Skip to main content

6. Conclusion: Matrix Methods for Media

Published onApr 01, 2020
6. Conclusion: Matrix Methods for Media

By sedimenting “out the world in certain kinds of ways and not others,” I have let two examples of quantum media, step and mortality tracking, settle into a space where we can look at them together in an ethical and political frame.1 I concluded each of two parts of Numbered Lives in a section at the close of chapters 3 and 5. Here I would like to briefly think across the two sections. I have argued throughout this book that looking at pedometers, mortality tables, census records, Jesuit diaries, and life writing in a single frame reveals shared structures as well as common methods that prioritize profit, oversight, and control. Quantum media enumerate human life and death; they spatialize, categorize, consider it in aggregation, and approach it as evidence. Quantum media historically have represented a small, privileged section of the population as persons valuable to the state, or after the twentieth century, as valuable to corporations and “human knowledge.” Throughout the same time, nonwhite people have been refigured by quantum media as property, depersonalized data sets to be used as “resources” or liabilities rather than as people.

Remediations are never neutral. They involve losses, additions, and transformations to both form and content; they change the ways in which we see, understand, and feel. Each remediation has certain affordances and limitations, and they enact theories of being. Using this long history of twenty-first-century practices of tracking, writing, and quantifying the self allows me to assert that the deep structure of the QS movement is fundamentally tied to the religious and early capitalist impulses of seventeenth-century life writing, the imperialist logics of early surveying practices, the raced/racializing practices of human quantification, and the gendered/gendering rhetorics of health and optimization of the nineteenth and twentith centuries. As a case study in human-techno becomings, Numbered Lives has attended to the quantification of both life and death. In this way, it demonstrates that mediations of human activity through quantification happen not simply with automation devices like the pedometer but also with textual devices through which people are able to perform both reputation and health.

Quantum media refract human behavior and bodily action as a stream of numbers. It is a highly lossy remediation that abstracts action in the world into quanta, and is situated in a late moment in liberal thought dominated by notions of personal power and agency. What began in the early modern period with the development of the personal essay and religious self-account has morphed into today’s dictum to know thyself better, which serves as the backbone of a body of literature, advertising, and personal testimony regarding the powers of self-quantification and self-tracking. What is often missed in reading the politics of self-knowledge and optimization are the racializing and gendering effects of such media. These effects serve not only patriarchal and white supremacist, colonial ideologies but also the structures and imaginaries of both the state and corporate powers that are everywhere entangled with quantum mediation. This is a long, tangled, and messy history. In many ways, it is a delight to wander through old media and think about how they work, but the stakes are high for Anglo-Americans. We have not, and currently are not, paying attention to the ways that our media have long been colonizing life and death.

Quantum mediations of death have taught us to erase the individual, and the move is so strong, so efficacious, that even spectacles like the bodies splashed across our social media are not enough to shake us loose. Numbers, even enormous ones, in carefully formalized tables may be pleasing in the sense of offering a sense of control and distance from the varied struggles of human life. Aesthetic rationalism contains and controls death, and puts the knowledge of life and death in the service of states and corporations. Quantum mediations of life have taught us to see actions as valuable in particular terms determined by outside agents, especially to see activity-as-exercise-as-health responsibility, and thus elide resistant, deviant, noncompliant activities in the giant sweep of data in an effort to produce complete and perfect knowledge. The work of aesthetic rationalism is to bring unruly living bodies under representational control, whether they are self or other. While such mediation can become absurd when it confronts individual lived experiences, it remains contained and containing in aggregation where it becomes a tool for state control and wealth accumulation. Even if individuals do appear in a way, they are not the subject of the surveillance; as the subjects of mediation and surveillance shift from individuals to large aggregated bodies—whether the body politic or body of consumers—they become a part of the engine of state and/or corporate power.

The effects and mediations in the two halves of this book should not be read as mirrors of one another. There are many differences between counting lives and deaths. But they do need one another in order to make sense, and their connections have to remain obscure to protect the sociotechnical systems that uphold quantum media. By making visible their operations, I am hoping to denaturalize the quantum mediations of our lives and deaths. As The Nicholas Shadow suggests, we need something different to grapple with our current political and historical moment; we need bells that resonate our bodies, forms that attempt to undo the distancing. This is particularly urgent in a context where marginalized people continue to fight for the double-edged right to be counted in census, health contexts, and death. We cannot simply incorporate people of color and women into mediations that have long been designed to exclude. Yet we also cannot ignore the power of the tabular account or “factual” numerical data to affect governmental, educational, and legal systems. We need to find ways to count life and death otherwise.

As one small step in what must be a much larger effort, I would like close here with a call to rematerialize data, to make it into something that one can touch, feel, own, give, share, and spend time with. We can leverage quantum mediation to make media with texture, sound, color, heft, weight, and length—media that grapple with the n-dimensionality of human experience. We work toward this in the collaborative work of the Vibrant Lives team; we send waves of vibration through our bodies hoping to unlock what aesthetic rationalism has locked away. We use quantum media in alternative configurations that allow us to engage mediation with a different ethos. I am not suggesting that we can get outside the structures and ideologies that hold sway across much of the history of quantum media but rather that we might imagine a resistant engagement that acknowledges the violence, and confronts it to imagine alternative ways of being, becoming, and dying with our media. What can the dyad of rememory and creative critique do that might not be possible otherwise? To begin, I think it can help us shift focus from abstracted and “written to embodied culture,” including enhancing the recognition of book history that texts are produced and consumed as embodied practice.2 More important to my mind, though, is the ability to take the data that derives from bodies and return it—remediated to be sure, but return it nevertheless—to the bodies from whence it came. We can create media that allow us to engage the messiness of life and death—media that would allow us to shake loose the bounded lines and cool machinery of aesthetic rationalism in order to understand life and death as more urgent, more beautiful, and more vibrant.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?