Theorizing the Quantified Self: Self-Knowledge and Posthumanist Agency in Contemporary US-American Literature

by Stefan Danter, Ulfried Reichardt and Regina Schober

In our paper we will examine the cultural implications of the quentified self technology and analyse how contemporary US-American novels reflect and comment on the qualitative changes of the human condition against the backdrop of an interpretive dominance held by the natural and social sciences as well as the changes effected by quantitative methods. Moreover, we will investigate some historical and cultural continuities of the quantified self within US-American culture. We claim that, although the quantified self is a global phenomenon, it has emerged from a model of subjectivity which has been deeply engrained in American culture at least since Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1791), and which emphasises individualism, economic self-optimisation, and a techno-euphoric belief in progress, self-control, and self-possession. In this context, the quantified self can be connected to theoretical discourses of 1) economy-driven subjectivity, 2) posthumanism and 3) knowledge cultures of the information age. Drawing on Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010), we will map forms and functions of literary engagements with various manifestations of the quantified self in relation to the cross-dependencies between distributed agency, potentials and the limits of knowledge systems, and economic mechanisms. As critical systems of second-order observations, fictional texts reflect on the repercussions of practices related to numerical self-description. At the same time, they constitute epistemological counter models to the relational, modular, and combinatory logic of the database (Manovich 2001; Hayles 1999), by focusing on the qualitative dimension of human experience and thus (re-)inscribing human agency into these “technologies of the self” (Foucault 1984).

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Stefan Danter, Ulfried Reichardt and Regina Schober. “Theorizing the Quantified Self: Self-Knowledge and Posthumanist Agency in Contemporary US-American Literature.” Quantified Selves / Statistic Bodies. Special Issue of Digital Culture and Society. Ed. Pablo Abend & Mathias Fuchs. 2.1 (2016): 53-70.