Infinity + Muse= Human

Infinite: unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless.
Muse: think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.
2.Archaic. to gaze meditatively or wonderingly. meditate on.
4. to comment thoughtfully or ruminate upon.
5. the genius or powers characteristic of a poet.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

This Thing We Call Posthuman: Katherine Hayles and the most important present-thought

Discussing Katherine Hayles' notion of the Posthuman, (with attention to 'My Mother Was a Computer' --- Final Critical response)

Katherine Hayles has produced two works on the progressing conception of the human in only a few years. While she first began with "How We Became Posthuman" her work in "My Mother Was a Computer" is something of both a restating of some of her beliefs as much as it is an update to some of them. And before I go any further on her conceptions of the Posthuman and, more specifically, on the article "My mother Was a Computer" itself, I just want to highlight an intriguing notion which flows from what I just mentioned. That is, the fact that Hayles has produced two works on the concept of the Post-Human within a relatively short period of time suggests just how fluid and full of potentiality the question of human development and progression is. It is a space of change and shifting-view points. And just as our cultural and technical worlds so often shift and give way to new ideas, new focuses and new possibilities so too do the concepts of our very selves--our conceptions of what humans are and what they may be.

To me, THAT is really awesome-- the notion that our very sense of human can stand to change and shift in a way that is very similar to the way in which our society, technologies, and ideas themselves can change.

That moment of excitement aside, let us turn to exactly what it is that Hayles deals with in "My Mother was a Computer". Firstly, it is important to understand part of the more general ideas of the Posthuman as Hayles discusses it. Essentially, her notion of the Posthuman stands in opposition to the kind of human-narrative we get from enlightenment thinking. In that mode of thinking, we viewed the human as a mind which is housed within a body . In this narrative we are the only real thinkers around and as a creature with a mind inside a body we are more so autonomous thinkers . Further, enlightenment thinking suggests that humans possess an ability to access knowledge in a primary kind of way. Now, Hayles believes that this is a story which no longer applies to us, and indeed, she suggests that as a whole the story of who we are and what we will be is susceptible to these kinds of shifts. Instead of seeing ourselves as a kind of knowledge centre and as the only thinking masters of our environment, the truth about us (according to Hayles) is that we actually exist in a space of Distributed cognition. In other words, that means we're not the only thinkers in this world, and that we are actually a species that thinks with other things, and that these other things inform us. In this view, we are not masters of our world, but we are truly affected by all other things around us. Essentially then, part of the major thread of "How We Became Posthuman" is to both attack the discourse of mastery that characterized the enlightenment, but also, to suggest that if we conceive ourselves as being part of this 'distributed cognition' we can open up brand new pathways of development for our species.

Following this, she wrote a follow up work about the notion of the Posthuman, called "My mother was a Computer" . In some ways, it is re-telling of and expansion on some of her previous ideas, but it is also (as Dr. Picard noted) a place in which the discussion on the Posthuman is moved forward and the ideas that may have since faded in importance get left behind. For example, a recent focus on materiality has allowed the human conception of the self to leave behind issues of mind-body dualism that we saw in Descartes and embrace the fact that our 'story' now is quite a different one than it used to be believed to be. We are tied, in a very real way, to a certain degree of materiality and the idea that material things (like the world around us) inform the composition of us, our minds, the way we think and the way we are. So in other words, the environment, the entities and the general world around us contribute to the way we are, and our story, AND the story of the world around us changes as a result. We change the world with our technologies, our technologies change us, but the world around us also informs our technologies. This is part of the notion of us as a part of a distributed cognition. This concept of shifting narratives, and the idea that humans are not at the centre, not the master of that narrative is an important part of what Hayles is after. We are fluid and shifting, we are one of many, and the narrative of our existence is not static, and not only informed by us.

Part of that idea of narrative change and evolution is presented at the start of the work and in the title itself. "My Mother was a Computer" suggests, as Hayles writes, that the descriptor of "Computer" was once a valid way of describing humans who did calculations. Since they certainly partook in computational activities it didn't seem to be an odd suggestion then. Now, however, the statement "My mother was a computer" sounds completely improbable to us. The reason for that, of course, is that our relationship to machines has changed, our language has adapted and the narratives that surround it have also undergone change. Now, humans cannot be computers in any way. As Hayles writes, this "marks a shift in society in which the intelligence required for calculations was primarily associated with humans" to the point in which calculation has been almost entirely shifted to machines. These kinds of shifts take place in a variety of spaces and in a plethora of ways throughout the history of technological growth, and our relationship to (and even fusion with) machinery is part of that shift. The story of the intelligent machine (which in some ways, is what humans themselves ARE) is a story which is interwoven into the human narrative.

As Hayles writes, there has been an absolute penetration of technology into the human experience within developed countries and that widespread use of all kinds of technology in our lives have given rise to this notion of the Posthuman-- something that differs from what we are-- something that is beyond or separate from the way we used to understand ourselves.

In her first work How We Became Posthuman Hayles explains a "tension" between liberal humanist ideas and the emergent sense of the Posthuman. However, five years onwards, as she herself admits the story of the idea of Posthumanism has changed-- the debates around it and the focuses she had in that book have "begun to fade into...history". In this new endeavour, she expresses that the focus now will be on the variations of Posthuman as they "continue to evolve in conjunction with intelligent machines".

One possible pathway of the Posthuman question is the view of "computation as ontology". In this view is the suggestion that "reality is continually produced and reproduced on atomic molecular and macro levels" (3) and that this kind of repetitive replication informs " cultural systems". What this view means though, is in a wider sense, we can conceive nature as more of a computational system, metaphorically, and in so doing recognize our origins not from "Mother Nature" but a "Universal Computer". Now, what is important of course is the metaphor here, and Hayles continues it by suggesting that the origin of our species might instead be the "Universal Computer" that is "the Motherboard of us all". Now, as Haraway hoped to discuss in her work on Cat's Cradle, metaphors are powerful and exceedingly important things, and are, often much more than simple linguistic plays. In this case the metaphor of our origins being likened to a Computer suggests the current state of our world as being technology driven, it suggests the slow and steady decline of the 'Nature' construct, and it "enables deeper insight new institutions into certain aspects of reality" while also "obscuring" other things (3). In other words, as she so aptly states "the computational universe simultaneously [works] as [both] means and metaphor" (4). It offers us looks at "technology", "ontology" and "cultural icon" and in so doing lays "fertile ground for re-envisioning and remaking a wide variety cultural artefacts"

And really that is the most important centre of her argument. That discussions of the Posthuman-- of technology and of a different ontology and a different view of ourselves-- can directly and indirectly act to create and shape the world around us, our society, our conceptions, and all the things that come from it. Like Haraway, part of that conception is the notion of the power of language and metaphor, and I personally do not feel that this idea is misplaced in the least. We live in a world of images, language and representation, and the idea that these metaphors can work to change our concepts in a real way holds a lot of weight with me-- and not just our concepts, but our real lives! That's sort of the key here, the idea that a change in words mirrors the effects of a change in the world-- they are intertwined and symbiotic, and the very fact that we are now considering these concepts of the post human and debating them, suggests that there have already been shifts in our culture, shifts in our understanding of ourselves, and that our selves have also been 'shifted' by the world.

This notion of the computer-- the computational-- has helped to inform different and advancing notions of the relationship between text and the "digital" subject, and as a result the way we conceptualize ourselves and the way in which we create new meanings for the world around us changes. It is fluid and it is in flux, and as Hayles attempts to explain, it expresses something of the "entanglement of the bodies of texts and digital subjects" (7). Further, technologies , especially those related to media ensure "complex transactions between bodies and texts" while the relationship between media, the new conceptions of digital subjects and the future and current narratives of "an embodied human world" are always changing and influencing one another.

All of this works to suggest the "emergent possibilities" of the Posthuman concept, and the fact that it is a concept that cannot ever be reduced . It is complex, and evolving, and the conception of the human, the literary, the media, and the very world around us are each liable to shift and change as the thoughts on the subject progress.

What is so very fascinating about all of this, and so very valuable is the following: Hayles, like Haraway, again works to suggest how powerful language and the metaphor can be, and the way in which non-material things take on a sort of 'material' status, or at least, show themselves as able to effect real-world objects. The story, the narrative, the language we utilize, and the metaphors we use all have a real effect on what humans are, what they can become, and what their society and their environment will change into. More importantly, all of the notions forwarded in "My Mother was a Computer" suggests just how important, diverse and potentially powerful the idea of the Posthuman is. The Posthuman is a notion which now directly effects the concepts and progress of human existence and everything that is involved with us. In that sense, the debates present within the notion of the Posthuman have come to act as a sort of epicentre of possibility and progression.

What comes out of the Posthuman theory when all is said and done will seem to be central to the conception of human existence -- and for that, I would call it an immediately important, and weighty concept. And it's one that seems to morph and change as quickly as humanity's own technology.

However, whereas some feel that posthumanism threatens humanity as we know it, I think I and Hayles would agree, that it simply presents new and interesting possibilities and shifts-- but not a human apocalypse of any kind.

Either way, the Posthuman is perhaps one of the most important discussions of the current age.


1. Through Hayles, I have attempted to layout an expression of the Posthuman as being at the cutting edge of not only human progression but the progression of ways in which we view the world, our environment and the role of language and metaphor. Do you feel that the concept of Posthuman is as important and potent as I presented it to be, or is it just another theory? Why do you feel the way you do?

2. Do you believe that the Posthuman notion has fully separated itself from the question of liberal humanism and that it has successfully asserted itself as a premiere philosophical question?

3. How does Posthuman theory as Hayles represents it interact with (or find relevance in) the internet? What is the relationship between the two?

Teaching Aids


The Posthuman World

Swedish Radio Host discusses some of the main concerns of Posthumanism, and it also presents some other aids of its own. This is a fantastic discussion in-and-of-itself and some of it clashes with Posthuman optmism that I present here through Hayles. The speaker has a negative view of humanity, and it makes for an interesting contrast.

Posthuman Wiki

A brief intro to the topic

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