Interview with N. Katherine Hayles

Interview (1998) with Katherine Hayles, by Josephine Bosma. Originally posted to nettime.

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 each other 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 already 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 Neumann 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 gender panic, 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 apologies 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.


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