Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 2: Counting the Dead (Rachel V. Willis)

Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 2: Counting the Dead (Rachel V. Willis)

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.

“Transactional forms for counting human bodies, whether alive or dead, are at the heart of the modern reality that tables of numbers are poor vectors for the emotional and social impact of human mortality” (22).


 “Counting the Dead,” Chapter 2 of Jacqueline Wernimont’s Numbered Lives, argues that the way we report death, by squashing an entire human life into a number, distances and detaches us from death’s reality. In an analysis of David Gurman’s 2009 art installation The Nicholas Shadow, where real-time death counts from the Iraq war prompt the ringing of a large bell, Wernimont demonstrates the powerful impact of representing death as a durational experience rather than a number. This experience permits the art installation’s participants (viewers is the wrong word here) to unpack dying and epidemiology from their usual neat containment in numbers and data.


To elaborate on this, Wernimont historicizes mortality counts, noting that our current reliance on tabular displays dates back to at least early modern England, where church parishes counted the dead as a way to commemorate generations of communities. This method of numbering the dead soon transformed into bills of mortality that became the models for counting bodies in the 18th and 19th centuries, entangling these later body counts with notions of human value and capital.


According to Wernimont, the development of ways to tabulate death in early modern Britain functioned both politically and socially. Politically, tabulating death was an innovation that offered the Crown a mediated understanding of mortality in England, especially significant in an era cycling through devastating sweeps of the plague. Socially, it provided a rational and orderly picture of death—a messy and chaotic affair. Wernimont explains that mortality bills enumerated body counts, categorizing them according to cause of death and geography. This ordering of death permitted the public to arrange their daily lives around mortality news, particularly in relation to where and when plague-infection rates were highest. The death tables therefore functioned as news (and were re-counted and presented in news media such as The London Gazette), and their representation of death through numbered, orderly columns suggested to readers their accuracy and factuality and offered a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

'The annual Bill of Mortality for London and its environs, 1665'
























Wernimont argues that the repeated, consistently-ordered reporting of mortality as tabulated data presents itself as thorough and complete but actually conceals what is being left out. There are no categories in these bills of mortality, for example, that represent the deaths (and lives) of people of color or non-Christians. As noted earlier, this is problematic because people in early modern England ordered their daily lives around such news of death, and by allowing the deaths of “relatively prosperous white Christian men” to become the measure of life in England, the mortality tables rhetorically and visually present such deaths “as a measure of all that matters” (31). Similarly, the bills of mortality and later John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations, which transformed British mortality from news into statistical science, not only leave out entire subsets of the population, they also erase the labor of poor parish women who were compensated for caring for the sick or searching the bodies of the dead to determine death’s cause.


Wernimont’s intersectional critique pushes back against the perception that death statistics are complete and fully representational. She also points out that the privilege of quantifying media initially belonged to a privileged few men who gained power and significance from it.  Although Wernimont does not elaborate much on this favoring of quantum media and those who wield it, I suggest that it resulted in highly gendered ways of knowing, privileging quantitative positivism over qualitative, situated knowledges. This is, I think, one of Wernimont’s most important points, that historicizing epistemologies reveal what the knowledge regimes we have inherited conceal—the lives, bodies, and deaths of those invisible to much of Western history.