Computing the Human: Analog and Digital Subjects

in N. Katherine Hayles, My mother was a Computer, The University of Chicago Press (2005), pp. 201-202

Following the work of Michel Foucault on the death of the Author, Mark Poster, in What's the Matter with the Internet? has expanded on Foucault's fourth and final stage of the author's disappearance to suggest that digital technologies and cultures are bringing about a significant reconfiguration of contemporary subjectivity. To illuminate this shift, Poster posits two kinds of subjects: analog and digital. The analog subject is based on relations of resemblance. Although Poster does not use this example, the mind/heart conjunction illustrates the concept. Feelings are imagined as conjoined with the heart, so that what is at the forefront of the mind is mirrored by what is deep inside. Similarly, in the English Renaissance – a period dominated, as Foucault has shown, by cultural relations based on analogy – human sperm was thought to contain a homunculus resembling the man who would grow from the sperm. Walnuts were considered to be "brain food" because walnut meat resembles the human cortex. Analogical relations require that the integrity of the units taken to resemble one another be preserved; otherwise, the correspondance is lost and the relation broken. If one tosses a handful of walnuts into a blender and turns it on, the walnuts are pulverized and no longer resemble a cortex. If walnuts were available only in this form it seems unlikely that they would have been considered good food for thought. Attributes of the analog subject include, then, a depth model of subjectivitiy in which the most meaningful part of the self is seen to reside deep inside the body, and the self is further linked with units possessing a natural integrity of form and scale that must be preserved if the subject is to be maintained intact.

Poster focuses his discussion of subjectivity on the "figure of the author", whose construction during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries required a number of related events, including an increase in literacy, "diminishing personal authority relations", the spread of markets that made books into capitalist commodities, and legal systems of copyright. These developments facilitated defining an individual as "interior consciousness, which could then be externalized first in manuscript, then in print". Thus in Poster's view, analog subjectivity is bound up deeply with the dominance of print culture. The origins of print culture are rooted in alphabetic writing, which of course evolved much earlier than the development of capitalism and copyright. Poster notes that alphabetic writing broke the pictorial resemblance that connected an ideogram to the object represented, and in doing so it forged a new connection between a sound and a mark. This connection differed from pictorial writing in that the association of sound with mark was entirely conventional, and the resulting arbitrariness made alphabetic writing much more economical than ideograms (thousands of ideaograms versus some thirty letters of the Greek alphabet). The movement from ideogram to alphabet entailed another shift as well, for now the resemblance was not between word and thing but, as Poster puts it, between "a written symbol and its utterance, between two forms of language, writing and speech. The relations between word and thing becomes conventional, arbitrary, whereas the relation within language between trace and voice is stronger, more direct". Thus the extent that print can be considered an analog medium, it connects voice to mark and thus author as speaker to the page.

Reinforcing the sense that print texts are "voiced" by an individualistic creator is the uniformity, stability, and durability of print, a point Mark Rose touches upon in Authors and Owners. (...) " The reader could return time and again to the page and re-examined the words it contained", Poster writes. "A readerly imaginary evolved which paid homage to this wonderful author who was always there in his or her words. ... The world of analog authors was leisurely, comforting, reassuring to the cognitive function". Literary history is largely outside the scope of Poster's analysis, but it has long been recognized in literary studies that the novel reinforced the depth model of interiority and the stability and individuality of the analog subject. (...) the legal fight to insure copyright, the cult of the author, print technology, and print culture worked hand in glove to create a depth model of subjectivity in which analog resemblances guaranteed that the surface of the page was matched by an imagined interior within the author, which evoked and also was produced by a similiarly imagined interior in the reader.