When I hear “post-human” I immediately think “post-modern.” While not the same thing, they both challenge traditional liberal humanism and other long held assumptions of Western culture. Like “post-modern,” the term carries a certain amount of baggage with it.  Immediately one assumes the end of humanity or other negative associations. As Katherine Hayles points out, this need not be the case. With the arrival of intelligent machines, we are forced to reconsider what it is to be human, without necessarily reconciling it with humanism or other existing conceptions of humanity.

When we talk about the post-human, cyborgs or intelligent machines, we are really talking about boundaries. While the post-human would configure man and machine seamlessly, there will be an ongoing negotiation of where the boundaries are located, without ever fixing them. Of course when boundaries or definitions blur, objects and bodies lose their “thing-ness” (what Hayles calls “material instantiation”) a troubling and exciting prospect (Indeed, the post-human is both troubling and exciting).

That being said, I read How We Became Posthuman as more of a work of history than a work of theory. Indeed, much of the book covers the various waves of cybernetics, beginning with the radically interdisciplinary Macy Conferences in the mid- twentieth century.  These developments parallel those in the humanities formulating post-modernity at nearly the same time.  Really, Hayles is providing a narrative of what led us to (or is leading us to) a Kuhnian paradigm shift on what it means to be human.

I think using the term “post-human” damages Hayles argument to a degree. “Post-humanism” would be more apt, because if we are taking an evolutionary view here, and we are evolving with our intelligent machines, than we can never be anything but human.  I think this is basically what she’s saying, but “post-human” is a bit of a red herring. Perhaps that’s intentional.  This seems to be what Hayles excels at – taking a idea that some people (well, me anyways) want to shake their fist at and making a reasonable, middle-of-the-road argument that’s hard to disagree with.

Observation: Does anyone think that the chapter E-Lit where she discusses the international currency traders would have fit better into this book (Ch. 3 in E-Lit)? Obviously E-Lit was written after Posthuman, but if she were to do revise or do a second edition, I think it would make an excellent example, more so than in a book primarily about literature (which she largely avoids in Posthuman).