N. Katherine Hayles’ “The illusion of autonomy and the fact of recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest”

  1. Katherine Hayles’ The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity, is, as could be expected, all about loops. Specifically, loops that western civilization (America mainly) are trapped inside due to a lack of awareness to said loops, and the danger they pose. She begins by focusing on two paradoxes found in other works1,2. One is the idea that the Western ideal of “possessive individualism”, where the individual owns himself if nothing else, spawned market economy and thus capitalism, but at the same time, that individualism “derives from a market economy that locates authenticity in ownership”, spawning a recursive loop (go figure). The other is that humans are oddly fixated with the wilderness, due to a perceived redemptive quality it has (“restores the authenticity of the individual”), but wilderness, to be “wild”, by default signifies the absence of humans.

She then switches to a completely different (but still related) vein, talking about a virtual ecology, media and finally Infinite Jest to make the point that what she means by recursivity, is just the interconnected and looping cycles of humans and technology together, and that it is autonomy, thinking of the self while ignoring your part in the whole, that leads to a dangerous path which must be avoided.

Hayles uses Infinite Jest very well in her overall argument on autonomy as a fundamentally Western ideal and the relation of “the self” to the “the world” (the environment, nature, the wilderness, etc.) and technology, and on the danger of ignoring recursive structures, but despite this, I actually feel something in this essay is a bit lacking, at least for the purpose of this class. It is clear that the argument she is making is vitally intertwined with her other works (from what little I know of them) on human (emphasis on the “self” and autonomy) versus posthuman (emphasis on information and human intelligence being coproduced with computer “intelligence”)3.

However, it is this very thing with which I find a tiny flaw in an overall fabulous essay. She’s very much engaged with her prior work, furthering previous arguments and using Infinite Jest to justify them (which is completely valid), but due to this, I feel like she’s failing to critically engage with the novel in a lot of ways. Her arguments and critical stakes are clear as day in the essay, but David Foster Wallace’s, as the work she is engaging with, are nowhere to be found. The essay is a good resource on understanding the recursive structures, but overall, she primarily uses Infinite Jest to further her own work, rather than engaging with his (DFW), which, while in no way wrong, is a bit less helpful for our purposes.

[1] The paradox of market economy and capitalism is from C. B. Macpherson’s “analysis of the conceptual foundations of the liberal subjecta.”b

[2] The paradox of the wilderness is from William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”

[3] Forgive my bit of blatant Wikipedia usage here, I’ve been struggling with Hayles’ wording and Wikipedia was the most succinctly put synopsis of her argument that I found.

[a] Still not sure what exactly the “liberal subject” is referring to. Anybody have any ideas?

[b] Word for word from page one of Hayles’ essay

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5 Responses to N. Katherine Hayles’ “The illusion of autonomy and the fact of recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest”

  1. The liberal subject is basically just the idea that the individual is singular, autonomous, and imbued with inalienable rights. We tend to take for granted this conception of subjectivity, though many (say, Michel Foucault) question this sense of the liberal subject by emphasizing how it is a historical construction (remember “Panopticism”?).

    Also, I’m surprised you didn’t find Hayles’s essay more helpful/useful, as I tend to think of it as one of (if not) the best essays on Infinite Jest, and she has informed my own reading more deeply than perhaps any other critic.


  2. charlenejo says:

    I was confused at first in reading this essay by what Hayles means by “coproduction.”

    She then flips after her discussion of wilderness and possessive individualism quickly to the self-evolving ecology of new technology which is a bit jarring. But she means (I think) that computer systems are now equipped to diagnose problems and adapt in self-sufficiency, without direct human commands. Even more, the intelligence of these systems is ever growing as “discovery agents” and “filtering agents” seek to harvest more and more information and make available that which most closely aligns with a user’s preferences.

    She refers to these computers/technologies as species that operate in an ecological information environment (the internet) that find their demand for “conditionalized knowledge” creation from human users–meaning that we are simply one small node in a much larger (and more efficient) network. The important thing is that these evolving technologies rely on recursive structures (ie: between the different agents that derive/filter knowledge; the system and the environment; the system and the user) such that the knowledge produced is the product of a “historical accretion” of past user preferences and system filtering such that the knowledge produced is “conditional.” That is to say, that the knowledge gleaned from these systems is coproduced by the system (and all of it’s various agents) and by humans. She then moves on to suggest that Amalthaea (which I still don’t quite understand what exact form that thing is) has a rich enough network, “interacting levels of sensation and awareness”, such that it can reach levels of not only self-sufficiency but sentience.

    …I wikipedia’d “sentience” just to be sure:
    “In modern Western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience sensations (known in philosophy of mind as “qualia”). In Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that requires respect and care.”

    What she is leading to with all of this is to prove that we are, in fact, not singular or autonomous now that the our environment (wilderness and the hopes that come along with it) is now virtual (completely filtered and infiltrated by technology).

    I am admittedly not finished with this yet (the essay), but I wanted to put this out so that some of us can perhaps works through this essay together. I might add more of what I think she’s saying, but I agree with Brad that this essay makes some really profound arguments.


  3. charlenejo says:

    To add to that ^ the thing that is hanging me up specifically right now is how the recursivity of the system leads to a loss of control.


    • kalihira says:

      Wow. You unpacked that very well! It appears that some of the more intricate pieces of her argument flew over my head. I certainly struggled with the essay, and I think it would be immensely helpful if we tried to work through it together.


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