Feel free to skip directly to the provocation at the bottom, but if you’re anything like me, you found this text challenging and dense, and may benefit from a quick summary of some of the major points. Please feel free to challenge or add to my paraphrasing of this work in the comments.
Embedded in the prologue and first chapter of N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman (1999), is a discussion of “what came before” — what it meant to be “human.” For 17th Century theorists of liberal humanism like Locke and Hobbes, the “human” was an individual free from the will of others, “the proprietor of his own person” and capacities (see this for more). Hayles writes that framing the subject in this way helped those theorists form a foundation for market relations and selling one’s labor for wages (even though technically the market existed before the theory!) In the mid 20th century, the liberal humanist or “natural” self was critiqued from many angles — including feminist, postcolonial, and postmodern.
The relatively new field of cybernetics (the study of regulatory systems) stepped in with its own critique, formulating an alternative model for subjectivity: the ‘posthuman, “a cyborg material-informational entity whose boundaries are being constantly constructed and reconstructed” (3). The term views the body as “the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate,” and recognizes the ways that human beings have become “seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines” (3).
We are cyborgs, even if we don’t have electronics embedded in our person, simply because of the ways technology has become wrapped up in our identity production. Hayles brings up the example of one iteration of the famous Turing test, where you must guess whether an entity communicating with you through technological/electronic mediation is a male or female. Whether or not you guess correctly, the technology has “spliced” what she calls the “enacted body” (the flesh behind the computer) and the “represented” body (electronic signs and symbols) (xiii). That means one’s embodiment (flesh) does not ensure a singular meaning of gender nor identity in a technologically mediated space, fundamentally altering how we think about ourselves.
Crucially for Hayles, even as the idea of the posthuman has departed from the idea of the “human” in many ways, this model of subjectivity continues liberal humanism’s tenet that the body is subordinate to the mind and cognition. There’s something fetishistic and (like Haraway said about this subject in her interview) macho, about the idea that consciousness and information can live on without the human body — that we can “download” human consciousness into a machine — and that humans are understood as sets of “informational processes” apart from materiality.
Hayles’ book is about tracing how the privileging of abstract information over embodiment came to dominate the field of cybernetics as the concept of the posthuman was developed, demonstrating “what had to be elided, suppressed, and forgotten, to make information lose its body” (13). She argues that this conclusion was not inevitable. After all, postcolonial, feminist, postmodern, and critical race theorists underscore the importance of the body in their critiques, as they eviscerate liberal humanism for the role it played in the domination and oppression of the industrial and colonial periods.
She asks whether the deconstruction of the liberal humanist subject can be an opportunity to put flesh back into conversations about cybernetic subjects (5) so that we can celebrate the mortality of the human being, the materiality of information, and realize the extent to which humans are embedded in a material world that we very much depend on.
The implications of this argument are potentially far-reaching. I think about a course I took in undergrad called the Anthropology of Consumption, which was all about examining the social relationships that go into a thing’s commoditization and creating a “commodity biography” which becomes a lens through which to view global capitalism (for example, this one, by my professor about coffee from Papua New Guinea). Posthumanism, around the time Hayles was writing, viewed technology as merely a conduit for information. Sleek marketing reinforces the notion that technology delivers information and entertainment out of the ether, straight into our brains. The fact of information’s materiality, however, becomes startlingly explicit for me when it is time to throw away broken electronics, or when I watch or listen to documentaries about e-waste, and the children in far away countries who pick through piles of it looking for parts to sell.
Perhaps a way to continue Hayles’ project of reconciling posthumanism with a recognition of embodiment and materiality could involve a “commodity biography”-type approach. This conception could help expose the supply chains, labor, and natural resource exploitation that went into bringing it our way. Technology is a part of the material world, and should be viewed as such.
Hayles’ book seems like just the start to what seems to me a worthwhile project. My provocation is: think about your own field of study OR the other readings for the week. In what ways might the human subject of your field or text be in fact, “posthuman”? What arguments and examples would you bring up from your field or the other readings for this week to argue for the incorporation of “embodiment” in the conception of posthumanity?
Another question I had for the group while reading this work: Writing in 1999, Hayles mentions how the “transformation to posthuman is not a universal human condition — it affects a small fraction of the world’s population.” Is this still the case? Why or why not? What specific examples can you provide to flesh out your answer?
Hayles, N. K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University of Chicago Press.
– Sara Vogel