Numbered Lives: Kick Off Interview with Jacqueline Wernimont (Nehal El-Hadi and 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.

By Nehal El-Hadi & Jon Heggestad


To kick off the HASTAC Scholars collaborative book discussion on Professor Jacque Wernimont’s Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (MIT Press), Nehal El-Hadi and I had the unique opportunity to speak with the author both before and after reading her new book. Taking time out of the spring semester at Dartmouth College, where she is the Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities and Social Engagement as well as an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Professor Wernimont spoke with us about what we wanted to know before reading her work, what she hoped her readers would get out of it, and how she hoped the conversation might continue. Both the pre-read and post-read interviews can be read below.


“Stop Saying that Quantification is New”: An Interview by Way of Introduction

March 11, 2019


Our first interview was conducted in mid-March. Over a number of emails and a collaborative Google Doc, Professor Wernimont contextualized her work for us, providing insight as to how she framed her text and how it engaged with other recent scholarship.


Nehal El-Hadi (NE): What were the series of events that led to writing this book?

Jacqueline Wernimont (JW): In many ways this book was both the project I have wanted to do since I started graduate school and the product of institutional contexts. My doctoral program was an English literature program and I needed to be able to produce a “literary” dissertation, so while my advisors were on board with my interest in both numbers and words, the diss couldn’t look at all like this book. So my dissertation and my first book idea were really focused on the possible worlds created by both alphabetic and numeric writing. When I moved from my faculty position at Scripps College to Arizona State University, I moved into a position that was much more amenable to interdisciplinary work. I also started my tenure clock over when I moved jobs, which created a timeline in which I could start a new book project. Numbered Lives is the book I always wanted to write but I needed to be in a professional context where feminist media history of quantification could work. 

Jon Heggestad (JH): On your personal website, you write that your work looks to “long histories of media and technology.” How has that framed the scope of Numbered Lives? How does it fit into your other scholarship?

JW: The earliest reference in Numbered Lives is the classical invocation by Parnassus to “know thyself” and the book moves up through our contemporary moment, which is a really long scope. I think one of the things that I can best offer the scholarly field around human quantification and quantum devices is to point to the really long histories of some of these practices. Numbered Lives engages seriously with numbering practices from the 16th century to today, that’s 500 years of history. What I noted in my research were the ways in which early modern writers were saying things closely echoed in today’s discourse about data collection and visualization: that we needed more data, that more would equal better, and that being able to see all at once would somehow convey more truth. At the same time, while the step-counting and activity tracking existed in the early modern period, it was for really different reasons. Part of what I hope the book demonstrates is that long histories are not the same as teleologies and, at the same time, that our media inherit certain logics or habits of thought that can help us understand their operations today. 

NE: Whose work and ideas influenced or shaped the book (academic and beyond), and how?

JW: Matrices and human-techno becomings are things that I’ve learned about from feminist scholars, particularly those working in STS and Media Studies. While I’m deeply in debt to many whose work I read, I also am indebted to scholars that I spend time making and talking with—the Digital Alchemists were transformative for my thinking at a crucial moment, as has been the FemTechNet collective over a long period. Linda Bolton forever transformed my approach to creativity and critique with a course one spring. I spent days, months, years working with Jessica Rajko and Marisa Duarte while in Arizona and learned things that are tough to make an account of but that shape my work. It’s actually really hard to render an account of the people who were influential—the list is long and starts to feel like just a list as it grows. I am a thinker who does her best thinking with others, so I can say that I carry a part of those many interactions with me into all of my work, this book included. 

JH: Continuing on the topic of discourses that Numbered Lives is moving around in, are there other specific works or debates that you see your new work responding to, critiquing, or building upon?

JW: Certainly I see the book building on the great work that scholars like Kate Crawford, Deborah Lupton, Gina Neff, and Dawn Nafus are doing around quantification. There’s also a long history of science and mathematics with which I’m also engaging with more obliquely. I was really inspired by Jonathan Sawday’s work in terms of form—a kind of eclectic and wide ranging form that depends on close reading. In terms of critique, the big take-away for me from this book is that you just cannot responsibly engage the history of quantification in Anglo-American contexts without considering how the history of colonization and the theft of human lives shaped how numbers work. It’s a truism in certain circles that numbers are never neutral and I hope that Numbered Lives demonstrates the particular ways in which quantum media helped to produce racialized and gendered bodies. 

NE: In approaching this book, I’m interested in methodology, especially as related to quantification. How do you make sure everything is counted, especially with the vast amount of data?

JW: This is an interesting question. I actually don’t aspire in the book to making sure that everything is counted. I have a pretty strong critique of the idea of “complete knowledge” and so it’s not something I would aspire to on principle. But additionally, when writing about 500 years of history any effort to comprehensivity would make for pretty dull work. That said, one of the really important things that I’ve learned from Black feminist writers is that absences are not always what they seem. So rather than simply accept what traditional archives seemed to suggest – that quantum media such as mortality bills and step counters weren’t a part of black historical experience until the middle of the 20th century, I had to keep looking. So in the places where I initially seemed to find nothing, I always pushed myself to look otherwise and elsewhere. This resulted in the material of the book expanding to include ship manifests and insurances, it also meant that I spent much more time in historically black newspaper archives than I’d anticipated at the outset. In truth, that push from Collins and others to see more in the matrix made it a much better book. 

NE: After reading the text, what would you hope that readers do?

JW: Stop saying that quantification is new and/or neutral!




Putting the Numerical to Good Use: A Follow-Up Interview

April 12, 2019


With the introductory interview behind us, Nehal and I were looking forward to reading Numbered Lives for ourselves. In mid-April, a month after our first interview, we were able to reconvene with Professor Wernimont once more, this time over Skype. Digging into our favorite passages, we talked about how we saw Numbered Lives intersecting with our own work. In addition to expanding on the book itself, Professor Wernimont also previewed where future conversations might lead and offered HASTAC Scholars useful advice about how to pursue work that is relevant, appealing, and (perhaps) non-traditional.


Nehal El-Hadi (NE): Thank you so much for your time. It’s really awesome to have an opportunity to engage with your work this way.

Jon Heggestad (JH): Agreed!

Jacque Wernimont (JW): Happy to do so! Glad it works!

NE: Your book is really fascinating, and has helped me add layers to my own work on the intersections of the digital and material. Specifically the sections that address race and power.

JW: So glad to hear it’s been useful!

NE: I’ve been writing and researching about Black death and thanatosensitive human-computer interaction/design, especially in the wake of livestreams and smartphone captured video, and your work has me thinking about the numbers associated with them: how many times shared, how many views, how many bodies, etc. and the ways in which data is politicised and rendered almost useless depending on who it is being used by. I’m also looking at performing data—social mobilising to generate datasets that can produce desired outcomes and I would love to know if you have any thoughts on that? Deliberately producing numbers to influence outcomes, including policy.

JW: That’s a great question, Nehal. There’s some really great work on the circulation/economy of black death in social media and I think you’re right that there is a way in which the quantitative approach of social media is driving a lot of this. I am also really impressed with the work of the Data for Black Lives group and their articulation of data for greater justice in terms of performance. I think that there are ways that new data can tell stories that talk back to the existing number paradigms that have had this long history of squishing people with numbers.
NE: Thank you for that response. I’m specifically looking at this passage here: “The formal, epistemic, and political similarity between media that measure in order to know (how the city is doing or where the epidemic has slowed) and media that measure in order to assign value to bodies has profound consequences for our modern engagements with quantified and tabular media” (49).

JW: Yes, I think that there are ways to pull some of the power to good ends.

JH: I’m enjoying listening in on what both of you are saying! I have a few questions about the context of your work and how you position yourself as a scholar that I’d like to get to, but I’ll continue along these lines of pushing back on the number paradigms that have had history of squishing people. In the second chapter of Numbered Lives (“Counting the Dead”), you begin with an analysis of The Nicholas Shadow. It was fascinating, and it led me down a long rabbit trail of David Gurman’s work. You refer to this piece as disrupting the “normal flow of life for those who are otherwise sheltered from this particular violence” (21). I love this concept, and it’s very easy to see how Numbered Lives is doing similar work. This made me think about disruption more broadly. Do you think there are other ways to push back on the number paradigms? Is disruption the only way? The best way?

JW: I think there are ways in which we can use the numerical to speak back to power, and those might be in performance but also in political actions. I think often about how we aren’t collecting gun death data and how that has impacted US gun violence and the lack of political action. That said, I think it’s tricky. There are lots of ways in which the numerical is always going to be reductive, always violent. There are times where using numbers is potent, but we need to remain mindful of their histories. I have been working on Eugenic Rubicon, in part, particularly because it is a project in which using numbers is actually potentially more ethical after the harms that were done. But they are still abstraction and their very existence is predicated on a historical violence.

JH: This is making me think about just how complicated working with numerical data can be, even when you’re using it to correct past wrongs.

NE: In reading your book, I got to thinking about the ways in which numerical data is anonymised, de-personalised and the ways in which that can be reversed. I’m also thinking about the aesthetics and visualisations and presentations of data. And culture and numbers, the ways numbers and counting and what is important to be quantified and what is important to not be quantified or counted differ according to worldviews.

JW: Yes, I think you’re right, Nehal, that the values are not universal.

NE: And how being counted is equatable (ha!) to being considered. You end with a call for haptic aestheticization of numbers, for the production of other media, and I wonder if you’re working on projects that do this, whether creatively and personally or professionally and academically or how you reconcile those aspects?

JW: Yes, I am—although I’d suggest that I’m not calling for just haptics, etc. In the Living Net project we made data both song (so audible) and tactile, and in the Eugenic Rubicon I also have done sonification, but I have to be honest and say that it is work that is very context dependent. It works in certain space but not in others and the topic of aestheticization is an interesting and fraught one. I’ve had to step away from some projects because as a white woman people of color have said to me, “This is not yours to make art with.”

NE: Thank you for your openness. In the interest of preserving time, I think Jon has a final question for you.

JW: Great!

JH: Yes, I do! Thanks! I wanted to ask you about how you position yourself as a scholar. Now that I’ve read Numbered Lives, and I’ve seen the interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and undisciplined methods you weave throughout, I’m wondering about how you view yourself as a scholar. The deep histories that you study cross so many areas of study; have you faced any issues in others wanting you to clarify what kind of scholar you are?

JW: Oh yes!

JH: How do you approach that question? As many HASTAC scholars are in the early stages of their careers, still piecing together what their academic identities will be, what advice do you have for them regarding this idea of figuring out where they “fit” and how they see themselves in terms of their scholarship?

JW: So part of the story I tell is about my own ability to write this book. This is the project that I always wanted to do—and I couldn’t do it in an English graduate program; I couldn’t do it as an early modern literature scholar in a conservative and small department. It was only when I went to Arizona State University that I was free to write this book because ASU is a deeply interdisciplinary space and it’s such a big place that they didn’t need me to be “traditional”—it was okay there to be interdisciplinary and transhistorical. I had to spend a lot of time in the first eight years of my career only presenting parts of myself to job committees, grant agencies, colleagues etc. I really had several parallel projects/identities, and it has only been in the last three years that I’ve been able to integrate the work. I’ve done a lot of professional code-switching.

JH: That’s making a lot of sense to me. Is professional code-switching something that you think early academics need to figure out in order to move forward into the spaces that they might find more desirable? 

JW: Realistically, probably, yes.

JH: Ha. Well, if it gets us to a point where we can work on projects as interesting as yours, then I guess it will be worth it.

NE: This advice definitely struck a chord.

JH: I suppose we ought to let you go. Is there anything else that we should mention before doing so?

JW: I’m happy to answer more questions at another time if you’d like—That said, I also think this has been awesome and totally get if this is enough (academics can chat forever, I think).

JH: I do think talking forever is one of our strengths, yes. 

NE: Yes, thank you so much for your time, Jacque—it’s very appreciated. 

JW: Thank you both for your interest and work!




Special Thanks

May 9, 2019


How great would it be to have this opportunity to talk with every author as you read through their work? This process has been enlightening and rewarding, adding new layers of understanding as Nehal and my discussions with Professor Wernimont have placed Numbered Lives at new intersections and into our own current and future studies. While the book can certainly speak for itself, I found these new trajectories especially rewarding. Many thanks to Professor Wernimont and my co-interviewer Nehal El-Hadi for the engaging conversations!

For more on Jacqueline Wernimont’s Numbered Lives, you can visit the Scholars’ collaborative book discussion and Molly Mann’s final interview with Professor Wernimont.