Our Computing Kin
My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts
By N. Katherine Hayles
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 288 pp., $22.00, paperback.
Reviewed by Mara Mills
Whatever happened to those hard scientists who gave us the hysterical womb and the passive egg, the labia and hymen of clam taxonomy, and the compulsory heterosexuality of sockets and connectors? Has the science-as-violence-against-women moment passed? The feminist critique of the male gaze in science and male control over technology was a prominent theater of the previous decade’s “science wars” (which are best remembered for physicist Alan Sokal’s sham article in the journal Social Text, which parodied cultural studies of science). At the time, Sokal and his cohort objected just as strongly to work documenting the intersections of science and feminism—often done by female scientists—as they did to work denouncing scientific practices. The early books of N. Katherine Hayles, who was trained in chemistry, tracked the similarities between critical theory and twentieth-century science in the areas of field theory (the physics concerning fields of force, such as gravity and magnetism) and chaos (the mathematical theory of unpredictable systems). Hayles’s books showed up as minor characters in Sokal’s parody, precisely because of their investment in bringing together “the two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities.
Nearly ten years after Sokal’s article, an increasing number of authors have established relationships between cultural criticism and particular scientific theories. Several prominent feminists have rebutted feminism’s tendency to antibiologism, arguing for the surprising and variant aspects of biology rather than its “essentialism.” Elizabeth Wilson’s 2004 Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body describes the interactions among anatomy, affect, and biochemicals and urges feminist readers to “to perceive in biology a complexity usually attributed only to nonbiological domains.” Published the same year, Elizabeth Grosz’s The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely, considers Darwin’s influence on the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson. Grosz suggests that feminist and antiracist political movements might draw on evolutionary theory to become “directed to means more than ends, directed to unorganized eruptions more than a given platform, to upheavals and rearrangements in social and political life rather than to its concerted reorganization.”
What’s more, a variety of science and technology publications can be found citing research from feminist science studies. In 2001, for instance, Internet mavin Steven Johnson introduced his Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software with a discussion of Evelyn Fox Keller’s slime mold research, which later also inspired the StarLogo computer program. In the 1970s, physicist Keller and mathematician Lee Segel had studied the way individual slime molds aggregated into a functioning slug. Finding that the single-celled organisms self-organized through communication, and then migrated as a group toward light, they ended up refuting the widely held belief that a master or pacemaker cell controlled all the others. In Reflections on Gender and Science, Keller compared her research to that of Barbara McClintock, who refused to conceive of the gene as a master molecule (in other contexts, the master molecule theory meant a determined intellectual and sexual destiny). Keller concluded,
We might learn from the pacemaker story to be wary of imposing causal relations on all systems that seem by their very nature to be more complexly interactive… we risk imposing on nature the very stories we like to hear.
For Johnson, Keller’s slime mold has become one model for the still-diffuse sciences of complexity, which study systems that have many interacting parts. Some complex systems (bee swarms, financial markets, neural networks) are also adaptive; the coordinated behavior of the group members provokes the emergence of unpredictable, “smart” changes in the system itself. These systems are organized “from the bottom up,” following local rules rather than a master plan.
Similarly, psychologist and philosopher Susan Oyama formulated Developmental Systems Theory (DST) in the 1980s as an alternative to the nature-nurture, or essentialist-constructionist, dualism. Her theory accounts for the way bodies change over time through the interaction of structure and environment. Using DST in Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling theorized gender, sex, and sexuality to affirm the interdependence of the biological and the social—and to show how the body and its desires change across any lifespan. More recently, Oyama has been cited in the 2005 mainstream text Variation: A Central Concept in Biology; the new forward to her The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution was written by Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin.
Hayles, professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, is our foremost diagnostician of the commonalities between modern science and literature. Her current work explores the turn to computational “metaphors and means” of complexity in the sciences, science fiction, and literary theory. “Computation” can be broadly defined as the repeated application of a program, or simple set of rules, to process information and in turn generate complex behavior—a model equally pertinent to artificial life simulations and to the functioning of the human brain. My Mother Was a Computer, Hayles’s new book, completes the trilogy she began in 1999 with How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. The project as a whole amounts to nothing less than a general theory of materiality (books, bodies, and other things) in the postmodern era. The second piece in Hayles’s trilogy, Writing Machines, is a 2002 Mediawork Pamphlet (“zines for grown-ups” from MIT Press). In its narrative and design, it demonstrates the impact of digital technologies for hypertext and animation on electronic and print literature. Writing Machines also considers the relationship between meaning and material form in postmodern books produced without computer aid, such as Tom Phillips’s 1970 art book, A Humument.
The material focus of How We Became Posthuman is the body. Rather than imply that a radically new version of the human has appeared, as other technophiles might wish, Hayles provides some much-needed historical context for the truism that bodies don’t matter in “the information age.” She surveys cybernetics in the twentieth century, starting from the early days of information theory, when communication—whether that of voices or nerve cells—was formulated mathematically. She also explains autopoiesis (self-organization, such cell metabolism or the maintenance of patterns over generations in an ant colony), and the ways it has been applied to artificial life software, such as cellular automata that can grow, flock, and reproduce.
Hayles maintains that, in spite of the aim of Norbert Wiener and other cyberneticists to model their artifacts on “the liberal humanist subject,” information technologies have mixed bodies with machines and undermined that version of the human in most respects. For a reminder of why feminists have long opposed this ideal of a rational, independent, free subject—and might, in fact, welcome the posthuman—consider Simone de Beauvoir’s “data of biology” from The Second Sex, in which an active male subject is contrasted with a female body-object:
Her body becomes, therefore, a resistance to be broken through, whereas in penetrating it the male finds self-fulfillment in activity…The male deposits his semen, the female receives it. Thus, though the female plays a fundamentally active role in procreation, she submits to the coition, which invades her individuality and introduces an alien element through penetration and internal fertilization…the sperm, through which the life of the male is transcended in another, at the same instant becomes a stranger to him and separates from his body; so that the male recovers his individuality intact at the moment when he transcends it…First violated, the female is then alienated—she becomes, in part, another than herself…Tenanted by another, who battens upon her substance throughout the period of her pregnancy, the female is at once herself and other than herself.
While “the liberal humanist subject” and the posthuman share the predilection for mind/information over the body (in the latter case, epitomized by Hans Moravec’s fantasy of a downloadable brain), the posthuman is defined by communication, by being part of a system. It is hardly the intact male agent described by de Beauvoir.
How We Became Posthuman concludes with several tentative claims about the potentially redeeming aspects of the posthuman for feminism:
If, as … feminist critics of science have argued, there is a relation among the desire for mastery, an objectivist account of science, and the imperialist project of subduing nature, then the posthuman offers resources for the construction of another kind of account. In this account … a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature.
My Mother Was a Computer is Hayles’s most outspoken project—in it, she moves beyond the diagnosis of historical conjunctures and launches the theory and interpretive strategy she calls intermediation. Building on the themes of her two previous books, she defines intermediation as the “complex transactions between bodies and texts as well as between different forms of media.” Unlike the bio-mimicry dominating many models of complex systems, Hayles concentrates on the relationship between bodies and technology. She traces the impact of computing on our perceptions and artifacts, particularly literature. She is a welcome publicist for the continued relevance of literature in the posthuman context; as she explains,
Narrative, with its evocation of the human lifeworld, speaks to subjectivities that remain rooted in human perceptual systems, human languages, and human cultures.
The landscape for My Mother Was a Computer is the so-called “Computational Universe,” in which the fiction of Mother Nature has been supplanted by the “means and metaphor” of a Universal Computer. In her first chapter, Hayles explains the idea, held most notoriously by physicist Stephen Wolfram, that life is becoming increasingly complex because of a computational process intrinsic to the universe, rather than simply random change and natural selection. Though she stops short of supporting computation as an ontological theory, she adopts parallel vocabulary in her account of her own theoretical project:
The final and most important significance of My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, as a title and as a book, is to insist on the irreducible complexity of contemporary posthuman configurations as they continue to evolve in digital subjects and literary texts, computer programs and human mindbodies.
In her first chapter, she describes her historiographic method as attending to “multiple causalities, complex dynamics, and emergent possibilities.”
My Mother Was a Computer is divided into three sections—“Making,” “Storing,” and “Transmitting.” These cohere more loosely than do Hayles’s previous case studies, yet maintain her typical balance among science, literary theory, and science fiction. Intermediation demands that we read for transactions—between electronic and print materials, publishing technologies and storytelling, readers and texts, humans and our “computing kin.” Hayles describes the field of media studies as divided between theorists of a phenomenological bent, who focus on the human experience of technology, and those who stress the way media determine the human situation. She intends intermediation to embrace both perspectives, and she even proposes a “school” of New Materialism for work in media studies. However, her theory is not as unbounded as it may seem. In the first section of the book, she introduces the phrase “coding theory,” along with her concepts of emergence and intermediation, to account for computer languages and the things they generate. Hayles contrasts code with theories of human language that, for instance, take words to be immaterial signs of things in the world. As she explains, code is literally performative—it makes things happen—whereas language primarily takes action “in the minds of humans.” This is significantly more moderate than, say, Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, which grants language greater sway over material reality.
Other heavyweight philosophers of science, like Bruno Latour, declare that all things (from people to elephants to automatic doors) are “assembled” through their interactions in the world. Hayles never postulates outright that “computation” or “communication” are adequate descriptors for all reality. In her prologue she lays claim only to the effect of computation on “technical and artistic practices” and “the construction of subjectivity.” Later, she compares electronic texts to contemporary critical theories of the dispersed, processual human subject. She maps the influence of computational metaphors on theories of self in the psychologies of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Jacques Lacan. She promises, “the present moment presents us with a rare opportunity to break out of assumptions that have congealed around the technology of print.” Throughout her study of digital subjects, she inclines more toward enthusiasm than critique.
The tension between the “newness” of new media and what they imply about life-in-general bears some working out. Her close reading of the “media translation” of a print book to electronic format, besides providing a tidy case for the dependence of a text’s meaning on its material form, insists that electronic texts are unusually mutable and responsive. In her words:
With the advent of the Web, communication pathways are established through which texts cycle in dynamic intermediation with one another, which leads to what might be called Work as Assemblage, a cluster of related texts that quote, comment upon, amplify, and otherwise intermediate one another.
Hayles specifically reprimands those book historians who see the print medium itself as unstable. However, she demonstrates the ways digital code has “interpenetrated” print texts, from their plots to their publishing standards. Intermediation also helps us see predigital texts as assemblages, as when one author cites another. The reach of this theory, and its differential application to one material versus another, is not always explicit. Is intermediation a property congenital to code?
In her discussion of Shelley Jackson’s hypertext Patchwork Girl, a rescripting of Frankenstein, Hayles once more aligns the digital subject with feminism. In Jackson’s words, “hypertext is everything that for centuries has been damned by its association with the feminine”—it is full of ambiguity, multiplicity, and indirection. It is also tied to the body in that the user’s desire, as she selects link after link, produces the narrative. Patchwork Girl is meant to illustrate that human beings have always been patchwork assemblages, like the monster in Frankenstein. Jackson pulls scraps from Mary Shelley; the narrative itself includes musings on the porousness of skin and the habitation of the human body by bacteria; and the user pieces together the story space. Again, it is not clear whether new technologies bring us closer to some truth about the human condition, or whether they liberate us into new kinships and forms of attention. Hayles’s close reading of monstrosity is so winning, it is easy to forget that some of the “hideous progeny” of computation might truly be bad subjects, such as the scripted possibilities underlying much “interactivity,” or the way “marked and failing bodies” so easily become cool. She acknowledges in her prologue, however, that while
the Computational Universe enables deeper insight and new intuitions into certain aspects of reality; we may safely assume that it also obscures other aspects of reality, including constructions of subjectivity that have traditionally found expression in the humanities and social sciences.
In the first chapter of How We Became Posthuman Hayles offered the surprising statistic that “70 percent of the world’s population has never made a telephone call.” On quite a different note, My Mother Was a Computer opens:
In the half decade since the publication of that book [How We Became Posthuman], computational technologies have penetrated even further into the infrastructure of developed countries. Pervasive computing, mobile communication devices, satellite networks, and Internet traffic have spread dramatically; and, correspondingly, economic, manufacturing, transportation, and communication technologies have been tightly integrated into globally mediated networks.
The project of assessing the consequences, and extent, of globalized media has only just begun. Hayles tries to avoid technological determinism in her books by sketching a common “climate of opinion” among scientists, authors, and readers, yet she focuses almost exclusively on electronic literature, science fiction, and computer simulations. Truly, she has been at the vanguard of the campaign to characterize the digital era. How We Became Posthuman invited other scholars to thicken her definition of that term, and this invitation has been taken up, with authors working to remedy, for instance, the whiteness of posthumanism.
How the sciences of complex systems relate to the broad category of postmodernism also needs to be addressed. Cultural critic Fredric Jameson described postmodernism in 1991 as marked by such events as the rise of a global economy, the increased presence of the media, the shift from labor to information-based work, and a preference for nonlinear or nonuniversal (i.e., “complex”) ways of explaining events. He announced that
This whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.
In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles concurs with Jameson that capitalism and postmodernity are linked. And she concludes My Mother Was a Computer with a brief paragraph linking technological progress to the destruction of the environment.
Complexity and its corollary, emergence, have long been associated with Darwinian biology, the leftist historiographies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, the radical physics of the Santa Fe Institute, and the democratic aspirations of the Internet. Sokal had little to say about complexity in his 1999 Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, except that it was poorly understood and couldn’t possibly be applied to the social realm. Nevertheless, the concept has matured alongside computer modeling, become increasingly interdisciplinary, and seeped into the mainstream of disciplines from neuroscience to economics. Hayles makes a significant contribution to sharpening the use of this vague term by documenting the ways “computation” has reorganized discussions of complex objects and subjectivities across the disciplines. That said, the ways complexity is not identical in the sciences, history, and the arts requires attention.
The title My Mother Was a Computer alludes to the days when female secretary-calculators were called “computers.” Computing is no longer women’s work, and the reasons for rebelling against a digital parentage have been explored by a number of critics. Hayles has been an important voice for restoring human bodies and concerns to the history of information technology. In her conclusion, she asks, what is the value of different biologies, and when are the boundaries between language and code, biology and machine, worth maintaining? The liberal human subject is long gone, and even the posthuman might seem like a sentimental creature when compared to systems and networks.
The adverse effects of complexity theories on feminism remain to be explored. A century ago, when sociobiologist William Morton Wheeler gave an early theory of “emergence” based on his anthill observations, he concluded that complex behaviors emerging at the level of a network were often based on conformity, constraint, and loss of diversity at the level below. One need not be against democracy to ask about the hazards of self-organization as a social model. Steven Johnson has acknowledged the susceptibility of bottom-up systems such as Google to manipulation by corporations seeking to increase their rankings. John Bonner, who named the chemical used in slime mold communication after the witch in The Faerie Queene (and whose lab was visited by a curious Albert Einstein), also found cases of maladaptive emergence. In his 1952 Morphogenesis: An Essay on Development, Bonner described watching ants walk in a circle until they starved to death; he warned that an “instinct to follow” did not require a leader.
Mara Mills is finishing a dissertation on deafness and communication technologies in the history of science department at Harvard University.