n.b. I’m teaching a course on media theories and approaches this semester, and this post is, in part, designed for them. Right now, we are reading N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. This post focuses on Chapter 2.
Hayles straightforwardly announces the thesis for this chapter, writing “The contemporary pressure toward dematerialization, understood as the epistemic shift toward pattern/randomness and away from presence/absence, affects human and textual bodies on two levels at once, as change in the body (the material substrate) and as change in the message (the codes of representation)” (29). So this is a good place to start, but I have a better one I think.
This book was published in 1999, so written in the mid/late 90s, at the beginnings of what we really think of as the internet (even if, technically speaking, the history goes back farther). Obviously it is before social media or smartphones. It’s before high speed internet. It’s before most people in the industrialized world had any web access at all. Arguably it is before “digital culture” took off. So in some respects, Hayles is grasping to understand a phenomenon that is now mundane to us. This is clear at the outset of this chapter, where she begins discussing media theory and looks to explain the difference between the typewriter and the computer keyboard and the experience of VR. While the full VR experience has yet to become popular, we are all familiar with navigating virtual spaces, with having avatars and other online personae (in games, on social media, and so on). She writes to tell us that “Money is increasingly experienced as informational patterns;” we live with Bitcoin. She observes that “sexual relationships are pursued through the virtual spaces of computer networks;” today it is hard to imagine such relationships without some digital mediation.
Hayles juxtaposes her concept of “flickering signifiers” with that of “floating signifiers” (which she connects to Lacan). These concepts are then connected to the dualities of pattern/randomness and presence/absence respectively. Briefly, the in the world of writing/print words (i.e. signifiers) have meanings that are not fully secure. E.g., if you want to know the meaning of a word, you can look in the dictionary, where you will see other words that you can then also look up, etc. etc. Words also refer to things, actions, qualities, concepts (pencil, writes, sharp, ideas), but those references are arbitrary (e.g. there’s nothing about the letters p, e, n, c, i, and l that necessarily connect to the writing instrument). Given all this floating about, how do words hold onto to their meaning? If you read Plato, meaning is secured by the presence of the speaker, but that creates a problem with writing which is usually read in the absence of the author. So in postmodern theory (from the late 20th century), meaning is created by subjective experience (i.e. from the reader) and through cultural, ideological structures, which help the subject/person create a sense of self (e.g. as having–and being able to name/put words to–a gender, sexuality, race, class, desires, consumerist wants, etc.)
Flickering signifiers relate to digital communication and its properties of pattern/randomness. As becomes clearer in later chapters, the pattern/randomness duality comes from information theory (cybernetics) and has to do with how early information theorists understood the composition of information. Hayles does a good job on p. 32 talking about how information cannot just be a pattern as it must contain novelty; it must give you something new or you aren’t being informed. Here’s where the chapter really starts getting difficult. Hayles turns to a series of literary references in an attempt to articulate how flickering signification might work. In particular she focuses on William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the way Gibson describes cyberspace as a 3-D matrix through which the protagonist journeys. She writes, “Instead of an embodied consciousness looking through the window at a scene, consciousness moves through the screen to become the pov, leaving behind the body as an unoccupied shell” (38).
For us in 2021 though, it should not be hard to see ourselves as flickering signifiers. We really have no idea about the extent of the information that has been produced from our activities by dozens of corporations and institutions. We are all those things, even if we can and should argue that we are more than that as well. However that information shapes our experiences online as well as the perceptions others might have of us and the opportunities presented to us in our lives. Perhaps the most prescient line in this chapter comes in Hayles’ discussion of William Burroughs:
When bodies are constituted as information, they can be not only sold but fundamentally reconstituted in response to market pressures. Junk instantiates the dynamics of informatics and makes clear the relation of junk-as-information to late capitalism. Junk is the “ideal product” because the “junk merchant does not sell is product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.” The junkie’s body is a harbinger of the postmodern mutant.How We Became Posthuman p. 42
Sure, Hayles is quoting Jameson talking about Burroughs and “junk” as a drug, but in 2021 the junk is social media. The social media user is degraded and simplified to fit the demands of the product. Social media information (about users) is junk but it becomes the valuable commodity of late capitalism (as the oliogopolies of social media and media devices become among the richest and most powerful in the world). However, we become subject to this junk; this is, we become junkies.
Hayles scrambles around trying to explain the narrative/literary version of the flickering signifier, but to us in 2021 it is obvious: it’s QAnon. Maybe not so oddly, if you are familiar with Gibson or DeLillo or Pynchon or Burroughs you’d find plenty of crazy conspiracy theories driving narratives, plenty of delusional characters. QAnon followers are media-information junkies, hooked on some really bad stuff. But in a different way, we are all caught up in the flickering signifiers of pattern and randomness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all have to become who we are through some process, and pattern/randomness is no less “true” or “natural” than the presence/absence it supplanted.
That said, having some insight into its operation might open some new possibilities for us. And that’s what we’re here for.