- Pernicious Couplings and Living in the Splice
The collection of essays forming the text of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics is the most recent attempt by noted scholar N. Katherine Hayles to re-insert embodiment1 into the discourses of cybernetics, cyberspace, and human evolution. To accomplish this goal, Hayles charts embodiment from the dawning of cybernetics during the Macy Conferences of the 1950s through to our contemporary age of computers and virtuality. Particularly important to her study are three story lines:
The first centers on how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded. The second story concerns how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon in the years following World War II. The third, deeply implicated with the first two, is the unfolding story of how a historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman.(2, original emphases)
Defining the posthuman as a point of view that has predominantly stressed information patterns over materiality, Hayles uses her advanced degrees in both chemistry and English literature to weave a coherent account of the posthuman that unites the disciplines of science and the humanities. How We Became Posthuman is a highly intelligent and lucid analysis of the posthuman condition that, by re-inserting embodiment into the equation, succeeds in offering a viable alternative to dangerous fantasies of disembodiment.
The impetus for this project, what Hayles calls a “six-year odyssey” (2), was her reading of Hans Moravec’s Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Struck numb by Moravec’s future vision of human consciousness extracted from the biological and downloaded into the synthetic, Hayles was disturbed to find the same message enacted in multiple venues: Norbert Wiener’s suggestion in the 1950s that “it was theoretically possible to telegraph a human being” (1); the matter transporter technology in the original Star Trek which reduced the body to atoms speeding through space; molecular biology treating “information as the essential code the body expresses” (1); Marvin Minsky’s proposition that human memories will eventually be extracted and transported onto computer disk; and, finally, the “bodiless exultation” of cyberspace popularized in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Resisting the Moravecian rapture of disembodiment, How We Became Posthuman veers away from this fantasy by demonstrating that disembodiment was not an inevitability in the rise of cybernetics and, as a result, the current emphasis upon disembodiment is only one avenue available to the posthuman. For Hayles, this text is an attempt to address an information/materiality hierarchy that often privileges the former over the latter and to recuperate a vision of the embodied posthuman:
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)
In her analysis of the history of cybernetics, Hayles divides the development of this discourse into three waves. The first wave involves an analysis of the Josiah Macy Foundation conferences, held during the 1940s and 1950s, that gave rise to the field of cybernetics. In her analysis, she demonstrates that amidst the cacophony of voices attempting to come to terms with information theory, one important battle was taking place: homeostasis vs. reflexivity. The homeostasis “camp,” epitomized by figures such as Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and John von Neumann, focused on maintaining the neutrality of the scientific observer. By removing the observer from the information system, complex mathematical equations were used to define “information” as an entity separate from any material instantiation: “[Information] would be calculated as...