Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 1999
N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 350 pp.; 5 b/w ills. Paper $18.00 (0226321460)

How We Became Posthuman is at root a book about what it is to be human during our time of rapid and jarring technological change, a book about how selfhood and philosophies have been transformed in the wake of the societal and technological revolutions brought about by computers, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

Everywhere, such phenomena as the Internet, the digitization of money, and the mapping of the genome are seen as destabilizing physicality and setting the stage for the posthuman era. Paradigmatic shifts in the conception of selfhood, society, and knowledge are shown to have broken our epistemological tether to enlightenment humanism. Such supporting dichotomies as the mind-body split are being reconfigured as synthetic and organic systems merge. The body is increasingly seen as the original prosthesis. Smart environments replace the need for individual knowledge. And the essence of identity fluctuates between physicality and information pattern.

When the posthuman is invoked by scientists, architects, or theorists, it tends to produce a collective cringe. Mention of the term stirs passion from even the most technocratic academicians—as if they were suddenly thrust into the role of Buck Rogers, enlisted to save our species from an alien life form. Katherine Hayles strategically employs the posthuman to draw out just such a reaction. The first chapter of her book presents a string of dystopias, and freak scenarios plucked from the fringes of information technology and science fiction. One such fantasy is from the roboticist Hans Moravec’s Mind Children: The Future of Robots and Human Intelligence, wherein a “robot surgeon purees the human brain in a kind of cranial liposuction, reading information in each molecular layer as it is stripped away and transferred into the computer.” (p. 1) This scenario disconcerted Hayles, not only because it is uniquely violent, but more so because the idea of a disembodied consciousness presented graphically here is prevalent in both contemporary science and our popular visions of the future.

For Hayles, the evocation of the posthuman is an heuristic device. While she acknowledges the disintegration of the Enlightenment, she maintains the posthuman need not be considered postbiological. She insists on an embodied virtuality where humans develop dynamic relationships with intelligent machines.

Hayles traces the erasure of the body to the history of cybernetics. She provides a detailed analysis of the events and correspondence held in and around the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, which took place annually between 1943 and 1954. She argues these interdisciplinary conferences, convened at the advent of the information technology revolution, were instrumental in reconceptualizing the human as an information processing entity who is essentially similar to intelligent machines. In the effort to create smart machines, the participants sought to model artificial intelligence after human intelligence, an endeavor that necessitated a symbolic model of the processes of human thought. Hayles contends that these blueprints have shaped the goals and aspirations of the posthuman age. By going back to these original “black box” schematics of the human mind, she shows why information was initially separated from meaning, why thought was translated as an electronic signal or code, and patterning or predictability became the reason for being of communication. (p. 25) Although all these changes were brought about by pragmatic decisions made toward abstracting a logical model of human thought, each had far-reaching cultural consequences as the emerging technologies spread through society. By recreating the human as an entity that may be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines, computation eclipsed individualism as the focus of human identity. (p. 34)

The use of the term posthuman to mean not only post-Enlightenment but postbiological has led Hayles to question the intellectual underpinnings of an ideology that fosters identity as information and cybersociety as effectively disembodied. Her writing follows the critical tradition of Donna Haraway. Borrowing her concept of “informatics,” Hayles situates technological achievements and apparati within the “biological, social, linguistic, and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development” (p. 29). This is accomplished by a exposition of science fiction and utopic/dystopic literature. Hayles, an English professor at the University of California with advanced degrees in chemistry, is in a unique position to carry the analysis through these genres and the parallel developments in the cognitive sciences. The result is an exhilarating ride that traces how new modes of signification disrupt and mutate once stable dialectics.

If allusions to the flickering signifier and cybernetic disembodiment seem familiar to students of postmodernism, it is because of their coincidental emergence with discursive analysis in the humanities. (p. 193) In discourse theory the body becomes the text, divorced from materiality, taking on its form from the multiplicity of signs. Identity or presence in both discourse theory and cybernetics is foregrounded by the momentary continuity of pattern. Absence, in turn, is translated as noise. Hayles maintains that this assimilation of body into discourse makes it difficult to understand how signifying practices spread through society.

Countering claims that the body has disappeared, she seeks to delineate how a new subjectivity emerges in the posthuman era. Rather than reasserting the naturalization of the body, Hayles calls attention to how embodied humans interact with the material conditions in which they live. Following Michel de Certeau, she articulates embodiment as performative and “subject to individual enactments, and therefore always to some extent improvisational. Whereas the body can disappear into information . . . embodiment cannot, for it is tied to the circumstances of the occasion and the person” (p.197).

The posthuman subject for Hayles is the negotiating entity that may coordinate cognitive systems to enhance human survival. She argues the posthuman as an era where “emergence will replace 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 intelligent machines replaces the liberal subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature” (p. 288).

While How We Became Posthuman unravels the nightmares of a technocratic society, it does little to crack the idol of technology in our society or debunk its supremacist role as savior to social and ecological problems. Whereas Hayles’s use of “informatics” to wed computers to the social system is commendable, it simultaneously fosters the marriage of the human with the machine. One wonders how the posthuman will make the self free, a central concern in the philosophies of humanism mysteriously missing here. By presenting the most disastrous scenarios of a computer takeover of the human will, the reader may emerge content with the truce she offers. Others will remain skeptical.

David Michalski
Visual Arts Library, School of Visual Arts

Hayles’s general thesis is available on the web. Her lecture, How We Became Posthuman: Humanistic Implications of Recent Research into Cognitive Science and Artificial Life can be accessed via the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.