What Counts as a Valuable Body (Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 5, by Sarah Ciston)

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.

In “From Surveying Land to Surveilling Man,” Numbered Lives connects the tracking of land and bodies at the level of nation-state to the personal tracking devices and data practices more familiar now. From land parcels and slave trading to step-tracking and surveillance, Jacqueline Wernimont shows not only how bodily experience is managed, limited, and co-created by these technologies; but also how they are laced with histories of colonial territories, and the moral and economic evaluations that mark gendered and racialized bodies. She argues that, while analog tracking practices once allowed women and nonbinary users to adapt the tools for their purposes (e.g. diary keeping with pen and pencil could take many forms to serve divergent goals), digital devices and interfaces leave little room to deviate from the masculinized prescriptions and restrictions on what counts as a valuable body and how a body comes to be valued.

Under the deceptive directive to “know thyself,” first nation-states and now corporate interests represent and regulate that self, extracting data and selling it back. Wernimont traces how quantum (countable) media help naturalize the messaging they carry while neutralizing any viewpoints that fall outside the scope they create—despite the fact that 10,000 steps per day has not always been the goal of pedometer use and that many users do not fit the white, affluent, self-focused, health-oriented, safe, masculine user that quantum media often presume. She also distinguishes between voluntary tracking for oneself (still fraught with corporate data usage issues) and the involuntary tracking conducted first by slave owners then by carceral systems that ascribe value to and extract value from bodies in different ways—from displays of class status to surveillance, labor, and exploitation.

In short, the chapter provides useful historical context to situate and denaturalize the data, devices, and behaviors of self-tracking and the specific subjectivities they co-produce. It unravels threads across race, class, and gender embedded in these media objects and in the embodied experiences of their use, calling for new relations in our modes of accounting for ourselves and each other.

With thanks to peer reviewer Sarah Richardson.