Hayles, N. Katherine, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

N. Katherine Hayles, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) 272 pp. 1 Halftone. $24.00 Pb. $72.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226447742

N. Katherine Hayles’s latest book offers plenty of food for thought, but this volume’s major contribution is actually her positing of an even greater yet simultaneous abundance of food for unthought. The full stop is correct, and the foregoing is not a truncated sentence, because ‘unthought’ in Hayles’s parlance is not an adjective but a noun, synonymous with what she calls ‘nonconscious cognition’ (or ‘the cognitive nonconscious’ of her subtitle, depending upon context).

A seeming contradiction in terms, nonconscious cognition is the key concept here, and indeed her somewhat provocative title immediately initiates the reader into a discussion on the unobvious differences, according to Hayles, between thought, consciousness and cognition. Opening by clearly distinguishing between thought and unthought and so laying down some terminological foundations, it is curious that the rest of the book proceeds without a single further use of the titular word ‘unthought’ past page 1. Eye-catching and unthought-provoking as it is, one hopes the term might be resuscitated and even played with elsewhere in future, so as to fulfil its poetical and critical potential beyond that of a mere buzzword-like marketing strategy.

Nevertheless, Hayles’s take on nonconscious cognition has important connotations for humanistic endeavour, such as its central activity of reading itself, but the major thrust of at least three quarters of Unthought is to insist that the cognitive nonconscious extends beyond human cognition. Functioning at a nonconscious level, Hayles’s portrayal of this type of cognition is aimed at a more ‘accurate view of human cognitive ecology that opens it to comparison with other biological cognizers on the one hand and on the other to the cognitive capabilities of technical systems’ (11). For example, many machines and animals, though not conscious, have some similar cognitive capacities to humans, and indeed all form cognitive systems in combination with each other, as part of the ‘ecology’ Hayles mentions.

Deprivileging the human in this global cognitive equation is very much the order of the day here, and in her first chapter proper Hayles carefully covers theories and advances in neuroscience, cognitive biology, posthuman studies, robotics, AI and the digital humanities to re-equilibrate things. However, she is cautious to emphasize that nonconscious cognition interacts with consciousness in such a way that an ethical imperative is still in play for humans, and chapters 2 and 3 show how recognizing this can usefully refocus and reinvigorate debates in speculative realism, consciousness studies and the new materialisms.

The first four chapters together comprise Part 1 of 2, this first larger subdivision titled ‘The Cognitive Nonconscious and the Costs of Consciousness’. It is specifically in chapter 4 that Hayles really flexes her muscles, brilliantly following her theoretical build-up by honing in on said ‘costs of consciousness’ in a two-pronged, interwoven and fascinating close reading of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) and Peter Watts’s Blindsight (2006), works which call ‘attention to the crucial role of nonconscious processes in supporting normal human behaviour and the inability of consciousness, stripped of these resources, to carry on as if nothing had happened’ (86). Building on the anti-anthropocentric thread woven through earlier sections of the book, yet maintaining the changed rather than diminished role for human consciousness in her new picture, Hayles evocatively concludes: ‘Whether consciousness is a crown or a burden, or both together, must be reevaulated in [the] larger context of planetary cognitive ecology – and perhaps beyond planetary as well’ (111).

As per its title, Part 2 of Unthought turns focus from the cognitive nonconscious to what Hayles terms ‘Cognitive Assemblages’. Having extensively described how her framework pertains to individual cognizers, the four chapters of Part 2 go on to consider theoretical stances of people such as Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze, and then to describe how cognition works across and between cognizers (specifically humans and technical systems), each dynamically affecting the next as well as being reciprocally affected in what is essentially the interactive, systemic aspect of nonconscious cognition. Hayles also begins to amplify her consideration of her theories’ ethical and political ramifications.

In this vein, Hayles’s analysis once again peaks with the close reading of a work of fiction, this time Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), wherein she claims that ‘cognitive assemblages are inherently political. Comprised of human-technical interfaces, multiple levels of interpretation with associated choices, and diverse kinds of information flows, they are infused with social-technological-cultural-economic practices that instantiate and negotiate between different kinds of powers, stakeholders, and modes of cognition’ (178). Lucid but risky – positing parallels between cognition and such far-flung concepts as racial tension, the supernatural and even the obscure world of elevator maintenance – Hayles’s analysis of Whitehead’s novel is daring and engaging.

However, the preceding chapter, with its ostensibly engrossing topic of how the incredible speed of technical cognizers associated with the world of financial trading modifies (and is thus modified) by human cognizers, is less successful. In essence, there is nothing much wrong with Hayles’s reasoning, but the irony is that in this chapter focused on temporality and its crucial role in nonconscious cognition, the jargonistic argument is built up too quickly, making it difficult for the uninitiated (amongst whom I confess I must include myself) to properly follow what is still undoubtedly an important, illuminating section. Indeed, the whole of Part 2 of Unthought feels like it could have done with extra pages for Hayles’s overall point to be made.

The impassioned conclusion to this book and its heartfelt yet well-reasoned and persuasive plea for greater attention to the cognitive nonconscious in the humanities – whether digital or otherwise – manages to return to Hayles’s powerful but concise explicatory style just in time to hammer said overall point home, despite the slight dash to the finishing line. This is encapsulated in the following: ‘If contemporary cultures in developed societies are presently undergoing systemic transformations that are profoundly changing planetary cognitive ecologies . . . , then the humanities should and must be centrally involved in analysing, interpreting, and understanding the implications. Anything less is a disservice to their missions – and to the world’ (216). Notwithstanding the minor shortcomings mentioned above, this feels like a potentially game-changing set of theories, which, even if unable to do so solely in the limited space given in Unthought itself, may well end up having ‘implications’ for the humanities as well as ‘the world’.

Romén Reyes-Pechl, University of Kent