Katherine Hayles, “How We Became Posthuman”

As my provocation on Hayles, let me turn her title into a larger question that we can no doubt only try to answer after considering what she says in the Prologue and first chapter to her book: How did we in fact become posthuman? What in human/historical/intellectual development led to that critical transition from a “natural self” to “cybernetic posthuman”?

What follows is a series of quotations and questions drawn from Hayles’s Prologue and first chapter.

  1. What does Hayles mean, in commenting on the Turing Test, that it is about “the erasure of embodiment” when “intelligence becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life-world.” (xi) Why does intelligence need a body or does it still need one anymore?
  2. Hayles suggests that all human beings are now “posthuman” and concludes that “Because information had lost its body, this construction implied that emobdiment is not essential to human being.” (4) Why would she draw that conclusion in 1999?
  3. Is Hayles optimistic or pessimistic about the human condition? What does Hayles mean when she says at the bottom of p. 5: “…my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality. . . and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.”
  4. What role does history play in the transition Hayles describes to the posthuman? What is the importance of what Hayles calls “three distinct waves of development,” which she defines as homeostasis (1945-60); reflexivity 1960-80); and virtuality (1980-present).
  5. Are we doomed to posthuman status or does Hayles see a possibility for resistance, a la Haraway? Do you agree with her conclusion¬† (on p. 20)¬† that “…we can demystify our progress toward virtuality and see it as the result of historically specific negotiations rather than of the irresistible force of technological determinism. At the same time we can acquire resources wit which to rethink the assumptions underlying virtuality, and we can recover a sense of the virtual that fully recognizes the importance of the embodied processes constituting the lifeworld of human beings.”

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