N. Katherine Hayles.
My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005. x + 290 pp. $22.00 pbk.
As can be said for our very best scholars, one book by Hayles is the
equivalent of any five by the competition. The best reason for reading Hayles is
that she provides a clear and meticulous guide through the scholarly literature
and the scientific issues—both recent and foundational. One receives both an
accessible introduction and a sophisticated assessment. One is delighted by her
respect for and insights into literature. One admires that the scholarship does
not dominate the criticism, and that the criticism doesn’t overwhelm the
analytic exposition. One appreciates her deft handling of scientific research:
what, to most of us in literary study, seems impossibly abstruse and perhaps
even irrelevant, Hayles renders as a series of sober, sensible, and intelligible
insights. My Mother Was a Computer should be required reading for anyone
with a serious interest in the relations among science, technology, and the
Most of the recent discussion of digital texts and publishing, such as Yochai
Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets
and Freedom (2006), has concerned copyright law, intellectual property,
business opportunities, and social economy. Think of the disputes surrounding
the decision by many newspapers not to pay writers after posting their work in
website archives, or the controversy over the agreement made between Google and
many universities to digitize and make searchable as many books as possible.
Writing in Locus, Cory Doctorow argues that providing new fiction gratis,
under a "Creative Commons" license, actually increases sales by helping authors
find and enlarge their core audience. (Both Doctorow’s and Benkler’s recent
books are available through their websites.) While not unconcerned with these
issues, Hayles instead focuses on the changes in concepts central to literature
and the philosophy of science.
With books on field models and chaos theory, Hayles became well-known in sf
scholarship. Nominally part of a trilogy, with How We Became Posthuman:
Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics (1999) and
Writing Machines (2001), My Mother Was a Computer extends and revises
the discussion of the earlier books. This one focuses on the conceptual and
material differences of "making, storing, and transmitting" (11) speech,
writing, or electronic texts, predominantly the latter two. Whether one can call
digital writing a "text" is itself questioned, since the book’s central conflict
is that between natural language and "code"—here both shorthand for all types of
binary codes that form the programming of digital computational devices and a
general "synecdoche for information" (21) itself, and hence the various matters
that follow from a world-view that understands information as the ontological
source and material cause of the empirical universe. This Hayles will call the
"Computational Universe" (3-4) that, at least conceptually, produces a "Regime
of Computation": "this is the strong claim that computation does not merely
simulate the behavior of complex systems; computation is envisioned as the
process that actually generates behavior in everything from biological
organisms to human social systems" (19, emphasis in original). The problem for
the new book, then, is clear. Since natural "language alone is no longer the
distinctive characteristic of technologically developed countries; rather, it is
language plus code" (16), her book will focus on the convoluted "entanglement"
(passim), dynamic relation, and irreducibly complex reciprocity that she names
"intermediation" (7, 31).
Making, storing, and transmitting are the principal material "arenas of
interaction" (17); structurally, the book follows these three areas by division
into three sections of three chapters each. Each respective chapter concerns one
of three topics: "theory, technology, and thematics" (7). So, for example, in
section two there is one chapter that engages storing technologically,
one that engages storing theoretically, and one that engages storing
thematically. The structural combination, rather than the exclusion of one
concern in the effort to privilege another, is refreshing. Similarly, the
inclusion of theoretical commentary is especially welcome, since, as Frederic
Jameson reminds us, "Ours is an antitheoretical time, which is to say an
anti-intellectual time" (267). Hayles’s structural choices and practical
applications make for an engagingly intellectual volume.
About half of the book is dedicated to an expository map of the conceptual
terrain and about half to occasionally discrete readings in how such notional
matters appear in select literary texts—Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon
(2002), Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995), Stanislaw Lem’s "The
Mask" (1976), and Greg Egan’s Subjective Cosmology series—Quarantine
(1992), Permutation City (1994), and Distress (1995). There are
also many good pages on other figures, especially those that cleverly trace an
orthogonal trajectory from Henry James through Philip K. Dick to James Tiptree,
The book’s main title comes from a phrase in Anne Balsamo’s Technologies
of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (1996). In the years before World
War II, Balsamo’s mother was employed to perform calculations, and such people
were called "computers," which is how the word originated. (The people who 75
years earlier had been employed to use the new typewriting machines were
similarly called "typewriters," and the name of the job was transferred from the
person to the machine. For more on such linguistic transference as regards
technology, see Smith.)
Throughout My Mother was a Computer, the main compositional structure
is patient exposition, with almost every paragraph built around elaborately
detailed elucidation of one of 292 sources, the majority of which are usefully
integrated into the discussion; almost none of the citation seems extraneous
filler, as is so often the case in contemporary scholarship. The scientists,
information theorists, and philosophers of science discussed include Hans
Moravec (on the possibility of a post-biological future), Stephan Wolfram and
Edward Fredkin (on the regime and ontology of computation), Friedrich Kittler
(on mediation and its consequences), and Harold Morowitz (on emergent systems).
Along the way, there are several excursions into and applications of literary
theory, notably through Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Žižek,
Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. One of the
pleasures in reading Hayles is that she draws widely on the enormous secondary
literature and then presents it in an efficient, coherent fashion, providing us
with a plethora of new information for easy assimilation.
Among the matters discussed are the materiality of scroll, codex, etext, and
hypertext; the modeling of media differences according to the protocols of
linguistic translation; the conceptual differences of analog experience and
digital code ("executable language"); the problem of the anthropic principle (or
rather, the paradox of anthropomorphism, that because we are human we understand
other things in human terms). Perhaps the most interesting is her consideration
of "the digital subject," for even as it puns on how the digital is a subject it
also names the effect of distributed human subjectivity (201-11). In How We
Became Posthuman, Hayles called this "the crisis of agency" (177), something
that Charles Stross cleverly calls "Cartesian theater"; but unlike the merely
comic modification that Stross thinks of as just a shift in humanity’s
"ontological wardrobe" (Accelerando 361) and which retains a disturbingly
wistful nostalgia for a pre-singularity singular self (cf. Glasshouse),
Hayles sees deep significance: "the more profound change is from form to
process, from preexisting bodies to embodied materialities that are linked to
one another by complex combinations of processes based both in analog
resemblances and coding relationships" (211).
The matter of resemblance is a curious one, and Hayles touches on it briefly
(201), though I wish she were more explicit. Since a good portion of the book
examines another understanding of representation—code that enacts or performs,
that creates rather than names (50, 103-104, etc.)—I couldn’t help thinking
about how "magical" this sort of signification seems, like "the nam-shub of Enki"
that "actually did what it described" (202) in Stephenson’s Snow Crash
(1992), itself derived from mythic views of language. In Language and Myth
(1953), Ernst Cassirer outlined the contours of mythic speech, which is
characterized by a conceptual equivalence of the signifier and the signified.
That’s why the ancient Hebrews wrote "YHVH" for "Yahweh" and why, upon
awakening, the followers of Pythagoras immediately erased the impression of the
body from the bed—for the complete word was the thing itself, not merely a name,
and there was no distinction among icon and index and symbol. By the late
classical period, and despite the semiotic innovations of the Hellenistic
Stoics, signification came to be modeled as analogy, as resemblance. During the
Enlightenment, modeling again changed toward the more modern notion of
representation, an evolutionary pattern traced by Foucault in The Order of
Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1972). So it would have been
useful for Hayles to have distinguished between the notion of mythic speech and
the kind of enactment or performativity that led Wittgenstein to remark that
"Words are deeds" (46e) and Wolfram or Fredkin to think that coding creates
In the instances of the critical readings, Hayles examines the "dense
oxymoronic knots" (132) of Stephenson’s novel, the "flickering connectivities"
(167) of Jackson’s hypertext, and, in Egan’s work, the "pathological metaphor"
(219) of the Computational Universe. These she teases out more to trace than
transform or resolve, for she wants us to become aware of the issues and begin
to probe their status. Usually, her claims are so carefully introduced and
qualified that a reader will find almost nothing to reject, and little to
dispute. Of course, there remain quibbles, most of which concern the various
alternative threads she chooses not to discuss. Here, for instance, is an
introductory sentence concerning the book’s final chapter: "Egan is arguably the
most admired and influential novelist associated with the Regime of Computation"
(22). Agreed, but the book doesn’t make any attempt to name other writers or
texts and what might be gleaned from them. What about Charles Stross, especially
Accelerando (2005)? And even among Egan’s own books, perhaps Schild’s
Ladder (2002), to which she gives but a single sentence, better illustrates
some of Hayles’s contentions.
A more serious quibble concerns how Hayles neglects to interrogate metaphor.
She may be right in thinking that code is as literal, referential, and
denotative a signifying medium as possible, but her book isn’t written in code.
English, like all natural languages, is ineluctably interwoven by metaphor
(here a synecdoche for all tropes and figures). Often, Hayles deploys metaphors
that aren’t analyzed, such as the figure of "slippage," in discussing Derrida
(47). And while occasionally she does identify the trope, as in the instance of
umbilical cords that connect the linked yet distinct work of
Žižek and Egan (228),
these are used primarily as interpretive levers or ways to explicate theme—in
the case of Žižek and
Egan, to identify "reflexive entwining" (237). Take the early instance where
Hayles is explaining "Fredkin’s major thesis: that the universe is digital all
the way down and, moreover, can be understood as software running on an
unfathomable universal digital computer" (23). Almost all parts of the phrase
have tropic entanglements, and a skeptical poststructural nominalist (someone
like me, say) might start scribbling in the margin that no, it’s metaphors
all the way down. Perhaps Hayles ought to have directed her readers to
Writing Machines, which is much more explicitly engaged with the analysis of
the status of figural language and the deeply significant role it plays in
cognitive modeling and in understanding.
Stylistically, Hayles’ sentences are serviceable but quite plain, although to
be fair, certain kinds of books don’t need sentences that glow in the dark. If
you want lovely sentences, read William Gass. If you want passionate manifesto,
read Joanna Russ. If you want dramatic narrative, read Simon Schama. If you want
glittering wit, read John Leonard. If you want "baroque entelechy" (77), read
John Clute. None of this is why you read Hayles. You read Hayles for
information, for sensible analytic argument about the conceptual issues raised
by that information, and for synthetic applications to contemporary sf, all of
which she does exceedingly well. Here one must recall that Writing Machines
provides many of the luminosities of style and tone that are missing in Hayles’s
four other monographs. In the case of Writing Machines, much of the
pleasure and intellectual excitement came from three facts: one, the book was
brief and consequently the experience of reading the book was much more intense;
two, the typography, graphics, and material construction, provided by the MIT
Media workshop at MIT Press, were innovative; and finally, the writing was far
more lively, often using anecdote and autobiography to inject a stylistic zest
that complements the material embodiment of the text.
Particularly in contrast with Writing Machines, My Mother Was a
Computer seems too long—and because many of the chapters initially appeared
as separate journal essays and book chapters or were first given as lectures or
conference papers, there is repetition across sections. While this will be
useful to the reader who reads only select chapters, it does slacken the pace.
The book ought to have been shorter, especially given the tentative, rather
Here are the most representative articulations of the book’s thesis:
Boundaries are both permeable and meaningful; humans are distinct from
intelligent machines even while the two are become [sic] increasingly entwined.
The challenge, as I see it, is to ... seek out understandings that recognize
and enact the complex mutuality of the interactions. "What we make" and "what
(we think) we are" coevolve together; emergence can operate as an ethical
dynamic as well as a technological one. (243)
Like the passage I cite above concerning the profound conceptual changes
brought about by the digital subject, these matters have been under wide
discussion for years, though under other names: the decentered subject, boundary
ambiguity, the performativity of material form, and so forth. Rorty says that
they have been developing since Hegel.
But while her views are as much conventional wisdom as novel innovation, they
are nonetheless important. Take her chapter on "Translating Media" (the
theoretical chapter of section two, "Storing"), which models the transposition
of linguistic text to digital text following the protocols of translation
theory, as variously represented by Jorge Luis Borges and Walter Benjamin.
Hayles is at her worst where she tries to make the point seem profound: "Indeed,
I use the term ‘media translation’ to suggest that recreating a text in another
medium is so significant a change that it is analogous to translating from one
language to another" (109). "Indeed," "I use," and "so" all falsely inflate an
otherwise pedestrian claim. Translation has been used before to model
transpositions of signifying media, as in the case of filmic adaptations of
literary originals, and it has been used to model understanding itself. But
Hayles is at her best in detailing the transformations—the way she mediates the
analogy, the way she translates it within the context of code.
And Hayles is extraordinarily good at mediating intermediation: all
scholars working with sf will find this book, like her previous books,
extraordinarily useful and informative. Hayles can justly be called one of
the most important scholars in our field.
So please go back and reread my opening sentence.
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms
Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.
Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth. Trans. Suzanne Langer. New York:
Clute, John. "Science Fiction from 1980 to the Present." The Cambridge
Companion to Science Fiction. Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. New
York: Cambridge UP, 2003. 64-78.
Doctorow, Cory. "Science Fiction is the only Literature People Care Enough
about to Steal on the Internet." Locus 57.1 (July 2006): 35.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human
Sciences. Trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in
Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
-----. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
Jameson, Fredric. "The Theoretical Hesitation: Benjamin’s Sociological
Predecessor." Critical Inquiry 25 (1999): 267-88.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. New York: Cambridge
Smith, Stephanie. "Cyber." Household Words. Minneapolis: U of
Minnesota P, 2006. 150-70.
Stross, Charles. Accelerando. New York: Ace, 2005.
-----. Glasshouse. New York: Ace, 2006.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. 1977. Ed. G.H. Von Wright.
Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.