Hayles on Specificity, Constraint and Complex Agency

N. Katherine Hayles has long been one of the most cogent thinkers flowing from the nebulous half-world of literary criticism. Her razor sharp insights into the operating assumptions animating complexity theory, cultural productions of scientific discourse and philosophy can act as an immunization for intelligent readers from the pernicious contaminations of mutant philosophic metaphors and underconcretized speculation. Hayles criticizes and enriches a wide range of socially relevant discourse formations, from the folk-metaphysics of information theory to the self-effacing fantasies of contemporary posthumanism.

In the paper linked below Hayles compares and explores the rhetorical structure and key assumptions embedded in the work of Richard Dawkins, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Gauttari. Along the way, Hayles demonstrates the importance of taking embodiment, constraint and onto-specificity seriously when investigating real-world systems. And humans, as Halyes later demonstrated in her amazing book, How We Became Posthuman (1999), are no exception: we are first and foremost embodied, and that embodiment - and the actions deriving thereof - are located and specific.

Here is a key passage from the text:
“Juxtaposed, these two versions of the posthuman indicate that a principal area of contestation is the struggle to envision what will come after the fracturing of consciousness. Is the goal to develop new forms of consciousness, either through displacement into other entities or through emergent behaviors achieved in and through artificial life forms? Or is the goal to experience an unimaginably vast range of behaviors that are literally unthinkable as long as consciousness reigns as the arbiter of identity? In different ways, both of these alternatives decontextualize our relations to each other and to the non-human world. Both deny that distributed cognition implies distributed agency—Dawkins by giving all the agency to the genes and none to conscious human subjects, Deleuze and Guattari by giving agency to the desire that alone drives the endless mutations and transformations.
I prefer a third alternative, in which constraints act in dynamic conjunction with metaphoric language to articulate the rich possibilities of distributed cognitive systems that include human and nonhuman actors. Neither completely constrained nor entirely free, we act within these systems with partial agency amid local specificities that help to determine our behavior, even as our behavior also helps to configure the system. We are never only conscious subjects, for distributed cognition take place throughout the body as well as without; we are never only texts, for we exist as embodied entities in physical contexts too complex to be reduced to semiotic codes; and we never act with complete agency, just as we are never completely without agency.” (Hayles 2001:158)
 Read More Here: Desiring Agency: Limiting Metaphors and Enabling Constraints in Dawkins and Deleuze/Guattari (2001), by N. Katherine Hayles


Adam said...

Thanks for posting this; I hadn't come across Hayles work until now. I am intrigued and will definitely checked out more of her work.

I don't know enough about Deleuze/Guattari to respond to her reading, but I did have some responses to her reading of Dawkins and some comments on Kaufman. I raise these points since you are delivering Hayles work as a critique of readings/ misuses of scientific ideas; and yet I found her reading of Dawkins and her take on evolution to be pretty thin. To be sure, her analysis does accord well the 'selfish-gene meme' as it circulates in pop-culture but I've never found those criticisms to very accurately represent Dawkins work (something we should red-flag when someone is engaging in a critical project).

For example, Hayles makes the mistake of suggesting that Dawkins equivocates the behavior of genes with the behavior of humans (at least on my first reading). For Dawkins, genes operate algorithmically and replicate according to developmental sequences; but the same cannot be said for humans as a whole. While we may be 'nothing but genes' for Dawkins, he does not mean that humans, as organisms, operate the some way genes do. Dawkins treats this dilemma at length in the footnotes to The Selfish Gene where he makes a strong distinction between human moral behavior and the 'selfish' replication of genes. He even goes on to argue that the functioning of genes cannot be extrapolated to explain the behavior of individuals or species, nor be used as any kind of political guide (he was specifically targeting and combatting the appropriation of his theories by the conservative Tory party which was in ascendance in England at the time of TSG's publication). Surely the title of his book was poorly chosen, but we should give him some credit for the actual content of his ideas as well. Also, I'm not sure why Hayles makes no mention of The Extended Phenotype which covers many of her criticisms in detail.

A quick thought on Kauffman. As far as I know, Kauffman is using mathematical principles to deepen our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. I raise this point in connection to Hayles comment that 'we are first and foremost embodied,' a comment which I have no problem with in principle but begs the question: if Kaufmann is right then some how organizational patterns in the universe can be preserved and re-instantiated through the development of different self-organizing systems. In other words, the universe has an organization-preserving capacity (or “memory,” as Whitehead might say) and so we ought to consider what this means for embodied particularity (Whitehead attempts a solution to this, but that’s another story). So, I like where she draws attention to the dynamism between metaphor and constraint but I wonder if she doesn't privilege constraint (a la the British empiricists) when it seems that we do in fact inherent (always contextualized) patterns of information. I say this more as a point for further discussion than out right disagreement.

In short, I’m interested in how speculation and empiricism meet in the world. The former generates the capacity for metaphor, hypotheses, mathematics, memory, and imagination; while the latter provides quantification, history, particularity, and embodiment. Of course the one has never existed without the other, and not it’s not even clear to me that the two can be distinguished in anything but an analytic way. Just some thoughts -- thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

feedback systems and resilience:

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Related Posts with Thumbnails