Discussion of Numbered Lives, Introduction (Jon Heggestad)

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 the introduction of Numbered Lives, Jacqueline Wernimont situates her work in a number of disciplinary frameworks, theories, and methods, while simultaneously demonstrating how and why quantum media ought to be approached humanistically. Through a “deep history” that extends from early modern England to contemporary America, Wernimont points to the many ways that human cultures have participated in practices that count lives (through censuses and death counts, pedometers and Fitbits) and how these practices of counting reflect our own understanding of who does or doesn’t count. At the root of these technologies is a desire to be counted as human and to know that we are. The history that Wernimont lays out shows the imbalances and injustices of these counting projects: “[Q]uantum media are racializing, gendering, and colonizing technologies, and their impacts vary based on the bodies with which they are entangled” (3). Thus, the history that Wernimont explores is not a uniform one, but rather one that broaches a wider range of cultures and experiences.

Wernimont’s places her unique methodology for analyzing a media history that breaks away from structures that have tended to reproduce “exclusion and inequality (12)” at the forefront of this introduction. Interdisciplinarity resides at the core of her project, with Wernimont locating her work at the intersection of “critical historiography, media archaeology, and feminist analysis” (3). She acknowledges her methodology as both transdisciplinary and “undisciplined.” Defining this latter term along the same lines as previous scholars like Christina Sharpe, Wernimont views an “undisciplined” approach as one that pushes against the racial and political imperialism at the forefront of many academic works. This justice-infused trajectory can be traced throughout the “[f]eminist, antiracist, alternative media history” that Wernimont puts forth through the rest of the chapters in Numbered Lives (4).

Peer reviewed by Rebecca Uliasz (Duke University).