Review of N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999).
If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival (5).
Hayles’ title could be rewritten in the form of a question: How and when did we become posthuman? How and when did we acquire our virtual bodies? How has cybernetics, contemporary literature, and informatics altered what it means to be human? What have humans become? And what were we before this metamorphosis? Reading Hayles’ book is to step into an x-ray machine or to go under the surgeon’s knife, as the inner self or consciousness is exposed as a precarious construct. The scene I want to reference is familiar, having been played many times in film and television to the point that it can evoke humor and sell running shoes and energy drinks rather than cause viewers to recoil in horror. The character, male or female, is lying on an operating table. A close-up shows the character’s face, as the surgeon removes it to expose the inner workings of circuit boards and blinking lights. The president is a robot. The quarterback is a robot. The prostitute is a robot. The sheriff is a robot. The housewife is a robot. Are these revelatory scenes revelatory? Do they have any impact? Do they reveal anything that we don’t already know? Have we become complacent to the idea that human agency is nothing more than a fantasy? Hayles’ book refuses to be complacent, to let us go quietly into the night. It is as much a manifesto as Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.” It demands that we wake from our cybernetic slumber, that we reboot. It would appear to be too late for the human. The question now is: How can we become better posthumans, better cyborgs?
Reading Hayles’ text as a self-help book for cyborgs is not as flippant as it may sound (even though the “self” is the main thing that is threatened with the ascendency of the cyborg). My aim is not to undermine the seriousness or depth of Hayles’ arguments. I am simply trying to reiterate her call for action in a manner that underscores the difficulty of telling people something that they refuse to hear. This refusal speaks to the tenacity of the liberal humanist subject and the general refusal to admit that computer technologies have radically changed what it means to be human. For Hayles this is primarily a story of loss, in which information displaces embodiment. Alongside the cyborg, cybernetics is an important component in this story. As Hayles explains, cybernetics was a product of WWII, developing from the tactics and system analysis used to improve antiaircraft guns. Its main concern is to identify recurring patterns shared between entities, regardless of their being organic or inorganic. The advocates of cybernetics saw it as a grand explanation, a way of understanding everything. Leading this call were group of American and European scientists, mathematicians, and psychologists, including Norbert Wiener, John von Neuman, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, and Gregory Bateson. The aims and expectations of cybernetics were developed during a series of annual conferences held in New York. These aims would eventually “coalesce into a theory of communication and control applying equally to animals, humans, and machines. Retrospectively called the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, these meetings, held from 1943 to 1954, were instrumental in forging a new paradigm” (7). This paradigm was founded on the principle of feedback loops that emerge from the randomness or chaos of life to help evolve or streamline systems of knowing and being. For example, my knowledge of frogs in a pond is constantly being revised and streamlined based on the facts and data I acquire of frogs. Frogs are constantly communicating variations and patterns of “frogness” to me, while I am constantly communicating variations and patterns of humanness to potentially receptive frogs. Existence is thus envisioned as an exchange of information. For the Macy collective, “humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who were essentially similar to intelligent machines” (7). In this arrangement the body and its senses took a backseat to the brain and cognition. The body became more of a housing and relay device rather than unified property that helped to define what means to be human. It was in this context that the cyborg, with its enhanced capabilities, rose to prominence.
My example of frog-pond cybernetics is meant to echo the prominent position the frog holds in the development of what is referred to as a second wave of cybernetics. As Hayles explains, the frog helped articulate the important idea of reflexivity:
It all started with a frog. In a classic article entitled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” central players in the Macy group – including Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and Jerry Lettvin – did pioneering work on a frog’s visual system. They demonstrated, with great elegance, that the frog’s visual system does not so much represent reality as construct it. What’s true for frogs must also hold for humans, for there is no reason to believe that the human neural system is uniquely constructed to show the world as it “really” is. (131)
These studies showed that frogs see the world as a reflection of what frogs need to see to interact with their environment. Frogs are able to see fast-moving objects but cannot see slow moving ones. This explains why frogs can capture darting insects with a relaxed flick of the tongue and are vulnerable to predators who slowly sneak up on them. A world of visible flies and invisible snakes is reflected back through receptors in frog’s eyes and through neurons in its brain so that they see their environment accordingly. The world, in other words, is made over to become, more or less, frog friendly. In this way the observer, human or frog, becomes central to the way the world unfolds. As a consequence of reflexivity, the world loses its solidity. Instead of a unified world of frogs and humans, cybernetics reveals an endless variety of interconnected worlds.
The notion of reflexivity caused a schism in cybernetics, with the first wave of thinkers on one side and the second wave on the other. The liberal humanist subject and how we are conventionally taught to understand the world around us was jeopardized by both waves but the second wave, with its emphasis on the observer and competing worldviews or ontologies, was seen by many of the founders of cybernetics as going too far. The main players in the second wave were two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Working together, the two men focused on the notion of autopoiesis as a ruling principle in the creation of life. Autopoiesis is the idea of self-making or self-creation that results because of the relays and exchange of information that circulate between entities. “A living system’s organization,” explains Hayles,”causes certain products to be produced, for example, nucleic acids. These products in turn produced the organizing characteristics of that living system” (136). Maturana and Varela’s argument that biology holds the key to understanding all life can hardly be called radical. What was radical was the extent that they carried this argument. Following on this line of thinking, they propose a revaluation of both life and thinking. “Living systems,” they famously declare, “are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system” (“Autopoiesis and Cognition. The Realization of the Living,” 1980, p. 13). In this declaration Maturana and Varela boldly call on us to acknowledge that the lines separating humans, animals, and machines are mere window dressing. Such a shift in thinking is echoed in repeating science-fiction scenarios in which humans find themselves trapped in the consciousness of a cosmic computer.
Implicit to Maturana and Varela’s declaration is a devaluation of the liberal humanist subject, which can be read as a posthuman credo: As posthumans we can no longer hold onto ideas of mastery or uniqueness, as technology has long surpassed human limitations. The human, has effectively been pushed out of essential feedback loops and has been replaced by an entity that is neither super nor subhuman. How we come to meet and acknowledge the posthuman is one of the main strands of Hayles’ argument. In something of a recuperative gesture of her own, Hayles argues for an embodied posthumanism, one that insists on complexity and the materiality of experience. By foregrounding complexity and materiality, she contends, we will be able to forestall reductive narratives that attempt to reinscribe ideas of human control. In contrast to a reductive or pessimistic view of posthumanism, Hayles argues for a position that takes into account the feminist critique of science:
In this account, emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism, distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligence machines replaces the liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature. (288)
With these concerns in mind, Hayles urges us to engage the posthuman. “The best possible time,” she states, “to contest for what the posthuman means is now, before the trains of thought it embodies have been laid down so firmly that it takes dynamite to change them” (291). Part of this engagement is to encourage us to be critical readers and consumers of science-fiction and technology. By not being seduced by fantasies of either human supremacy or total annihilation we can strive to be better posthumans. Again, this is no easy task. The self keeps on trucking down the road. We seem to take a certain pleasure in seeing ourselves as an account number, a user name, a barcode, a seeder, a leecher, an avatar, an email address, but we continue to struggle with the idea that we are responsible nodes in a vast network that extends far beyond the individual and the human.