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  • The Materiality of Informatics
  • N. Katherine Hayles (bio)

Cringe ye, who yet jot “Volkswagon” when the doctor prompts “automata.” The world’s changed; no angels at the top end, now— and you?

—Richard Kenney

Every epoch has beliefs, widely accepted by contemporaries, that appear fantastic to later generations. Of such are New Historical studies made— with good reason, for understanding the constellation of practices, metaphors, and presuppositions that underlie apparently bizarre beliefs opens a window onto a culture’s ideology. One belief from the present likely to stupefy future generations is the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction. Among the many currents within the culture reinforcing this belief, three are of special interest for my purposes. The first is discourse theory as it is defined and practiced within the humanities, especially literary theory; the second, information theory; the third, information technologies. Although each of these sites has distinctive reasons for regarding the body as a discursive and informational construction, they collaborate in creating the dematerialization of embodiment that is one of the characteristic features of postmodern ideology.

Yet each of these sites also operates within material and cultural circumstances that mark its practice and make the claim for the [End Page 147] body’s discursive construction seem plausible. The body’s dematerialization, in other words, depends in complex and highly specific ways upon the material and embodied circumstances that the ideology of dematerialization would obscure. Excavating these connections requires a way of talking about the body that is responsive to its postmodern construction as discourse/information and yet is not trapped within it. Two kinds of distinction will be central to this project. One is the difference between the body as a cultural construct and the experiences of embodiment that individual people within a culture feel and articulate; the other, the difference between inscribing and incorporating practices. Since the body and embodiment, inscription and incorporation are in constant interaction and interplay, these distinctions are heuristic rather than absolute. They nevertheless play an important role in understanding the connections between the immateriality of information and the material conditions of its production.

To illustrate how the body is constructed within postmodern discourse as an immaterial informational structure, consider the following claims. “[T]he human body, our body, seems superfluous in its proper expanse, in the complexity and multiplicity of its organs, of its tissue and functions, because today everything is concentrated in the brain and the genetic code, which alone sum up the operational definition of being,” Jean Baudrillard writes in The Ecstasy of Communication. 1 Arthur and Marilouise Kroker out-Baudrillard Baudrillard in Body Invaders: Panic Sex in America, imagining “second-order simulacra” and “floating body parts” that herald the disappearance of the body into a fluid and changing display of signs. “If, today, there can be such an intense fascination with the fate of the body, might this not be because the body no longer exists?” they ask, in what they evidently believe is a rhetorical question. 2

Kroker and Kroker count the ways the body is disappearing: ideologically, into the signs of fashion; epistemologically, as the Cartesian consciousness (that “grisly and false sense of subjectivity”) guaranteeing its existence falls apart; semiotically, into tattoos and floating signs; and technologically, into “ultra refuse” and “hyperfunctionality.” 3 O. B. Hardison concludes his disappearing act by [End Page 148] writing the body into computers. Observing pensively that “no matter what precautions are taken, no matter how lucky the body is, in the end it betrays itself,” he imagines “the relation between carbon man and the silicon devices he is creating” to be like “the relation between the caterpillar and the iridescent, winged creature that the caterpillar unconsciously prepares to become.” 4 The image of transformation is also central to Hans Moravec’s dream of downloading human consciousness into a computer. Moravec, head of Camegie-Mellon Mobile Robot Laboratory, has launched a research program that he hopes will make the body superfluous, a chrysalis case to be discarded when our transformation into informational bits is complete. 5

Is it necessary to insist that the body, far from disappearing, remains essential to human life? No human...