N. Katherine Hayles: How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999)

N. Katherine Hayles’ text is frequently cited within the posthuman debate and is consequently an important point of reference for NaChiLit: Ecocitizen’s WP 3 “Beings” in particular. The book is based on six years of research into the history of cybernetics, cognitive science, computational biology and artificial life (AL), involving visits to laboratories engaged in research on virtual reality and readings of cultural and literary texts concerned with information technologies.

The book develops three interrelated stories that took shape from this immersion: 1) how information lost its body in becoming conceptualized as separate from material form, 2) how the cyborg was created as a technological artefact and cultural icon in the years post World War II, and 3) how the historical construction of the human is giving way to the different construction of the posthuman.

Drawing on both scientific texts (to reveal foundational assumptions) and on literature (to discuss the complex cultural, social and representational issues tied up with these conceptual shifts and technological innovations), Hayles presents an informed, multi-layered and involved discussion of these three complex and interwoven strands of thought which is not easily summarized. However, a central concern for Hayles is the erasure of embodiment that she finds is a feature common to the liberal human subject as a historical construction and the cybernetic posthuman, since they both place emphasis on cognition over embodiment.

Arguing against such an erasure, Hayles stresses that “human being is first of all embodied being, and the complexities of this embodiment mean that human awareness unfolds in ways different from those of intelligence embodied in cybernetic machines” (p. 284). Thus, she argues, the time to vie for what the posthuman means is now.

Of particular interest to WP4 may be her discussion of embodied learning, and the distinction she draws up between incorporating practices (embodied learning) and inscribing practices (that correct and modulate performative learning) (pp. 199-207).

Understanding the human and posthuman as “historically specific constructions that emerge from different configurations of embodiment, technology and culture” (p. 33), Hayles argues that the shift from print to digital media involves a shift from a presence / absence dialectic (material basis) to a pattern / randomness dialectic (digital electronic media), and that this shift is encoded into “every aspect of contemporary literature” (p. 35). Noting how Derrida focused on the gap that separates speaking from writing, she holds that while Derrida’s narrator is the (absent) scribe, digital texts transforms the narrator into “a cyborg authorized to access the [pattern of] relevant codes” (p. 43).

Tracing the changing relationship between technology, embodiment and human identity, Hayles shows that the dislocation between embodiment and self has increased with digital technologies, as the ability to store our voices and images in machines render them subject to potential erasure and rewriting, transforming them into “flickering signifiers”.

Highly pertinent to the work of NaCHiLit, Hayles critically examines the persuasive rhetoric of linguistic figures and metaphors underpinning the construction of the posthuman within various scientific disciplines and shows how these may subtly hijack the mind into thinking that some descriptions and trajectories of the present or future are inevitable.


Lykke Guanio-Uluru 01.09.2016