- 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.
 The paradox of market economy and capitalism is from C. B. Macpherson’s “analysis of the conceptual foundations of the liberal subjecta.”b
 The paradox of the wilderness is from William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”
 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