Tr: Review 49-The Posthuman View on Virtual Bodies

delriviere christophe (mich@thehzone.tzo.org)
Tue, 25 May 1999 21:45:35 +0200

-----Message d'origine-----
De : CTHEORY EDITORS <ctech@alcor.concordia.ca> : ctheory@concordia.ca <ctheory@concordia.ca> Date : mardi 25 mai 1999 17:45
Objet : Review 49-The Posthuman View on Virtual Bodies

> _____________________________________________________________________
> CTHEORY THEORY, TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE VOL 22, NO 1-2
>
> Review 49 99/05/25 Editors: Arthur and Marilouise Kroker
> _____________________________________________________________________
>
> The Posthuman View on Virtual Bodies
> ====================================
>
> ~Niran Abbas~
>
> N. Katherine Hayles. _How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in
> Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics_. University of Chicago
> Press, 1999.
>
> In the late 20th century with the millennium upon us, the
> distinction between human beings and machines is blurred. Popular
> culture seems to confirm Jean Baudrillard's contention that it is
> no longer necessary to write science-fiction since we now live it.
> Consistent with this assertion is the widespread belief that we are
> on the verge of the "post-body," "post-biological," or
> "post-human." This view has been a subject of analysis both for
> psychologist Sherry Turkle and science historian J. David Bolter
> who refers to the late-20th-century human as "Turing's Man."
> Theorists such as Arthur and Marilouise Kroker argue that the body
> is already obsolete. According to the Krokers, bodies have become
> expendable in the late 20th century as the economy collapses and
> culture implodes. In practice, the concept of obsolescence as
> applied to humans is a form of social Darwinism: it posits the
> survival of those with the economic means to finance their
> continued existence.

>
> In her most recent book, _How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies
> in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics_, Katherine Hayles
> does not offer certainties or conclusions;
she presents questions
> and suggestions fashioned in a looping manner that flow from
> concept to artefact with parataxis at the heart of her argument.
> Her account is frequently gnomic and tantalising, both suggestive
> and enlightening; she raises issues of great importance, both
> from a philosophical and political standpoint, in today's
> informatic age.
>
> The chapters are structured like a seriation chart to which she
> makes reference in relation to the history of cybernetics from
> the Macy Conferences in the 1950s to the present. In the history
> of cybernetics, ideas were rarely made up out of a whole
> cloth. Rather, they are fabricated in a pattern of
> overlapping replication and innovation, a pattern that Hayles
> calls "seriation" (a term appropriated from archaeological
> anthropology). The three main movements or "waves" of cybernetics
> are homeostasis (1945-1960), reflexivity (1960-1985) and virtuality
> (1985 to the present). Within archaeological anthropology, changes
> in artefacts are customarily mapped through seriation charts. One
> constructs a seriation chart by parsing an artefact as a set of
> attributes that change over time. Hayles uses the example of
> "lamps." A key attribute of lamps is the element that gives off
> light. The first lamps, dating back thousands of years, used
> wicks for this purpose. Later, with the discovery of electricity,
> wicks gave way to filaments. Considered as a set, the figures
> depicting changes in the attributes of an artefact reveal patterns
> of overlapping innovation and replication. Some attributes change
> from one model to the next, while others remain the same.
>
> The conceptual shifts that took place during the development of
> cybernetics display a seriated pattern reminiscent of material
> changes in artefacts. Conceptual fields evolve similarly to material
> culture in part because concept and artefact engage each other in
> continuous feedback loops. An artefact materially expresses the
> concept it embodies, but the process of its construction is far from
> passive. A glitch has to be fixed, a material exhibits unexpected
> properties, an emergent behaviour surfaces-any of these challenges
> can give rise to a new concept, which results in another generation
> of artefacts, which leads to the development of still other
> concepts.
According to this rationale, one should be able to trace
> the development of a conceptual field by using a seriation chart
> analogous to those used for artefacts.
>
> Hayles makes her intentions clear as of the first chapter. Her book
> is not just a historical examination of the cybernetic episteme: it
> explores the complex interplays between embodied forms of
> subjectivity and arguments for disembodiment throughout the
> cybernetic tradition. She asks a number of fundamental questions.
> How has information lost its body? How did it come to be
> conceptualised as an entity separate from the material forms in
> which it is thought to be embedded?
How did the cyborg emerge as a
> technological artefact and cultural icon in the years following
> World War II? How is a historically specific construct, the human,
> giving way to a different construct, the posthuman?
>
> Central to the construction of the cyborg are informational pathways
> connecting the organic body to its prosthetic extensions. This
> presumes a conception of information as a disembodied entity that
> can flow between carbon-based organic components and silicon-based
> electronic components to make protein and silicon operate in a
> single system. When information loses its body, equating humans and
> computers is easy, for the materiality in which the thinking mind is
> instantiated appears incidental to its essential nature. The idea of
> the feedback loop implies that the boundaries of the autonomous
> subject are up for grabs, since feedback loops can flow not only
> within the subject but also between the subject and the environment.
> From Norbert Wiener on, the flow of information through feedback
> loops has been associated with the deconstruction of the liberal
> humanist subject, the version of the "human" with which the
> posthuman is concerned.
>
> As its premise, Hayles's work contests the materiality/information
> separation by complicating the leap from embodied reality to
> abstract information. She accomplishes this by pointing to moments
> when the assumption involved in this move was contested by other
> researchers in the field.
The point of highlighting such moments is
> to make clear how much had to be erased to arrive at such
> abstractions as bodiless information. Of course, abstraction is an
> essential component in theorizing, for no theory can account for the
> infinite multiplicity of our interactions with the real. But when we
> make moves that erase the world's multiplicity, we risk losing sight
> of the variegated leaves, fractal branchings and particular bark
> textures that make up the forest.
>
> In the posthuman, we encounter a host of fictional speculations
> (from Bernard Wolfe's _Limbo_ to the novels of Philip K. Dick) and
> theoretical hypotheses about the total transformation of the human
> body that occurs through its interpolation in the nascent information
> networks. Contiguous with these claims, we find another set of
> observations on the entrenchment of existing bodily stereotypes in
> the electronic media. At successive moments in their development,
> digital media have contributed to the destabilization of an
> established sense of "reality." But, at the same time, these new
> media are used to simulate signifying objects, the bodies and the
> worlds they are rendering obsolete.
>
> One of the main areas examined in the posthuman from the perspective
> of dematerialization is the epistemic shift toward pattern/
> randomness from presence/absence. This shift affects human and
> textual bodies on two levels at once, as a change in the body (the
> material substrate) and as a change in the message (the codes of
> representation). The connectivity between these changes can be seen
> in Hayles's examination of contemporary fiction and information
> technologies.
>
> But what happens to the experience of embodiment, which Hayles
> refers to as a "blind spot" in literary studies? The blind spot she
> refers to is most evident when literary and cultural critics
> confront the fields of evolutionary biology. "From an evolutionary
> biologist's point of view, humans with all their technological
> prowess, represent an eye blink in the history of life, a species
> far too recent to have significant evolutionary impact on human
> biological behaviours and structures" (284). This question defines
> what is at stake culturally in the development of these new
> technologies. Both contemporary theory and popular culture attempt
> to narrativise this mutation in the relation between mind and body,
> perhaps most visible in cyborg imagery, as feminist and cultural
> theorist Donna Haraway has argued in "A Cyborg Manifesto."
> AI researcher Hans Moravec has envisioned a way to make the
> Cartesian metaphor of the mind divorced from the body a literal
> reality by taking the human mind out of the brain in what he calls
> the "postbiological." He describes how it will someday be possible
> for human mental functions to be surgically extracted from the human
> brain and transferred to computer software through a process he
> calls "transmigration." The useless human body and its brain tissue
> would then be discarded, while human consciousness would be
> downloaded in computer terminals, or for the occasional outing, in
> mobile robots. In his most recent book _Robot: Mere Machine to
> Transcendent Mind_ (Oxford Press, 1998), he discusses the prospects
> of machine intelligence overtaking human intelligence in less than
> 50 years. Despite the extreme nature of his ideas, Moravec is no
> isolated mad scientist: his vision of separating mind from body has
> been endorsed by Marvin Minsky, the MIT professor of Science and
> Technology. Minsky's integration of human intellect and emotions
> evokes theories of holistic medicine. His writings, however, do
> not argue for the preservation of human life; they contemplate
> its extinction.
According to this view, the mind takes over
> qualities associated with the body, presumably making the latter
> obsolete.
>
> Hayles tells of another story about the collapse of the mind-body
> dualism and its outcomes: what disappears are not material bodies
> but an abstract notion of the body as the naturalising ground of a
> unitary and universalising notion of the self. The disappearance of
> "the body" is then followed by a reconstruction or reconfiguration
> of embodiment, and only the alternative models of historical
> experience generated by that reconstruction deserve the name of
> "posthuman."
>
> The narrative structure of _How We Became Posthuman_ is also
> revealing. Hayles has selected literary texts-stories that focus
> on scientific theories-that merit wider currency in the body
> politic. As the chapters on scientific developments demonstrate,
> culture circulates through science as readily as science
> circulates through culture. The heart that keeps this circulatory
> system flowing is narrative - narratives about culture, narratives
> within culture, narratives about science, narratives within
> science. In her account of scientific developments, Hayles has
> sought to emphasise the role that narrative plays in articulating
> the posthuman as a technical-cultural concept. She has done so by
> looking, for example, at artificial intelligence as a narrative
> field (in chapter 9).
>
> The concept of virtual bodies and narrative is examined in the light
> of narrative itself, particularly its resistance to various forms of
> abstraction and disembodiment. By turning the technological
> determinism of bodiless information, the cyborg and the posthuman
> into narratives about the negotiations that take place between
> particular people at particular times and places, Hayles replaces a
> teleology of disembodiment with historically contingent stories
> about contests between competing factions, contests whose outcomes
> were far from obvious. Many factors affected the outcomes, from the
> needs of emerging technologies for reliable quantification to the
> personalities of the people involved. Though overdetermined, the
> disembodiment of information isn't inevitable, anymore than it is
> inevitable that we continue to accept the idea that we are
> essentially informational patterns.
>
> In this regard, the literary texts that Hayles has selected do more
> than explore the cultural implications of scientific theories and
> technological artefacts. Embedding ideas and artefacts in the
> situated specificities of narrative, the literary texts give these
> ideas and artefacts a local habitation and a name through
> discursive formulations whose effects are specific to that textual
> body. In exploring these effects, Hayles wants to demonstrate, on
> multiple levels and in many ways, that abstract patterns can never
> fully capture the embodied actuality, unless they are as prolix
> and noisy as the body itself. Shifting the emphasis from
> technological determinism to competing, contingent, embodied
> narratives about scientific developments is one way to liberate the
> resources of narrative so that they work against the grain of
> abstraction that runs through the teleology of disembodiment.
> Another way is to read literary texts alongside scientific theories.
> In articulating the connections that run through these two
> discursive realms, Hayles wants to entangle abstract form and
> material particularity such that the readers will find it
> increasingly difficult to maintain the perception that they are
> separate and discrete entities. In this book, literary texts with
> their fashionings of embodied particularities are crucial.
>
> What then is the posthuman? The posthuman view, according to Hayles,
> is suggestive rather than prescriptive. It privileges informational
> pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a
> biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than
> an inevitability of life. The posthuman view considers consciousness,
> regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long
> before Descartes, as an epiphenomenon, an evolutionary upstart trying
> to claim that it is the whole show when in fact it is only a minor
> side-show. The posthuman view regards the body as the original
> prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing
> the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process
> that began before we were born. Above all, Hayles claims that by
> these and other means, the posthuman view configures human beings
> so that they can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent
> machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or
> absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer
> simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot
> teleology and human goals.
>
> In tracing the dis/continuities between a "natural" self and a
> cybernetic posthuman, Hayles is not trying to recuperate the liberal
> subject. Rather, she views the present moment as a critical juncture
> when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being
> rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity. She
> sees the deconstruction of the liberal humanist subject as an
> opportunity to put back into the picture the flesh that continues to
> be erased in contemporary discussions about cybernetic subjects.
> Hence her focus on how information lost its body, for this story is
> central to creating what Arthur and Marilouise Kroker have called the
> "flesh-eating 90s."
>
> The stories told in _How We Became Posthuman_ - how information
> lost its body, how the cyborg was created as a cultural icon and
> technological artefact, and how humans have become posthuman -
> would not have the same resonance or breadth if they had been
> pursued through literary texts or scientific discourses alone. The
> scientific texts reveal, as literature cannot, the foundational
> assumptions that gave theoretical scope and artefactual efficacy to
> a particular approach. The literary texts reveal, as scientific
> works cannot, the complex cultural, social, and representational
> issues tied up with conceptual shifts and technological
> innovations. By fusing the two, Hayles offers a way of
> understanding ourselves as embodied creatures living in embodied
> and disembodied words.
>
> Hayles sums up the posthuman as follows: "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."
>
> _____________________________________________________________________
> Niran Abbas teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is
> organizing a conference on the work of Michel Serres which will take
> place at the University of London on May 29, 1999.
> _____________________________________________________________________
>
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