July 23rd, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Seriation: A New way of envisioning science, history, and literature?

     "The feedback loops that run between technologies and perceptions, artifacts and ideas, have important
       implications for how historical change occurs."
             N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

At the center of N. Katherine Hayles important work is a new historical and scientific model that goes beyond the Kuhnian model of incommensurable paradigms, as well as the Foucauldian model of sharp epistemic breaks. Instead she uses the concept of "seriation" in which ideas are "fabricated in a pattern of overlapping replication and innovation..." through a continuous series of feedback loops that engage the conceptual and material underpinnings of a theory. The simple idea is that through heated debate between intellectuals in pursuit of knowledge and practice discover a constellation of ideas that form a conceptual entity that corresponds to an objective artifact, possessing an internal coherence that defines it as an operational unit. This formation of this artifact of knowledge "marks the beginning of a period; its disassembly and reconstruction signal the transition to a different period. Indeed, periods are recognizable as such largely because constellations possess this coherence. Rarely is a constellation discarded wholesale. Rather, some of the ideas composing it are discarded, others are modified, and new ones are introduced. Like the attributes composing an artifact, the ideas in a constellation change in a patchwork pattern of old and new."

In her study on posthumanist science and culture she sees a historical seriation between three constellations of thought that overlap and replicate each other through innovation and change. The first dealt with homeostasis and the self-regulating systems that produce a steady-state theory of machines. Out of this was born a theory of the merger of organic life with machinic in a vision of the Cyborg. Second, was the concept of reflexivity: "reflexivity is the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a change perspective, to become part of the system it generates. This is the idea that the constellation of ideas generating our perception of reality are shown to be part of the reality it makes, which leads to an infinite regress of conceptual fabrication as in Borges tale of the dreamer who discovers he is being dreamed by another who in turn discovers he too is a dream dreamed. This conceptual constellation of ideas led ultimately to Marvin Minsky's ideas about downloading the information of our brain into a machine: "the clear implication is that if we can become the information we have constructed, we can achieve effective immortality." The third conceptual constellation overlapping the others was virtuality which is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrates by information patterns. As she states it "the perception of virtuality facilitates the development of virtual technologies, and the technologies reinforce the perception." Traces of homeostasis, reflexivity, and virtuality are found existing in overlapping and innovative cooperation and contested fields of scientific and cultural debates. She defines this slow emergence of a new conceptual matrix through the concept of skeuomorphs: skeuomorph is a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time. She alludes to an example of how car designers use fake stitching patterns in molded plastics that imitate earlier forms of leather stitching on dashboards.

She tells us that it is through narrative that we come to understand these issues, and that ultimately we need a combination of both literary and scientific analysis to understand the underlying patterns of innovation and replication that have allowed us to enter into this posthuman vision of life. She centers her discourse on the need to root our dialogues on embodiment rather than the pursuit of disembodied visions of a cyborgian future. Only then can we begin to understand ourselves as "embodied creatures living within and through embodied worlds and embodied words."