How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics


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The liberal humanist subject has, of course, been cogently criticized from a number of perspectives. Feminist theorists have pointed out that it has historically been constructed as a white European male, presuming a universality that has worked to sup- press and disenfranchise women's voices; postcolonial theorists have taken issue not only with the universality of the white male liberal subject but also with the very idea of a unified, consistent identity, fOCUSing instead on hybridity; and postmodern theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have linked it with capitalism, arguing for the liberatory potential of a dispersed subjectivity distributed among diverse desiring machines they call "body without organs.

Because information had lost its body, this construction implied that embodiment is not essential to human being. Embodiment has been systematically downplayed or erased in the cybernetic construction of the posthuman in ways that have not occurred in other critiques of the liberal humanist subject, espeCially in feminist and postcolonial theories. Indeed, one could argue that the erasure of embodiment is a feature common to both the liberal humanist subject and the cybernetic posthu- man.

Identified with the rational mind, the liberal subject possessed a body but was not usually represented as being a body. Quoting an anoretic's remark-"You make out of your body your very own kingdom where you are the tyrant, the absolute dictator" - Brown states, "Anorexia is thus a fight for self-control, a flight from the slavery food threatens; self-sustaining self-possession indepen- dent of bodily desires is the anoretic's crucial goal. Although in many ways the posthuman deconstructs the liberal humanist subject, it thus shares with its predecessor an emphaSiS on cognition rather than embodiment.

William Gibson makes the point vividly in Neuro- mancer when the narrator characterizes the posthuman body as "data made flesh. In tracing these continuities and discontinuities between a "natural" self and a cybernetic posthuman, I am not trying to recuperate the liberal sub- ject. Although I think that serious consideration needs to be given to how certain characteristics associated with the liberal subject, especially agency and choice, can be articulated within a posthuman context, I do not mourn the passing of a concept so deeply entwined with projects of domination and oppression.

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. I see the de- construction of the liberal humanist subject as an opportunity to put back into the picture the flesh that continues to be erased in contemporary dis- cussions about cybernetic subjects.

Hence my focus on how information lost its body, for this story is central to creating what Arthur Kroker has called the "flesh-eating 90s. Taken straight, this title points to models of subjec- tivity sufficiently different from the liberal subject that if one assigns the term "human" to this subject, it makes sense to call the successor "posthu- man. Yet my argument will repeatedly demonstrate that these changes were never com- plete transformations or sharp breaks; without exception, they reinscribed traditional ideas and assumptions even as they articulated something new.

The changes announced by the title thus mean something more complex than "That was then, this is now. Given these complexities, the past tense in the title-"became" -is in- tended both to offer the reader the pleasurable shock of a double take and to reference ironically apocalyptic visions such as Moravec's prediction of a "postbiological" future for the human race.

Amplifying the ambiguities of the past tense are the ambiguities of the plural. In one sense, "we" refers to the readers of this book-readers who, by becoming aware of these new models of subjectivity if they are not al- ready familiar with them , may begin thinking of their actions in ways that have more in common with the posthuman than the human. Speaking for myself, I now find myself saying things like, "Well, my sleep agent wants to rest, but my food agent says I should go to the store.

The infectious power of this way of thinking gives "we" a performative dimension. People become posthuman because they think they are posthuman. In another sense "we," like "became," is meant ironically, positioning itself in opposition to the techno-ecstasies found in various magazines, such as Mondo , which customarily speak of the transformation into the posthuman as if it were a universal human condi- tion when in fact it affects only a small fraction of the world's population- a pOint to which I will return.

N. Katherine Hayles - Wikipedia

The larger trajectory of my narrative arcs from the initial moments when cybernetics was formulated as a discipline, through a period of reformula- tion known as "second-order cybernetics," to contemporary debates swirling around an emerging discipline known as "artificial life. Rather, my selection of theories and researchers has been dictated by a desire to show the complex interplays between embodied forms of subjectivity and argu- ments for disembodiment throughout the cybernetic tradition.

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In broad outline, these interplays occurred in three distinct waves of development. The first, from to , took homeostasis as a central concept; the sec- ond, going roughly from to , revolved around reflexivity; and the third, stretching from to the present, highlights virtuality. Let me turn now to a brief sketch of these three periods.

During the foundational era of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, and dozens of other distinguished researchers met at annual conferences sponsored by the JOSiah Macy Foundation to formulate the central concepts that, in their high expectations, would coalesce into a theory of communication and control applying equally to animals, humans, and machines.

How We Became Posthuman

Retrospectively called the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, these meetings, held from to , were instrumental in forging a new paradigm. The result of this breathtaking enterprise was nothing less than a new way oflooking at human beings. Henceforth, humans were to be seen primarily as information-pro- cessing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines. The revolutionary implications of this paradigm notwithstanding, Wiener did not intend to dismantle the liberal humanist subject. He was less interested in seeing humans as machines than he was in fashioning hu- man and machine alike in the image of an autonomous, self-directed indi- vidual.

In aligning cybernetiCS with liberal humanism, he was following a strain of thought that, since the Enlightenment, had argued that human be- ings could be trusted with freedom because they and the social structures they devised operated as self-regulating mechanisms. The point was less to show that man was a machine than to demonstrate that a ma- chine could function like a man.

These tensions were kept under control during the Macy period partly through a strong emphasis on homeostasis. When the temperature soars, sweat pours out of the human body so that its internal temperature can remain relatively stable.


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During the Macy period, the idea of homeostasis was extended to machines. Like ani- mals, machines can maintain homeostasis using feedback loops. Feedback loops had long been exploited to increase the stability of mechanical systems, reaching a high level of development during the mid-to-Iate nineteenth cen- tury with the growing sophistication of steam engines and their accompany- ing control devices, such as governors.

It was not until the s and s, however, that the feedback loop was explicitly theorized as a flow of informa- tion. Cybernetics was born when nineteenth-century control theory joined with the nascent theory of information. IS Coined from the Creek word for "steersman," cybernetics signaled that three powerful actors-information, control, and communication-were now operating jointly to bring about an unprecedented synthesis of the organic and the mechanical.

Although the informational feedback loop was initially linked with homeostasis, it quickly led to the more threatening and subversive idea of reflexivity. A few years ago I co-taught, with a philosopher and a phYSiCist, a course on reflexivity. As we discussed reflexivity in the writings of Aristotle, Fichte, Kierkegaard, Codel, Turing, Borges, and Calvino, aided by the in- sightful analyses of Roger Penrose and Douglas Hofstader, I was struck not only by the concept's extraordinarily rich history but also by its tendency to mutate, so that virtually any formulation is sure to leave out some relevant instances.

Instructed by the experience, I offer the follOwing tentative def- inition, which I hope will prove adequate for our purposes here. Reflexivity is the rrwvement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it gen- erates. When Kurt Codel invented a method of coding that allowed state- ments of number theory also to function as statements about number theory, he entangled that which generates the system with the system.

When M. Escher drew two hands drawing each other, he took that which is presumed to generate the picture-the sketching hand-and made it part of the picture it draws. When Jorge Luis Borges in "The Circular Ru- ins" imagines a narrator who creates a student through his dreaming only to discover that he himself is being dreamed by another, the system gene rat - ing a reality is shown to be part of the reality it makes. Reflexivity tends notoriously toward infinite regress. The dreamer creates the student, but the dreamer in tum is dreamed by another, who in his tum is dreamed by someone else, and so on to infinity.

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This definition of reflexivity has much in common with some of the most influential and provocative recent work in critical theory, cultural studies, and the social studies of science. Typically, these works make the reflexive move of showing that an attribute previously considered to have emerged from a set of preexisting conditions is in fact used to generate the condi- tions. In Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political His- tory of the Novel, for example, bourgeOiS femininity is shown to be constructed through the domestic fictions that represent it as already in place.

Reflexivity entered cybernetics primarily through discussions about the observer. By and large, first-wave cybernetics followed traditional scientific protocols in considering observers to be outside the system they observe. Yet cybernetics also had implications that subverted this premise.

The objectivist view sees information flOwing from the system to the ob- servers, but feedback can also loop through the observers, drawing them in to become part of the system being observed.

Although participants re- marked on this aspect of the cybernetic paradigm throughout the Macy transcripts, they lacked a single word to describe it. To my knowledge, the word "reflexivity" does not appear in the transcripts. This meant they had no handle with which to grasp this slippery concept, no Signifier that would help to constitute as well as to describe the changed perspective that reflexivity entails.

Discussions of the idea remained diffuse. Most participants did not go beyond remarking on the shifting boundaries between observer and sys- tem that cybernetics puts into play. With some exceptions, deeper formula- tions of the problem failed to coalesce during the Macy discussions.

Transhumanism

The most notable exception turned out to hurt more than it helped. If reflexivity was already a subversive concept, this in- terpretation made it doubly so, for it threatened to dissolve the premise of scientific objectivity shared by the physical scientists in the Macy group. Their reactions to Kubie's presentations show them shying away from re- flexivity, preferring to shift the conversation onto more comfortable ground. Nevertheless, the idea hung in the air, and a few key thinkers-especially Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Heinz von Foerster-resolved to pursue it after the Macy Conferences ran out of steam.

The second wave of cybernetics grew out of attempts to incorporate re- flexivity into the cybernetic paradigm at a fundamental level. The key issue was how systems are constituted as such, and the key problem was how to redefine homeostatic systems so that the observer can be taken into account. The second wave was initiated by, among others, Heinz von Foerster, the Austrian emigre who became coeditor of the Macy tran- scripts.

This phase can be dated from , when von Foerster wrote the first of the essays that were later collected in his influential book Observing Systems. Von Foerster called the models he presented in these essays "second-order cybernetics" because they extended cybernetic principles to the cyberneticians them- selves. Organisms respond to their environment in ways determined by their internal self-organization.

Their one and only goal is continually to produce and reproduce the organization that defines them as systems. Hence, they not only are self-organizing but also are autopoietic, or self- making. Through Maturana and Varela's work and that of other influential theorists such as German SOCiologist Niklas Luhmann,21 cybernetics by had spun off from the idea of reflexive feedback loops a theory of au- topoiesis with sweeping epistemological implications. In a sense, autopoiesis turns the cybernetic paradigm inside out.

Its cen- tral premise-that systems are informationally closed-radically alters the idea of the informational feedback loop, for the loop no longer func- tions to connect a system to its environment. We do not see a world "out there" that exists apart from us. Rather, we see only what our systemic organization allows us to see.

The environ- ment merely triggers changes determined by the system's own structural properties.

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Thus the center of interest for autopoiesis shifts from the cy- bernetics of the observed system to the cybernetics of the observer. Au- topoiesis also changes the explanation of what circulates through the system to make it work as a system. The emphasis now is on the mutually constitutive interactions between the components of a system rather than on message, signal, or information. Indeed, one could say either that infor- mation does not exist in this paradigm or that it has sunk so deeply into the system as to become indistinguishable from the organizational properties defining the system as such.

The third wave swelled into existence when self-organization began to be understood not merely as the re production of internal organization but as the springboard to emergence.

How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
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How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

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