N. Katherine Hayles is known for breaking new ground at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities. In Unthought, she once again bridges disciplines by revealing how we think without thinking—how we use cognitive processes that are inaccessible to consciousness yet necessary for it to function.
Marshalling fresh insights from neuroscience, cognitive science, cognitive biology, and literature, Hayles expands our understanding of cognition and demonstrates that it involves more than consciousness alone. Cognition, as Hayles defines it, is applicable not only to nonconscious processes in humans but to all forms of life, including unicellular organisms and plants. Startlingly, she also shows that cognition operates in the sophisticated information-processing abilities of technical systems: when humans and cognitive technical systems interact, they form “cognitive assemblages”—as found in urban traffic control, drones, and the trading algorithms of finance capital, for instance—and these assemblages are transforming life on earth. The result is what Hayles calls a “planetary cognitive ecology,” which includes both human and technical actors and which poses urgent questions to humanists and social scientists alike.
At a time when scientific and technological advances are bringing far-reaching aspects of cognition into the public eye, Unthought reflects deeply on our contemporary situation and moves us toward a more sustainable and flourishing environment for all beings.
“Traditionally, we have associated cognition with consciousness and hence only with human beings. Unthought provides evidence from neuroscience, literary studies, economics, urban planning, robotics, computer science, and other fields to demonstrate that this narrow view is not only restrictive but dangerous. Hayles shows that if we think of cognition as pattern recognition and the capacity to respond to environmental changes, then most living things and many technical devices are cognizers. This cutting-edge, one-of-a-kind book offers a model of how to mediate between science and philosophy in an intelligent and respectful way.”
— Laura Otis, author of Rethinking Thought: Inside the Minds of Creative Scientists and Artists
“Hayles breaks with anthropocentric views of cognition with a framework that enmeshes biological and technical cognition. On offer here is a paradigm shift in how we think in relation to planetary cognitive ecologies, how we analyze the operations and ethical implications of human-technical assemblages, and how we imagine the role that the humanities can and should play in assessing these effects.”
— Tim Lenoir, coauthor of The Military-Entertainment Complex
“No one has done more to integrate the two cultures than Katherine Hayles, and this volume is truly a signature achievement. Here she rethinks cognition, building an intricate theoretical assemblage that includes the new materialisms, neuroscience, and cognitive biology and opens up her recent analyses of ‘how we think’ to an entire planetary cognitive ecology that is as expansive as it is technically precise. It is also, importantly, deeply ethical, at a moment when the stakes for the humanities, and the world, are particularly high. Unthought marks a brilliant addition to Hayles’s astonishing corpus—and it is surely destined to become part of our conscious and critical thought.”
— Rita Raley, author of Tactical Media
About the Author:
N. Katherine Hayles is a postmodern literary critic and the James B. Duke Professor of Literature at Duke University.