N. Katherine Hayles: Material Girl

February 11th, 2003 | Category: Interviews

Kate HaylesDigging deep in the texts of both literature and science, N. Katherine Hayles exemplifies the reconciliation of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” better than anyone I know. Her refusal to concentrate on either side of the fence, instead insisting on plowing new ground on both sides, has lead her to some of the most intriguing research currently being done. Looking at texts from all sources and angles, Hayles is always seeing new things that others overlook.

In her recent MIT Press MediaWork Pamphlet, Writing Machines (2002), she continues this analysis. Blending thinly veiled autobiography, narrative fiction, literary critique, and other styles, she brings us into a world where text, materiality, signifier, and signified come together and come alive on the page. Her in-depth view of innovative texts, hypertexts, and experimental fiction (including an exquisite look at Mark Z. Danielewski’s postprint novel House of Leaves) leaves no doubt that she’s been working these fields for years.

Roy Christopher: Writing Machines incorporates many literary styles — autobiography, fictional narrative, critique, etc. — to great effect. Was it your initial intention to juxtapose these styles?

N. Katherine Hayles: Combining autobiography with theoretical analysis is one way of joining the personal with the political, analysis with life experience. Increasingly I see scholars and theorists trying experiments of this kind. To persevere in scholarship requires deep personal commitment. And where does this commitment, this passion, come from? Almost always from life experiences. Usually that connection remains submerged and private, but when it comes to light, it can be electrifying. In Writing Machines, I hoped to use the autobiographical narrative to illustrate what it means to make the journey from a print-centric to a media perspective. Profound changes like this never happen overnight. They more nearly resemble peeling away the layers of an onion, where one revelation leads to another, and that to another, and so on — a process that takes months and years. It is difficult to grasp this kind of process analytically, for its very nature implies a number of partial realizations that arrive slowly and often painfully. To know something on an abstract level is one thing, but to unravel all the assumptions and presuppositions bound up with it is something else entirely.

RC: You’ve been analyzing the materiality of literature for years now. In reference to House of Leaves, you stated, “Focusing on materiality allows us to see the dynamic interactivity through which a literary work mobilizes its physical embodiment in conjunction with its verbal signifiers to construct meanings in ways that implicitly construct the user/reader as well.” Can you elaborate on this statement?

NKH: Despite rich traditions of combining the visual and verbal in artists’ books, concrete poetry, and canonized works — from Blake’s illustrated books to Pound’s Cantos — there remains a widespread presupposition in literary studies that a literary “work” is an immaterial verbal construction, as if words floated in the air without having a tangible body. Strategies for understanding how words interact with their physical instantiations are still emerging, and much more work needs to be done to understand this more fully, especially with electronic media. In electronic environments words can swoop and fly, dance and morph, fade and intensify, change from black to red. How do these behaviors affect meaning, and how does verbal signification affect our understanding of these behaviors? Similar considerations apply to print literature, although here the interactions may be more subtle — but they are still important.

RC: Rather than looking at the blurring dialectics between natural/unnatural and human/nonhuman, you’ve been looking at presence/absence and materiality/virtuality. Considering DNA as textual code and language as “writing in the mind,” where does text end and materiality begin?

NKH: Now that the sequencing of the human genome is approaching completion, molecular biologists are coming up against the full realization that DNA considered as a “code” or “text” is only a small part of the story. Understanding the relation of the genome to function — how and why genes actually work — requires an understanding of protein folding, a much more complex matter than simple sequence. The gene as text cannot account for these complexities; for that, the gene must be understood as an embodied structure in three-dimensional space. Similarly, the full complexities of language are increasingly related to the embodied complexities of the human brain as it has evolved over eons, as Steve Pinker, among others, has been arguing. In the twenty-first century, text and materiality will be seen as inextricably entwined. Materiality and text, words and their physical embodiments, are always already a unity rather than a duality. Appreciating the complexities of that unity is the important task that lies before us.

RC: In Chaos and Order (University of Chicago Press, 1991), your selfreferential analysis of the rhetoric of chaos theory, tempted becoming fractal itself. Is language really able to exhibit emergent properties in the same way as other dynamical systems?

NKH: Many literary texts use fractal structures to express and embody complexity, from the microstylistics of poetic effects between words to large-scale effects in novelistic structures. Language is certainly able to demonstrate emergent properties, though it may not always do so. I think a better way to state the question is to ask how and in what ways literary language demonstrates emergence. For starters, I recommend Joseph McElroy’s Plus (Carroll & Graf, 1987), an experimental novel about a terminally ill person who agrees to have his brain extracted from his dying body and re-embodied as part of the neural network that pilots a spacecraft. The challenge that McElroy posed was devising a language for this posthuman condition in which normal thought processes have been profoundly disrupted and sensory inputs radically transformed. At first the narrator’s language seems almost incomprehensible, but patient reading reveals strategic repetitions and re-organizations that instantiate emergent processes at work. This is one kind of strategy, but, of course, there are many others as well. To my mind, emergence is a rich concept that can illuminate the signifying practices of many literary texts.

RC: Is there anything you’re working on or new areas you’re exploring that you’d like to bring up here?

NKH: My book-in-progress is entitled Coding the Signifier: Rethinking Semiosis from the Telegraph to the Computer. It argues that signification works in significantly different ways in technologies that employ code, compared to natural language. Semiotics remains our most powerful and influential theoretical framework for understanding how texts create meaning, but it needs to be radically revised to account for how meaning is created within electronic environments. Returning to the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, I compare his premises and conclusions to the realities of coding technologies, showing how coding technologies change the conditions for communication and require the introduction of new concepts. Then, through a series of case studies, I demonstrate how coding technology functions as a kind of trading zone where meaning-making becomes a negotiation between code and natural language. Following the fractures, ruptures, and tensions between these two different kinds of signifying practices, I explore how concepts central to human experience undergo reconfiguration, including subjectivity, agency, and free will. My tutor texts range from fiction by such diverse writers as Henry James, James Tiptree, and Stanislaw Lem to such computer texts as Karl Sims’s simulations and Shelly Jackson’s electronic literary work “Patchwork Girl.” The book is under contract to the University of Chicago Press and, if all goes well, should appear sometime next year.

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