Tag Archives: N. Katherine Hayles

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Steve Jones and the Humanities, Everted

Steve Jones was a Distinguished Visiting Professor for the Advanced Research Collaborative at The Graduate Center last year (2014-2015), and as a result, I had the chance to hear him speak a few times. One of the features I admire about his work is the way it traces beginnings to moments of critical mass–certainly a goal of the introduction and first chapter of his 2013 book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. As I understand, Jones is now working on a history of Father Busa, the so-called founding father of digital humanities-type research who produced a concordance of Saint Thomas Aquinas using IBM’s computers around the 1950s. This project, like his others, suggests a common methodology: return to historical roots for new ways of thinking, uncover institutional forces that shaped movements, and interrogate these systems to highlight their current digital and networked instantiations.

Something that has struck me throughout this course is the intense relevance of science fiction, and thinking to Cory Doctorow, young adult versions of this genre, to imagining digital futures. Jones uses the work of William Gibson–who also coined the term “cyberspace”–to refine the term “eversion” (also Gibson’s word) for conceiving of our relationship to technology anew. For Jones, “eversion” is the idea that we no longer tune in to digital worlds, or engage with networks by booting up or down a computer, but that the omnipresence of the network creeps outward into our daily lives and physical space. The WiFi waves that surround our bodies when we’re in networked buildings, the GPS in our phones (GPS is a huge turning point for Jones’ argument about eversion, perhaps worthy of classroom discussion) that tracks our location on grids, gaming devices like the Wii, all indicate that we are surrounded by the stuff of digitality and can no longer contain it in a tiny screen or device. This idea dovetails with Hayles’ argument from How We Became Posthuman that information is material, suggesting, in part, that what’s at stake in Jones’ argument–although he doesn’t necessarily pick this up–is what it means to be human in an everted age. Perhaps Haraway might have something to add!

Jones covers much ground in the first two sections of The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, but by far the most resonant and applicable idea that I’ve extracted is that of “eversion.” Since this term is also the organizing principle for his book, in lieu of a blow-by-blow of the readings, I’ll trot right to the provocations:

***The introduction ends with Jones’ statement that “the digital humanities is the humanities everted” (16). As evidence, he suggests that “DH has the potential to facilitate…productive breaches, to afford the kinds of cultural exchange that have shaped the new DH since its emergence” both inside and outside of the academy (16). Do you agree with his assessment of DH constituted an everted humanities? I’ve been chewing on this one a while.

***Related to eversion, Jones suggests that “the new DH starts from the assumption of a new, mixed-reality humanities” (32) that functions “less like an academic movement and more like a transitional set of practices at a crucial juncture, on the one hand moving between old ideas of the digital and of the humanities, and on the other hand, moving toward new ideas about both.” Looping about around to Haraway and Hayles (very poetic at the end of the semester), how might we build further nuance into this argument? Are “mixed-reality humanities” depending on either student or institutional economic stability/wealth, ideological systems, or perhaps combinations of other factors?

***Jones makes an important distinction in his definition of eversion by noting that the network doesn’t turn “itself inside out,” but rather “human agency” accomplishes this task–just how “games require players” and “digital humanities research requires scholar-practitioners” (36). Many of our course themes have attempted to account for human elements in digital research and pedagogy–it always comes back to the embodied self. How do we continue to negotiate the balance between concepts and theories like eversion and the human elements that are inherent in their animation?

N. Katherine Hayles, How we became posthuman

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.

<summary>

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.

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<provocation>

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?

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<citation>

Hayles, N. K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University of Chicago Press.

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– Sara Vogel