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  Katherine Hayles

  [ Entrevistada por José Augusto Mourão ]

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J.A.M. - Is Hybridism the main category of our culture?

Katherine Hayles – I wouldn’t say hybridism was the main category of our culture, but I would say that is a very important one. And we see in many different areas, and in many different manifestations. For example, in the United States almost everyone thinks of themselves as having a hybrid identity, they’re African-American, they’re Euro-American, they’re Mexican- American, and so the idea of hybridity is, in fact, part of the American identity. But, I think beyond the case of America, the notion of hybrid identity is a very popular political idea now. And I suppose in part it could be seen as a reaction against the memories of fascism and purity, so hybridity takes on a kind of political cache, that positions it self in opposition to notions of purity in particular.

J.A.M. – Creolization, Hybridism, Complexity- we always have been moved by these words. Which movements are arising from these categories? What kind of community they are producing?

K. HaylesI think hybridity has traditionally been associated with the monstrous. If you think about the way that the renaissance depicted monsters, they were combinations of different animals, for example with the Chimera or the Griffin, or classical monsters like that. So the traditional idea of hybridity has been to combine into one being, or creature, these dispread parts that have very different traditions. So, it is closely allied to the monstrous, and so, people who adopt hybridity as a political program, often proclaim themselves monsters, or mongrels. And for them, the monstrous or the mongrel is not a term of denigration, but they adopted as a term of pride.

J.A.M. – Is the “patchwork girl” a model of what you consider the configuration of subjectivity?

K.Hayles – “Patchwork girl”, electronic hypertext by Shelly Jackson, is a good example of this philosophy of the monstrous, so in that fiction as you know, Shelly Jackson rewrites Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” story. But she takes the female creature that Victor Frankenstein creates, at the male monster’s insistence, (and you remember in Mary Shelly’s story, the male monster essentially tells Victor that he is going to blackmail him if he doesn’t create this mate for him, but Victor has second thoughts and he tears the female monster up before he completes her), and in Shelly Jackson’s work, the female monster (who is composed like the male creature, of dispread people parts, from dispread people, and even from animals), proclaims herself a monster, but her very hybridity is a sign of strength. What it means for subjectivity, of course, is that the subject is not seen as a unified or autonomous being, but literally in her case is composed of many different subjectivities, and she has passages in that text where she relates this not only to the special case of the female monster, but more generally to the mixed biological inheritance of humans. So she mentions the fact which modern biology has recently discovered that human DNA contains animal DNA, and even plant DNA, and so she makes the point that on a biological and a molecular level we are all hybrids. So she posits this not as the exceptional case but the standard case, and the fiction, the illusion then becomes that some how we are unified.

J.A.M. –Technological forms of life operate as interfaces of humans and machines? An hybrid of organic and technological–hyperfiction deal with rather technological forms of life, than with organic forms of life?

K.Hayles – I’ll just say a little bit more about this because it ties in with some of the questions about technology. As you probably know, in the world of cognitive science, a very similar model has been adopted. For example, in computer science and cognitive science, very similar models have been adopted such as Marvin Minsky’s societies of mind, where he imagines human cognition not as a unified soul, not as a unified rational soul, but as autonomous agents, each of which is running in its own independent program, and so in Minsky’s view, “I have an agent that is telling I’m hungry, and I have another agent that is telling me I want to go to sleep”, and my conscious mind is not really in control of the situation, is making up stories to convince itself it’s in control, but much of my behaviour is in fact arising from the programs this individual agents are running. I wont try to say here whether or not I think Minsky is correct in that, I will just point out the fact that its striking, that across very different areas we see similar ideas be advanced, probably for different reasons. For Shelly Jackson it’s a political and a feminist program, to advance the idea of hybridity, for Marvin Minsky it’s not political or feminist program, it’s a computational program that he wants to advance, but it does indicate, I think, a really significant shift away from notions of unity, autonomy, individuality into notions of hybridity, mixtures, mongrelism, and its seems that the more radical elements of culture, they are trying to foment change within the culture, are adopting this idea of hybridity as a potent idea that can change some of the status quo.

J.A.M. – Can you tell the differences between biological and non-biological forms of life? Does Technology bring distance to these forms of life?

K. Hayles – My comments on hybridity perhaps get you in the context for this specific kind of hybridity that I was talking about here in Portugal. And that is hybridity that joins the technological and the human, or specifically that joins the intelligent machine with the human, and I understand that your statement is that we can touch and be close to the biological, and that the technological always exists at some distance from us, but I would say a couple of things in response to that:

One of the things I would say is that for most people in the contemporary world, we experience nature trough the technological. For example in the United States we have huge amounts of ground that are set aside as national parks, and many people regard these national parks as reserves of nature, and in a sense they are, but they’re also highly artificial. There’s a 300 page manual that dictates what kind of activities can go on in this natural area, so it’s a highly, social and regulated space, and it’s also increasingly a technological space. How do the park rangers manage the wild animals through technological means, for example. But you don’t need to get to the parks to experience this. We look around us, and we see what it looks like a natural scene but much of what we see around, is also been managed and completely permeated with technology, from things like genetically modified foods, or selective breeding for animals… and so I think it’s no longer possible to distinguish a nature for us that is remove from technology. Technology interpenetrates the natural at every point, more and more so. If for example, you are a couple, and you want to have a child, that would seam to be a very natural act, your engaging and a fundamental biological process of reproduction. But think of the many ways in which technology now intervenes in that process: controls it, directs it, modifies it, from ultra sound to regulated birth procedures, to vaccinations, on up. I think the technological and the natural now are not just side-by-side, they’re interpenetrating one another, so that when we touch the natural we are, in fact, also touching the technological. That’s one though.

And now, the second though is that, dough humans have a long evolutionary history of biological organisms, which determines, in my view, much of our brain structure, much of our physiology, much of our physical responses to the world like our sensory systems, nevertheless from almost the beginning of the species as a species, the tendency of humans has been to create technology. And so, you would have to say that there is something in humans as they’re biologically evolve, that makes them extraordinarily adaptive and appropriative of technology, so in this sense I think you could argue that, to be technological is natural for human. If you had no technology and you were a human, you would be in an extremely unusual state compared to most of humanity, so in that sense to, technological devices are not foreign to us, they’re part of our nature.

J.A.M. – Narratives without beginning and end are still narratives? How can we argue for the power of narrative and, at the same time, disdain the poetics of narrative?

K. Hayles – Well, I would distinguish between narrative and story. And narrative I wont try to define here in our limited time, but I would agree that narrative is essential to all cultures that I know. I’ve talked to anthropologists about this, and they’ve given me a few examples of small tribal cultures that do not use narrative. But I’m persuaded by the research that Jerome Bruner reports in his little book called “Acts of Meaning”, where he reports on research, of researchers who recorded how many times mothers told their small children stories, and they tell them stories continuously, as many as 10 or 12 per hour, and the stories might be very short and simple like: “now we’re going to get dressed, then we’re going to go to the park, and than we’ll have fun, and then we will have an ice cream cone”; but as you say it’s still narrative. So I take your point that narrative is an essential way in which, at least western cultures make meaning. Narrative is pervasive and it’s essential to meaning making. It’s one of the important ways that we make meaning not just in fiction or in literature that we read, but in everyday discourse and everyday lives. But when I use the word story, what I mean is, a narrative that is recognised as a meaningful unit within a culture. And so we know from Aristotle and western culture, stories have beginnings, middles and ends. A fundamental characteristic of stories: this temporal sequence and temporal progression, as well as the sense of causality that unites the events being told in the narrative. And if a narrative does not fallow that cultural pattern, people within the culture may have trouble as recognising it as a meaningful story. But all the time artists are pushing the boundaries of what can count as a meaningful story. All the time they are taking chances, trying to take risks, invent new ways to tell stories. So what counts as meaningful story is not actually static from Aristotle to the present, it’s always undergoing change, transformation, and those may be subtle or they may be larger changes. In our contemporary period it seems clear from Lyotard, and many others, that there is been a general decline of belief in grand narratives, that the great stories that held together, the story of progress, etc… now evoke scepticism. People don’t believe them. They see them as instruments of imperialism, and ways to oppress colonial peoples, and so for it. So we’ve seen a general decay of the grand narratives, and it’s within this context that I would place hypertext fiction, because hypertext fiction does not usually, in my experience, abandon narrative. What it does is abandon the large narrative and instead it uses much smaller sequences. Now in part this is an artistic problem, because if you are going to see control over sequence to the reader, then you can script smaller sequences. But you cannot script the entire narrative, because narrative is sensitively dependent on the order in which things are told, and to read things in a different order is literally to read a different story. And so, consequently, there’s a move away from an attempt to tell one continuous story. And why would writers want to move away from telling one continuous story? In part this actually relates back to the idea of hybridity and the fragmented subject. If you have hybrid fragmented subjects, then it doesn’t make sense that you can corral all of these hybrid creatures, serving as characters in one big story, then would brake up into many stories. But I think there is a different and distinct aesthetic effect, which is nevertheless still an aesthetic effect, and in my experience a powerful one, and it works like this, whereas say in traditional novel by Dickens, you’re following perhaps many characters, but they’re all progressing more or less along the same chronology. You see how the pieces fit together, and they all go together to make one big story. In hypertext narrative, they’re many different pathways and what happens is instead of a slow progression, linear progression trough the events, you get at first what it seems like many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and there’s a certain amount of frustration involved because you don’t know if the pieces will fit together. But in the wiry moving works, there are connections between the pieces, but your realisation of what connections are, comes much later then in a traditional fiction, where as you progress, you are building the connections. But nevertheless when you have thought about and explored the hypertext space, something like coherence emerges, and it’s can not be told as a linear story. It’s not a kind of coherence that can be narrated as “this happen, and then this happened, and then this happened”. Rather it’s a coherence that is a kind of chaotic coherence: You have the sense of the hole, but the sense of the hole is almost inarticulatable, because anyone pathway that you choose to re-narrate the story, as a literary critic for example, seams to you completely contingent, there would be a thousand other ways to talk about this fiction. And so when I wrote my article on “Patchwork Girl”, it took me a long time to write that, because I was so intensely aware of the contingency of any order I would use to talk about it. I thought I new what the fiction was about, but to communicate that to a reader I had to use a linear sequence, because wrote it in that fashion, and it was extremely difficult. Much more difficult than if I was talking about a novel that was sequenced in an ordinary way, but still I would say: Do you call it a grand narrative? Is that coherence a grand narrative? I’m not sure is a grand narrative. It’s more like it’s a sense of realised coherence, or actualised coherence. It doesn’t really manifest itself to me, and I cannot tell at this someone else as a grand narrative, because of this sense of contingency.

J.A.M. – What happens in the story when the narrative is fragmented?

K. Hayles – Well, I think that one of the things that happens is the reader has to do considerably more work to make out of this fragments a meaningful story. So more freedom, but also more responsibility is given to the reader than in a traditional story. And also, it seems to me that in electronically literature, in particular, very few of the works are long narratives. They combine narrative with theory, with philosophy, with image, and so there’s less of a sense that one is telling the story than that one is presenting a bunch of material that the reader can synthesise in different ways. And so, perhaps there is a decline of the story though, not, I would say a decline of literature. And maybe that leads us to the question: Are we seeing the death of literature?

J.A.M. – when you talk about the superposition of text without analogy with any kind of literature, what are you talking about? Are you talking about the end of literature?

K. Hayles –I feel very strongly that we are not seeing the end of literature, but rather a different way to make literature. And we in the academy often associate literature with avant-garde works. But in fact there is a vast reading public that reads very traditional, even formulaic pieces of fiction, especially harlequin romances in the United States. And so, the range of literature is vast but even for the avant-garde, I think that what we’re seeing is a period of tremendous innovation and experimentation. Not the end of literature at all, but rather an expansion of literary possibilities.

J.A.M. – How do you see the relation between national literature and the process of globalisation?

K. Hayles – Well, the electronic literature is an interesting context in which you ask that question, because the World Wide Web makes it easy to disseminate literature across national boundaries, and many texts are now posting multiple language versions at the Site. In fact I understand your own book is available in English as well as Portuguese on the web, so it seems to me that electronic literature is a powerful force to create a global flow of literature. I don’t think nationality is left behind. I think that national concerns continue to be reflected in literature but there seems to me that much a dialog in conversation trough electronic literature, in particular between different national literatures, and therefore they become more in conversation with each other.

J.A.M. – Can you tell us what is the comunification of narrative?

K. HaylesThis is a term that was coined by Tallan Memmot in his work “Lexia to Perplexia”, where he coins a neologism comunification, which seems to me that put together comodification and communication. And this is in the context of the World Wide Web, where, (let us say for example that you have a literary organisation that you’re trying to promote, and you put up a Web Site, or you have a literary journal online and you put up a Web Site, but it takes some money to buy a server, and it takes some money to keep the Site current, and so you decide that you will allow carefully chosen advertisers to display banners at your Site, then you are in fact creating a comunification) it is a communication, but the communication is presented simultaneously with comodification, trough the advertising that becomes a pervasive force on the Web. I think that’s the sort of phenomenon that Memmot was gesturing toward by coining that neologism “comunification”, the joining of a comunification technology with a comodification. And in fact, I was at a presentation the other day on the Internet 2, which you may have heard about, the new ultra high-speed backbone that’s being pioneered by universities across the globe, and what they’re calling the first Internet now, is Commodity Internet. And they’re trying to create a research based Internet, so they call one the “Commodity Internet”, and the other, the “Research Internet”.

J.A.M. –Biology has profoundly disturbed our metaphysics – Somehow “Archaic” survives within ultra technology. What does this means?

K. Hayles – Well, it seems to me undeniable that the archaic survives in our bodies, that we have plysticine brains. Brains that evolved in a specific evolutionary context, and have not changed significantly in the last thousands and thousands of years of recorded history, which is only a very small span compared to our entire evolutionary history. So we carry in our bodies this sedimentic history and always, I think, there is a conflict, and a negotiation between our evolutionary history, or biology, and forces of culture, including technology. So, take an area like Los Angeles, where I live for example, it’s a huge megapolis of 13 000 000 people, and yet, in this huge megapolis we see young people form into gangs, which have much in common with tribal structures of adolescence. And so, why do we have the phenomenon of gangs when they’re not living in a tribe, they’re living in this megapolis? I think the answer to that is ruddity and our evolutionary history and patterns of biology that have been with us for a long, long time. So, what this means to me is that on one hand we have this very agile neo-cortex, that is constantly inventing new technological forms, on the other hand we have other systems in our brain, like our Limbic system or our Vesticular system which are ancient, which are evolved much, much before neo-cortex. So right along with these hi-tech forms, we have this plysticine behaviour patterns that we inherited, and so there’s a mixture, always I think, of negotiation between the neo-cortex and the Limbic system, that we invent the hi-tech artefacts, but the uses to which these hi-tech artefacts are put, are some times dictated by archaic patterns. And so, I think the archaic is not so much build into the technological artefact itself, but the archaic persists in the cultural and biological context in which those artefacts are used. For example, why do Americans like to seat in front of a TV when commercials are on, and other absolutely mindless content? Well I think it has something to do with the fact that the TV screen is a flickering light. And through evolutionary ions, humans have liked to seat around the fire as a kind of comfort source, and so many people will keep the TV on, even with the sound turned off, just to a have a flickering light while they’re reading or something else. So, that would be an example of a hi-tech artefact that’s being perhaps put to uses that are archaic.

J.A.M. – And finally, for both Peirce and Vattimo, self is constructed biologically in the translative/interpretative process. Is connecting thought signs with interpretants in an open ended chain of the semiosis? Is still for you idealistic, this semiotic point of view?

K. Hayles – Yes, I do think that material culture is enormously important in understanding the construction of subjectivity at any given period. As academics we largely live in the world of ideas and in the world of words, and we come to place perhaps a dispertion at faith in words and ideas. We think that words and ideas make a difference in the world, and in fact construct our world. But try talking to an anthropologist. An anthropologist will not talk first about words and ideas. An anthropologist will talk first about things like transportation rows, artefacts, material culture, and from the point of view of an anthropologist it’s these factors which largely determine social culture, not just words and ideas. And I, of course, I too believe that words and ideas are important. In the academy I work with words and ideas all the time, but I must say, in the last few years I’ve been increasingly persuaded by the arguments of the anthropologist, that material culture is, if not largely determined, very importantly determined of social patterns. Change the material culture and you change the patterns. I’ll give you a quick example: every teacher knows that the material arrangement of the classroom is crucial to the classroom dynamics. Change the way the chairs are arranged and you change how the ideas and the words are used. Or to elaborate on that example, every architect knows that the kind of space creates…