Are we Posthuman yet? (Katherine Hayles) (Embodied Virtuality)


I was not expecting to like as much as I did How We Became Posthuman Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics by Katherine Hayles. Assuming that Hayles’ book was more akin to Kurzweil’s “singularity” than it is in fact, I wasn’t going to read it. But Hayles gets mentioned so much, and by people whom I respect, that I gave it a go. Instead of leaving the body behind, the introduction of embodiment into the discussion of human-machine interactions is predicated upon a notion that you cannot separate minds, brain, and information from material and bodily substrate. The point is to insist that the world and its objects and subjects are interpenetrates of information and matter (p.14), that “bodies” are schematic and instantiated “embodiments” (pp.196, 202ff).

Less convining are these notes:  [1] the posthuman is set up against a caricature of individuated liberal subjectivity presented as the isolated, disembodied, autonomous, decision-making conscious self of classical laissez faire capitalism; and also because [2] much of what is meant to be posthuman is based on claims regarding the “union” of human and intelligent machines (p.3), the emergence of the subject as an informational, material unit (p.11) submerged into data flows or code in which people and machines are part of single, inseparable system (pp.38, 46, 84). The body might be revealed as a construct open to radical change (p.85). What gives skeptical pause is the rush to proclaim the death of liberalism and the premature Good News of some new supersession full of promise, grace, and transformation.

By the end of the book Hayles will have walked back the more radical claims re: human-machine interfaces. There are limits, the author admits, to this human-machine hybrid. The union is not seamless, precisely because human beings remain and will always remain embodied, and conscious. There are just too many differences in the types of embodiment that distinguish aware and self-aware human intelligence from the intelligent machines, no matter how tight the symbiotic relations between them. We remain human-all-too-human (pp.283ff). If what it means to be posthuman is to transcend the so-called liberal subject, well then perhaps it never was the case that “we” were ever human to begin with, that we were never modern as per Latour, that the so-called liberal subject is as much a figment of the critical theorist’s own ideological imagination. Instead, posthumanism turns out here to have been a useful language game with which to rearrange and rethink what it means to be human under new technological conditions.

In the meantime, Hayles will have guided us expertly through first-generation cybernetics theory represented by Norbert Weiner between 1945 and 1960, and then second-generation theories built on the idea of reflexivity in which the gap between subjects and external environments are effectively closed, and then into third-generation theories predicated on the notion of virtuality. The discussion blends between science and cybernetic and information theory, on the one hand, and sci-fi and cyber-punk literature, on the other hand. The reliance on literature and the mixture of science with science fiction to flesh out the theory works to mixed effect, serving to both clarify and obfuscate what Hayles presents as the “emergence” of new subjectivities. In all fairness, this is a 1999 book, still flush, perhaps, with the first excitements of new media theory. I’m curious to see how the discussion takes shape in the more recent How We Think which pays a lot of mind to digital reading and other mental phenomena things online and technological.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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