Presentation by Katherine Hayles

Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, July 6-9 1997

"Prosthetic Rhetoric and the Posthuman Body"


My talk at the conference will be draw from my forthcoming book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. The book looks at three intertwined stories.

My presentation, concerned with the period immediately after World War II when cybernetics was coalescing as a discipline, explores the conjunction of Cold War hysteria with anxiety about preserving intact the boundaries of the liberal humanist subject in a cybernetic paradigm.

 

Abstract

The presentation will include a close reading of the last chapter of Norbert Wiener's 1948 Cybernetics in conjunction with the 1952 Limbo, Bernard Wolfe's outrageous novel that has become something of an underground classic. I will argue that Wiener, often called the father of cybernetics, felt intense ambivalence toward his intellectual progeny when cybernetics threatened to dissolve the autonomous human subject. Wolfe enacts that anxiety in an imagined post-war American society that preaches a pacifist ideology called Immob. Taking its cue from Napoleon's observation that the capacity for war begins in the capacity for motion, Immob exhorts its followers to volunteer for amputations, reasoning that if they can't move, they can't fight. Bored with lying around, Immob converts look to cybernetic prostheses to replace their missing limbs. The potent combination of pacifist ideology and technological aggression serves as the springboard for Wolfe to explore the complexities of cybernetic interventions. Together, Wiener's and Wolfe's texts demonstrate how the cybernetic reconfiguration of the liberal humanist subject intersected with cultural concerns, including gender, subjectivity, and rhetoric.

You can access these chapters below.

"Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert Wiener and Cybernetic Anxiety"

"From Hyphen to Splice: Cybernetic Syntax in Limbo"