Visiting Wonderland

Visiting Wonderland

2004-12-05

Katherine Hayles responds to Diana Lobb.

One of the more distressing experiences you can have in academia is for someone to criticize you for making the erroneous argument X when you should have been arguing Y, when in fact you have been arguing for Y and against X. This Alice-in-Wonderland scenario confronted me when reading Diana Lobb’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes or Who’s Afraid of N. Katherine Hayles?” The allusion to Albee’s play is more appropriate than Lobb realizes, for the crisis comes when the characters can no longer escape the realization that a supposed reality is only a fantasmatic object of desire. Lobb’s desire is expressed in her wish to find an analysis that “breaks its back genuflecting to the Truth as revealed by the `master’ scientific discourse.” The object becomes fantasmatic when she decides that my book Chaos Bound exemplifies this position. Lobb finds Chaos Bound typical of “a deliberate refusal in areas of the humanities to recognize that the discourse of the sciences and the discourse of the humanities are equally valuable, mutually interactive parts of a bigger picture - be that bigger picture called discursive field, episteme or world view.” The idea that the sciences and humanities are part of a “larger picture” is precisely the argument I have been making for twenty years, insisting the convergences that emerge between literature and science should be understood not primarily as science influencing literature but rather as an indication that both are rooted in an underlying cultural matrix. Here is a typical sentence from Chaos Bound, taken from the Preface: “Especially notable is the increased emphasis in Chaos Bound on locating science and literature within contemporary culture,” (xiii), which is only one of many places in the book where I develop and expand this central claim.

The ironies multiply when Lobb claims that I “suggest that an act of translation across disciplinary knowledge bases is not necessary when considering the relationship of complexity sciences to the humanities.” Here is a passage, again taken from the Preface and elaborated more fully in the chapters that follow, that states exactly the opposite to what Lobb claims I say: “These similarities notwithstanding, different disciplinary traditions can impute strikingly different values to isomorphic paradigms. In the physical sciences, for example, nonlinear dynamics is seen as a way to bring complex behavior within the scope of rational analysis. Analogous theories in literary studies, by contrast, are often embraced because they are seen as resisting totalizing theories” (xiv). She further claims that I argue “the convergence of interests must be evidence of a singular event which shifts the singular epistemic structure from which both disciplines are produced.” Although she then goes go to use two phrases central to my argument - “cultural context” and “feedback loop” - she apparently does not know what these terms imply. The very idea of a feedback loop, which I use to show that developments in different fields cycle through the cultural matrix to affect change across time and between different sites, implies that no event should be understood as singular and no episteme as homogeneous. Indeed, my book that follows Chaos Bound, How We Became Posthuman, devotes several chapters to tracing in detail the microstructures that necessarily always come between epistemes that are erroneously seen as sharply differentiated from one another and homogeneous within themselves.

The following paragraphs of her review take us deeper into Wonderland. Somehow she thinks that I “conceive of the advent of the complexity sciences as an opportunity to revel in the progressive dissolution of any humane, or even human, text.” I am simply at a loss to understand how this reading could come from anything I wrote in Chaos Bound. The representative literary figures about whom I wrote - Stanislaw Lem, Henry Adams, and Doris Lessing - are deeply concerned precisely with recovering a sense of the human from what they perceive as crises in which their contemporary cultures are descending into chaos. Here is a sample sentence from the conclusion of the Lessing chapter: “In being able to distinguish her authentic voice from a parody, Anna retains a sense of the reality of subjectivity and consequently of its potential as a source of her art. Thus the ending can be read as a resincription of the values that underlie the realistic novel, and more generally of the assumptions that make modernist representation possible” (264). I go on to point out that Lessing’s novel “can also be read as signaling the transformation of the text into a postmodern collage of information, in which parody does not exist because the center did not hold. This ambiguity points toward a profound duality within the new paradigms - whether they imply the renewal of human subjectivity as it has traditionally been constituted or its demise” (264). Perhaps Lobb, without making the move explicit, has drifted from Chaos Bound to How We Became Posthuman. If so, she has entirely missed the major point of that book - namely that there are different varieties of posthumanism. The more “humane” version for which I argue passionately is a kind of posthumanism that can move past the erroneous assumptions of liberal humanism while still recognizing the centrality and importance of the embodied human subject.

Finally, in several places Lobb alleges that I propose the sciences convey directly to us an “ontology.” This is a serious error that no one who has read my work carefully could possibly think I advocate. In “Constrained Constructivism: Locating Scientific Inquiry in the Theater of Representation” (New Orleans Review, 18 (1991); 76-85), an essay that was seminal to my thinking and whose ideas deeply informed Chaos Bound, I make explicit that science is always embedded in linguistic, cultural, and historical contexts. One of my most emphatic conclusions is that the sciences cannot speak the Truth, because that would presume an objective viewpoint unattainable for anyone - what Donna Haraway calls the God’s-eye view and which I identify as a theoretical position that can in actuality never be occupied.

In conclusion, with apologies in advance to Lobb, I offer the following playful Wonderland interpretation of her review: she bemoans the fact that the humanities are hubristic enough to think they can contribute on an equal basis to the sciences and she thinks we should all recognize that only the sciences can speak the Truth. Now there is a position with which I could have a serious argument!