Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 2: Counting the Dead (Sarah Richardson)

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.

David Gurman’s installation, The Nicholas Shadow is a “real-time memorial” where the bell at St. Ignatius’s church would ring as a public performance marking every Iraqi civilian’s death in 2009, according to the live data. This example is how Jacqueline Wernimont  begins her chapter “Counting the Dead” which is representative of the rest of the chapter’s layout where she examines how temporal and gendered perspectives surrounding the historiography of death has been represented in public spaces.  Wernimont argues that as media technologies have evolved from “tabular forms to databases” the respect for human life and death is represented differently dependent on the time, space, gender, and race.  

She begins the historiography by discussing the number of deaths recorded in London newspapers and the reasons why the death occurred. As time progressed, only the amount of deaths were listed with the reasons of death only addressing cultural and popular fears and concerns, such as those who died from the plague. In 1662 John Graunt shifted how deaths were recorded as he “heralded […] the first text in demographic and human statistical sciences” (34) so that the social status and political affiliations determined the prestige one’s death would receive in media. Wernimont uses Graunt’s work as a transition into marginalization associated around death. She addresses the marginalized demographics such as women and slaves (in regard to immigrants in Europe and African Americans in the United States) that have become erasures in quantum media. An unnamed woman who “’hanged herself at St Savior’s South-wark’”(36) is Wernimont’s primary example of erasure’s happening with newspapers as a representation of bio-politics taking the humanity out of death. She wonders who this woman was, what her life was like, what she must have experienced or was thinking: “Did she feel so erased by misogyny (and perhaps also racial or religious discrimination) that hanging herself in a church was a viable way to ensure that she counted—somewhere, even if only in a death record” (37-8)? Graunt’s argument of how death was recorded for the public becomes politicized in how much and whose information is recorded and shared; and unfortunately minorities became erasures in a political game where the majority of society were casualties.

 “Counting the Dead’s” chapter discusses the different types of quantum media such as “bills of mortality” in newspapers, online databases,  and “real-time memorials” where we witness the evolution of media technology; Wernimont takes this technology a step further by discussing how “three-dimensional textiles and other forms of visual representation to accomplish many of the same goals” (43) of counting death throughout history. By counting death we are able to map “a clear set of relationships between measuring bodies and counting deaths at both the individual and community levels, bringing us to the ways in which colonial counting an war casualty accounts are informing twenty-first century quantum mediations of black and brown lives” (49). Wernimont is suggesting that by viewing these lists of recorded deaths, we are able to view the erasures, and demonstrate how people have been historically marginalized, even after death. This chapter lays the foundation for how deaths are represented in media, and how cultural adaptations are reflected through technological advances, but recognizes how the dominant narratives overshadow individual identities that have been marginalized.

This post was peer reviewed by HASTAC Scholar Sarah Ciston