My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts – N. Katherine Hayles

My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary TextsUniversity Of Chicago Press, USA 2005
288 pp. Paperback, $16.50 USD
ISBN 0226321487
Buy at Amazon

My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts is Hayles’ final book of her trilogy on the binary opposition between embodiment and information through an engagement with the materiality of literary texts. She continues where she has left of with Writing Machines and How We Became Posthuman to deepen these ideas into computation and textuality. Hayles sees materiality as “the constructions of matter that matter for human being” (3) which connects to the view of the Computational Universe, “that is, the claim that the universe is generated through computational processes running on a vast computational mechanism underlying all of physical reality.” (3)

The title My Mother Was a Computer indicates an anthropomorphic projection that is often used in (mis) understanding the computer’s functioning. We can also see this in blogging when people apologize to their blog they implicitly create “a cultural Imaginary in which digital subjects are understood as autonomous creatures imbued with human-like motives, goals, and strategies.” (5)

Hayles defines making (language and code), storing (printing and electronic text) and transmitting (analog and digital) as the three modalities related to information that help to constitute the bodies of subjects and texts. She calls the entanglement between the bodies of texts and digital subjects “intermediation”. (7)

Speech, writing and code are considered to be the three major systems for creating signification whereby Hayles states that the three are in a progression. I would like to argue however that code came into existence at the same time as writing. “Coding structures make use of what might be called the syntagmatic and paradigmatic, but in inverse relation to how they operate in speech systems.” She uses Manovich view on the database to explain coding structures and how databases and narrative interfaces work together. There is a flexibility of narrative ambiguity at a high level and rigidity and precision at a low level. This could relate to Mark Poster’s impoverished self because of the restricting abilities of the database. There is a paradox visible in the fact that the high-level literariness is achieved through the low-level (database, ones and zeros) rigidity. This got me thinking about blogging and the use of plugins (as a paradigmatic tool to extract different paradigmatic objects in the database to create a syntagmatic expression) and I will work out that thought soon. Another thing that interested me in relation to my thesis was the “tower of languages” essential to code. How is this tower of languages built in blogging through PHP, HTML and CSS? “…[on ASCII code and teletypes – ed]… To some extent, then, the technology functions like a rock strata, with the lower layers bearing the fossilized marks of technologies now extinct.” We can see the same rock strata (although not the strict sense that the technologies they are built on are extinct) in blogging: WordPress still uses PHP 4 instead of PHP 5 and the restrictions of the use of colors (256 VGA) and fonts (system bound) by the browser (more elaborate thoughts on this later).

An electronic text is a process instead of an object because of its distributed nature that causes dispersion. Blogs are also highly dispersed and the blog text exists in different formats and locations (RSS/e-mail). “[…] with the advent of the Web, communication pathways are established through which texts cycle in dynamic intermediation with one another, which leads to what might be called Work as Assemblage (WaA)” (105) which underwrites my view on blogs as assemblages.

[…] the WaA derives its energy from its ability to mutate and transform as it grows and shrinks, converges and disperses according to the desires of the loosely formed collectives that create it. Moving fluidly among and across media, its components take forms distinctive to the media in which they flourish, so the specificities of media are essential to understanding its morphing configurations. (107)

This description of the WaA as a vital object that derives its enery from transforming, converging and dispersing resonates my recent discussion with Twan on blogs as an autonomous unity that derives its energy from dispersion, aggregation and pinging. There are human and nonhuman actors in the network the blog/Work as Assemblage resides in. Is the text on the blog the original and is the blog post in the RSS reader a copy? Can we continue to make this distinction in the distributed digital network? ” […] the complex dynamics of making, storing and transmitting are changing contemporary ideas about language, textuality and cognition.” (218)

This is not a general summary of the whole book but rather some general points that interested me regarding my thesis on blogging. As Hayles is a Professor of Literature she analyzes quite a few literary texts to strengthen her argument. For me, those text analysis were the least interesting and quite fluffy so I quickly skimmed through them. Especially her analysis of Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl where hypertext is seen as a feminine act of weaving. *SIGH*

3 thoughts on “My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts – N. Katherine Hayles

  1. Nice review.

    As someone who is does apprecaite the literature bits, I think that was useful, too! :) (Especially the reading of Greg Egan’s Permutation City, Egan being an author Kate Hayles has frequently said that she loves to hate since his work exemplifies the things she was worried about in How We Became Posthuman!).

    I thought intermediation was a great idea, too, since it allowed to the beginning and end points to be located within the ever-intersecting interactions between media forms and types (including software), which is something that remediation doesn’t quite address.

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    I think the main reason I struggled with Hayles’ literary interpretations is because she uses fiction to discuss embodiment in the Regime of Computation. Whether the Computation of the Universe is a means or a metaphor is left in the middle but I would have preferred her corpus to contain some non fictional objects as well.

    I like your remark about intermediaton because I didn’t quite register that particular difference so I re-read pages 30-34. Thanks!

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