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A reflection on the political implications of N. Katherine Hayles’ critical aesthetic inquiry into the ecological relationships between the human and the technological, thought and cognition, and information and materiality.

N. Katherine Hayles’ humanist inquiry centers on the relations of literature, science and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries and digitally mediated cultural contexts of the U.S. With a background as a scientist, having trained in chemistry in the 1960s before retraining in English literature in the 1970s, Hayles’ interdisciplinary thinking produced the career-defining concept of the “posthuman.” Emerging from this nexus of Hayles’ work, the posthuman reimagines the concept of the “human” as embodied in ecological relation to other beings, whether biological life, artificial life, or nonlife. This work raises many challenges to precepts about nature, human nature, and human destiny that are imbricated in political thinking and derived from theological traditions. Posthumanism casts questions of, for instance, the moral status of non-human beings, in terms of how agency is distributed through what Hayles calls “cognitive assemblages,” which are therefore also political assemblages.

While Hayles’ work has been critiqued by some for not engaging sufficiently with the political (especially the political economy of post-industrial cognitive capitalism), it does offer political theology a non-teleological theory of human-machine co-evolution that points toward new conceptions of power and authority – conceptions that challenge the dominant narrative of Western Enlightenment and, by extension, the theo-political structures and concepts used historically to think about the political.

The posthuman reformulation of such tools are of significance to political theology’s concern with sovereignty, salvation, and binary distinctions – particularly the secular and the theological. Moreover, posthumanism has religious significance in and of itself. As Have Tirosh-Samuelson writes, “the transition from the human condition to the posthuman condition will be facilitated by transhumanism,” a project of human enhancement that she argues should be seen as “a secularist faith” (2012, 710). This is because transhumanism “secularizes traditional religious themes, concerns, and goals, while endowing technology with religious significance” (2012, 710). So, reasoning about the posthuman condition is always already part of the religious, secular, and hybrid sense-making of the postsecular public sphere, especially as it grapples with technological change.

The following introduction to Hayles’ work aims to show that in facing the type of cybernetic futures she has tracked, political theology can draw upon her profoundly ecological model of the posthuman in order to guide political theological reflection on technology – and biotechnology, especially. Instead of bootstrapping with values and ideologies and laddering up from there, initializing from a posthuman ecological cognition yields responses that deal with the whole embodied phenomenon of political and theological life.

Key Works

In 1999 How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics became the first book-length study defining posthumanism as a vision of the human where embodiment and subjectivity are co-articulated with technology. Hayles’ political move is to replace the self-enclosed human envisioned by Enlightenment liberal individualism with a vision of a “material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (1999, 3) within contemporary regimes of computation. How We Became Posthuman is a history of the perception of the dualism of virtuality/information vs. materiality/technology.

The “we” of the title refers to inheritors of the liberal Enlightenment model of the human as essentially a thinking mind more than a mattering body. It also refers to sci-fi imaginaries of the cybernetic human as essentially a container for information. In weaving the literary and the historical, Hayles’ desire is “to show the complex interplays between embodied forms of subjectivity and arguments for disembodiment throughout the cybernetic tradition” (1999, 7). Science fiction is a methodological touchstone for Hayles because of the way it inherently combines thinking about technology and our relation to it. Reading science fiction situates these issues in embodied narrative. 

Hayles’ other notable works (Writing Machines [2002]; Electronic Literature [2008]) articulate and flesh out material processes of information movement and the neurobiological processes of human cognition. In this way, Hayles’ posthumanism resonates with the corporeal feminism of figures like Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, who link the scientific and the literary in speculative political modes. But by Hayles’ own lights, her early articulation of posthumanism remained unfinished in its exploration of the consequences of emphasizing the embodiedness of information and cognition as a key element of a liberatory posthumanism. The project of articulating a type of affirmative posthumanism would become the focus of her two later monographs.

The 2012 How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis synthesizes a theory of co-evolution, which Hayles calls “technogenesis,” between humans and technics (intelligent machines). As with Darwinian evolution, evolution by technogenesis “is not about progress” and “offers no guarantees that the dynamic transformations taking place between humans and technics are moving in a positive direction” (2012, 81). One thing that is certain, however, is that intelligent machines will take increasingly active roles in constructing and filtering information for human users. Consequently, we will need to design new political responses appropriate to the complex posthuman “syncopation between conscious and unconscious perceptions for humans and the interactions of surface displays and algorithmic procedures for machines” (2012, 13).

Hayles experiments with a political response in her subsequent monograph, the 2017 Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. Whereas How We Think examined how intelligent machines are influencing humans as thinkers (with conscious operations like verbal language, abstract reasoning, mathematics, music), Unthought shows how humans are part of a much broader assemblage of cognizers. Hayles defines cognition as any process involving choices about interpreting information in a context that connects it with meaning. Cognizing is therefore fundamentally embodied and material.

The result of this reframing of thinking and cognition relocates the human as one among many players in an extended, flexible, and self-organizing cognitive system. Crucially, then, “cognitive assemblages are inherently political…They are infused with social-technological-cultural-economic practices that instantiate and negotiate between different kinds of powers, stakeholders, and modes of cognition” (Hayles 2017, 178). This gives reason for taking diverse modes of agency and subjectivity seriously. Expanding our notions of what and who counts as political actors, allowing us to resist theologies of dominion and stewardship, or, in fact, any metaphysics that depends on the uniqueness of the human and the conscious integrity of human intentionality. 

However, rather than being disturbed by the fact that most cognition necessarily involves no conscious awareness at all, Hayles appreciates that an “accurate view of human cognitive ecology … opens it to comparison with other biological cognizers on the one hand and on the other to the cognitive capabilities of technical systems” (2017, 11). On this view, orchids, thermostats, squirrels, and humans are all cognitive beings. They are all part of cognitive assemblages that develop through biological evolution by natural selection as well as technogenesis. They are in radical symbiosis with each other, going beyond the biological and organic by way of homology between human and other cognition. But symbiosis always entails mutual risk exposure.

The Political Implications of Posthuman Ecological Cognition

Hayles’ conceptual toolkit allows users to define the human with technologies, as transhumanists would, and against technologies, when it is politically expedient to do so. Hayles’ posthuman model requires us to appreciate that the human exists only symbiotically. Her affirmative posthumanism can help expose the latent theologies of any number of anthropocentric theories, but especially traditional liberal humanism and forms of capitalism.

The critical tools we can glean from Hayles thus speak particularly to “contemporary cultures in developed societies … presently undergoing systemic transformations that are profoundly changing planetary cognitive ecologies” (2017, 216). Hayles’ investigation into how our nonconscious mechanisms work shows that, while a key job of the cognitive nonconscious is to filter inputs so as to prevent cognitive overload, this system did not evolve to deal with today’s information ecology; new methods are needed to deal with the overload. 

Hayles’ recent works (“Speculative Aesthetics and Object-Oriented Inquiry” 2014; Unthought 2017) abstract her method of reading science fiction as a way of narratively materializing existing cognitive assemblages, and reframe the method in terms of a “speculative aesthetic inquiry.” This method depends on bridging “between evidentiary accounts of objects that emerge from the resistances and engagements they offer to human inquiry, and imaginative projections into what these imply for a given object’s way of being in the world” (2014, 172).

Studying objects in this way reveals ways that we can engage our nonconscious cognition aesthetically. In other words, a proper posthuman analytics makes visible a profoundly ecological ontology where “every real object possesses … its own experience of the world” (2014, 178). In this speculative inquiry, as in her whole corpus of work, Hayles seeks a mode of investigation “potently suited to a posthuman world in which other species, objects, and artificial intelligences compete and cooperate to fashion the dynamic environments in which we all live” (2014, 179).

In this way, Hayles’ speculative aesthetic inquiry joins projects like Jane Bennett’s political ecology of vibrant matter and other secular metaphysics that hope “to combat the anthropocentrism and narcissism for which the human species is notorious” (2014, 177). The ethical imperative of such a move is made apparent as Hayles mines speculative fiction such as The Silent History (Horowitz, Derby, Moffett 2014) for resources that value the human for its embodied cognitive capacities, and not just its supposedly definitive power to do thinking in symbolic language.

The Silent History imagines what would happen when humans can no longer represent themselves in language after a whole generation is born that neither uses nor responds to speech or writing. Instead, these children communicate through an affective economy of micro facial gestures. Using this text, Hayles shows the richness that can be appreciated in cognition and information even when it is asemic. Asemia becomes a model for imagining more broadly how humans can resist capture by the technolinguistic systems that affective capitalism and info-capitalism depend on. 

Conclusion

The questions Hayles raises about the nature of the post/human are the fundamental ones framed in the exigencies of today’s political economy. They offer provocative responses to both the threats to and possibilities of human embodiment in an age where information and attention are the most valuable resources. This practical urgency is what impels Hayles to use speculative aesthetics not just to think about far futures but to play out the political implications of how we are organizing cognitive assemblages in the present; for instance, in the governance of technical systems like artificial intelligence, even or especially in frameworks that seek to put humans at the center of AI.   

For Hayles, the effects of our technogenetic relationships are neither necessarily oppressive or liberatory, but what they do require is that “the humanities should and must be centrally involved in analysing, interpreting, and understanding the implications. Anything less is a disservice to their missions – and to the world” (2017, 216).


Annotated Bibliography:

1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The major concept in this book, which set the stage for posthuman studies, is “the posthuman.” This concept signifies the human in dynamic relationship with cognitive machines. How We Became Posthuman is essentially the story of information’s divorce from materiality, as people have increasingly imagined the human mind as separable from the body and forgotten the material objects involved in producing information in its digital forms. To tell this story, Hayles unites history of technology (e.g. the post-World War II Macy Conferences on cybernetics), cultural studies (e.g. the cyborg feminism of Donna Haraway), and literary criticism (20th century novels exploring the human in relation to cybernetics and artificial life). Hayles uses “posthuman” as a heuristic term for evoking this story.

2011. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The major concept in this book is technogenesis, meaning the co-evolution of humans and their technics. How We Think represents Hayles’ interest in the material production and reception of texts, and at the field level, in the digital humanities. The book examines close reading, hyper reading (skimming hyperlinked texts on screens), and machine reading (applying computer algorithms to a volume of text “too vast to be read by a single person” [Hayles 2012, 72]). Hayles employs the concept of technogenesis to explain the synergistic analytical and aesthetic possibilities between these forms of reading for texts to come. How We Think  makes a strong case for the role of the humanities in the digital age. It also sets the stage for the deeper exploration of extended cognition and distributed agency to come in the subsequent monograph Unthought (2017).

2014. “Speculative Aesthetics and Object-Oriented Inquiry (OOI).” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism V: 158-179.

The major concept in this essay is “object oriented inquiry,” by which Hayles means adapting the framework of object oriented ontology (OOO) to move beyond ontological questions within the relatively narrow boundaries of speculative philosophy,” to “epistemological, social, cultural and political issues” (2014, 170). OOO is a noncorrelationist, flat ontology premised on the notion of withdrawal: that is, OOO sees all things in terms of “objects,” which have existences independent of human observation, and which are never fully knowable by humans. Hayles replaces the concept of “withdrawal” with that of “resistance.” With this move, the sidesteps the hermeneutic solipsism for which OOO circles have been critiqued, and stands with the relationality of politically engaged feminist speculative realisms. 

2017. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Unthought draws together everything Hayles has dealt with and created before: neuroscience, cognitive biology, posthuman studies, speculative realism, robotics, AI, and the digital humanities. The major concept in this book is nonconscious cognition, by which Hayles means cognitive capacity as it resides in human consciousness, as well as in brain processes of which we are unaware, and, crucially, in “other life forms and complex technical systems” as well (2017, 9). 

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