Katherine N. How We Became Posthuman : Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics,
Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: Chicago Press, 1999.
In this extended effort to explain the events and conditions leading up to
posthumanism, Hayles manages to protect the flesh (defending embodiment and
bodies from dispersing into information constructs) and plucking the thorns from
posthumanism’s rep as dehumanizing or anti-human (this plays especially in the
conclusion on terror and pleasure stemming from pohu). The story of
posthumanism, for Hayles, dates back to WWII; she accounts for three narrative
strands: how information lost its body, how the cyborg was created as a
technological artifact and cultural icon, and how a historically specific
construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called
the posthuman (2). How We Became Posthuman accounts for the
theoretical tides (information theory, autopoiesis, the Macy conference),
technological shifts (the audio tape and various wares–wet, soft, hard),
and the narrative undercurrent (literary parallels and influences).
Basically, the emergence of posthumanism is traced through three periods that
constitute the episteme of cybernetics:
Wave One: (1945-1960): chiefly characterized by homeostasis and
a focus on information as the primary key operating in the human-machine
equation (51). The basic arguments pursued at the Macy Conference on Cybernetics
were information, information dynamics in human neural activity, and rendering
informational flows observable and, therefore, real (50). Reflexivity
became a factor late in this wave and carried over into the second wave.
Wave Two (1960-1985): characterized by an interest in reflexivity
and focus on the observer in situ. Autopoiesis, or self-making,
keeps the focus on the autonomous individual whose boundaries are complicated,
but autopoeisis accomplishes relatively little in rel. to language and enaction
(development, impact on environment, etc.). Second wave, in part, responded to
humanist tradition’s skepticism of mathematical pronouncements (Weiner’s
contention that cybernetics is fundamentally mathematical).
Wave Three: (1985-present): the observer shifts from center to
periphery and narrates (223); The spiral best represents this wave for the way
it indicates an ability to evolve in new directions. Emergence, as
a concept, bridges (blurs the distinction between) humans and intelligent
machines. Though embodiment remains a distinction, virtuality has
altered what it means to be human.
Posthuman point of view (suggestive rather than prescriptive):
- "the posthuman view 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" (2);
- "the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat
of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he
was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart
trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor
- "the posthuman view thinks of 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"
- "the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be
seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" (3).
Incorporating practices (198-205) and five characteristics
- retains improvisational elements
- deeply sedimented into the body and highly resistant to change
- partly screened from conscious view
- able to define the boundaries within which conscious thought takes place
- often linked with new technologies that affect how people use their bodies
and experience space and time.
^Hayles ends by suggesting connections to what Latour does in WHNBM
(291): we have always been posthuman (based on the "seriated history"). How does
this work with Hayles’ extensive use of dialectics (25, 247)?
virtuality: "Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects
are interpenetrated by information patterns" (13).
skeuomorph: "a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but
that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time" (17).
informatics: "the technologies of information as well as the biologics,
social, linguistic, and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and
complicate their development" (29).
autopoiesis: "the circularity of its organization that makes a living
system a unit of interactions"; "self-making" (136)
Key terms: cybernetic unit (xiv), distributed cognition system (xiv),
possessive individualism (3), liberal humanist subject (4), postbiological (6),
three epochs: homeostasis, reflexivity, virtuality (7), Platonic forehand and
backhand (12), informational patterns (14), material objects (14), seriation
(14), information theory (25), virtual reality (26), presence and absence (27),
medium’s materiality (28), informatics (29), flickering signifiers (30), tools
(34), information narratives (35), Kittler’s medial ecology (48), neural nets
(58), embodied complexity (61), singing condition (65), structural coupling (85,
100, 138), purpose and teleology (94), organization (138), enaction (155),
incorporating practices (199, 205), subvocalization (207).
"To the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the
instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition
rather than disrupting it" (5).
"Rather, I view 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" (5).
"In a sense, autopoiesis turns the cybernetic paradigm inside out. Its
central premise–that systems are informationally closed–radically alters the
idea of the information feedback loop, for the loop no longer functions
to connect a system to its environment. In the autopoietic view, no information
crosses the boundary separating the system from its environment" (10).
"My strategy is to complicate the leap from embodied reality to abstract
information by pointing to moments when the assumptions involved in this
move were contested by other researchers in the field and so became especially
"The contemporary pressure toward dematerialization understood as an
epistemic shift toward pattern/randomness and away from
presence/absence, affects human and textual bodies on two levels at once, as
a chance in the body (the material substrate) and as a chance in the
message (the codes of representation)" (29).
"Using tools may shape the body (some anthropologists have made this
argument), but the tool nevertheless is envisioned as an object that is apart
from the body, and object that can be picked up and put down at will" (34).
"Homeostasis won in the first wave largely because it was more
manageable quantitatively. Reflexivity lost because specifying and
delimiting context quickly ballooned into an unmanageable problem"
(57). This, the problem of complexity, plentitude, and a method’s
"Of all the implications that first-wave cybernetics conveyed, perhaps none
was more disturbed and potentially revolutionary than the idea that
boundaries of the human subject are constructed rather than given.
Conceptualizing control, communication, and information as an integrated system,
cybernetics radically changed how boundaries were conceived" (84).
"The flip side of drawing analogies is constructing boundaries.
Analogy as a figure draws its force from the boundaries it leapfrogs across"
"One of the most frequent criticisms made of cybernetics during this
period was that it was not really a new science but was merely an extended
analogy (men are like machines)" (97).
"The danger of cybernetics from Wiener’s point of view, is that it can
potentially annihilate the liberal subject as the locus of control. On
the microscale, the individual is merely the container for still smaller units
within, units that dictate actions and desires; on the macroscale, these desires
make the individual into a fool to be manipulated by knaves" (110).
"In first-wave cybernetics, questions of boundary formation were
crucial to its constructions of subjectivity. Boundary questions are also
important in autopoietic theory" (141).
"[In the advanced stage of second-wave cybernetics] A status report, then:
information’s body is still contested, the empire of the cyborg is still
expanding, and the liberal subject, although more than ever an autonomous
individual, is literally losing its mind as the seat of identity" (149).
"This chapter suggests a new, more flexible framework in which to
think about embodiment in an age of virtuality. This framework comprises two
dynamically interacting polarities. The first polarity unfolds as an
interplay between the body as a cultural construct and the
experiences of embodiment that individual people within a culture feel and
articulate. The second polarity can be understood as a dance between
inscribing and incorporating practices" (193).
"But the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It
signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human, a
conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had
the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings
exercising their will through individual agency and choice. What is lethal
is not the posthuman as such but the grafting of the posthuman onto a liberal
humanist view of the self" (286).
"In this account, emergence replaces 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 humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature"
"Rather, the distributed cognition of the emergent human subject
correlates with–in Bateson’s phrase, becomes a metaphor for–the distributed
cognitive system as a whole, in which ‘thinking’ is done by both human and
nonhuman actors" (290).
"Writing in another context, Hutchins arrives at an insight profoundly
applicable to virtual technologies: ‘What used to look like internalization
[of thought and subjectivity] now appears as a gradual propagation of
organized functional properties across a set of malleable media’ (p. 312)"