Rachel Arndt’s brilliant debut collection, Beyond Measure, explores the idea of “the quantified self," the movement which purports to grant “self-knowledge through numbers.” Overwriting any sentimentalized notion of a unique and irreducible “I,” the self as the sum of private thoughts, Arndt’s “I” is instead an assemblage of data: sleep stats, Airbnb ratings and Tinder likes, pounds weighed and sweat leaked, to-do lists and domestic routines that function like algorithms. This “I” is the circuitry of feedback loops, the precise circling currents of inputs and outputs, the “I” as digital accumulation. In the opening essay, as she attempts to cure her narcolepsy, Arndt writes: “In the sleep lab I let myself become an object . . . that is, an ‘I’ spilling data or melting into them like snow in the sudden sun of noon.”
The primary object of her measurement is time, and the ways it marks the body. Her sentences are a logician’s sentences: meticulous, complex arrangements that cut short in cul-de-sacs of small ironies (“the only way to treat a disorder is with more disorder”). They encapsulate what it’s like to live in a temporal landscape scored by the successive notches of minor improvements—where were once promised flying cars and robot servants who relieved us of labor, now we have only the latest iPhone, an object slightly sleeker, thinner, and faster but ultimately the same. (As I write this, an insistent bubble is instructing me to upgrade to High Sierra, so as to enjoy the latest technologies and refinements to your latest apps.) Change is registered as a chain of small pop-up notifications that evaporate as quickly as they appear, a process of refinement so incremental as to resemble a fixed and deathless present.
“The beauty of living this way is that the objects are simultaneously temporary—they can be exchanged often—and permanent—they can be exchanged infinitely, each time for a replacement so indistinguishable from the original that often I’ll forget how many times I’ve exchanged a thing and, eventually, that I’ve exchanged it at all,” she writes. “Replacements can happen forever, stretching into a future when I’ll swap the old for the new just to keep things the same [ . . . ] the hope for a better future replaced by the hope for one that’s exactly the same. It’s an unacceptable hope, but what else to do besides pretend and hold onto the receipt.”
We soothe ourselves with the slight fact that, in place of any substantive progress, we have, as our devices inform us, walked one step further than the day previous. When we upgrade ourselves in this way, as Arndt describes, we are adding a few weights to the exercise machine and subtracting a corresponding number of pounds; we are exchanging a broken electric toothbrush for a functioning version of the same model; we are trading one digitally divined romantic prospect for one slightly better; we are increasing the count of footsteps walked per day and decreasing those of hours slept—we are, through the streamlining of parts, making of ourselves more efficient work machines.
“The human body and not the steam engine, and not the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism,” writes the feminist scholar Silvia Federici. By this, she means that capitalism first demands a disassociation from the body, and from the rhythms of the natural world more broadly. The body—particularly the female body—becomes an object to be counted and controlled, all its mysterious and invisible workings externalized to a set of succinct and obedient numbers. And when the body is reduced to the merely mechanical—a tool to be adjusted, standardized, administered, predicted, and ultimately replaced—so much easier is its entry into the world of waged work. Proof of the total victory of this capitalist project, we no longer need to be monitored for now we effectively monitor ourselves—the kind of intimate surveillance Arndt enacts so scrupulously.
We become objects so that we may buy more objects—the feedback loop of capitalism—and Arndt’s greatest fear is to fail being productive. Falling asleep at inopportune times (“I slept incorrectly—in the wrong stages, at the wrong times, and never in any sort of restful way.”) is the reoccurring tension that runs throughout the book, like the anxious waves of a cardiogram—because sleep is the interruption of work, the bad habit of falling into dead time, the ultimate expression of non-productivity. What her obsession with measurement reveals is the fear of being an obsolete machine—a woman without a shape, a kitchen, or a schedule—out of sync and out of time.
If the job-marriage-house-child progression once provided a useful template with which to measure and configure a life, these objects have been slower to arrive and harder to obtain with each generation. What’s been called “suspended adolescence” might be better labeled “incremental adulthood,” or adulthood as a series of minor commercial upgrades—the transition, say, for a certain class of person, from a secondhand couch to an IKEA one, as the big-ticket items (child, house) remain farther out of reach. How else to announce one’s independence—and lay claim to the stability of adulthood in an age of intense precarity—than through the acquisition of small goods? Arndt inherits the family Cuisinart and replaces her broken toothbrush at Bed Bath & Beyond—in the absence of anything better, the best we can hope for. What’s more, when we attempt to optimize ourselves, tracking and harmonizing the data, we submit to the illusion of control, the fantasy that we ourselves may be objects both “temporary and permanent,” one iteration in a longer string of endless iterations, and not, as we know, finite.
by Rachel Z. Arndt
Sarabande Books, April 2018
$15.97 Softcover; IBSN: 9781946448132