Megamix – Bukatman (revisited) and Hayles on Virtual Subjects

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.  Publisher’s site.

Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.  Publisher’s site.


Megamix two out of two for this week!  Loyal readers may remember that I reviewed Bukatman’s Terminal Identity a while back on this blog.  With the benefit of another selective reading of that book that I did for my class, I had some more things in mind to say about it, and it seemed fitting to put those thoughts in dialogue with N. Katherine Hayles’s book tackling essentially the same issues.  I think reading them in concert really helped me in thinking through each, so hopefully that comes through in what I have to say below.  Onward!  To the land of flickering signifiers and terminal cyborgs!

At first glance, posthumanism is a terrifying prospect for both N. Katherine Hayles and Scott Bukatman.  With Bukatman’s image-infected, spectacle junk-head terminal subject and Hayles’s narrative of the meltdown of embodied subjectivity in favor of an abstractly informational one, the “virtual” in both their titles seems to maintain its nuance of “near-but-not-quite,” implying a body/subject that is incomplete, yet-to-be and thereby insufficient.  By the end of each, however, the real object of their critiques is revealed to in fact be more classical conceptions of the individual subject – in other words, precisely that model of individuality that would feel threatened by intercorporation (to borrow a term from Orbaugh) with the Other.  While it is sometimes unclear in the course of each book to what extent the authors are indeed disowning comfortable notions of individual personhood, each ends on a cautiously optimistic note regarding the future of posthumanism as a guiding epistemology for postmodern subjectivity.

To a certain extent, it’s difficult to differentiate the two books, as both arrive at the conclusion that what seems like a horrifying dissolution of the enclosed self is in fact simply the process by which we come to understand that the self was never self-enclosed to begin with.  Where Bukatman is more interested in arguing this point via literary and cultural theories of postmodernity, however, Hayles instead chooses to pursue the topic through a hybrid methodology of the history of science and literary studies.  There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these approaches: Bukatman’s prose is opaque and meandering, but his own voice comes through more clearly, whereas Hayles’s writing is easier to parse, though it’s sometimes unclear whether an argument is being made by her or her historical subjects (or both).  Both, however, take as their rhetorical “nemesis” the fantasies of omnipotence invited by notions of a digital subject exulting in cyberspace, free of the limiting finitude of its own body.

Two different but related forces of postmodernity are behind these fantasies, depending on the author.  For Hayles, working from the development of information theory and cybernetics in World War II and after, it is the theoretical concept of information, which effects a shift (in her words) “from presence and absence to pattern and randomness” (35) that allows one to imagine information as abstract, rather than materially instantiated.  For Bukatman, meanwhile, it is the Debordian spectacle, inviting the subject to take up life as the freely circulating, depthless image, endlessly replicable and (through television, the epitome of this shift for Bukatman) omnipresent.  If content is irrelevant to the spectacular image, as it is to abstract information, it becomes clear that the spectacle is essentially the form of cultural production that arises from the information theory of cyberneticists.  Perhaps this is why the fiction of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, paragons of postmodern sci-fi that parodies late capitalism, lend themselves equally well to both Hayles’s and Bukatman’s analyses.

Yet, if Dick’s fiction serves on the one hand to illustrate the close interweaving of capitalist logic with the virtual subject, in Hayles’s reading it also serves to illustrate the paranoia that creeps into the otherwise elated view of the subject-as-information.  In her reading of Dick’s fiction from the mid-1960s, Hayles draws on the terminology of the cybernetics discourse of the same moment and says,

“The struggle to achieve autopoietic status can be understood as a boundary dispute in which one tries to claim the privileged ‘outside’ position of an entity that defines its own goals while forcing one’s opponent to take the ‘inside’ position of an allopoietic component incorporated into a larger system.… Dick understood that how boundaries are constituted would be a central issue in deciding what counts as living in the late twentieth century.” (161)

Within his fiction, Dick’s protagonists (like the virtual subjects they are meant to represent in Hayles’s argument) come to realize that they are linked into capitalist systems of production and control.  Like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, they are cogs in a machine, where once they thought they were independently functioning, sovereign subjects.  Thus ensues the boundary dispute raised by Hayles, a dispute that is about more than just control.  For when the subject recognizes their own ambiguous position as both subject and object, it simultaneously recognizes that what it thought to be objects may in fact be subjects themselves.  Further, upon recognizing their place within a larger system, the possibility also arises that that system is itself recursively part of a yet larger system.  Paranoia therefore refers here to the specific uncanny ambiguity about where the boundaries of “the system” fall: as Hayles herself says a page earlier, “When system boundaries are defined by information flows and feedback loops rather than epidermal surfaces, the subject becomes a system to be assembled and disassembled rather than an entity whose organic wholeness can be assumed.” (160)

Bukatman uses very similar language when he takes up the theories of Donna Haraway at the end of his book.  Though the section on Haraway’s feminist critiques of science and the related issue of feminist science fiction feels somewhat tacked on coming at the end of a book otherwise dominated by male authors and theorists, the book’s structure points from where we’ve been to where we’re going, seeming to suggest that this is the way forward.  Bukatman introduces Haraway after a reading of texts such as Robocop and Terminator that views the armored bodies of the male protagonists as a reactionary gesture attempting to resist the penetration of the male individual subject by the technological other.  He quotes Haraway’s similar reading that sees the male subject threatened by “command-control-communication systems” (quoted on 321), but goes on to say that,

“Cyborg politics” opens the prospect of technological symbiosis as a progressive alternative, rather than simple masculine fantasy of “natural” mastery and domination….  Clearly it is the patriarchal ideology that is simplistic here… If cyberpunk is defined by the illusory relation between the disembodied freedoms of electronic reality and the physical, bounded limitations of the “meat,” then feminist science fiction has proved more capable of recognizing the significance of the body as a site of ongoing struggle. (323-324)

The potential for both these authors, then, is for posthumanism to point the way past subject-object divisions as they have been constructed in models of agency and passivity.  For Hayles more than Bukatman, too, this can provide a corrective to a capitalist logic that operates precisely on that epistemology of possession and mastery.  By remaining committed to materially instantiated conceptions of information, Hayles resists the mind-body duality that so easily slides into subject-object relations under conditions of virtuality.  More than simply “rescuing” embodiment from the depredations of posthumanism, this is a way to recognize the liveliness that surrounds us in our lived milieus.  As she says at the end of her book:

As long as the human subject is envisioned as an autonomous self with unambiguous boundaries, the human-computer interface can only be parsed as a division between the solidity of real life on one side and the illusion of virtual reality on the other, thus obscuring the far-reaching changes initiated by the development of virtual technologies.… By contrast, when the human is seen as part of a distributed system, the full expression of human capability can be seen precisely to depend on the splice rather than being imperiled by it.… This vision is a potent antidote to the view that parses virtuality as a division between an inert body that is left behind and a disembodied subjectivity that inhabits a virtual realm… In this model, it is not a question of leaving the body behind but rather of extending embodied awareness in highly specific, local, and material ways that would be impossible without electronic prosthesis…. The chaotic, unpredictable nature of complex dynamics implies that subjectivity is emergent rather than given, distributed rather than located solely in consciousness, emerging from and integrated into a chaotic world rather than occupying a position of mastery and control removed from it. Bruno Latour has argued that we have never been modem; the seriated history of cybernetics – emerging from networks at once materially real, socially regulated, and discursively constructed – suggests, for similar reasons, that we have always been posthuman. (290-291)


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