N. Katherine Hayles (born 16 December 1943) is a postmodern literary critic, most notable for her contribution to the fields of literature and science, electronic literature, and American literature. She is professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Program in Literature at Duke University.
Hayles was born in Saint Louis, Missouri to Edward and Thelma Bruns. She received her B.S. in Chemistry from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1966, and her M.S. in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1969. She worked as a research chemist in 1966 at Xerox Corporation and as a chemical research consultant Beckman Instrument Company from 1968-1970. Hayles then switched fields and received her M.A. in English Literature from Michigan State University in 1970, and her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Rochester in 1977. She is a social and literary critic.
Her scholarship primarily focuses on the “relations between science, literature, and technology.” Hayles has taught at UCLA, University of Iowa, University of MissouriRolla, the California Institute of Technology, and Dartmouth College. She was the faculty director of the Electronic Literature Organization from 2001-2006.
Hayles understands “human” and “posthuman” as constructions that emerge from historically specific understandings of technology, culture and embodiment; “human and “posthuman” views each produce unique models of subjectivity. Within this framework “human” is aligned with Enlightenment notions of liberal humanism, including its emphasis on the “natural self” and the freedom of the individual. Conversely, Posthuman does away with the notion of a “natural” self and emerges when human intelligence is conceptualized as being co-produced with intelligent machines. According to Hayles the posthuman view privileges information over materiality, considers consciousness as an epiphenomenon and imagines the body as a prosthesis for the mind . Specifically Hayles suggests that in the posthuman view “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation…” The posthuman thus emerges as a deconstruction of the liberal humanist notion of “human.”
Despite drawing out the differences between “human” and “posthuman”, Hayles is careful to note that both perspectives engage in the erasure of embodiment from subjectivity. In the liberal humanist view, cognition takes precedence over the body, which is narrated as an object to possess and master. Meanwhile, popular conceptions of the cybernetic posthuman imagine the body as merely a container for information and code. Noting the alignment between these two perspectives, Hayles uses How We Became Posthuman to investigate the social and cultural processes and practices that led to the conceptualization of information as separate from the material that instantiates it. Drawing on diverse examples, such as Turing’s Imitation Game, Gibson’s Neuromancer and cybernetic theory, Hayles traces the history of what she calls “the cultural perception that information and materiality are conceptually distinct and that information is in some sense more essential, more important and more fundamental than materiality.” By tracing the emergence of such thinking, and by looking at the manner in which literary and scientific texts came to imagine, for example, the possibility of downloading human consciousness into a computer, Hayles attempts to trouble the information/material separation and in her words, “…put back into the picture the flesh that continues to be erased in contemporary discussions about cybernetic subjects.
In the years since Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman was published, it has been both praised and critiqued by scholars who have viewed her work through a variety of lenses; including those of cybernetic history, feminism, postmodernism, cultural and literary criticism, and conversations in the popular press about humans’ changing relationships to technology.
Reactions to Hayles’ writing style, general organization, and scope of the book have been mixed. The book is generally praised for displaying depth and scope in its combining of scientific ideas and literary criticism. Linda Brigham of Kansas State University claims that Hayles manages to lead the text “across diverse, historically contentious terrain by means of a carefully crafted and deliberate organizational structure.” Some scholars found her prose difficult to read or over-complicated. Andrew Pickering describes the book as “hard going” and lacking of “straightforward presentation.” Dennis Weiss of York College of Pennsylvania accuses Hayles of “unnecessarily complicat[ing] her framework for thinking about the body”, for example by using terms such as “body” and “embodiment” ambiguously. Weiss however acknowledges as convincing her use of science fiction in order to reveal how “the narrowly focused, abstract constellation of ideas” of cybernetics circulate through a broader cultural context. Craig Keating of Langara College on the contrary argues that the obscurity of some texts questions their ability to function as the conduit for scientific ideas.
Several scholars reviewing How We Became Posthuman highlighted the strengths and shortcomings of her book vis a vis its relationship to feminism. Amelia Jones of University of Southern California describes Hayles’ work as reacting to the misogynistic discourse of the field of cybernetics. As Pickering wrote, Hayles’ promotion of an “embodied posthumanism” challenges cybernetics’ “equation of human-ness with disembodied information” for being “another male trick to feminists tired of the devaluation of women’s bodily labor.” Stephanie Turner of Purdue University also described Hayles’ work as an opportunity to challenge prevailing concepts of the human subject which assumed the body was white, male, and European, but suggested Hayles’ dialectic method may have taken too many interpretive risks, leaving some questions open about “which interventions promise the best directions to take.”
Reviewers were mixed about Hayles’ construction of the posthuman subject. Weiss describes Hayles’ work as challenging the simplistic dichotomy of human and post-human subjects in order to “rethink the relationship between human beings and intelligent machines,” however suggests that in her attempt to set her vision of the posthuman apart from the “realist, objectivist epistemology characteristic of first-wave cybernetics”, she too, falls back on universalist discourse, premised this time on how cognitive science is able to reveal the “true nature of the self.” Jones similarly described Hayles’ work as reacting to cybernetics’ disembodiment of the human subject by swinging too far towards an insistence on a “physical reality” of the body apart from discourse. Jones argued that reality is rather “determined in and through the way we view, articulate, and understand the world”.
In terms of the strength of Hayles’ arguments regarding the return of materiality to information, several scholars expressed doubt on the validity of the provided grounds, notably evolutionary psychology. Keating claims that while Hayles is following evolutionary psychological arguments in order to argue for the overcoming of the disembodiment of knowledge, she provides “no good reason to support this proposition.” Brigham describes Hayles’ attempt to connect autopoietic circularity to “an inadequacy in Maturana’s attempt to account for evolutionary change” as unjustified. Weiss suggests that she makes the mistake of “adhering too closely to the realist, objectivist discourse of the sciences,” the same mistake she criticizes Weiner and Maturana for committing.
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