Linda Brigham reviews Katherine Hayles’ My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Mothers?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Mothers?
My Mother Was A Computer seems to me to be one of those liminal books, poised between multiple basins of attraction. It could have gone, not just either way, but in any of several different ways, were the slightest breeze to blow. Hayles, in her continued vigilance against technologically inspired monisms, has produced not only a critical book, but a riven, multifocal book, far from equilibrium - and, I think, consciously so.
The book title is a case in point. It alludes to a diachronic pun. Hayles’ mother was a computer in accord with earlier twentieth-century usage, a repetitive manipulator of numbers, an activity rendered obsolete by technological advances in software and hardware. But the resonance of the title now, in the current age of the digital convergence with genetic engineering, is more ontological and more organic - and eerily possible. A genetically designed child could presumably do homage to something silicon-based on Mother’s Day. The message: computers are not only our tools, prosthetics for calculation and memory; they’ve also become part of our imaginary horizon. In Hayles’ words, we now inhabit a “regime of computation” in which the computer is undecidably “both means and metaphor” (20). Computation is everywhere, both on our desks and in our dreams. And so it’s appropriate that her own work follow them to lots of places: into literary criticism, new technologies, cultural studies, and personal meditation - and do so at a historical juncture when it is difficult to predict what kind of thing will go in what direction.
We would, perhaps, like to believe that digital convergence - the apparently limitless domain of that which can be transformed into units digestible by computers - will give us freedoms whose instantiation had hitherto been only imaginary. The book begins and ends (and there is a middle layer which I’ll discuss below) with forays into various mixed results of this scenario by perusing the fictions of Henry James, Phillip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr., Stanislaw Lem, and Greg Egan. Hayles examines these fictions in the context of contemporary cybernetic claims to metaphysics - primarily Stephen Wolfram’s claim that we can ground all complexity in the simplicity of cellular automata. Fictional scenarios suggest that even if the math is right, the application is wrong; humans do things with whatever stuff with whatever affordances weirdly, in ways that continuously puncture the cybernetic envelope. Hayles reminds us at dramatic moments in her book that human experience is profoundly analog, that natural language, for example, isn’t just a High-Level-Language. We need to regard the imbrication of our present and future in the schemes and tropes of digital devices precisely as figures, as cases of what she called “intermediation” - a many-stranded weave of organisms, machines, subjects, economies, and representations that produce both convergences with and divergences from technologies.
I must confess, though, that I flag under the burden of all this junk. I need a little less complexity, a through-line in the narrative. It may be there and I have missed it. Still, at the risk of betraying a sophistication deficit, I’m going to suggest that such a line is either missing or elusive. The book’s beginning (the section “Making”) and end (entitled “Transmitting”) sandwich a middle section (“Storing”) that seems to have the ingredients of a more unified exposition. Here Hayles discusses Shelley Jackson’s fiction, Patchwork Girl in the context of the historical development of copyright law. Jackson’s Patchwork Girl is a reworking, or perhaps a collaborative twin, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and as such illustrates and enacts the inherent multiplicity of authorship. Hayles brings out its concomitant critique of authorship as a fiction created by the institution of copyright, a device used to channel cultural and capital revenues to an individual regardless of how many amanuenses, muses, spiritual guides, cooks or chambermaids sustain that individual and participate or even collaborate in that individual’s “work.” In this same section, Hayles presents a fascinating account of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, written while the author converted from Microsoft to Linux. Stephenson saw the beastly fiction of his position as supposed “user” of a proprietary software with ambitions towards world domination. He recognized himself not only as the hapless consumer of an expensive, controlled good, but as a participant in an aggregate of such consumers whose net effect is technological addiction and abject dependency on a mass scale.
I would like to see the relationship between these two chapters more firmly developed. Copyright and word processing software both control capital flows, but they do so by different means that represent evolved dependencies. Copyright animates the fantasy of the liberal, unified subject (as Hayles discusses so lucidly) which colonizes its network of support - memory systems, family systems, and other systems upon which it is materially dependent. This organization follows a familiar nineteenth-century model of domination. Microsoft, though, works not through the effacement of structure but through the diversion of attention to kinds of agency we’re already conditioned by, liberal agency. The very support structures obscured by copyright now flourish on the global capital scene with little disguise, but nonetheless beyond access. We do not (despite much critical work exhorting us to do so) think in terms of the medium underlying the natural-language text, of the digital nature of contemporary texts, which wage war for dominance over other formulas for digital representation. We’re just civilian bystanders in that war. But as such, we’re also part of the weapon of that war: the network of users. It is important to recognize that participation in a network is very seldom a means of increasing one’s agency. Feedback to network nodes seldom indicates the nature of the network; that information yields only to a higher level of surveillance and analysis, while the nature of the network feeds some entity beyond us, we continue to subsist on the empty calories of ideas and concepts. Concepts and ideas, the contents texts “convey,” are the opiate of the user/consumer, whose self-image as a liberal subject is just another concept - while winning and losing takes place among the machines and their producers - at the network level.
Perhaps I’m being crude here. But this is also my point: complexity, even organized complexity, is too vague and general to help us get a purchase on where we are and where we’re going. There are just too many variables in the massively recurcursive and many-noded feedback loops that provide the context for Hayles’ book. Yet scientists of complexity do provide more than complexity. They study networks and network types, the transformation of noise into chaos; they trace the emergence of story from random bits of narrative, and so forth, all to produce a form - unstable, fluctuating, evolving, but still, with graspable, tendencies. The model posed by cellular automata is only one case of decomplexification, perhaps only the most obnoxious. Others might have been selected. Hayles complains that theorists making claims about complexity and emergence have not yet shown how order arises from its less conceptually palatable components one level down. But she does not mention here, although she does elsewhere, the work of many theorists who aim to do precisely that: Hermann Haken and Scott Kelso in physics, for example, or Esther Thelen and Linda Smith in developmental psychobiology, or Walter J. Freeman, even Antonio Damasio in neurology.
Nonetheless, Hayles’ work is admirable in its open-ended, open-minded engagement of a continuously changing intellectual and artistic field. She focuses her last chapter on the fiction of Greg Egan, not because he secures her criticisms of the Regime of Computation, but because he destabilizes them. Egan creates worlds where digital convergence with the organic basis of the self has rendered death obsolete - and in that way, he represents the Regime of Computation’s most seductive fantasy. As one might expect, though, the end of death is not as utopian an event as it appears from the standpoint of mortality. However, what’s compelling about Egan’s fiction is not what it says about the quality of life or death in their usual analog contexts, but how the digital interface with life and death alters self-perception. Life and death ordinarily comprise our most generalized binary, our horizon of being. It seems impossible to put either under qualification. But Egan does; one’s life can become a selection from a class of consumer goods. His technological fiction in effect elicits a nuanced phenomenology of a range of conscious states. Compared to this, claims Hayles, Slavoj Zizek’s account of the position of death in psychoanalytic theory, as the final destination, is positively “parochial.” Perhaps emancipation from psychoanalysis, and its purported isomorph, culture, is not only a cybernetic delusion. Perhaps it is a side effect. Hayles’ sensitivity to side effects like Egan is a trait worth emulating (or simulating?)
Linda Brigham has also written a review of Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman.
Andrew McMurry also questions the complexification of literary studies in his general introduction to the Critical Ecologies thread, circa 2006.