Review: Evelyn Fox Keller

(ISIS, 100 : 3, 2009, 692-3)

Becoming Beside Ourselves has all the brilliance
we have come to expect from Brian Rotman,
and the introductory preface by Tim Lenoir provides
a superb overview. The book is bold,
imaginative, and deeply original—as provocative
as it is evocative; it clearly deserves to be
read by many. Its central argument is that “any
act of self-enunciation is medium specific” (p.
xxxiii); hence the need to distinguish between
the “I” of gestural self-pointing, of spoken language,
of alphabetic writing, and of the digitally
enabled network technology capable of representing
gestural and haptic modes of communication.
The last, of course, is of most pressing
interest to us: our interaction with these latest
technological innovations, fast becoming our
primary medium of communication, is once
again transforming the meaning of “I.” Indeed,
it is this transformation that is the main focus of
Rotman’s newest work, the third in a trilogy on
the semiotics of subjectivity.
Our engagement with computers puts to rest
many of our most time-honored verities, transgressing
not only the boundary between mind
and machine but, Rotman claims, also that between
self and other: “Now the ‘I’ bleeds out
toward the collective, which in turn introjects,
insinuates, and internalizes itself as a fold in the
public, the historical, the social” (p. xxviii). So too
is the illusion of a unitary self put to rest, with the
old idea of mind replaced by the notion of a society
of minds: “Such an ‘I’ is plural and distributed, . . .
it is internally heterogeneous and multiple, . . .
performing and forming itself through many actions
and perceptions at once. . . . In short, a subject
becoming beside itself, plural, transalphabetic,
derived from and spread over multiple sites of
agency, a self going parallel: a para-self” (p. 9).
Finally (although Rotman has less to say about
this), what Terrence Deacon and Merlin Donald
argue happened with writing will also happen with
digital networking: this experience too will, over
the course of evolution, inevitably change our
brains and, in the process, make possible the emergence
of yet newer capacities.
Some of Rotman’s conclusions up to this
point echo themes familiar from a number of
other contemporary authors writing (albeit from
rather different perspectives) about the transformations
in the meaning of selfhood that we are
now witnessing. But his next step seems (at least
to me) almost entirely new: he seeks to examine
the “invisible, technologically induced agencies
that emerge . . . as autonomous self-enunciating
entities” (p. 113)—“ghost effects,” in short.
The “ghost effects” that symbolic language
brought into existence are to be found in the world
of absent, invisible, and even impossible things.
Here Rotman quotes Deacon: “The symbolic representation
of self provides a perspective on that
curious human intuition that our minds are somehow
independent of our bodies; . . . beliefs about
disembodied spirits and souls that persist beyond
death” (p. 116). Rotman, however, attributes the
arrival of our full-blown Dei de Machina—that is,
of God, Mind, and Infinity—to writing. From its
very beginning, writing allowed its imagined and
disembodied objects to designate themselves as
subjects, endowed them with voice and agency
even though they are not themselves thinking, living
beings. Writing made possible what he calls
“virtual speech,” “speech outside the human” spoken
by virtual agents. The figures of God, Mind,
and Infinity are primary among these “hypostatizations
of the ‘I’-effects,” for they shape the way
we think about thought, about being, and about
mathematics.
But when it comes to the future ghosts that
the networked “I” will call into being, Rotman’s
imagination falters. It is simply too early. We
can articulate the properties of the new psyche
(“at once porous, heterotopic, distributed and
pluralized” [p. 134]), but the ghost effects it will
summon can take the stage only when the medium
has become fully naturalized, when its
“role in [the psyche’s] birth has been effaced”
(p. 136). It thus seems that the task of describing
these effects must be left for Rotman’s readers
to carry out in the future.
EVELYN FOX KELLER

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