It made me wonder about how this tradition of reading has changed over time.  Darnton suggests that today’s reader has learned to read sequentially, while the early modern reader read segmentally, “concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book” (169).  The implication is that, from this transformation of practice, we have lost a critical approach to reading.  The commonplace book, Darnton describes, was a place where early modern readers collected bits and pieces of texts alongside personal reflections about their significance (149).  This activity was a hybrid of reading and writing, making an author of the reader, and serving as a method for “Renaissance self-fashioning”—the grasping for a humanist understanding of the autonomous individual (170).  Arguably, in adopting a sequential mode of reading and forgetting the practice of the commonplace book, we have lost a useful tool for making sense of the world and of ourselves.

At the beginning of the chapter, Darnton makes a curious allusion to the present reality, the Digital Age.  He writes: “Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book.” [Emphasis is my own] (149). Clearly he is referring to hypertextual practice, the connective structure of texts on the Web that are joined through a network of inter-referential links, and provoke a non-sequential mode of reading.  The Web has initiated a number of changes in how we read, write, create and make sense of texts.  Hypertextuality is certainly one them, but I think Darnton only touches upon the tip of the iceberg with this passing reference.  While the commonplace book as genre might be extinct, new hybrid forms of critical reading/writing have taken its place.  Take, for instance, the blogging phenomenon.  Many people today write blogs on a vast variety of subjects.  Most represent critical responses to other media—articles, videos, images, stories, other blog posts.  They are the commonplace book of the digital native.  The difference is that the digital native’s commonplace book is accessible to all, and (more often than not) searchable.  Consider also the phenomenon of microblogging in the form of Twitter.  As an example, I am going to look at my own Twitter feed ( – I have attached a page with specific examples).  In 140 character segments I carry on conversations, post links to online documents and express my reactions to such texts.  It is, in fact, perfectly possible to consider a 21st century individual’s Twitter feed analogous to the early modern reader’s commonplace book.  These activities represent a far more complex mode of reading than Darnton assigns the contemporary reader.  It is a type of reading that is at times segmental, at times sequential, but is remarkable because of the interconnectivity of sources and the critical engagement of the reader that it represents.  What is most interesting is that, rather than emphasizing the notion of the autonomous individual, these digital modes of reading/writing emphasize collectivity and community—what could be described as a “Posthuman self-fashioning”.


Darnton, R. (2009).  The Case for Books. New York: PublicAffairs.  219p.


I have not include the appendix of selected tweets that was submitted along with this assignment, but I’m sure you’ll get the gist by viewing my Twitter page:

A Nostalgic Look Back: Cloning

Whatever happened to cloning?

No, no, this is a legitimate question.  I remember about ten years ago, maybe a little bit more than that, there was a buzz around ‘cloning’ as the next big scientific development.  I was in high school at the time, and I recall devouring every news story about Dolly, the first cloned sheep, that I could get my hands on.  I imagined a future in which the tiniest bit of our genetic material could be used to replicate life, and pondered the murky ethics that arose from this.  And then time passed, and the whole craze just sort of faded away.

I was reminded of this in reading Robert Pepperell’s 2003 edition of Posthuman Condition: Consciousness Beyond the Brain, in preparation for my term paper.  In the preface, Pepperell mentions with much urgency developments in the field of genetics and cloning specifically, and what this might mean in the re-definition of the ‘human’.  He references in particular a 2002 article in the Sunday Times about the imminence of the first successful human cloning (I’m fuzzy on this point, but I suspect my lack of memory suggests it wasn’t as successful or as imminent as Pepperell claims.)

So my question is this:  What happened to all the hype about cloning?  Would it have featured importantly in my Posthumanism course had it been offered eight years ago?  Is it strange that cloning hasn’t even gotten the merest mention in class?

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?


This post is written in response to weekly readings for HUCO617: Posthumanism. This week we were reading Humanism, by Tony Davies, which describes the emergence of “Humanism” as a concept, a movement, a pedagogy, a philosophy, an ideology, a ‘Snark’.

There are so many weighty concepts and reversals worth discussing in Davies’ Humanism that it is hard to know where to start.  Perhaps the most important aspect of Davies’ history of the term is something he never quite addresses: the structure of the text itself.

Davies’ approach to reaching a whole and encompassing definition of ‘Humanism’ says quite a lot about our own historical moment and the current state of (post)Humanism.  In his introduction Davies carefully notes that his history is not strictly chronological but should follow an internal logic, a narrative that identifies the plurality of Humanism and enumerates its myriad conflicting variations.   He begins with the 19th and 20th century attempts to first legitimize the essential and universal qualities of Humanism (undermined by the political ends such attempts are invariably put to) and then to deconstruct and disable the validity of these same qualities, and indeed, the validity of Humanism itself as a concept; then moves on to 15th century Italy and the origins of the European Renaissance (a period he does not forget to point out is just as fabricated as ‘Humanism’), pauses on the Enlightenment when the notions of essence and universality of Man are at once crystallized and inextricably bound up in the very real politics and power structures/struggles of the period; and, finally, ends at the present moment, with the realization that the very idea of Humanism is so problematic—so “chimerical” (128)—that it might not be salvageable, and yet it remains a sole refuge from a vast, cold, and unsettling universe within which our utter insignificance is wretchedly felt.  Derrida whispers through Davies’ approach to defining Humanism within a particular historical context, and then starkly proving how the definition is not humanism, is in fact an antihumanism according to how we have come to conceive the concept in terms of universality and individuality.  Like Derrida in Différance, Davies enacts the quixotic struggle to find a central truth in the plurality of meanings by circling the concept of ‘Humanism’, and in so doing proves that there is no centre [1].  There is no one ‘true’ meaning, only movement between different conceptions of the word, between the presence and absence of supporting values, humanism and antihumanism, human and Other.

I want to linger a moment on the idea of the Other, which Davies only briefly touches on in his conclusion with a too-quick summary of Emmanuel Levinas and Ted Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ (142-146).  Making a radical move Davies denies himself, I’m going to define ‘Humanism’ right now as “the pursuit of human identity “; Levinas says that ‘humanity’ is “a continuous and precarious process of becoming human…[and] the inescapable recognition that our humanity is on loan from others” (142).  We are defined as human by those things we perceive as not-human, we become ‘human’ only as a mirror reflection of the foreign, the different.  Ted Hughes’ poem gives voice to the Wodwo, a “half-human”, “larval shape” arrested in a state of becoming (144); to me, it reads rather like the internal monologue of Frankenstein’s monster in the moment it achieves self-awareness.  In Davies words, the poem is about “identity as movement, not destination; seeking, not finding” (143).  Both the Wodwo and the Monster are figures moving between the Other and the Human.  And perhaps this movement is what (post)Humanism should be about, what it has always been about.

I’m fascinated by the notion of the Other because I feel it plays a key role in the analysis of popular science-fiction narratives.  It provides a fertile landscape in which to explore the figure of the robot, the cyborg, and its significance in literature.


[1] In his concluding chapter, Davies describes how the pursuit of progress through a science founded on Reason—a defining feature of Humanism—has displaced “the very notion of ‘centre’ that secures the conceptual scaffolding of the human.” (132)

Cyborgization = Evolution?

HuCo 500 – Weekly questions

Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies. These tools embody and enforce new social relations for women world-wide. Technologies and scientific discourses can be partially understood as formalizations, i.e., as frozen moments, of the fluid social interactions constituting them, but they should also be viewed as instruments for enforcing meanings. The boundary is permeable between tool and myth, instrument and concept, historical systems of social relations and historical anatomies of possible bodies, including objects of knowledge. Indeed, myth and tool mutually constitute each other. (Haraway)

Throughout this course, I think my questions have demonstrated that I am particularly concerned with how technology fundamentally changes how we think.  Donna Haraway, a bit dramatically, states the obvious about the transformations that are occurring and have occurred in our society (or ‘politics’, in the sense that Haraway uses the word): that we are all socially constructed by the tools we rely on to shape our reality.  We are all cyborgs, already, since in many cases the tools have already been embodied; we use them to define ourselves.  They shape our mythology.  Take, for instance, the act of knowledge acquisition; the internet as technological development has changed how we process and evaluate information by making it almost universally accessible and mostly unfiltered, and by putting the means of production and mass-dissemination in the hands of the public.  The speed of communication has also affected how we process information; it has created social expectations, new conventions for interaction.  An individual of average intelligence from fifty years ago would have to struggle to make sense of our 21st century reality, and would likely experience a crippling anxiety just trying to keep up with what the individual of average intelligence today does effortlessly.[1] Arguably this could be said of any given time period, but I think the changes over time have never been so drastic or dramatic throughout human history than in the last two decades, and almost entirely due to how technology has transformed our lives.  My question is: where does such a paradigm lead?  What does it mean for us, as human beings, to become increasingly defined by our technologies (rather than defining them)?

This is the great secret of language: Because it comes from inside us, we believe it to be a direct, unedited, unbiased, apolitical expression of how the world is.  A machine, on the other hand, is outside of us, clearly created by us, modifiable by us… (Postman, 124-125)

Do machines that are communication devices (i.e. that facilitate the expression of language, interaction, the sharing of ideas verbally or visually/textually) take on the properties of language—that is, do we begin to internalize the machines, see them as extensions of our selves, as “direct, unedited, unbiased”—or, quite the opposite, do they afford us the opportunity of perceiving language as the technology that it is, with a set of assumptions about the world implicit in its construction?


Haraway, Donna (1991). “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. pp.149-181.

Postman, Neil  (1993). “Invisible Technologies.” Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books. pp.123-143.

[1] A fascinating study would be to assess the level of anxiety and the struggle that Canadian immigrants from third world/under-developed countries face when confronted with the technologies and their social conventions.  It could perhaps help answer the question of how fundamental the change affected by technology is, in our perception of reality.

Asimov Update: Gender and Otherness

I’ve been working on my encoding of Asimov’s robot stories, and reworked the pr_ref tag to include attributes for the source gender and “otherness”, as well as generalized the source attribute values (phuman, shuman, probot, srobot, nvoice) so it can be used when analyzing a corpus of different texts.

My encoding can now examine the relation to gender of human-robot interactions in the text (i.e. do more female characters respond emotionally to the robots than male characters?  Do male characters physically interact with the robots more? etc.)

I can also track which references demonstrate a portrayal of the robot as “other”, and which references portray the robot as “same” in relation to the source factions in the text.  This otherness/sameness dichotomy is by no means a perfect science, but given a careful reading most references in the text usually imply one or the other.   (Not unlike determining the difference between an emotive and an interactive reference, determining “otherness” relies on interpretation.)

As well, I have made it possible for the principal robot character to reference itself.  This is important in a text like “Someday”, where the robot “the Bard” tells a story about itself.

Click on the screenshot below to see an example of how I’m using the Mandala browser to visualize these features.

Mandala Browser

The Bard's robot references and their "otherness"

“Born Digital” Experiences: Identity crisis waiting to happen?

HuCo 500 – Weekly questions


Note: Rather than two separate questions, this week I’ve come up with a series of related questions addressing a single idea inspired by one of the readings. These questions take the form of a short, personal response.

As our lives and experiences become more digital, the records of our experiences become less tangible. (Viegas et al, 2004)

Is this statement true? It seems to me when considering the digital/analog dichotomy, the ‘record of our experiences’ has in fact become more explicit with the advent of the Internet. Social media applications such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter allow us to track our lives in the most minute detail; blogging, microblogging, “lifestreams”, these all provide ways for us to record and trace our experiences over time. Social networks (Facebook, MySpace) allow us to track the relationships that we maintain and the patterns that they represent in our lives. If anything, the ‘record of our experiences’ has become more tangible, not less. The question is rather how accurate a representation of our experiences is the record? Our digital record naturally biases our “born digital” experiences (to borrow a term from last week’s readings); the Internet is a space in which we spend a significant portion of our lives and where we have experiences (rather than simply being a medium with which to record them). For example, the relationships we make within a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) may be more heavily recorded online than relationships we have in our “analog” lives. Does that make them more or less real? More or less important?

The argument presented by Viegas et al. suggests that there are digital experiences that are obscured from the record; but how is this different than “analog” experiences (i.e. the experiences that occur outside the digital space)? There are many things that we do that do not require, demand, or deserve to be recorded. I can’t remember, for instance, what I had for breakfast three weeks ago last Monday. In this sense, the record has not become more or less tangible; it is, perhaps, less relevant. Perhaps the problem is how we make sense of the massive amount of information we create in the digital space. We need to translate the digital record of our experiences into something we can interpret more easily– into something “analog”. Visualization is one of the tools that allow us to do this. In essence, visualization is translation of digital media.

Viegas et al. indicate that we attach personal meaning to objects, that these objects are tied to our senses of self and reality, of what is and who we are. The fact that they are examining email as one such object indicates that these objects can just as easily be virtual as physical. As our lives become more digital, so will the objects we imbue with meaning. What will this mean for us and how we construct our realities?


Viegas, Fernanda, danah boyd, David H. Nguyen, Jeffrey Potter, and Judith Donath (2004). Digital Artifacts for Remembering and Storytelling: PostHistory and SocialNetworkFragments. Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Arya, Agustin (2003). The Hidden Side of Visualization. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology. Winter 2003.