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N. Katherine Hayles

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N. Katherine Hayles
BornNancy Katherine Hayles
(1943-12-16) December 16, 1943 (age 80)
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
GenreElectronic literature
American postmodern literature
Notable worksHow We Became Posthuman (1999)

Nancy Katherine Hayles (born December 16, 1943) is an American postmodern literary critic, most notable for her contribution to the fields of literature and science, electronic literature, and American literature.[1] She is the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor Emerita of Literature, Literature, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University.[2]


Hayles was born in Saint Louis, Missouri to Edward and Thelma Bruns. She received her B.S. in chemistry from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1966, and her M.S. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1969. She worked as a research chemist in 1966 at Xerox Corporation and as a chemical research consultant Beckman Instrument Company from 1968 to 1970. Hayles then switched fields and received her M.A. in English literature from Michigan State University in 1970, and her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Rochester in 1977.[3] She is a social and literary critic.


Her scholarship primarily focuses on the "relations between science, literature, and technology."[4][5] Hayles has taught at UCLA, University of Iowa, University of Missouri–Rolla, the California Institute of Technology, and Dartmouth College.[3] She was the faculty director of the Electronic Literature Organization from 2001 to 2006.[6]

From 2008 to 2018, she was a professor of English and Literature at Duke University. As of 2018, Hayles was the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor Emerita of Literature, Literature, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University.[7]

Key Concepts[edit]

Human and Posthuman[edit]

Hayles understands "human" and "posthuman" as constructions that emerge from historically specific understandings of technology, culture and embodiment; "human and "posthuman" views each produce unique models of subjectivity.[8] Within this framework "human" is aligned with Enlightenment notions of liberal humanism, including its emphasis on the "natural self" and the freedom of the individual.[9] Conversely, posthuman does away with the notion of a "natural" self and emerges when human intelligence is conceptualized as being co-produced with intelligent machines. According to Hayles the posthuman view privileges information over materiality, considers consciousness as an epiphenomenon and imagines the body as a prosthesis for the mind.[10] Specifically Hayles suggests that in the posthuman view "there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation..."[9] The posthuman thus emerges as a deconstruction of the liberal humanist notion of "human." Hayles disregards the idea of a form of immortality created through the preservation of human knowledge with computers, instead opting for a specification within the definition of posthuman that one embraces the possibilities of information technology without the imagined concepts of infinite power and immortality, tropes often associated with technology and dissociated with traditional humanity. This idea of the posthuman also ties in with cybernetics in the creation of the feedback loop that allows humans to interact with technology through a blackbox, linking the human and the machine as one. Thus, Hayles links this to an overall cultural perception of virtuality and a priority on information rather than materiality.

Embodiment and materiality[edit]

Despite drawing out the differences between "human" and "posthuman", Hayles is careful to note that both perspectives engage in the erasure of embodiment from subjectivity.[11] In the liberal humanist view, cognition takes precedence over the body, which is narrated as an object to possess and master. Meanwhile, popular conceptions of the cybernetic posthuman imagine the body as merely a container for information and code. Noting the alignment between these two perspectives, Hayles uses How We Became Posthuman to investigate the social and cultural processes and practices that led to the conceptualization of information as separate from the material that instantiates it.[12] Drawing on diverse examples, such as Turing's imitation game, Gibson's Neuromancer and cybernetic theory, Hayles traces the history of what she calls "the cultural perception that information and materiality are conceptually distinct and that information is in some sense more essential, more important and more fundamental than materiality."[13] By tracing the emergence of such thinking, and by looking at the manner in which literary and scientific texts came to imagine, for example, the possibility of downloading human consciousness into a computer, Hayles attempts to trouble the information/material separation and in her words, "...put back into the picture the flesh that continues to be erased in contemporary discussions about cybernetic subjects.”[14] In this regard, the posthuman subject under the condition of virtuality is an "amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction."[15] Hayles differentiates "embodiment" from the concept of "the body" because "in contrast to the body, embodiment is contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment."[16] Hayles specifically examines how various science fiction novels portray a shift in the conception of information, particularly in the dialectics of presence/absence toward pattern/randomness. She diagrams these shifts to show how ideas about abstraction and information actually have a "local habitation" and are "embodied" within the narratives. Although ideas about "information" taken out of context creates abstractions about the human "body", reading science fiction situates these same ideas in "embodied" narrative."

Nonconscious Cognition[edit]

According to Hayles, most human cognition happens outside of consciousness/unconsciousness; cognition extends through the entire biological spectrum, including animals and plants; technical devices cognize, and in doing so profoundly influence human complex systems.[17][18] Hayles makes a distinction between thinking and cognition. In Unthought: the power of the cognitive nonconscious, she describes thinking:

"Thinking, as I use the term, refers to high-level mental operations such as reasoning abstractly, creating and using verbal languages, constructing mathematical theorems, composing music, and the like, operations associated with higher consciousness."[19]

She describes cognition:

"Cognition is a much broader capacity that extends far beyond consciousness into other neurological brain processes; it is also pervasive in other life forms and complex technical systems. Although the cognitive capacity that exists beyond consciousness goes by various names, I call it nonconscious cognition."[20]

Scholarly Reception[edit]

Within the field of Posthuman Studies, Hayles' How We Became Posthuman is considered "the key text which brought posthumanism to broad international attention".[21] In the years since this book was published, it has been both praised and critiqued by scholars who have viewed her work through a variety of lenses; including those of cybernetic history, feminism, postmodernism, cultural and literary criticism, and conversations in the popular press about humans' changing relationships to technology.

Writing Style, Organization, and Scope[edit]

Reactions to Hayles' writing style, general organization, and scope of the book have been mixed. The book is generally praised for displaying depth and scope in its combining of scientific ideas and literary criticism. Linda Brigham of Kansas State University claims that Hayles manages to lead the text "across diverse, historically contentious terrain by means of a carefully crafted and deliberate organizational structure."[22] Some scholars found her prose difficult to read or over-complicated. Andrew Pickering describes the book as "hard going" and lacking of "straightforward presentation."[23] Dennis Weiss of York College of Pennsylvania accuses Hayles of "unnecessarily complicat[ing] her framework for thinking about the body", for example by using terms such as "body" and "embodiment" ambiguously. Weiss however acknowledges as convincing her use of science fiction in order to reveal how "the narrowly focused, abstract constellation of ideas" of cybernetics circulate through a broader cultural context.[24] Craig Keating of Langara College on the contrary argues that the obscurity of some texts questions their ability to function as the conduit for scientific ideas.[25]

Reception of Feminist Ideas[edit]

Several scholars reviewing How We Became Posthuman highlighted the strengths and shortcomings of her book vis a vis its relationship to feminism. Amelia Jones of University of Southern California describes Hayles' work as reacting to the misogynistic discourse of the field of cybernetics.[26] As Pickering wrote, Hayles' promotion of an "embodied posthumanism" challenges cybernetics' "equation of human-ness with disembodied information" for being "another male trick to feminists tired of the devaluation of women's bodily labor."[23] Stephanie Turner of Purdue University also described Hayles' work as an opportunity to challenge prevailing concepts of the human subject which assumed the body was white, male, and European, but suggested Hayles' dialectic method may have taken too many interpretive risks, leaving some questions open about "which interventions promise the best directions to take."[27]

Reception of Hayles' Construction of the Posthuman Subject[edit]

Reviewers were mixed about Hayles' construction of the posthuman subject. Weiss describes Hayles' work as challenging the simplistic dichotomy of human and post-human subjects in order to "rethink the relationship between human beings and intelligent machines," however suggests that in her attempt to set her vision of the posthuman apart from the "realist, objectivist epistemology characteristic of first-wave cybernetics", she too, falls back on universalist discourse, premised this time on how cognitive science is able to reveal the "true nature of the self."[24] Jones similarly described Hayles' work as reacting to cybernetics' disembodiment of the human subject by swinging too far towards an insistence on a "physical reality" of the body apart from discourse. Jones argued that reality is rather "determined in and through the way we view, articulate, and understand the world".[26]

Materiality of Information[edit]

In terms of the strength of Hayles' arguments regarding the return of materiality to information, several scholars expressed doubt on the validity of the provided grounds, notably evolutionary psychology. Keating claims that while Hayles is following evolutionary psychological arguments in order to argue for the overcoming of the disembodiment of knowledge, she provides "no good reason to support this proposition."[25] Brigham describes Hayles' attempt to connect autopoietic circularity to "an inadequacy in Maturana's attempt to account for evolutionary change" as unjustified.[22] Weiss suggests that she makes the mistake of "adhering too closely to the realist, objectivist discourse of the sciences," the same mistake she criticizes Weiner and Maturana for committing.[24]

Selected awards[edit]

Hayles has received many fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEH Fellowships, a Rockefeller Residential Fellowship at Bellagio, a fellowship at the National Humanities Center and two Presidential Research Fellowships from the University of California.[28]

  • Electronic Literature Organization's Marjorie Luesbrink's Career Achievement Award in 2018[29]
  • Writing Machines: Susanne Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship
  • How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics: René Wellek Prize for the best book in literary theory for 1998–1999
  • Eby Award for Distinction in Undergraduate Teaching, UCLA, 1999
  • Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award, UCLA, 1999
  • Bellagio Residential Fellowship, Rockefeller Foundation, 1999
  • Distinguished Scholar Award, University of Rochester, 1998
  • Medal of Honor, University of Helsinki, 1997
  • Distinguished Scholar Award, International Association of Fantastic in the Arts, 1997

Electronic Literature Community[edit]

Hayles has been active in the electronic literature community. Her keynote at the 2002 Electronic Literature State of the Arts Symposium at UCLA introduced the concept of providing a history of electronic literature.[30] Her summer seminars from 1995 -1998 impacted the field and shaped many writers paths for hypertext.[29]

N. Katherine Hayles, Dene Grigar, Stephanie Strickland, and Lai-Tze Fan attending memorial for Marjorie Luesebrink on March 15, 2024

Selected bibliography[edit]

Hayle's work is collected in The NEXT Museum, a digital preservation space.[31]


  • Postprint: Books And Becoming Computational (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. ISBN 9780231198240)
  • Unthought: The Power Of The Cognitive Nonconscious (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0226447889) [32]
  • How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. ISBN 9780226321424) [33]
  • Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. ISBN 9780268030858) [34]
  • My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. ISBN 9780226321479) [35]
  • Nanoculture: Implications of the New Technoscience (ed.), 2004 [36]
  • Writing Machines, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002. ISBN 9780262582155) [37]
  • How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. ISBN 9780226321462) [38]
  • Technocriticism and Hypernarrative. A special issue of Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 3, Fall 1997 (guest editor)
  • Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. (ed.), (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. ISBN 9780226321448)
  • Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. ISBN 9780801497018)
  • The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984. ISBN 9780801492907)

Book chapters[edit]

  • 'The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event,' in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, Morris, Adalaide, and Thomas Swiss, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
  • 'The life cycle of cyborgs: writing the posthuman.' In The Cyborg Handbook, Gray, Chris Hables (ed.) New York: Routledge, 1996. Also available in Cybersexualities, Wolmark, Jenny (ed.) Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2000.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Citations search: "N. Katherine Hayles" (Google Scholar)". Retrieved January 18, 2008.
  2. ^ "Faculty – Program in Literature". literature.duke.edu. Archived from the original on March 9, 2016. Retrieved April 2, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Gale 2004.
  4. ^ "Iowa Review Web". uiowa.edu. Archived from the original on February 16, 2008. Retrieved March 12, 2008.
  5. ^ "N. Katherine Hayles, Literature, Duke University – Townsend Center for the Humanities". townsendcenter.berkeley.edu.
  6. ^ "Literary Advisory Board (ELO)". eliterature.org. Archived from the original on May 20, 2008. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  7. ^ "Profile: Katherine Hayles", Duke University.
  8. ^ N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman:Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)', 33.
  9. ^ a b Hayles, Posthuman, 3.
  10. ^ Hayles, Posthuman,2.
  11. ^ Hayles, Posthuman, 4.
  12. ^ Hayles,Posthuman', 2.
  13. ^ Hayles, Posthuman,18.
  14. ^ Hayles, Posthuman, 5.
  15. ^ Hayles. Posthuman. p. 3.
  16. ^ Hayles. Posthuman. p. 196.
  17. ^ Umbrello, Steven; Sorgner, Stefan Lorenz (May 17, 2019). "Nonconscious Cognitive Suffering: Considering Suffering Risks of Embodied Artificial Intelligence". Philosophies. 4 (2): 24. doi:10.3390/philosophies4020024. hdl:2318/1702133. ISSN 2409-9287.
  18. ^ Oakley, David A.; Halligan, Peter W. (November 14, 2017). "Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being". Frontiers in Psychology. 8: 1924. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01924. ISSN 1664-1078. PMC 5694471. PMID 29184516.
  19. ^ N. Katherine Hayles, Unthought: the power of the cognitive nonconscious, (The University of Chicago Press, 2017)
  20. ^ Hayles, Unthought, p.9
  21. ^ Ferrando, Francesca (2014). "Posthumanism". Kilden Journal of Gender Research. 38 (2): 168–172. doi:10.18261/ISSN1891-1781-2014-02-05. ISSN 0809-6341. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  22. ^ a b Brigham, Linda (Spring 1999). "Are We Posthuman Yet?". Electronic Book Review. ISSN 1553-1139. Retrieved October 12, 2015.
  23. ^ a b Pickering, Andrew (April 1, 2000). "[Review of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by N. Katherine Hayles]". Technology and Culture. 41 (2). Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology: 392–395. doi:10.1353/tech.2000.0079. JSTOR 25147527. S2CID 109038145.
  24. ^ a b c Weiss, Dennis (Fall 2000). "Posthuman Pleasures: Review of N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman". Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.
  25. ^ a b Keating, Craig (September 1, 2000). "Review of Hayles, N. Katherine, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics". www.h-net.org. Retrieved October 10, 2015.
  26. ^ a b Jones, Amelia (January 1, 2002). "[Review of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by N. Katherine Hayles]". Signs. 27 (2). University of Chicago Press: 565–569. doi:10.1086/495699. JSTOR 3175794.
  27. ^ Turner, Stephanie S. (January 1, 1999). "How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (review)". MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 45 (4): 1096–1098. doi:10.1353/mfs.1999.0096. ISSN 1080-658X. S2CID 161939577.
  28. ^ "N. Katherine Hayles, Literature, Duke University – Townsend Center for the Humanities". townsendcenter.berkeley.edu.
  29. ^ a b "About – Teaching Electronic Literature". Retrieved April 7, 2024.
  30. ^ Grigar, Dene; O'Sullivan, James, eds. (2021). Electronic literature as digital humanities: contexts, forms, & practices. New York London Oxford New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-5013-6348-1.
  31. ^ Hayles, N. Katherine. "The N. Katherine Hayles Collection". The NEXT Museum.
  32. ^ Hayles, N. Katherine (2017). Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226447889.
  33. ^ Hayles, N. Katherine (2012). How we think: digital media and contemporary technogenesis. Chicago, Ill. London: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-32140-0.
  34. ^ "Electronic Literature: New Horizons For The Literary". newhorizons.eliterature.org.
  35. ^ "My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts by N. Katherine Hayles, an excerpt". www.press.uchicago.edu.
  36. ^ "NANO – book, nanoculture". nano.arts.ucla.edu.
  37. ^ "Mediawork: Writing Machines". mitpress.mit.edu. Archived from the original on May 8, 2012. Retrieved March 12, 2008.
  38. ^ "Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, prologue". www.press.uchicago.edu.


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