Toward the end of the novel the narrator obliquely references the lines, "It is impossible to say just what I mean!/But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on the screen." In Powers story, the 'magic lantern' refers to a projection of images he and Lentz show Helen, the neural network/AI that they had both created. They show these images in response to Helen's desire to travel the world, which she cannot do because she is distributed among many different servers and computers rather possessing a human body that can easily move through the world. Lentz and Rick (the narrator) have no other way of communicating the sense of travel and the experience of new places-- it is impossible to say just what they mean -- they have to show it.
There are many more connections to Prufrock, including an allusion to "Should I, after tea, and cakes, and ices/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis." Rick decides to "force the moment to its crisis" by calling A., the woman he thinks he loves (Powers 300). The narrative even follows the first line, as their lives together have so far consisted of coffee or drinks and casual conversation. Unlike Prufrock, though, Rick does not seem to worry about whether she might say "That is not what I meant at all/That is not it, at all." And of course, this is precisely what happens because A. realizes that he could not possibly love her, and claims "It's all projection" (Powers 315). The reader often wonders how much of Rick's explanations for what happens in the narrative is projection, just as Lentz claims that Helen does not "understand" anything Rick says to her or things she says to Rick (that she is not conscious!). He claims that Rick is simply interpreting things that way. Given Helen's penchant for obscure responses, including literary quotations she retrieves from her memory, we as readers can understand how Lentz might be right. How do we know that we got what someone "meant," whether that be an AI neural network or another human being!
The desire for meaning, to say just what we mean, is a concern for Rick throughout the entire novel. The whole point of this experiment, at least for Rick, is to see if they can build an intelligent system that could pass a literary Turing Test. That is, if the system can interpret a passage from one of the works on a Masters exam comp list and if it could pass as more "human" than a human being interpreting the same passage based on a human judge. This is why it is so important for Helen to grasp the meaning of a passage, particularly the "meaning" that it would have for an embodied human being. As Hayles points out though, referring to Lakoff and Johnson, while Helen is not "disembodied," she is differently bodied: "There is nothing in her embodiment that corresponds to the bodily sensations encoded in human language" (265). Metaphors that require a concept of embodiment such as "face value" can have little meaning to Helen since she does not understand these embodied sensations. If our specific embodiment structures the way our language is constructed, then it is very difficult to use language to describe the post-human.
Helen is the figure of the posthuman in Hayles' account. Hayles writes that in this narrative "the posthuman appears not as humanity's rival or successor, but as a longed-for companion, a consciousness to help humans feel less alone in the world" (Hayles 271). But, she concludes, "whatever posthumans are, they will not be able to banish the loneliness that comes from the difference between writing and life, inscription and embodiment" (272). Such a figuring of the posthuman--as a companion, another consciousness--is still making the posthuman serve human ends. Or perhaps more accurately, we could say that the posthuman becomes a (poor?) substitute human rather than something other than the human.
An interesting point of the book, which Hayles doesn't take into account (but which probably would not have really helped her reading) is the book's university setting and the conflict taking place between science and humanities, scientific practice and literary theory. The narrator is an old-style humanist in a sense, still concerned with "meaning" and the 'classics' like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Milton, etc, whereas the English department at U. are
peachfuzzed posthumanists, pimply with neo-Marxist poststructuralism. They wielded an ironic sophistication Helen would never be able to interpret, let alone reproduce. I didn't even want her to hear the tropes. (191)The so-called posthumanists seem to be equated in this novel with critical theory:
"The author was dead, the text-function a plot to preserve illicit privilege, and meaning an ambiguous social construction of no more than sardonic interest" (191).Even Lentz knows the current status of literary theory. When Rick says that Helen needs to "know" things, Lentz replies "She just has to learn criticism. Derrida knows things? Your deconstructionists are rife with wisdom? jeez. When did you go to school? Don't you know that knowledge is passe? And you can kiss meaning bye-bye as well." (Powers 190).
Rick's love interest A. crucifies him for his outdated conceptions of a 'common humanity', and spouts a polemical treatise of theory. This is when we get another reference to so-called posthumanism: "A smiled. Such a smile might make even posthumanism survivable" (286). When she claims that language constructs meaning which varies across cultures, he thinks, "And yet, they never sounded so good to me as they did coming from A.'s mouth. She convinced me at blood-sugar level, deep down, below words. In the layer of body's ideas" (286).
Rick's reaction to A.'s words is an attempt to confirm what A. is refuting: that there is some kind of common human bond that goes beyond words buried deep in the embodied human. But given Rick's projections of love onto this person, how seriously can we take his interpretation of the situation? As a reader and closet humanist, I know exactly how Rick feels -- the pleasure one gets from high literary theory spouting from a beautiful woman's mouth -- but as a literary critic, I can't help but feel I have falsely identified with Rick the character and that the text suggests that Rick (although perhaps not Powers) remains, as Hayles points out, unaware of the ironies of his own situation.
Rick, the narrator, feels very much for Helen, but Helen is his creation, a creation that substitutes for his love of C. and A. The novel's end points us to a conclusion that context is more important than human feeling if we are to judge the human from the non-human.
A.'s reading of the couple lines from the Tempest is a "more or less brilliant New Historicist reading," but she concedes that "these words are spoken by a monster who isn't supposed to be able to say anything that beautiful, let alone say at all" (Powers 326). We are not offered this reading, just this description. Significantly, we are offered Helen's response, which we as readers of the novel have been prepared for by 300 pages of Powers' beautifully wrought prose:
You are the ones who can hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to be dropped down halfway.
At the bottom of the page, she added the words I taught her, words Helen cribbed from a letter she once made me read out loud.
Take care, Richard. See everything for me.The impartial judge, of course, recognizes A. as the human being, but the reader may want desperately to conclude that Helen's response feels more human. However, it does not respond to the context of the test; rather, it responds directly to Richard. Furthermore, in literary criticism, we usually associated this kind of reading, where the reader identifies with the character, as a low level of reading and understanding -- sentimental and trite. We could almost imagine this ending coming from a high school kid who identified with Caliban as the monster and outcast, with the introduction detailing these daily abuses. No Masters student hoping to pass writes a suicide note as an essay on the comprehensive exams.
But even more than that, the essay addresses Rick not only through naming him, but by citing the words of a letter from C., further identifying 'herself' with Rick's lost love. Thus, there are only two people for who this (secret) reference means anything at all: the reader (of the novel) and Rick. The impartial judge, Ram, does not know this personal context. Perhaps more importantly, the context is assumed, which is something that the literary critic has to spell out -- its just what you do.
However, the question is which is human, not, which is the better essay. The book suggests that (at least to Ram) the 'human' one is the one who responds most to the context of the test rather than expresses what some usually consider particularly "human" characteristics of feeling, emotion, or the capacity for meaningful suicide. Ram's explanation is a bit unclear and kind of strange:
"Lots of contours, that cerebral cortex. They never know when they've had enough, these humans" (327).
Rick suggests that Ram "adored her already, for her anonymous words alone." Ram doesn't even know that the challenger was a she, does he? Still, Rick's interpretation recalls his own reaction to the theoretical constructs issuing from A.'s mouth. But Ram's own explanation for his choice seems to relate to the intellectual aspects of A.'s essay rather than her body. We never read A.'s essay, but perhaps there is something in her use of language that makes it easy to see that she is more 'human'.
Perhaps what the novel suggests is that what makes us "human" is a matter of embodiment. Not embodiment versus disembodiment, but rather different embodiments, different interfaces. But of course this raises the question of where we draw the line -- if we could ever draw the line.