1. Does poststructuralism and network theory, as expressed in many of the readings on your subset of the core list, allow any space for subjectivity, and if so, what kind of subjectivity? Does privileging the world of code and image change the nature of subjectivity itself? Is subjectivity even conceivable in network theory? Discuss at least three texts on your reading list in relation to this question.

What is subjectivity?

Burnett, Castells, de Lauretis, Derrida, Gee, Hayles, Horkheimer, Kittler, Ong, Turkle

What is poststructuralism?

Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Landow

What is network theory?

Castells, Foucault, Landow, Latour, Spinuzzi, Sterne

What happens to the nature of subjectivity by privileging code and image?

Burnard, Burnett, Gee, Hansen, Hayles, Kramer, Landow, Levin, Manovich, Murray, Ryan, Ulmer, Winograd

Is subjectivity conceivable in network theory?

Clark, Hayles, Jenkins, Johnson, Kittler, Kramer, Latour, Lyotard, Thomson



The comment noted today is how it was originally responded, which is what the committee members read long before anyone else in the group read it.

Subjectivity has become a catch all word for a number of terms: soul, mind, consciousness, seat of cognition, Cartesian thinking thing. It is presumably what differentiates human beings from other natural creatures and machines, although it emerged from specific historical and cultural conditions that have been linked with widespread literacy. Poststructuralism and network theory, however, seem to challenge the basic conditions under which subjectivity arises. Philosophers, humanists, and media theorists alike now question whether subjectivity is even conceivable, and in any event argue that privileging code and images changes the nature of subjectivity. I will argue that we need to differentiate traditional humanities subjectivity and digitally native subjectivity, and come up with a new name for the latter.

The basic idea of subjectivity, of a subject, being subjected, as a way of human being, emerged, according to Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler, from alphabetic literacy, from long acculturation with reading, particularly typographic print novels. According to Ong, “the present-day phenomenological sense of existence is richer in its conscious and articulate reflection than anything that preceded it. But it is salutary to recognize that this sense depends on the technologies of writing and print, deeply interiorized, made a part of our own psychic resources” (152). Technologies of writing and print brought with them innovations of how the mind works, or better stated, created the modern mind as we know it, through backward scanning, the interiority of sound, interiorization of print, intertextuality, and the round characters of novel length fiction. Such findings were being made by classicists like Milman Parry, Albert B. Lord, and Eric Havelock in their literary studies, in which differences between oral and literate cultures and, by extension, individual experience, were detected more readily due to the popular media studies of Marshall McLuhan. Whereas typographic print helped make habitual a relaxed, linear reading style for the elite, educated minority, Kittler contends that modern subjectivity became a mass produced phenomenon in the discourse networks of 1800 through the invention of phonetic, subvocalized reading by Heinrich Stephani. In Discourse Networks, 1800/1900 he argues that

phonetic reading instruction is thus a writing system, and not merely a method of speech. Only as such, through the regulation of pronunciation according to a hypothetically “accepted” norm, could it teach children orthography prior to any instruction in penmanship. . . . Mama or ma functioned as the most distinguished minimal signified in the writing system of 1800. It was the earliest one to be discussed, archived, and fed back into the system. Mama did not indicate, as it would a century later, the existence of a children's language beyond any national language, which could contribute to a general linguistics. Instead, it was pronounced by parents only so that it might recur in children's mouths—as a signature for the new education. What occurred, then, was true programming, which could thus be continued by automatons. (37; 49)

While Kittler goes on to develop a complex, controversial argument concerning the role of women as consumers of novels and later typists of bureaucratic nonsense, it is enough to conclude that subjectivity comes to be associated with subvocalized, phonetic reading, whether of novels or scholarly texts, and the accompanying social position of that subject as the bourgeois, liberal humanist with the leisure time to do so.

Entering the twentieth century, growing bodies of scientific and cultural data made possible by mechanical writing methods as inputs to new forms of philosophical, anthropological, literary, and psychological studies. Roland Barthes describes structuralist activity as dissection and articulation of objects in ways that reveal the rules of their functioning (“Structuralist Activity” 149-153). With the addition of psychoanalytic insights into ambiguous, unconscious determinants of these structures, by the middle of the twentieth century, poststructuralism complicates this fabrication of meanings by calling into question the taken for granted grounds from which social, epistemic, and even literary actors operate, appealing to the constructed nature of subjectivity itself. Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, and other theorists provided many important applications of complex, layered readings of cultural phenomena, such as the analysis of myth and primitive cultures, that were quickly adapted as critiques of subjectivity. Foucault, via a multidisciplinary anthropological, historical method explains how the modern subject emerged after the Enlightenment through the disciplinary action of institutionalized power and knowledge in prisons, hospitals, and schools. “The history of this 'micro-physics' of the punitive power would then be a genealogy or an element in a genealogy of the modern 'soul'” (Discipline and Punish 29). The macro level structures that Foucaultian archaeology intimates better resemble network phenomena of cybernetics and general systems theory than semiotic, discursive entities. In a sense, before subjectivity could be theoretically constituted by Ong and Kittler, its metaphysical legitimacy had already been compromised. In the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern.”

Joining up with poststructuralism and critical theory in the latter half of the twentieth century, network theory completed the circuit. Manuel Castells' careful empirical, statistical analyses published in The Rise of the Network Society reveal “for the first time in history, the basic unit of economic organization is not a subject, be it individual (such as the entrepreneur, or the entrepreneurial family) or collective (such as the capitalist class, the corporation, the state). . . . The unit is the network, made up of a variety of subjects and organizations, relentlessly modified as networks adapt to supportive environments and market structures” (214). The common cultural code replacing interiorized print is multimodal, audio-visual media, what Castells calls real virtualities, “in which the digitized networks of multimodal communication have become so inclusive of all cultural expressions and personal experiences that they have made virtuality a fundamental dimension of our reality” (xxxi). Other network theorists like Jonathan Sterne further displace the automatic programming of human being by ocularcentric, phonetic reading by retelling the story of our recent past as one of ensoniment, too, a “series of conjunctures among ideas, institutions, and practices rendered the world audible in new ways and valorized new constructs of hearing and listening,” along with the more familiar enlightenment (2). Sterne's network theory, like those of Foucault and Latour, adds a social constructionist perspective to technological innovation, expanding the view of discrete objects to their position within situated contexts of cultural practices, so they too, like subjectivity, appear as virtual field effects rather than things in themselves. Beginning with techniques of skilled listening developed around the stethoscope, then telegraphy, telephony, and finally sound reproduction, he presents a convincing refutation of the “audiovisual litany” that views human sensation as innate and unchanging, like a stable subjectivity at the core of the organism. Today media theorists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers have extended the reach of networks into computing machinery, so that now the very conception of subjectivity is at stake.

What happens to the nature of subjectivity by privileging code and image alongside conventional print text as the content of media habitually consumed by humans? For Kittler it means the end of subjectivity as we know it. He writes in the preface of Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, “data flows once confined to books and later to records and files are disappearing into black holes and boxes that, as artificial intelligence, are bidding us farewell on their way to nameless high commands. . . . What counts are not the messages or the content with which they equip so-called souls for the duration of a technological era, but rather (and in strict accordance with McLuhan) their circuits, the very schematism of perceptibility” (xl-xli). Implicit in Kittler's pessimism are two positions: that the code-based nature of contemporary media generate black boxes where the liberal humanist subject was formerly constituted, and that the thought world of the machines is beyond human reach. The flip side of this grim outlook is found in the work of Mark B. N. Hansen, who argues instead that privileging images provides a route beyond the virtualized subjectivity that poststructuralism and network theory leaves us by revealing a primordial tactility. It replaces the Kantian transcendental basis of experience as well as the subjectivity supposedly generated by phonetic reading. What is more, Hansen finds in the work of Gilbert Simondon, who discovered in the unfinished work of Merelau-Ponty, “as the necessary correlate of a complex theory of physico-bio-social individuation, a convergence of the biosocial with the technical” (84). With such a bridge joining the biosocial and the technical, a new foundation for the humanities can be built that accounts for network theories. To demonstrate his theory, Hansen presents a number of examples of multimodal virtual reality installations. Subjectivity seems, as a consequence, to be replaced by a model of transindividuality with technical objects, and Hansen concludes that “with the ubiquitous infiltration of digital technologies into daily life, embodied agency becomes conditioned (necessarily so) by a certain (technical) disembodiment. Embodied disembodiment (or disembodied embodiment) accordingly forms a strict complement to the ontology of mixed reality conditioning all real experience” (93).

N. Katherine Hayles, whom I regard as the leading theorist today on the nature of subjectivity—though we may wish to call it by a different name—in the age of network theories and digital technology, rejects both Kittler's and Hansen's positions as leaning too heavily on the side of either machine technology or primordial human embodiment. Kittler's error is defaulting to a form of technological determinism in which military concerns drive technological change, to the point that the machines go off on their own high commands, a view that Sterne and other philosophers of technology also discredit by giving copious examples of how the trajectory of technological innovations like broadcast radio unpredictably morphed in response to corporate marketing decisions and unrealized consumer demands. Hansen's shortcoming, on the other hand, is to lean too heavily on embodiment, and largely ignore the operations that occur between machines, so that “largely erased are material specificities and capacities of technical objects as artifacts. . . . its flow back into the object has been short-circuited, leading to an impoverished account of the object's agential capacities to act outside the human's mobilization of its stimuli” (Electronic Literature 109). Hayles' own account of how we became posthuman, her preferred term for subjectivity, attempts to keep in play the feedback loops between human and machine systems as they connect and disconnect with each other in networks of all sorts. This coevolution is presented in detail through the contested histories of the three waves of cybernetics in her well researched How We Became Posthuman. While the interiorization of print and subvocalization still play a major role how we think, Hayles posits new kinds of cognition by evolving human machine cyborgs with affordances of the technological nonconscious, subjecting literate subjectivity to sensorial modes bordering on alien spatialities and temporalities common to machines, especially programmed computers. In her latest book, How We Think, a title that no doubt plays on Vannevar Bush's prescient article “As We May Think,” she again takes up the work of Gilbert Simondon that so inspired Hansen, and combines it with Andy Clark's cognitive science research on extended cognition to foreground the coevolution of humans and tools. She writes, “whereas the embedded approach emphasizes human cognition at the center of self-organizing systems that support it, the extended model tends to place the emphasis on the cognitive system as a whole and its enrollment of human cognition as a part of it. . . . Recent work across a range of fields interested in this relation—neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, and others—indicates that the unconscious plays a much larger role than had previously been thought in determining goals, setting priorities, and other activities normally associated with consciousness” (93-94). Synaptogensis, the formation of neural pathways through repetitive behaviors, at one time favored close, phonetic reading, and now favors blends of hyper reading and anticipates extended circuits involving nonconscious roles played by machine reading (100). To me, subjectivity as a central, conscious albeit subjected kernel of human awareness, remains consistent with embedded cognition, but preference for the extended model virtualizes subjectivity into the field effect of sundry conscious, unconscious, and nonconscious network phenomena.

Is subjectivity conceivable in network theory? The preceding argument is for replacing subjectivity with a new concept, which Hayles suggests we ought to call posthuman, extended cognition, or cognitive-embodied processes. Only in extreme cases does the book-bound subject still remain in command—for instance, in cases of traditional humanities scholars who remain committed to the book form and intellectual practices associated with print culture. But even the field of digital immigrants is diminishing. I recommend that we need to differentiate traditional humanities subjectivity and posthuman, digitally native cognitive-embodied processes. A digitally native posthuman is virtualized, network phenomena, deeply influenced by code, and significantly unconscious. Henry Jenkins theorizes collective intelligence as the emerging network phenomenon with which individual humans participate in cyberculture: “none of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills” (4). The action of collective intelligence is qualititively different than shared knowledge of groups, which remains dependent upon individual knowers possessing all the facts. Similarly, Bruno Latour channels Alan Turing's call for a super-critical machine, an additive experiment like akin to a critical mass in a nuclear pile, as a potential model for this replacement (“Why has Critique Run out of Steam?” 247). A significant corollary to releasing humans from subjection of the liberal humanist subject is to boldly take up Latour's challenge and believe in opportunities for real machine cognition, which means flirting with the danger of writing for them. By writing I mean programming, system engineering, experimenting, with the heart of a humanist but the craft of hacker.

I will conclude with two brief examples of doing software development while thinking about the philosophy of computing: combining working code with sound studies as alternative to discursive ocularcentrism, as provisionally implemented my symposia formant synthesis project. Second, intuiting machine embodiment in the high speed, process control circuitry of an electronic device, accomplished through my Pinball Machine Reverse Engineering Kit project. Moreover, these activities meet the criteria for cultivating plasticity rather than mere flexibility, which according to Hayles is crucial to developing resistance to passive accommodation to the New World Order: “The practical goals achieved by these research programs vividly demonstrate that plasticity provides not only the grounds for a philosophical call for action but a potent resource for constructive interventions through human-digital media hybridity” (How We Think 103). We should complement these Hayles-style investigations of how we became posthuman with software studies and critical code studies, so that network theory elaborates the significance of open systems protocols on further developments of cognitive-embodied processes.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Structuralist Activity.” DeGeorge, Richard and DeGeorge, Fernande. The Structuralists from Marx to Levi-Strauss. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972. Print.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodes in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Hayles, N Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1990. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

Latour, Bruno. "Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam? From Matters Of Fact To Matters Of Concern." Critical Inquiry 2 (2004): 225. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.