xbn .

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. 


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). 

Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Silvia Federici

Federici provides a model for political theologians engaging with race, gender, and sexuality through the lens of capitalist oppression

Luce Irigaray

“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. We might forget air, we might forget that we breathe, or how to breathe. But air does not forget us. And air will never cease to carry us, to lift us up, to set us into flight, even when we no longer live in a body that tried (if unsuccessfully) to fly.”

Niklas Luhmann

David Kline introduces the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann for political theology and reflects on how it might think about its own limits of observation.

N. Katherine Hayles

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.

Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

François Laruelle

“[For] quantum gnostics, there has never been a creation of the world or in the world—it is the world that is ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’, and consequently also the God who claimed to have created it and yet hesitates to assume it.”

Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Fred Moten

Moten’s prophecy bespeaks aesthetic registers in ordinary (Black) life, but he denies that the aesthetic is redemptive.

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties.

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Stuart Hall

The late public intellectual Stuart Hall, with his concept of the conjuncture, assists political theology in analyzing our current moment and potential interventions.

Talal Asad

Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between “religion” and “politics” (terms he opens to question), Talal Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts across different situations.

Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux’s thinking of post-Copernican cosmic immanence and cosmic delegitimation constitutes a challenge to political theology as still predominantly Ptolemaic in its assumptions and focus

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt argued that interreligious difference and Christian theology are steady influences on political movements, action, and thought.

Catherine Malabou

To read Catherine Malabou is to embark upon an adventure of thought. Her writing demands change from her readers if they are to follow her on that adventure. It is a process of change that is sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.

Jean-François Lyotard

Lyotard’s thought as it appears in Le Différend describes a linguistic state that evades speech, and the ways in which justice could be done to it, or not. Bearing witness to unpronounceable utterances brings about the idea of faith.

Aime Césaire

This essay will uplift Césaire’s anticolonial consciousness, in hopes that new directions in political theology might emerge/surface

Jacob Taubes

Taubes’s thought revolves around two poles, philosophy of history and political theology, with the aim of inverting the Schmittian position and thinking a new form of community by means of an innovative return to Paul of Tarsus and Walter Benjamin.

Gloria Anzaldúa

Anzaldúa develops a theory of this borderlands consciousness through the experiential and embodied knowledges of Chicanx (and women of color) feminisms; or what she calls a ‘mestiza consciousness’.

Martin Buber

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.”

Han Byung-Chul

Psychopolitics is Han’s main contribution to political theory. It reflects Han’s rethinking of Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s biopower as disciplinary society transitioned into a digital achievement society that defines our contemporary neoliberal globalized world.

Jean-Luc Marion

[Marion’s] central concepts and phenomenological method offer an ambiguous resource for political theology: on the one hand, he articulates a rigorous method of doing phenomenology which is trained to remain open to phenomena historically ignored and marginalized, and on the other hand, his own conclusions can veer towards a Christian triumphalism which is in danger of betraying the primary aim of his philosophical project.

Kuan-Hsing Chen

Chen suggests that Western political theologians should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s work has altered the trajectories of multiple disciplines in the last thirty years; what can they teach scholars of political theology?

Anibal Quijano

Quijano reimagines the long-lasting and contemporary status of colonialism seen through the lenses of race, modernity/rationality, and economic exploitation, encouraging us to produce theological and political critiques from the ever-enduring nature of coloniality.

Michel Henry

What [Henry’s] oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.

Cedric Robinson

Vega focuses on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics.

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s work excavates the legacies of colonial reason and violence shaping the powers of death in the world today.

Frank Wilderson III

Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead.

Adriana Cavarero

Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes the biblical commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill” as its starting point. This commandment is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).

Jean-Luc Nancy

The subtlety and poetry of Nancy’s language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism, Christianity, and ontology.

Roberto Esposito

In Esposito’s most explicit political theology work, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology.

Ernst Bloch

In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.

The Invisible Committee

The Invisible Committee may be productively, albeit counterintuitively, understood as Gnostic, a perspective that will put into question some of the assumptions behind the way the political and the theological are demarcated from and related to each other in contemporary debates.

Gil Anidjar

While Carl Schmitt claims that the enemy constitutes “the political,” his various writings largely ignore the historical and discursive evolution of the enemy. Anidjar’s major contribution to modern political theology lies in responding to this lacuna.

Sara Ahmed

Scholars and activists cannot rely on fact-checking or dry reason in this political climate. We have to feel our way toward change.

Hortense Spillers

What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor.

Lauren Berlant

Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!