The displacement of presence, deconstructionism and postmodernism – some posthuman relations.

The conclusion to ‘How We Became Posthuman’ (Hayles 1999) provides a succinct summation of the posthuman seriation that hints at the possibility of fruitful avenues for epistemological analysis.  For Hayles, the fundamental revolution of posthumanism is the shift from presence/absence to pattern/randomness, where questions concerning information supplant those concerning materiality.  It is by tracking the deconstruction of rigid subjectivity, through the shift from presence to absence, that we can perhaps consider the inherent implications posthuman epistemology.

Citing Derrida (1976) and Eric Havelock’s work on Plato (1963), Hayles (1999) aligns the notion of presence with ‘an originary plenitude’ that ‘gives order and meaning to the trajectory of history’ (Hayles 1999, p285).  The stability perceived in this origin story, its supposed historicity, provides a framework from which to support the notion of a coherent ‘self’.  The ability to observe, and affirm, the god-made order of the universe, or indeed its positivist reality, is seen here as a function which bolsters the sense of self in the world. Upon this foundational structure, a stable and definite sense of meaning could be anchored. Sounds like the Enlightenment to me.

The subsequent deconstruction of stable meaning in the late-twentieth century, through a troubling of these previously assured origins, is framed in terms of a displacement of the dominant idea of presence with that of absence.  However, this deconstruction is firmly situated within the presence/absence dialectic; absence only has meaning in relation to presence, lack is relative to plenitude. The process of deconstruction requires a presence to destabilise.

In contrast to this articulation, the dialectic of pattern and information is described in terms of emergent meaning derived from simple processes. Rather than a predictable teleology, pattern and randomness operate through evolving contingency and a responsive complexity. Hayles (1999) references work relating to biological systems, where pattern and randomness work reciprocally, noise accelerating structure. Rather than randomness being merely an absence of pattern, it is the ‘ground from which pattern can emerge’ (Hayles 1999, p286). Hayles even imbues randomness with the plenitude previously associated with presence, implying an origin, not rigid and Logocentric as in the description of presence, but as a great unknown expanse from which the realization of given patterns may emerge. Randomness is that unperceiveable by the system or pattern in question, the chaos from which all forms emerge’ ( Varela 1991 cited in Hayles 1999, p286).

The displacement of presence by absence appears to be a conducive way to articulate the postmodern troubling of universalism, certainty, truth, and other traits of the modern. However, does postmodernism go beyond this mere ‘unsettling’? The dialectic of pattern and randomness are perhaps ways to forge a different notion of origin: the unfathomable chaos of noise from which fleeting pattern can emerge.

No, I didn’t watch the video all the way through…

Hayles, N. K. (1999) <em>How we became posthuman : virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics</em>. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

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