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Humanist Archives: April 30, 2020, 9:02 a.m. Humanist 33.811 - on the uses of arithmetic

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 811.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2020-04-30 07:55:14+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: on the uses of arithmetic

Jacqueline Rose's "Pointing the finger"*, a review centred on Camus' The
Plague, has much more worth our attention than her thoughts on the uses
of counting, as follows, but these seem particularly relevant to what
many of us do with a machine that makes juggling numbers so compelling:

> When trying to track the spread of a virus, tallies... are always
> approximate and imperfect, but knowing this appears to make no
> difference to their quasi-sacred status. It is as if intoning numbers
> according to the same recognisable formula, however scary, allows us
> somehow to feel on top of a situation which everyone knows – and not
> just because of government incompetence – is out of our control...
> [A]t the very moment we appear to be taking the grimmest reality on
> board, we might also be deluding ourselves. Counting is at once a
> scientific endeavour and a form of magical thinking. It can be a way
> of bracing ourselves for and confronting an onslaught, and at the
> same time a doomed attempt at omnipotence, a system for classifying
> the horror and bundling it away...
> Mathematics flattens. It is a killing art. Counting humans, alive or
> dead, means you have entered a world of abstraction, the first sign
> that things have taken a desperate turn. Of course counting can also
> mean the exact opposite. If someone counts, they matter, with the
> further implication that they can be held answerable for their own
> deeds. Not to count, on the other hand, is to be overlooked or
> invisible...

Comments welcome.


*London Review of Books 42.9 for 7 May 2020, online at

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist (www.dhhumanist.org)

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