Sunday, May 13, 2007

Katherine Hayles' Third Way Towards Posthuman

The following text, a draft of my review on My Mother Was a Computer by N. K. Hayles (2005), will appear in the journal 'Science and Public Policy' sometime in 2007.

Katherine Hayles' Third Way Towards Posthuman

My Mother was a Computer - Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, by N. Katherine Hayles, University of Chicago Press, (August 2005), ISBN number: 0-226-32128-7 (paper), 288 pages

Following up on her book, Writing Machines (2002), which defines materiality as “an emergent property created through dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies”, Hayles’ newest contribution enlarges our understanding of materiality as she aims to incorporate a Latourian version of “the constructions of matter that matter for human meaning” (p. 3). It is through this perspective that she has readers embark on a journey of re/discovery of the multidimensional dynamic intermediation of literary texts in our digital life.

Hayle’s work is divided into three distinct parts: “making”, through language and code; “sorting”, as print and electronic text; and, “transmitting” via analog and digital encoding. In the first section (making), she suggests that the operation of code is an intermediated product of human thought and machine intelligence undergoing processes through which texts emerge. She illustrates “how bodies are interpolated differently as the technology transforms from the passive code of the telegraph to the [executable]/active code of sophisticated cybernetic device and computer programming”(p. 8). The second part of her book (sorting), has Hayles exploring the materiality of a variety of forms of media (print and electronic text, language, code) by looking at the complex dynamics that emerge from the processes of “media translation'” (p. 89). For example, she examines what happens as you translate print literature into digital media and then move back and forth between these two realms. According to her account, technologies and texts interpenetrate mutually and constitute one another without doubt. She notes: “texts [are] more than sequences of words and spaces [but] artefacts whose materialities emerge from negotiations between their signifying structures and the technologies that produce them” (p. 142). Finally, her third section (transmitting), deals with the fluid transmission between analog consciousness and digital cognition. Here, Hayles reviews how agency emerges via the intermediation and hybridisation of human and the machine. She argues emphatically that such hybridity would lead to the emergence of multiple subjectivities that appear in a virtual creature where human and non-human elements interact. This kind of material embodiment, which appears to be ubiquitous, bears an important meaning: “the entanglement of language with code, the traditional medium of print with electronic textuality, and subjectivity with computation [have] a major implication that the boundaries of all kinds have become permeable to the supposed other” (p. 242).

In her epilogue Hayles concludes that “boundaries are both permeable and meaningful; humans are distinct from intelligent machines even while the two are become increasingly entwined”. She suggests that “rather than attempt to police these boundaries, we should strive to understand the materially specific ways in which flows across borders create complex dynamics of intermediation”(p. 242). It is precisely this insightful view on “boundaries” that would enlighten policy-oriented researchers. The “new materialism” Hayles advocates an emphasis on the mutable texuality of hybrid artefacts that allows them to be resituated and travel across boundaries. Such fluidity opens up new and exciting possibilities for current discussions in digital culture studies, which have up to this point been largely built around the dichotomy between technological determinism and social determinism. Hayles encourages scholars to consider both the hybrid identities of digital artefacts (what she labels as “intelligent machines”) and human selves as situated subjects and objects that are embodied in the processes of interaction and accordingly instantiate mutually. This perspective seems to offer unique insights for an investigation of the complex human-computer interactions in today's web-based society. There seems to be a tremendous value for trying to incorporate this theoretical insight into the empirical study of communications, networks and communities in the present day semantically linked web 2.0 environment in which both human actors and digital artefacts are accommodated and where both human language and software code are assembled and co-evolved.

There is a great deal of work still to be done when trying to grapple with the subtleties of the hybrid and transitional life that we currently inhibit. Questions emerge such as: how do we deal with the uncertainties and dynamics emerging from mobility and fluidity of the multiple layers of transformation between the real and the virtual? I am confident that grounding Hayles' theory in well-constructed studies of real life phenomenon particularly more policy-oriented case studies would deepen our knowledge in this area and open up fruitful and engaging avenues for future exploration. In sum, although Hayles's writing owes much to the realm of literary studies, as opposed to directly relevant policy-oriented research, the concepts she raises in this book will be a valuable resource for any investigator who yearns for a new avenue of intellectual scholarship to help direct them through the sometimes messy but always interesting dilemmas of digital cultural studies.

Hayles, N. K. (2002) Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press.

About the reviewer:

Yu-Wei Lin is with the ESRC National Centre for e-Social Science, University of

Manchester, M13 9PL, UK, e-mail: yuwei{at}

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