Tuesday, September 16, 2008

...with apologies to Katherine Hayles

In the pages that follow I will identify two moves in particular that played important roles in constructing the information/materiality hierarchy. Irreverently, I think of them as the Platonic backhand and forehand.

The Platonic backhand works by inferring from the world's noisy multiplicity a simplified abstraction. So far so good: this is what theorizing should do. The problem comes when the move circles around to constitute the abstraction as the originary form from which the world's multiplicity derives. Then complexity appears as a 'fuzzing up' of an essential reality rather than as a manifestation of the world's holistic nature. Whereas the Platonic backhand has a history dating back to the Greeks, the Platonic forehand is more recent. To reach fully developed form, it required the assistance of powerful computers. This move starts from simplified abstractions and, using simulation techniques such as genetic algorithms, evolves a multiplicity sufficiently complex that it can be seen as a world of its own. The two moves thus make their play in opposite directions. The backhand goes from noisy multiplicity to reductive simplicity, whereas the forehand swings from simplicity to multiplicity. They share a common ideology - privileging the abstract as the Real and downplaying the importance of material instantiation. When they work together, they lay the groundwork for a new variation on an ancient game, in which disembodied information becomes the ultimate Platonic Form. If we can capture the Form of ones and zeros in a nonbiological medium - say, on a computer disk - why do we need the body’s superfluous flesh?

N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 12-13.

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