Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 3: We Don’t Do Body Counts (Ashley Hemm)

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.

           Wernimont closes the first section of Numbered Lives with “We Don’t Do Body Counts,” moving past mortality counts and casualty media to examine, instead, the ways we remediate death, life, and the potentiality of each. Through colonial manifests, early insurance documents, and the American census, Wernimont draws a sharp line through American history, tracing the pervasive influence of quantum media upon nation-building. Wernimont first examines colonial shipping manifests, and the ways in which living bodies were quantified by the English state, “creating a media ecology that remediated people in terms of value within the colonial enterprise” (54). Key to this chapter is the different ways in which white, black, and brown bodies were counted and recorded in colonial ledgers. White freemen were remediated as investors, while white servants and emigres were assets to the crown. To be white was to be counted, while to be brown or black was to be “invisible or insured as another man’s property” (57). Wernimont’s skillful transition to early modern ethical concerns over reducing people to insurable bodies (or merchandise) to her larger project is particularly salient.

            Wernimont transitions from quantum maritime media to an exploration of the United States census, its iterations over the past two centuries, and its tendency not merely to report statistics but to create categories for differing bodies as part of “an emergent national political imaginary” (66). Much like mortality reports, the U.S. census is designed to “mediate real-time and ex post facto experiences of epidemic disease within national and/or state contexts” (64). The census is used to define racialized bodies, yet its categories also show the federal government’s interest in other definitions of its citizens. Data from the 1940 census shows “a national interest in the martial and reproductive status of its female citizens”; by combining disabled, impoverished, and criminals into one category, the 1850 census displays a historical foundation for the “structural biases that criminalized poverty and disability” (70).

            The chapter closes with a return to death, through the census as well as digital mortality registers such as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Wernimont examines the shifts in genre, format, and audience of morbidity reports as part of a larger argument threaded throughout the text as a whole: that “reporting structures may privilege the deaths of certain people over others” (80). Briefly alluded to, as well, is the concept of visualization, and our increasing reliance upon graphs and maps to interpret mediation and population data; Wernimont wisely notes that such a topic deserves its own full history. Both the text as a whole and this chapter are filled with renewed looks at terms which seem familiar at first glance. “We Don’t Do Body Counts” opens with a look at “adventure,” a term historically associated with monetary investments, or ventures, but which now means something else entirely. So, too, is the word “remembrance,” and the concept of remembering itself, which has historically been linked to counting. Through the role of the remembrancer, an early modern English position first described in the twelfth century, in which individuals would record and pursue debts both to the Crown and to the royal treasury. Wernimont connects this to the Church as well, as remembrancers appear in Isaiah as “biblical watchmen” (83). Remembrancers, thus, collected both financial and spiritual debts. Wernimont closes by placing remembrance in contrast to Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory, with the latter as a positive example of living, “of techno-human becoming,” rather than state-reinforced quantifying (85).