Science Fiction Studies

#100 =  Volume 33, Part 3 = November, 2006

Neil Easterbrook

Mediating Intermediation

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 arts.

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, Jr.

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 reality.

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 quotidian conclusions.

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. (242)

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: Dover, 1953.

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 UP, 1989.

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.


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