In this book Hayles, who would later write her masterpiece "How We Became Post-Human" (1999), applies the relatively new science of chaos to the humanities.
She begins by showing that the scientific and mathematical discoveries of the
late 19th century and early 20th century helped thinkers in all disciplines
to abandon the "totalizing perspective", something that would resonate with the
postmodernist thinkers of the late 20th century.
And at the same time that science was grappling with the insulibility of
complex (i.e. nonlinear) systems, the world at large was grappling with the
increasing complexity and intractability of the global economy, the global
By the 1960s the world of science had recognized the ubiquity and the importance
of chaos. However, just then scientists began to realize that there is order
even in chaos, and, in fact, that chaos can be a source of order.
Hayles briefly narrates the history of this new science that found order in
chaos (from Boltzmann to Prigogine).
But the book's focus is actually elsewhere. The chapter on "The Education
of Henry Adams" begins the analysis of how this new science was reflected in
the humanities, an analysis that probably peaks with
Lem's "Cyberiada" (1965) and "His Master's Voice", and ends with
Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook".
She believes that science did not influence the humanities nor viceversa
but they both were part of the same ecology of ideas.
Hence the poststructuralists began to value chaos just when the scientists
were beginning to value chaos:
Jacques Derrida's "deconstruction",
Roland Barthes' "S/Z" ("literatures are in fact arts of noise"),
Without counting Morse Peckham's "Man's Rage for Chaos" (1967), that came out
before the science of chaos got off in earnest,
Michel Serres' "Hermes - Literature, Science, Philosophy" (1982) was the first
book that made the connection explicit, by merging science and literature
(notably in his analysis of Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura").
Hayles brings the book to closure discussing the dualism between
global theory (the utopia of classical science)
and local knowledge (the utopia of poststructuralism), and her sentence is that
they are as complementary as order and chaos.
Chaos is a key concept to understand the contemporary. Hayles notes similarities in the Turing Machine, Shannon's information theory and Saussure's linguistic theory: they all removed the context. At the same time the society of the USA was undergoing a similar transition towards a world with no context, and intellectuals increasingly viewed context as a construction, not as a dogma. The abolition of context led to William Gibson's cyberspace ("Neuromancer") and Baudrillard's hyper-reality (his theory of simulacra). The context-less society, that Hayles views as increasingly a society of cyborgs, as per Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1985), creates a new kind of space. At the same time information replaces industrial goods as the foundation of the capitalist economy, as per Fredric Jameson's "Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" (1984). This new kind of space is detached from mundane reality.
No surprise then that the science of chaos and postmodernism share a hostility for totalizing systems of thought.
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