restricted access How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (review)
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Reviewed by
N. Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. ix + 350 pp.

Emerging from the Cold War effort to develop a unified theory of communication and control that crosses human, animal, and machine borders, the “posthuman” is a point of view that privileges information over matter. Indicative of this privileging, N. Katherine Hayles contends in her new book, is the belief that “information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates.” The most important implication of the posthuman view is the configuration of human beings as capable of perfect “articulat[ion] with intelligent machines.” Examining literary and scientific narratives of “anxiety about body boundaries,” Hayles cites such examples as the link between writing and prosthesis in Bernard Wolfe’s 1950 novel Limbo; the question of whether the observer is inside or outside the system being observed in the novels of Philip K. Dick; the “radically interdisciplinary” discussions about “what counts as information” during the Macy Conferences on cybernetics; and experiments with emergent consciousness in artificial life-forms research.

Hayles structures her analysis of the ideas first put into circulation by mathematician Norbert Wiener that eventually led to a division between information and materiality as three overlapping “waves”: homeostasis, reflexivity, and virtuality. The postwar “cybernetic perspective” took shape when the idea of homeostasis was extended from organic to mechanical systems. From there, researchers grappled with the problem of reflexivity, or how to account for the observer who, in the new mechanistic model, had become part of the system under [End Page 1096] observation. Still another problem to arise in cybernetics was that of explaining how a system spontaneously evolves in unexpected ways—how, simulating life, it becomes virtual. Central to Hayles’s analysis is her concept of “seriation”: “[t]he development of cybernetics followed neither a Kuhnian model of incommensurable paradigms nor a Foucauldian model of sharp epistemic breaks,” she explains, but rather consisted of a pattern of overlapping replications and innovations. In other words, homeostasis was not supplanted by reflexivity, nor was either concept supplanted by virtuality. Although none of these waves has eclipsed materiality, Hayles reiterates that information “must always be instantiated in a medium” for it to exist. Thus Hayles’s method, like Toni Morrison’s in Beloved, proceeds by means of “rememory,” in this case acknowledging “what had to be elided, suppressed, and forgotten to make information lose its body.”

Complementary to Hayles’s concept of seriation is her method of treating scientific and literary narratives as interpenetrating. Literary texts function as passageways for scientific ideas to enter into wider cultural circulation; more important, narrative itself functions as the “heart” that circulates ideas about the posthuman that are both technical and cultural. In effect, narrative “embodies” ideas, situating them historically, as in the story of the development of cybernetics, and giving them a “local habitation,” as in the story of the dispersion of the posthuman in literary works. Hayles’s method works best to locate—and to contest—the disembodiment of information when it is most dialectic. In chapter 10, “The Semiotics of Virtuality,” she “maps” the posthuman using Greimas’s semiotic square as a heuristic for thinking about the interrelationships among presence/absence and pattern/randomness binaries in the novels Snow Crash, Blood Music, Galatea 2.2, and Terminal Games. Hayles knowingly takes interpretive risks in this final chapter. Prime among these is pointing out the sheer number of ways that the separation of information from the material can occur. Given her view that the “present moment” offers a “critical juncture when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity” which, in the liberal humanist tradition, tend to assume the body as white, male, and European, Hayles’s dialectic method raises the question of which interventions promise the best directions to take in such a project. Nonetheless, her preceding chapters detailing the emergence of the “ [End Page 1097] post” in defining the “human” as “the result of historically specific negotiations rather than of the irresistible force of technological determinism” do as much to question the efficacy of that prefix as they do...