CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, October 12th -- Roger B. Blumberg

From The Modern Age to Posthumanism

"What embodiment secures is not the distinction between male and female or between humans who think and machines which cannot. Rather, embodiment makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it. This realization, with all its exfoliating implications, is so broad in its effects and so deep in its consequences that it is transforming the liberal subject, regarded as the model of the human since the Enlightenment, into the posthuman." N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (1999) [xiv]

"Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. It is a reaction to the process of enlightenment, to the destruction/deconstruction of traditional social arrangements, to the idea of progress, to belief in rationalism, to the loss of natural communities, identities, security, and certainty -- a reaction to contingency and to the burdens of an abstract freedom the individual can use for better or worse." Agnes Heller, "911, or Modernity and Terror", in Constellations: An International Journal of Critical & Democratic Theory, Mar2002, Vol. 9 Issue 1 [53]

Introduction: Reactions to the Modern Age

Before returning to Hayles' characterization of the "posthuman" and an attempt to unpack the meaning of her comment(s) about "the liberal subject" (above and throughout Chapter 4), we should see her work in the context of various reactions to the Humanism characteristic of what Arendt called the Modern Age. In the next unit of the Seminar we'll discuss political systems in some detail, especially democracy, but here I want to limit ourselves to the ways that different reactions to Humanism affect our sense of ourselves. One way to do this is to ask how humanism, scientism, postmodernism and fundamentalism (for example) influence the way we answer Kant's famous "Three Questions": 1) What can I know?; 2) What should I do?; and 3) For what may I hope?

Hayles' Posthumanism Let's return to the four characteristics that Hayles claims are distinctive of posthumanism, and brainstorm examples that seem to confirm (or question) these trends:

  1. privileging informational pattern over materiality in the identification of subjects, objects and activities
  2. thinking of consciousness as an epi-phenomenon
  3. thinking of the body as merely our original prosthesis
  4. thinking of humans and machines as seamlessly integratable.

Next, by way of moving to chapters 2 and 4, let's consider some questions we didn't get to last time:

  1. What does Hayles mean by "the liberal subject"?
  2. How does Hayles' interpretation of the Turing Test (in the Prologue) relate to her interpretation of Moravec's claim(s) discussed at the start of "Toward Embodied Virtuality")?
  3. What has #2 to do with #1?

We'll continue with Nina's presentation of chapter 2 and Melissa's presentation of chapter 4.

For Next Time:: Read chapters 9 and 11 (and 10 if you can) of How We Became Post-Human. Remember that you need to post a precis of your first essay to the WebCT account by the end of the day on Thursday.

Back to the Syllabus