Notes for N. Katherine Hayles and James J. Pulizzi Narrating consciousness: Language, media and embodiment


(132) Although there has long been a division in studies of consciousness between a focus on neuronal processes (e.g. Dennett, 1992) or conversely an emphasis on the ruminations of a conscious self (e.g. Bruner, 1992), the wedge driven by Shannon cut differently, separating the human world of meaning-making from the information-processing of technical media.
(132) The thrust of our project is to reintroduce context and narrative as crucial factors in the processes of meaning-making.
(132) If information in one context acquires a different meaning when imported into another context, arriving at reliable quantification becomes a nightmare. Shannon's solution was to strip away context by conceptualizing information as a function that depends only on the probability of message elements and not on the environment in which the information is sent or received. . . . Is context limited, however, to being a latecomer that crashes the party only when consciousness is fully formed? We reject this notion in favor of seeing context as important at every level, including pre-conscious and indeed pre-cognitive processes.
(133) A key concept in framing context as multi-leveled has been articulated by Edward Fredkin (2007): 'the meaning of information is given by the processes that interpret it'.
(133) How are the different levels connected? One proposal is the autopoietic approach pioneered by Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Valera (1991) as an alternative to Shannon's theory.
(133) While autopoietic theory reconnects context and information, then, the informational insularity of the system within the environment forestalls a nuanced account of the recursive embedding of contexts within contexts or the circulation of information among contexts.
(134) Combining Serres's insight with Fredkin's formulation, we arrive at our first major point. Flexible, embedded, and constantly changing contexts – of observers, actions, temporalities, and systems – carry with them processes of interpretation that create meaning.
(134) Contexts in our sense consist of embedded, heterarchical and interacting networks that mutually influence one another through recursive feedback loops.
(135) This view of context has the advantage of acknowledging more specificity in the role of the observer than is the case with autopoietic theory.

Worth considering this as a critique of a simple, object-oriented stance informed by computer science.

(135) For living beings, the contexts enabling the chaos of the unmediated flux to be perceived as patterns are constituted by embodied sensory-perceptual-cognitive network systems flexibly interacting with each other.

A lovely analogy between Clark extended and contexts as cross-linked frameworks.

(136) Like Clark's extended, the embedded context model allows us to see that boundaries are contingent, changing according to which contexts are referenced. . . . We can now state our next major point: contexts are not objects with properties or containers for information but rather complexly cross-linked frameworks of relations that loosely structure experience and knowledge.
(136) According to [Terrence] Deacon's model, asking how linguistic contexts are formed and how they interact with embodied human sensory-perceptual-cognitive systems would be like asking how the basketball came to be and why it so perfectly fits the game. A misleading dichotomy is created when researchers ask whether the brain contains some apparatus for language-processing (a universal grammar a la Chomsky) or whether language imprints itself on the brain. Rather, language and the brain co-evolved together, each modifying and being modified by the other (Deacon, 1998: 102-11).

(137) the biological structures that make symbolic content possible co-evolved with content, with both interacting to help codetermine each other while remaining open to the influences of other contexts.
(137) Integrated with our previous comments, this model brings us to our next major point:
consciousness and language are coupled together in spiraling co-evolutionary processes.
(137) We introduce media into this picture by noting Bernard Siegert's (2008) suggestion that media are apparatuses that convert noise into (human-recognizable) patterns.

Since spoken language is deeply rooted in embodiment, and written language itself links to spoken via internalized silent reading (Hayles discusses subvocalization elsewhere), embodiment must be considered when thinking about how people interact with media.

Language as the most naturalized of media technologies invites the question whether language has computational aspects as well; taking it further, consider machine embodiment in reverse by looking at machinic media forms.

(137) In conversation with these philosophic and discursive contexts, we propose the view that language is the most naturalized of media technologies. It may seem odd to place language in a category that typically includes radio and television, but, like them, language participates in creating patterns from noise.
(138) Language is thus paradoxically positioned as the naturalized technology crucial to constructing an inside/outside distinction, deeply influencing the brain's interior processing while itself operating across this binary. Implicated in brain morphology and function, language also performs the media function of extending into the environment the embodied brain's/body's capacity to convert noise into pattern.

Embodiment is even more emphasized in interaction with ergodic media.

(138) In sum, then, media evolve along a spectrum in which they are more or less tightly integrated with the embodied processes that create patterns from the unmediated flux, with language as the 'more' end and technical media such as the scanning tunneling microscope at the 'less' end.

Context and Narrative
(140) Narrative, with its complex treatment of temporalities and perspectives, is a primary means by which the child's developing consciousness reorganizes at a higher level of complexity, resulting in the awareness that 'there are different perspectives on the world, different specific pasts, and different specific futures' (Katherine Nelson, 32).
(140) When past is enfolded into future, future into present, and present into past through such typical narrative techniques as prolepsis (foreshadowing), analepsis (flashback), and other figures of complex temporalities, subjectivity ceases to be singular and proliferates into dynamically evolving interrelated possibilities.
(141) Print literary narratives are especially well suited to study how embedded and flexibly coupled contexts work together with processes of interpretation to create meaning because these recursive couplings are often represented within the texts themselves.
(141) Literary narratives do more than mirror cultural narratives, however; they also contest them. One technique is to break the transparency of received views by disrupting the deep connections between recursive loops and textual contexts.
(141) In
His Master's Voice, patterns are difficult to construct because the environment from which the messages emanate is unknown; in Plus, a parallel difficulty occurs because the internal sensory-perceptual-cognitive processes have been transformed radically.

His Master's Voice: Message as Noise
(143) In this sense, the text acts as a test case for the model we have proposed, showing both its usefulness as an interpretive framework and the ultimate undecidability of meaning when contexts are unknowable.

Plus: Noise as Message
(143-144) The narrator of Joseph McElroy's experimental fiction speaks a language only partially of the human world. The narrative voice issues from a brain that has been extracted from a fatally ill body, enmeshed with a life-support system that includes chloroplasts for photosynthesis, and blasted into space encased in a capsule to become Imp Plus, the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform Plus – what?
(144)
Plus can thus be understood as an experiment in thinking how subjectivity would change if its cognitive networks were utterly changed. Whereas the brainbound model might assume that the legendary brain-in-a-vat would be largely unaffected by such disruptions, the opposing extended model's assumptions imply that if the networks connecting inside and outside change, so too would cognitive processing. Plus takes this premise to the extreme, implicating brain morphology as well as language.

A novel trying to enact posthuman experience.

(145) As Salvatore Proietti (2004) puts it, the novel tries 'to enact what being posthuman might be like'.

Gestures toward alien contexts.

(145-146) In Plus and His Master's Voice, the alien contexts remain largely outside the realm of representation, gestured toward rather than articulated by the linear sequentiality of the text's language. Meanings of the 'letter' and the lattice's thoughts remain elusive, for their contexts lie outside normal human communication. The framework we have proposed here, of sensory-perceptual-cognitive networks flexibly coupled together and extended into the environment through linguistic and media networks, functions at many scales and locations through processes that give meaning to information by their interpretive activities. Each of these loci implies a context that makes interpretation meaningful. Information and meaning are not joined homogeneously or all at one place; rather, meaning-making is fractally complex, occurring at cellular and sub-cellular locations all the way up to consciousness and beyond.

This is a common assessment of science fiction.

(146) Narratives are sometimes used to convey morals, but complex literary narratives such as those discussed here are not easily recuperated back into a culture's received views. They do not so much articulate meaning as go in search of it.


Hayles, N. Katherine and Pulizzi, James J. 2010. Narrating consciousness: Language, media and embodiment. History of the Human Sciences, 23(3), 131-148.


Hayles, N. Katherine and Pulizzi, James J. “Narrating consciousness: Language, media and embodiment.” History of the Human Sciences, 23 (3): 131-148. Print.