Literature & Arts

International Conference: Laboring Bodies and the Quantified Self
Saturday, 06 Oct 2018
Chair: Lisa Schwander

Clemens Spahr, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, Germany

Gary Shteyngart and the Logic of Quantification

While self-tracking has allowed us to successfully optimize performances in various branches of life, the logic of quantification has also produced undesirable results. In The Quantified Self, Deborah Lupton has argued that “[i]llness, emotional distress, lack of happiness or lack of productivity in the workplace come to be represented primarily as failures of self-control or efficiency on the part of individuals, and therefore as requiring greater or more effective individual efforts — including perhaps self-tracking regimens of increased intensity — to produce a ‘better self’” (74-5). Gary Shteyngart’s satirical, near-future dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story asks how amidst these practices of discipline and self-regiment, a form of literary imagination can still find its place. My talk will argue that Shteyngart asserts the self-making function of literary language in an age of quantification and optimization, and its ability to work through, and perhaps transcend, the logic of optimization and marketability.

Shteyngart sends his two protagonists on a quest for literary expression in a post-national, hyper-mediated world. Lenny Abramov, the novel’s skeptical protagonist, is employed as “Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation” (5), responsible for helping people attain eternal youth. Lenny’s appearance as middle-aged, slightly overweighed man is at odds with his job description and initially prevents a relationship with Eunice Park, a college student obsessed with self-monitoring. If this is an “illiterate period” (327), in which individuals are the sheer product of numbers and quantification practices, it is also a world full of writing: the novel’s characters constantly re-write their selves through their äppäräti (advanced smartphones) in order to optimize their scores in appearance, sociability, etc. Ultimately, Shteyngart does not simply mourn a lost age of literacy, but tries to re-create literary expression through the conditions of the logic a of quantification: the text in front of us, according to the author fiction added at the end of the novel, was drawn from the protagonists’ journals and e-mail accounts. It illustrates how what begins as a superficial e-mail exchange obsessed with self-optimization turns into a meaningful conversation about happiness in a digital age, and ultimately into a love story (if a super-sad one).

Dominik Steinhilber, University of Mannheim, Germany

David Foster Wallace and the Solipsism of the Quantified Self: Digitally Deformed Bodies in Infinite Jest’s Entertainment Industry

Eerily prophetic in many regards, David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, this paper argues, can be seen to discuss the all too current phenomenon of the Quantified Self. Within its wider critique of American neoliberalism as producing a culture of solipsism, Infinite Jest portrays self-optimization through quantification in the context of labor as detrimental to the formation of stable and meaningful Selfhood and deforming the laboring body.

Redefining tennis, usually a playful, non-productive activity, as a form of labor, students at Infinite Jest’s Enfield Tennis Academy are prepared for the ‘Show’, having their bodies turned into a commodity in a marketplace of spectation. Thus, training at ETA centers on practices of self-quantification. Students’ selves are exclusively understood as their body and its statistical representation in rankings, resulting in exchanges such as: “’Hey there, how are you?’ ‘Number eight this week […]’” (693). The self-objectification that prepares ETA students for their work in the entertainment industry not only defers the Self but the materialist philosophy of ETA also deforms the body, creating grotesque bodies that “look […] like a gorilla’s arm […] pasted on the body of a child” (173).

Concurrently, digit-ization in Infinite Jest’s entertainment industry also solipsizes and deforms the spectator. Thus, measuring the addictive potential of the ‘Entertainment’, a movie so effortlessly gratifying its viewers watch it until they die, the Canadian terrorists of Infinite Jest employ a macabre digit-al method, computing the statistical relation between how many digits viewers are willing to saw off to continue watching and the amount of time a viewer hesitates to do so. Digitization and self-quantification in postmodern capitalism endanger both the producer’s and the consumer’s Selfhood and body.

Infinite Jest can be seen as a literary representation of the quantified self, linking materialist notions of self-quantification to neoliberal, solipsizing logic while proposing a Wittgensteinian solution to the problems arising from such a self-objectifying, materialist and poststructuralist culture. (Artistic) work, the novel continuously linking tennis to the work of the author, should be viewed as a reciprocal interaction between subjects rather than an objectified “body in commerce with bodies” (160).

Stefanie Müller, Germany

“To be Reckoned in the Gross”: White-Collar Work and the Corporate We

Almost from the beginning of its use as a business tool in the United States, the corporation has roused fears over the power of factions in the republic and gradually, though somewhat abstractly, fears over its power of collectivizing the individual. In the 1950s and 1960s, this fear, mingled with Cold War anxieties over communist subversion, found its way into the work of American sociologists, such as C. Wright Mills’ White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1953) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (19xx). Ever since, the corporate workspace, the cubicle, has become one of the primary sites of the struggle over individualistic, autonomous selfhood – right next to the middle-class family. In Sloane Wilson’s iconic The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), for example, the protagonist’s central conflict is over satisfying the demands of a society in which the “rat race” has become a cultural imperative, while staying true to his personal morals and autonomy. As befits a story of individualism’s triumph over the demands of an organization, the narrative is close-up and personal, focalized through its single protagonist. By contrast, Joshua Ferris’ more recent novel, Then We Came to the End (2007) takes a very different narrative approach. It tells the story of a group of white-collar workers in a corporate office by using the first-person plural, “we.” Following the employees’ daily routines, squabbles, and anxieties, the novel explores life in the twenty-first cubicle not by celebrating the liberal individual, but by imagining the corporate We: the narrative mode of – as Ferris himself has explained – “annual reports, corporate brochures, […] meetings and internal memos.” Instead of an anonymous group of executives, directors, or trustees, the novel thus identifies the corporate We of neo-liberal culture with the working, laboring body of the mid-level management; instead of the middle-class self’s break for freedom, the novel imagines an unending existence within the cubicle.


Maria Verena Peters

The Female Breast for What It’s Worth

Women have been encouraged to think of their breasts in a quantified manner over and over again. This becomes obvious through various discourses formulated by the entertainment industry, the fashion industry and plastic surgery (which has also proven to be an industry) each addressing a woman’s body as commodity that gains value through breast size, shape and position: Bra-sellers have been misquoting a study (namely Wood) for the last ten years, claiming that 80-85 % of women wear the wrong bra size to make women feel insecure about their ability to quantify their own breasts. The perfect nipple, according to a survey by the Plastic Surgery group published in 2016, takes up 25-30% of the breast width. And, the number of patients requesting a size reduction of their areola has risen by 30% – most frequently, including women who have breastfed. And, among the many degrading moments of television, a particularly gruesome moment of German private television in the early 2000s stands out, when C-celebrity Nadja ab del Farrag had her augmented breasts publicly weighed…

In discourses like these, the female breast and its (re)presentations are visible proof of how much thought, time, and money a woman has to spend on her body; investments that follow the neoliberal logics of self-improvement and the entrepreneurial self.

Women who have protested against this commodification of the female body by being body-positive about breasts that do not conform to the youthful, symmetrical, white standard, have stressed that the value of their breasts lies in their functionality. That is, their signs of labour, of breastfeeding, makes them valuable. At the example of the film “Embrace” and the “’#normalizebreastfeeding”-movement, the talk will suggest that – quite paradoxically – both the dominant discourse and the rejection of it seem to agree on the valuation of the female body for its labor.