Dempsey Lecture: N. Katherine Hayles Delivers Scholarly Talk

Tuesday, April 16, 2019post has photos

The question, "Can Computers Create Meaning?" seems simple enough. Right? But at one point of Tuesday night's Joanne T. Dempsey Memorial Lecture, given by N. Katherine Hayles, PhD, a world-renowned scholar and pioneering figure in digital humanities who was providing a Cyber/Bio/Semiotic perspective, had a difference of opinion. She questioned biosemiotics — the idea that life is based on semiosis, such as signs and codes — when discussing humans and computers.

"Here is where I depart from biosemiotics. I think biosemiotics is great, because it provides a way to think about deep questions like meaning that are not already confined to humans. It broadens the full scope of meaning-making activities, it allows us to become less anthropocentric,” she said. “But biosemiotics, from my viewpoint, has one very serious drawback — every bio semioticians I know says computers cannot create meaning. Why do they say computers are different from biological organisms? They have different arguments, but they all come down to this: computers cannot be autonomous. No computer can be autonomous. I fully acknowledge that, but they have us. They don't need to be autonomous because they have us, they have humans. So how did humans evolve? Humans evolved from simpler cognitive processes in non-human organisms. That's the only way humans could have evolved."

"Humans are here, humans are really smart, they have high cognitive capabilities. So now humans invent computers. Humans have to be autonomous to a certain extent. We have to feed ourselves to survive, but computers don't need to be autonomous because they have humans to take care of them. Humans turn on the electricity, repair them when something goes wrong, junk them when they become obsolete and so forth. Computers evolve through human technical partnerships."

Hayles, who is the James B. Duke Professor Emerita of Literature at Duke University and a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA, has published a wide array of influential texts that draw together contemporary literary theory and scientific models as a way to delve into the relations of literature, science and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her theorization of the posthuman subject, "embodiment," digital and electronic literature, and cybernetics, in particular, has garnered her critical acclaim.

Assistant Professor of English, Koonyong Kim, PhD, one of the organizers of the Dempsey Lecture and responsible for Hayles' USD visit, saw her appearance as "a great opportunity for us to share ideas regarding what key roles digital technologies have played in our everyday life and how rapid technological advancements can radically call into question our conventional ideas pertaining to humanity, humanism, reality, love, religion, gender-race-ethnicity, and nation, among others."

Hayles' talk was wide-ranging and definitely a one-night power talk for all in attendance seeking her perspectives on the topic. She also participated as a respondent during a USD digital humanities panel event, Learning from Cyborgs II, on Wednesday afternoon. Learn more about Hayles’ work at her website.

The Joanne T. Dempsey Memorial Lecture Series was created in memory of the late USD English Professor, who taught at the university from 1980 until her death in 1990. Dempsey is a graduate of Newton College of the Sacred Heart in 1968 and received her PhD in English and American Literature from Harvard University. Her dissertation was on Milton's Paradise Regained. Tuesday's lecture was presented in collaboration with the Digital Humanities Colloquia Series and was co-sponsored by the Department of English and the Humanities Center.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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