Where are they now? Professor N. Katherine Hayles

Jul 10, 2020 | Transformations (Issue 1), Where are they now?

Written by Nicholas Saul

Professor N. Katherine Hayles, many will recall, was a member of the Fellows cohort 2014-2015. That cohort pursued the theme of Emergence, connoting the complex phenomenon of emergent causality. Fellows and visitors to the IAS in that memorable year will remember a series of genuinely exciting intellectual thought events, as we discovered (and learnt) just to what extent the inscrutable, fascinating, and foundational model of non-linear causality (‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’) accounts for our experiences in science, society, art and literature (and stock markets). Why is a novel different every time you read it? Not because of any deficiencies in your reading skills. Rather, because every time your deep attention accesses the complex system of the text a new and different feedback loop of hermeneutic construction activates a new and different – emergent – dimension of the elements in the system, with unpredictable creative consequences every time. 

Kate Hayles, recently the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor Emerita of Literature in the ‘other’ Durham, our partner Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was of course one of our guides on this journey – one of the best possible guides thanks to her unique qualifications and competence in both the sciences and the arts, from Chemistry to Computer Science, Cognitive Humanities and English Literature. She has of course returned to visit us more than once since that Fellowship year, notably to deliver a public lecture Universities at the Crossroads: Directing Cultural Transformations, in our IAS series on the Future of the University in 2018. But where is she now? We contacted Professor Hayles to bring us up to date. Here are her reflections: 

Professor Hayles’ public lecture on Universities at the Crossroads: Directing Cultural Transformations (Durham Castle, 2018).

‘For most of us for most of our careers, the desire to do scholarship and the need to earn a living are intertwined, making it difficult to separate what we want to do from what we have to do.  When one retires, however, the muddiness clarifies as the realization slowly sinks in that no official body will ever again review one’s CV, no committee will try to ascertain if one has been “productive”.   I entered this state in July 2018, when I retired from the Literature Program at Duke University in the “other” Durham (NC, USA).   Since then I have published several articles and have a new book forthcoming in fall 2020, so evidently scholarship really is something I relish.  The life of the mind is for me an adventure in learning new things, positing exciting (and difficult) questions, and struggling to get my arms around big issues—no lack of those in the contemporary world!  With my husband Nick Gessler, I moved back to Los Angeles and now have an appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles as Distinguished Research Professor.    

My new book, Postprint: Books and Becoming Computational (fall 2020, Columbia University Press) explores the vast changes in the writing, design, production, warehousing, selling and reading of print books in the new millennium, when computational media have completely interpenetrated every aspect of print.  This immediately leads to a conundrum:  how to talk about these changes, when a print book in today’s bookstores appears very similar to one published, say, in 1950?  How to analyze the changes in the nature of the sign when it has ceased to be a flat mark on paper and instead become the visible iceberg-like surface to a deeply layered mass of codes?  If verbal and written languages have had and are having profound influences on what it means to be human, how does this change when books, as well as people, are immersed in computational environments?  The subtitle hints at the approach I embraced—that books and people are undergoing transformations together through their participation in cognitive assemblages.   

“Cognitive assemblage” is a concept central to my 2017 book, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (Chicago University Press), which I was developing during my fellowship at the IAS in spring 2015.  It draws on recent research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and related fields, demonstrating that much of human thought takes place at a level of neuronal processing that is nonconscious but nevertheless performs functions essential for consciousness to function.  This realization opens the way for a wide-ranging reassessment of cognition in general. M; my position is that all lifeforms, even those lacking brains, such as plants and nematode worms, have cognitive capacities.  Once cognition is understood as a much broader capacity than consciousness, the relation between humans, nonhumans and computational media may be radically reconceptualized.  Much of the world’s work in contemporary developed countries is done through collectivities through which information, interpretations, and meanings circulate:  that is, through cognitive assemblages.    

As I prepared this update to my activities, I spent several hours (and a couple of nights) thinking about my time at the IAS.  I recalled vividly the many intellectual discussions we had during morning coffee, the noon lectures followed by discussions, and the evening events.  But what resonated most powerfully for me were the strong bonds formed with my fellow scholars, the sense of being part of an exciting and intellectually stimulating group.  The life of a humanities scholar is typically rather solitary, as one thinks, writes, and revises alone in one’s study.  But this was an altogether different kind of experience.   In this cadre of scholars focused on “Emergence,” perhaps the most surprising one was the emergence of this bond and the fellowship it built between us.  Yes, of course I remember the amazing and superb Durham Library, the impressive Cathedral, even the gale-force late winter winds that blew into the College Green from the streets below.  But it was the warmth of fellows caring about each other that truly made my time at the IAS remarkable and unique.’


For more information about Professor Hayles and her work, see the links below:

Header photo credit: Minerva Juolahti.

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