Review of Week 2 (Jan 17, 19)
by Ashley Maggio and Hannah Starke
On Tuesday, we discussed the prologue and first chapter of Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, briefly touched on Davis’ article “If the Human is Finished, What Comes Next?” and closed out class talking about the movie Iron Man. In the prologue, we find that Hayles is worried about embodiment, she argues that the human mind is an embodied mind, that cogitation is more than just an abstract act, she disputes the posthuman and liberal humanist belief that the body is separate from the ‘self.’ Hayles discusses the metaphor about the mind being a machine, arguing that culture informs thoughts and information. For Hayles, the posthuman is about different understandings and conceptualizations, she desires to move away from the enlightenment concept of the individualized human, repositioning the individual within a larger social context, that the human is not independent from all those forces, but in fact, is greatly influenced by all of it. Hayles also resists the posthuman ideas about information patterns, that information is utterly transportable, and that everything can be reduced to just fundamental information. But, Hayles sees potential in posthumanism it its understanding that there is no inherent “natural” self. Toward the end of the first chapter, Hayles distinguishes her discussion of posthumanism by stating that she will use narrative as a corrective to scientific thought, that narrative, in fact, embodies ideas, and it is important to view posthumanism through both lens of science and literature.
After discussing Hayles, the class briefly alluded to Davis’ article, which was a review of Hayles’ book, in which he goes further than Hayles on the science fiction writer Moravec. Davis also examines the difference between metaphor and equivalence in posthumanism, and how it redefines the human.
In the final part of the class, we discussed the film Iron Man, where we looked at how the film fit in as an example of the posthuman experience. We looked at how the main character Tony Stark’s humanity is portrayed throughout the film, especially in relation to the “Tony Stark has a heart” moment in the film. There was a general consensus that Tony seemed more human after his transformation into Iron Man, and that the film had a general technocratic view on technology, which emphasizes that technology is neither inherently bad nor good, it’s all about what someone does with it. What causes Tony to become a different person by the end of the film mainly has to do with how he starts to view the destruction around him as something he is actually the cause of. Once, he becomes vulnerable in this way, this is when he is seen as more ‘human’. His transformation is also mostly represented in term of how he is now physically and emotionally different, his intelligence stays pretty static and unchanging through the whole film. At the end of the discussion, we looked at what kind of future is represented through the film, and that it gives a warning to be careful to use technology for the right reasons.
On Thursday, we began by going back to Hayles’s How We Became Post Human in order to further discuss the implications of the Turing test that she mentions in her prologue. We discussed how when this test first came around in the 1950s, there was a fear that machines could get to the point where they could be confused with humans in terms of intellect. The move Bladerunner was alluded to as having portrayed a version of the Turing Test in its opening scenes when the human asks a series of questions to find out if someone is an android or not. The conclusion we brought from this was that with the Turing Test came the realization that thinking wasn’t something especially reserved to humans. This idea tied in with Moravec’s, who thought that a machine could essentially become human by putting our consciousness into in and that you were still yourself in the machine. This kind of thinking was at the heart of the short story The Jewel we read last week.
We then moved to discuss the development of the humanist view from WWII to present time in terms of multiple attitudes. Hayles described the trend as going from homeostasis, to reflexivity, to virtuality. We talked about these terms in conjunction with the Cylons that are seen in Battlestar Galactica. It was decided that these human like androids met the characteristics of all three, as they are clearly self sustaining, self making, and the interactions between Gaius and #6, when she is essentially in his head, give them a sense of virtuality.
We moved on from this to the reading assigned for Thursday, that being Chapter 1 of Graham’s work. Dr. Seaman made note to remind us that Graham specializes in theology, which puts into perspective a lot of her writings on representation. The main focus in Ch. 1 was how science in represented in popular culture, with the examples she used being the DNA similarity between chimps and humans and the NASA craft names Enterprise after a ship on the T.V. show Star Trek.
We began talking about the chapter in terms of Graham’s question of the parameters of human nature and how they’re limited, ultimately coming to the conclusions that human nature is not a naturally occurring thing. ‘Human nature’ is so dependent upon meaning, something not inherently found in nature without our own interpretation of it, that it is far from being organic.
This led us to talk about ‘Frankenstein Foods’, genetically engineered food products, also known as GMOs. This ties in with the idea of a society based on representation, because the very idea of ‘Frankenstein’ like foods comes from our cultural perceptions of what Frankenstein means. This example also served to show just how closely science is interwoven into our daily lives, as its not particularly unusual to have a conversation about genetically altered foods.
We then moved on to talk about science fiction as a whole, and the rather bad reputation it’s taken on. Graham noted that science fiction works as a sort of mythical genre. However, despite this, Dr. Seaman argued that science fiction often questions a lot of our central values, something seen throughout the Battlestar Galactica miniseries. Graham, in arguing for why it is critical that we engage the idea of science in our world, even noted that science and narrative are not totally separate, but instead often play off of each other.
Next on the agenda for discussion was Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go. The discussion mainly with us getting familiar with the general story that takes place, especially because we are thrown into the novel with very practically no introduction to the world it is set in, though there were a few specific items that were tossed around the class. Josh noted that Kathy was very focused on trying to make the reader believe that she had something resembling a human childhood, with Hayley adding that the nostalgic tone she uses definitely humanizes the characters. This kind of story telling method made us question who the story was really for, as it is never explicitly stated in the book. We then moved on to the idea of Halisham and the learning that takes place there. Essentially, this learning seems almost meaningless. After all, all they are going on to do is donate their organs. The tentative conclusion reached was that this was a way to ingrain in the children early on that they were special. A big question that we ended on was that of the art. This question remains prevalent throughout the novel, and is never truly answered, though the humanizing idea of it was something that really struck a chord with the class.
On Hayles’ reading:
“Human understanding and thought needs to be embodied to be understood” – Hayley
“Thought includes interpretation, not just archiving information – it does take in culture”
“[Hayles’ reading] is very conceptual, about the mind/body, how the human mind will change, in opposition to how the body will change [in the Graham reading]” –Taylor
“‘House’ calls into mind all sorts of other things” – Adam
On Iron Man:
“Technology is used to emphasize humanity, that Tony Stark has a ‘heart’, he is still a person – that’s what makes him Iron Man. He is perceived before as a soulless entity, he seems more human after the transformation” – Nick
“Technology can be used in a positive way, not like superhumans who have a life of their own. But, there is a message of watching out to not cross that line, to maintain humanity” –Taylor
“He [Tony Stark] addresses his machines like they are human” – Hannah
“It [Technology] can either be used as bad or good. It depends on what humanity does with it – how humans choose to use it” -Taylor
On Graham’s Reading:
“The chimp story erodes the human uniqueness.” – Taylor
On Never Let Me Go:
“It makes you question who the audience really is.” – Ashley
“Memories are almost transferable [in the novel].” – Dr. Seaman
“The constraints are psychological.” – Dr. Seaman
“Having these half humans create art is a means to prove that they are human” – Adam
Liberal Humanism: Hayles discusses liberal humanism in terms of “possessive individualism” (3) where the individual human being is separate from society and that essential humanity is about “freedom from the will of others,” (3) which is a “function of possession” (3). This definition is where liberal humanism deviates from posthumanism, although, as Hayles points out, there are a lot of similarities between them – like the desire to erase embodiment as essential to humanity.
Embodiment: has to do with the bodily or physical aspect of humanity, that the body is integral to perceptions of human beings, including the human mind. Hayles argues that the “erasure of embodiment” is essential in both posthumanist and liberal humanist thought, because “Identified with the rational mind, the liberal subject possessed a body but was not usually represented as being a body” (Hayles 4). In other worlds, posthumanism and liberal humanism value the ideology that the human mind and body are separate entities, that the body does not represent the ‘self’.
Homeostasis: in biological terms, this is “the ability of living organisms to maintain steady states when they are buffeted by fickle environments.” Hayles says that this was extended to machines because of their feedback loops. (Hayles 8 ).
Reflexivity: “A movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates.” (Hayles 8 ). Basically, it can make itself, like the M.C. Escher drawing of a hand drawing the hand that is drawing it.
Virtuality: “is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns” (Hayles 13-14); it’s a way of seeing the world where there is a connection between material objects and information patterns.
Preview of Week 3 (Jan 24, 26)
by Dr. Seaman
IMPORTANT NOTE: Some changes have been made to the reading assignment for this week, as noted below (and on the schedule on the blog, of course).
Much of Tuesday will be devoted to Ishirguro’s Never Let Me Go, which we eased into on Thursday but worked hard to keep our discussion limited to the first third of the novel. On Tuesday we will extend much further many of the discussions we began on Thursday, for instance regarding the way the students are raised at Hailsham and why, and the role of art in their experiences and the reasons for this importance, and of course ultimately what we’re being encouraged to think about the real-world situation represented in the novel. You will also prepare chapter 2 of Graham, “The Gates of Difference,” where she extends the analysis of the cultural role of the monster—and the connections of this to her investigation of the posthuman (which Hayley drew to our attention in her blog post this past week). [Please note that I have changed the schedule to move the Miah reading to Thursday.]
On Thursday, we will focus on the film Minority Report, which you can find on reserve at the Circulation desk in the library. You will also prepare Miah’s overview of posthumanism and chapter 7 of Hayles, where she discusses the work of Philip K. Dick, who wrote the story on which Minority Report is based. I anticipate that her readings there of a number of Dick’s stories will provide us with a more extensive framework for reading Minority Report. Of course, you’ll pay special attention as you watch the film to the ways the human is posthumanized, as well as the intriguing role of the Pre-Cogs. In Miah’s essay (which appeared in the book Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, edited by B. Gordijn and R. Chadwick and published in 2008), you will find a helpful overview of the development of posthumanism to set alongside Hayles’ history of the same subject, with Miah’s offering a more overt discussion of the “Politics of Posthumanism” that is largely implied in Hayles’, since she like us is taking a primarily “Cultural Theory” approach (which Miah also discusses in depth). His discussion of the cyborg will tie in well with ours of the Pre-Cogs.
[Graham chapter 3, a close analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein originally listed for Thursday, has been removed from the schedule.]
Your second BSG review (of season 1, episode 8 ) is due Friday night at 11 in OAKS. Please remember to take a look at the BSG Wiki to get info on what has happened between the miniseries and episode 8 in the first season.