UCLA Spotlight


Katherine Hayles, Computer-Based Literature

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Nov 1, 2001 8:00 AM

Katherine Hayles, Computer-Based Literature

Choose one path, and the Midwestern postman's daughter with a flair for science becomes a Caltech-trained chemist.

Choose another path, and the lifelong voracious reader becomes a champion of avant-garde literature.

But while Hayles may be a creature of cyberspace, the chemist-cum-English professor is not a fictional character, but a real person - or, as she'd say, "posthuman." And UCLA is all the better for it.

The prominent scholar and critic recently persuaded the premier professional organization in her field - the Electronic Literature Organization - to move its headquarters to UCLA. In addition, Hayles was recently named associate vice chancellor for research for the humanities and performing arts.

Hayles is also part of the trio launching UCLA's interdisciplinary center on digital media. On that project she works with her husband, Nicholas Gessler, a special-projects coordinator for the Center for Digital Humanities, and the chair of Design | Media, Victoria Vesna. The Center for Social Interfaces and Networks, Advanced Programmable Simulations and Environments, or SINAPSE, will bring together faculty in literature, art and nanotechnology.

"Electronic literature is still in its infancy, but I think it's going to be a major part of 21st-century literature, and I'd like to see UCLA become a major player," she says.

If anyone can make that happen, it's Hayles, one of the nation's first professors to teach the nascent genre that progresses not in sequential pages, but through endlessly linked computer screens, often supplemented with audio and video. Provided with the ability to choose from so many different paths, each reader emerges with a unique experience.

Professors from across the country have flocked to three separate offerings of Hayles' National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored course on the new genre. Among other things, she teaches how to manage a class in which each student is effectively reading a different piece of literature.

For UCLA students, Hayles teaches courses in science fiction as well as electronic literature.

"Science fiction has many failings as literature, but it is one of the only forms of contemporary literature where you can find a credible discussion of science and technology, which are the most important forces shaping the world," Hayles says.

Encouraged by her Sputnik-era teachers to embrace science, she was working as a chemist for a manufacturer of scientific instruments in the late '60s, but felt something wasn't right.

"I kept wanting to ask larger questions than a working scientist is allowed to ask," Hayles recalls. "The consistent question was: What does it all mean?"

So she turned to her second love: literature. Today Hayles writes about links between science and the humanities, from the striking similarities between quantum physics and linguistic theory to the growing influence that electronic literature is having on traditional print genres.

Her critically acclaimed 1999 book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (University of Chicago Press), was hailed by the Village Voice as one of the 25 best books of the year. It argues that contemporary society's dependence on computer technology has caused humans to evolve into "posthumans."

"Increasingly," Hayles says, "we feel like we need intelligent machines to fully realize our humanity."