Lecture: On Hayles’ “Revealing and Transforming”

Through such intermediations, computation evolves into something more than a technical practice, though of course it is also that. It becomes a powerful way to reveal to us the implications of our contemporary situation, creating revelations that work both within and beneath conscious thought. Joining technical practice with artistic creation, computation is revalued into a performance that addresses us with the full complexity our human natures require, including the rationality of the conscious mind, the embodied response that joins cognition and emotion, and the technological non conscious that operates through sedimented routines of habitual actions, gestures, and postures. Thus understood, computation ceases to be a technical practice best left to software engineers and computer scientists and instead becomes a partner in the coevolving dynamics through which artists and programmers, users and players, continue to explore and experience the intermediating dynamics that let us understand who we have been, who we are, and who we might become. — N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature, 157

 While it is commonplace to suggest that literature is an exploration of the human condition and, therefore, gives us insight into who we are and who we have been, N. Katherine Hayles ends the fourth chapter of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary with a much bolder claim. Electronic literature, she argues, has the potential to give us insight into what it means for us to coexist – coevolve – with computers, and that these insights might give us a glimpse of what we and our computers might be coevolving into. Explaining how electronic literature allows us to explore and examine this coevolution of human and computational machine is the focus of this chapter, “Revealing and Transforming: How Electronic Literature Revalues Computational Practice.”

Hayles begins this chapter by giving us a summary of chapters 2 and 3 which looked at the concepts of intermediation and at the dynamic coevolution of human and human technologies. Intermediation, she reminds us, is the dynamic, recursive interactions amongst elements within a system. In the case of electronic literature, these intermediations are between computer code and human language, digital and analogue processing, and print and electronic media. As for coevolution, she reminds us of how the development of human language coincided with the creation of complex, multipart tools, and that while humans are not independent of the tools they create and use (the argument represented by Mark B. N. Hansen), they are neither entirely dependent upon or dominated by those tools (the argument by Friedrich A. Kittler). Hayles’ middle ground – her third option argued in chapter 3 – is something akin to Marshall McLuhan’s own dictum that first we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

Having reminded us of the previous chapters upon which her argument is based, Hayles offers what the “general framework for her argument.” She suggests that electronic literature builds upon the functions of print literature (“extends”) in “creating recursive feedback loops between explicit articulation, conscious thought, and embodied sensorimotor knowledge” (135). Explicit articulation is our ability to accurately describe a concept or a process through the use of technical vocabulary ( a phrase she uses on page 131). Conscious thought is our ability to recognize, understand, and make sense of experience. And embodied sensorimotor knowledge includes both habit and muscle memory and our ability to intuit function from form. For instance, a computer mouse is designed in such a way that if we know it is a device to control a computer, we can guess how to place our hand around the mouse and begin to use it.

What she means by all this might be more clear if we think about the act of typing at a keyboard, which Hayles herself uses as an example a few pages earlier. We can, she notes, read all about how to type in a book, how to place our hands over the keyboard, which fingers we should use to strike which keys, how to memorize the layout, etc.; however, she explains, even with all this explicit articulation (the ability to describe the process of typing using a technical vocabulary) and conscious understanding of how typing works, almost no one can simply read typing, memorize a keyboard layout, and begin typing with ease (133). Likewise, she explains, experienced typists who can touch type with ease are often at a loss if they are asked to draw a keyboard from memory. A touch typists’s knowledge of the keyboard’s layout exists not in explicit articulation or conscious thought but in embodied sensorimotor knowledge (133).

Having suggested that electronic literature extends the functions of print literature by creating recursive feedback loops between explicit articulation, conscious thought, and embodied sensorimotor knowledge, Hayles then argues that electronic literature differs from print literature in that electronic literature not only does all this but it also “performs the additional function of entwining human ways of knowing with machine cognitions” (135). This is important, she argues, because intermediation, by “re-presenting material in different mediums” changes the the sense rations by which we perceive material, and these changes in the modes of sensory input means changes in the “kinds of knowledge represented” (135). The way in which the recursive feedback loops work is that when we interact with a tool, we are actually transforming that tool, and the transformation of that tool means that we have to change how we interact with that tool, which further changes that tool, which in turn further changes us, and so on (135-36).

If all this sounds a bit McLuhanesque, that is if it reminds you of The Medium Is the Massage, it is, and it should. This is not to say that Hayles and McLuhan are in complete agreement, nor that they come to their conclusions through the same arguments, but nonetheless, they are in general agreement: essentially, both argue that we humans live in a dynamic coevolutionary relationship with our tools. We develop a tool which in turn changes the way we act and think, and that change in the way we think and act leads us to change the tool, which in turn means that we again change the way we think and act, and so on. Moreover, the ways through which we perceive and engage media shape the way we perceive and interact with the world.

Having presented this general framework for her argument, Hayles then offers two propositions which she explores in detail in her discussions of the specific works of electronic literature later in the chapter. The two propositions are:

  1. “verbal narratives are simultaneously conveyed and disrupted by code” (136)
  2. “distributed cognition implies distributed agency” (136)

The first proposition is based on the idea that as we become more and more entwined with computers and computational media, our daily lives are permeated by interactions that increasingly rely upon computer code. This code, however, sometimes breaks down. We might think back to Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Revenge of the Text” and his discussion of the occasional ruptures of source code spilling over into what should be seamless interactions with computers. While we rely upon computer code to go about our daily activities – our alarms clocks; our cars; our communications with friends, colleagues, and family; our shopping for food; our school work; etc. – we also experience moments when code, through a breakdown of some sort, ruptures into and disrupts our daily life.

The second proposition is based on the idea that we interact with complex technological systems through multiple means. Again, she uses the computer mouse as an example:

The mouse by my computer, for example, is shaped so that the tapered end fits neatly in my palm, and the buttons are positioned at just the right distance so that my fingers naturally rest on them. For habitual users, such devices rapidly become integrated by way of proprioceptive, haptic [touch], and kinesthetic feedback loops into the mind boy, so that agency seems to flow out of the band and into the virtual arena in which intelligent machines and humans cooperate to accomplish tasks and achieve goals. At the same time, however, unpredictable breaks occur that disrupt the smooth functioning of thought, action, and result, making us abruptly aware that our agency is increasingly enmeshed within complex networks extending beyond our ken and operating through codes that are, for the most part, invisible and inaccessible. (137)

By distributing our cognition – the ways we know and know how to do (explicit articulation, conscious thought, sensorimotor knowledge) and embedding some of that cognition into the design of our tools – we distribute our agency into multiple arenas and even place some of it within our tools. In this way distributing our cognition also distributes our agency.

Ultimately, Hayles argues that electronic literature allows us not only to experience all of this through reading and performing it, electronic literature, as literature that is based within computational media itself, allows us to explore and examine this interplay between the human and our computational machines. Having presented her argument, she turns to William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope, Niss and Martha Deed’s Sundays in the Park, and John Cayle’s Translation to illustrate her point.

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