Discussion of Numbered Lives, Introduction and Conclusion (Rebecca Uliasz)

This post is part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Discussion on Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (MIT Press, 2018), by HASTAC Co-Director Jacqueline Wernimont.

An accessible and elegant read, Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media stakes out an ethical engagement with media history, plunging into deep time in order to offer new insight into the discursive effects of quantification in contemporary techno-capitalism. In her first monograph, published with MIT Press’s Media Origins series in 2019, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies scholar Jacqueline Wernimont conducts a historically grounded theoretical account of media used to quantify life and death within past and present Anglo-European cultures. Wernimont introduces a key term—  quantum media, or “media that count, quantify, or enumerate”— that, in the midst of societal factors, shape cultural values, and in turn produce Western subject positions. (Wernimont 1).

Wernimont’s analysis is pointedly feminist and intersectional— she takes mediation as a process (rather than an object) that produces subjectivities, constantly renegotiating the social strucutures of race, class and gender. In her historical tableaus,  media such as “mortality bills, devotional essays, mechanical and digital step counters, slave insurance policies, plantation ledgers, and modern census media” (Wernimont 11) produce “temporary stabilizations”, or distinct categorical frameworks like subject, object, nation, and citizen, within fluid and dynamic milieus. Through techniques of measurement and quantification, quantum media create self-rationalizing value structures that inscribe racial, gendered, and colonial logics on the bodies of social and political subjects. She employs what she describes as “strategic formalism” of quantum media, with a specific focus on the formal properties of technologies of two varieties: death counting and activity tracking. Her approach leads her to search for the relatively stable transhistorical forms mortality tables and activity trackers have taken in order to draw comparative analyses of quantum media as it has been deployed within western capitalism.

Her methods draw heavily from the Foucauldian discourse analysis common to German media studies to map two sections—the first, a study of quantum mediation of human death (necropolitics) and second, the quantum mediation of human life (biopolitics)— in their contexts across the periods of early modern Europe and modern American culture. Quantum media, in her twofold account of life and death, fuse government and capitalist interests irreversibly together in Anglo-American history. Quantum media enumerate bodies through their sublime powers of aesthetic rationalism, replacing subjecthood with quantitative value that is derived from the capture of the movement of a body in space. Quantum media are also a technique of biopolitical regulation that are leveraged by sovereign nation states in order to exercise power over life and death. Life and death cannot be discounted outside of the value structures that give them form.

Wernimont’s account of quantum media is succinct and refreshing, particularly for her pointed critique of media theory’s tendency to erase feminist concerns of intersectionality and social matrices of power. Moreover, her use of the discourse analysis methodology to critique power structures bolsters her claims that there is value in observing the “deep time” of quantum media as it has lent itself to the perpetuation of racism, sexism, and capitalist values. Wernimont’s text might lead one to make connections to the way that digital quantum media enable amplified forms of mass surveillance and big data analytics that allow for the propagation of bias against marked bodies through contemporary predatory practices, such as predictive policing and drone warfare targeting. Her book is a necessary feminist intervention into the field of media studies, exposing histories that have remained unnaccounted for in Western academic discourse.

This post was peer reviewed by Jon Heggestad.