My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts

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Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Reviewed Neil Easterbrook, "Mediating Intermediation," SFS #100 = 33.3 (November 2006): 517-22, our source here.

The book's main title comes from a phrase in Anne Balsamo's Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (1996). In the years before World War II, Balsamo's mother was employed to perform calculations, and such people were called "computers" [...] (Easterbrook p. 518) ***

About half the book is dedicated to an expository map of the conceptual terrain and about half to occasionally discrete readings in how such notional matters appear in select literary texts — Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (2002), Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995),[1] Stanislaw Lem's "The Mask" (1976), and Greg Egan's SUBJECTIVE COSMOLOGY series — Quarantine (1992),[2] Permutation City (1994), and Distress (1995).[3] There are also many good pages on other figures, especially those that cleverly trace an orthogonal trajectory from Henry James through Philip K. Dick to James Tiptree Jr. (p. 518)


Nominally part of a trilogy, with How We Become Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999) and Writing Machines (2001),[4][5] My Mother Was a Computer extends and revises the discussion of the earlier books, This one focuses on the conceptual and material differences of "making, storing, and transmitting" (11) speech, writing, or electronic texts, predominantly the latter two. Whether one can call digital writing a "text" is itself questioned, since the book's central conflict is that between natural language and "code" — here both shorthand for all types of binary codes that form the programming of digital computational devices and a general "synecdoche for information" (21) itself, and hence the various matters that follow from a world-view that understands information as the ontological sources and material cause of the empirical universe. (p. 517)


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Small caution: On p. 519 we get the right idea of word as thing and/or deed in mythic thinking but a misleading example in "why the ancient Hebrews wrote 'YHVH' for 'Yahweh'": This gets complicated, but such texts were written without vowels.[6] The Tetragrammaton, or "the four-letter Hebrew theonym יהוה‎ (transliterated as YHWH)," is "the name of God," or the main one and one traditionally not pronounced.[7] In addition to the works Easterbrook cites, one might see for old ideas on the power of the Word and story (māshāl), Isaac Rabinowitz's "Toward a Valid Theory of Biblical Hebrew Literature," in The Classical Tradition. Literary and Historical Studies in Honor of Harry Caplan, edited by Luitpolt Wallach (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1966): 315-28.




RDE, finishing, 4Nov22