Josephine Bosma on Sat, 28 Nov 1998 23:12:52 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> interview with N. Katherine Hayles

    "Those who think it is allright to use prosthesies are the
     pro-pro's and those who think it is not allright are the

The quote above is absolutely not significantly important in the
following interview.  :)

This is a very short and simple interview with N. Katherine Hayles,
who spoke at the DEAF symposium November 20th. Her lecture was very
hard to understand for most of the audience, and left people
afterwards asking eachother what she had been talking about.
I decided to ask her some questions out of curiosity, as I was one
of those that lost track at some point during here speech. She was
most patient.


JB: What do you do in daily life? Are you a teacher?

N. Katherine Hayles: I teach in the English department at UCLA, and
I have a background in both science and literature.

JB: I was allready suspecting you were some kind of mediator. You are
deep into more then one discipline and you were talking from one to
an other. Am I right you are trying to do this?

NKH: Yes, I am. I am very interested in new media for two reasons.
One is because I think it is drastically affecting literary texts:
how they are read, how they are taught... Also in the contemporary
period it affects forms of literature as it moves into computer
narratives. Hypertext and such. So I have this interest from the
literary side, but then thinking of it as a technology I also have
much interest in it as a new mode of being in the world, that is
changing how we experience our own subjectivities.

JB: Would that also be your subjectivity as a woman?

NKH: I think gender issues are deeply bound up with this technology
from its beginnings on. In my forthcoming book "How we became
posthuman" I trace the history of cybernetics from the immediate post
worldwar two period to the present in the American context, and part
of what I see in that history of cybernetics is a gradual realisation
that the cybernetic paradigm challenges traditional liberal humanist
ideas of the subject. The idea of the feedback loop, the idea that the
bounderies of the subject cannot be kept secure and autonomous begins
to occur almost as soon as the technology really takes of the ground
with people like John van Neuman (?) and Norbert Wiener. They react often
with panic at this idea that the autonomous self is being dissolved
in the cybernetic paradigm. Of course part of this are genderissues
of masculinity, issues of femininity and so forth, because especially
in the american context the construction of masculinity is often deeply
bound up with the notion of the independent autonomous subject: that
is the guarantee of masculinity in the American context.

So when the subject begins to be dissolved, partly it is a genderpanic,
which sets in for these male scientists who were involved in developing
this new paradigm.

JB: So they are kind of battling with their own technology..

NKH: Yes, very much battling with their own technology, and you see
this very much in a figure like Norbert Wiener, who is a real defender
of liberal values. There is much that is admirable in this, but at the
same time he is also, quote, "the father of cybernetics", and so there
is this conflict in his writing between naturally wanting this paradigm
he has invented to spread as far as possible, while at the same time
beginning to realise it has very subversive implications for how one
thinks about the construction of the subject, and consequently: the
construction of gender.

JB: You said you teach English, so I am sure that construction of
gender in language must be something that interest you also. Can you
say something about the relation between the construction of gender
in language and cultural meaning?

NKH: In my book I trace cybernetics through three different kind of
peroids or fases. For each period I also look at important literary
texts, that explore the philosophical and psychological issues in a
literary context. Speaking about the Norbert Wiener: the writer that
I pair with Wiener is a writer from the 1950's, Bernard Woolf, who
wrote a very strange book called Limbo. The premis of Limbo is a
postworldwar society, and in the aftermath of the holocaust of the war
a pacifist movement has grown up that sort of is the other side of
Napoleons dictum: "the capacity for war is the capacity for movement".
This movement has decided that if people can't move, they can't make
war. Its followers has voluntary amputations, and the amputations
become a sign of social privilege. A genator might be for instance a
uno-amp, but an executive might be a quadro-amp. But since quadro-amps
get bored with lying around with nothing to do, very soon a prosthetic
industry grows up. Then there comes a debate in the movement whether
one should or should not use prosthesies. Those who think it is allright
to use prosthesies are the pro-pro's and those who think it is not
allright are the anti-pro's. Using this kind of bizarre social topology
Limbo really then begins to investigate how all those formations bound
up with our usual assumptions of society begin to change. Part of that
is very much concerned with the genderpolitics of what happens under the
ideology of the 'immob', as it is called.

JB: But now you are talking about texts that have a very normal story
line, or do not really play with the text itself, with grammar and ..

NKH: That is not true, because what happens in Limbo is that the text
itself begins to fragment into a trunk, which is the body of the text,
and into prosthesies, which are lines scrolled down the page, cartoons
that appear on the page that the text itself does not recognise, and
other kinds of symbiotic signifiers. Part of what is an issue in the
text is how this interface between the trunk and the prosthesies is to
be managed. It turns out that the prosthesies have a much more
subversive message to convey then the trunk of the text itself.

JB: When was this written?

NKH: This was written in 1952, at the height of the McCarthy period in
the United States.

JB: Let me get to my notes a little bit, which of course I can't make
much of.. I tried to really follow your talk, and it was very hard for
me. At some point I just dropped it, because you said something which
sounded very much to me like (and I have to appologies if this sounds
rude) what I call 'drugtalk'. This which said something like 'nothing
really matters because in the end all we see is a kind of processing,
and without the processing there is nothing'. It had this same feeling
that you get when you are listening to somebody who has been taking too
many trips or smoked too much marihuana, and who then talks about how
everything is just dissolving into molecules, and how every molecule
is a universe etc...

NKH (laughing a lot): It is really funny to me that you should think
of this as drugtalk, because what I was actually aluding to were very
profound debates within the scientific and philosophical community
about epistimological issues. I was thinking of people like Humberto
Maturana, Ponte, Bruno Latour..

JB: Maybe then that is my judgement about them (joke), but can you
shortly explain what this discourse, this debate about epistimology
is about?

NKH: Maturana's point is that no information from the outside world
reaches the inside of the organism as such. His point is that any
information coming from the inside bounces of an interface, and as
it bounces of that interface there is a trigger or a reaction inside
the organism, but that perceptual apparatus is not just like a filter
through which information is passing, rather it is an active
construction of the world in response to what is happening in the
environment. This may sound like it is quibling, whether you talk
about information passing through a filter or active construction,
but in fact epistomologically it makes all the difference. It is
pointing up the fact that there is no world for us without an active
construction through our perceptual processes, which always constitute
of perspective or a standpoint from which we experience reality.
So it goes from a model from where you would say: "the world exists
and we see the world" (that is the old model), but in this new model
you would say: " we have an active engagement with an unmediated flux
which we can never see in itself, but what we do see is our experience
of that flux.

Epistomologically it emphasises the active construction of the world
out of sensory processes, through which we come in contact with
something which we can never see from an Olympian viewpoint.

JB: It sounds like you completely agree with this statement.

NKH: I do agree with it. We do construct the world, and we construct
it through all the sensory apparatusses that are particular to our
culture, our species, our individual organism... And of course there
is overlap with what other humans see for example.
For me the important point is: one always experiences reality from a
perspective. There is no such thing as seeing reality without a
perspective. As Maturana says: "Everything that is said is said by
an observer".

JB: What does that mean to you for discourses within new technologies?

NKH: If I can just make a slight detour through scientific epistomology:
what it means in terms of scientific epistomology is that science is
never about the world as such, science is always about our experience of
the world. How this fits in with the new technologies is that the new
technologies are providing us with new experiences of the world, new
ways to experience the world and to connect with physical phenomena,
with other human beings. Right now the field is very open. People are
discussing actively and debating what it means to see the world in these
ways. Because things are unsettled, because it is kind of a field in
firment, it is a good point to intervene, to once again make the
arguments about these active constructions of reality. In some ways
these arguments which may sound obscure or unnecesarely technical when
you are talking about just walking down the sidewalk become common sense
when you are talking about the new media. This is because it is obvious
that experience is now mediated and that these pathways of mediation
have everything to do with the constructions of reality that resolve.

JB: Then of course now we are dealing with many, many layers of
constructions. The personal construction of the world, the interface,
then the hardware, the software and the network...

NKH: The constructions become multilayered just as you are saying.
Therefore they provide a kind of wonderful new arena to rethink these
questions of the interface.

JB: I suppose that one then has to make a choice as to from which
perspective one wants to start discussions then. I think that people
allready are kind of aware that there is such a thing as personal
construction of the world, that there is no objective view of the
world (not really anyway) as we thought there was once. Then you have
to choose what you want people to be aware of when they construct
the world. What would your choice be?

NKH: I am very interested in ideas of subjectivity that are not rooted
in classical, traditional, liberal ideas. The liberal tradition really
grows out of the notion that one owns oneself. First of all one owns
ones body and from this ownership of ones body grow all the social
institutions like marketrelations and so forth. I am thinking here of
people like Hobbs and Locke (?), who make this argument. So this
construction of the subject is bound up from the beginning with
capitalist social and economic structure. There may be other ways to
think about the subject that don't found themselves first and foremost
on this notion of ownership. New technologies open up possibilities
for rethinking other ways to begin to construct the subject.

(?) names could be misspelled


#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: