#25. Not Counting
On number aversion
As Mahasiswa, I could not ignore the theatrical agendas of my own documentary conventions. I was forced to smile at the strange rituals of even my simplest empirical exercises; how different were they from Uma Adang’s “crazy” historical methods? Uma Adang spoke to me about this again and again. Once she met me on a trail, counting my paces to make a local map. Our conversation went something like this:
Uma Adang: Counting paces is a true part of the search for History, but you and I have different methods. You count each step, while I immediately know how many paces I have come when I arrive at a place. For example, I know that I am 222 paces from the last house in the settlement.
AT: Actually, I’ve counted 947 paces from that house.
Uma Adang: (With a satisfied smile) So you see, I have bigger strides.
It was irrefutable logic that could only remind me of the distinctive exoticism of my own training.
—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “From the Margins,” Cultural Anthropology 9(3):279-297
Before anything else, we want the number. How many dead? How many fleeing? How many missiles? Troops? Tanks? Women? Children? Boats? How many drowned? How many shot? Injured? Disappeared? Born in transit? How much lost? Spent? Misplaced? Stolen? How many wars? How many years?
In Draft No. 4, John McPhee describes an attitude toward figures that I suspect is secretly common among writers of fact:
In the comfortable knowledge that the fact-checking department is going to follow up behind me, I like to guess at certain names and numbers early on, while I change and re-change and listen to sentences, preferring to hear some ballpark figure or approximate date than the dissonant clink of journalistic terms: WHAT CITY, $000,000, name TK, number TK, Koming. These are forms of promissory note and a checker is expected to pay it.
The number can be slotted in anytime, and so floats away from the larger, grammatical truth of the sentence. But eventually they want to know—editors, I mean. Despite the sense that writing is somehow, in some not very explicable sense, opposed to counting, a story being one sort of knowledge, a number another. In graduate school, the novelist Ethan Canin taught me that if your short story needed dates in it, for example to locate scenes in a dense or unintuitive chronology, you’d failed. Something analogous in the essay—not the news story, the essay—that can’t proceed without statistic. Like the rule itself, the analogy is limited but has its place.
Numbers that fall into political dispute demand the most attention and are most likely to eclipse the text, the stories, the people, and all else surrounding them.
This includes (most relevantly in my work) the number of Uyghurs and other minorities detained in China’s mass internment camps, a figure that has fluctuated over the period of my reporting as more kinds of data are brought to bear on existing estimates, but which is invariably based on observable evidence: prison-like structures in Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s own public (and leaked) records, eyewitnesses, and so on. I have never seen a scholarly or even especially rigorous critique of the figure—as many as 1 million detained at the height of the internment drive in 2018—despite much posturing by the tankie left for whom all facts, lies, and distortions must fall in the service of heightening the central contradictions of American empire. The number obsesses, demands contradiction. The testimony, the firsthand witnesses—these cannot be impugned and, for deniers, must be ignored.
Politically incendiary numbers are most often those counting the dead. They include the number of Jews and others killed in the Holocaust, the number of people starved under Stalin’s collectivization campaigns (not only the Holodomor but the more obscure Kazakh famine in which perhaps one out of every three Kazakhs died, the result of the mass attempted transformation of nomad to farmer and steppe to grain field), and of course those killed during Mao’s catastrophes, particularly the Great Leap Forward, that manmade hunger apocalypse. They include the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan at the hands of U.S. interventions, the dead civilians in Vietnam and other spheres of American carnage in Southeast Asia, the dead of the Khmer Rouge and the Hutu-led Rwandan government, the dead of the opiate epidemic, the dead of Tokyo and Dresden. They include more dubious accountings, such as the “Black Book of Communism” or the unsourceable screenshots passed around social media of all those killed by the shrouded figure of “Capitalism” itself.
The Gikuyu child learned to distinguish a great variety of birds, animals, insects, trees, grasses, fruits and flowers. The ability to observe was considered very important because counting was a taboo in Gikuyu society.
—Olivia Nyembez Muchena, “An analysis of indigenous knowledge systems: Implications for agricultural extension education with particular reference to natural resource management in Zimbabwe,” pg. 59-60
Cultural beliefs may interfere with enumeration. Census-takers are familiar with the hesitation: the desire not to be known, not to be assigned a number. Some years ago, an editorial in the Daily Nation, a newspaper in Kenya, urged families not to lie to interviewers about how many children they had. The practice of dissembling in this way, the editorial stated, may have been “the result of cultural practices which forbid one from counting one’s children.” An anthropologist asked his Kenyan wife if the hypothesis made sense to her. “These people don’t want to be counted,” she said. “Counting is something you do to goats or cattle, not to humans.”
Sometimes, it is not even done to livestock. Although Roramia stockmen count their wealth in terms of branded cattle, Tim Ingol notes, few ranchers know the size of their herd and “some even go to the length of purposefully not counting them.” The revolutionary anthropologist Vladimir Bogoras insisted the Chukchi never counted their reindeer and could not even reckon in large numbers. Contemporary Sámi reindeer herders, who certainly can, nevertheless do not, as a rule, utter aloud the size of their herd, and it is considered rude in the extreme—I found out the hard way—to inquire. As it was explained to me, counting is a form of denial of faith, of investigating the gift of surfeit which nature offers up. To second-guess the tundra invites disaster.
We can expand these ideas to the counting of children without much trouble, thinking of a precarious environment where disaster always seems to strike the fortunate, knocking them down a peg. The more you have, the more you have to lose, so better not to know exactly how much that is. This includes God’s chosen children. Karaite Jews believe in no written authority other than the Tanakh itself, the books of the Torah, and among their distinct beliefs are those concerning counting their own numbers—they don’t. They follow Exodus 30:12, which equates census with plague: “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them.”
Count money, not heads, is that the workaround? Just as when searching for a minyan, you don’t count to ten (one by one without overlap as in that impossible summer-camp ice breaker), instead you have each man present recite one word of the phrase “Hoshia et amekha, u’varekh et nahalatekha, ur’em v’nas’em ad ha’olam.” (Save your nation and bless your inheritance, tend to them and raise them up, forever. Psalm 28:9.) That way, without counting, you know.
For, as Rabbi Isaac says: “It is forbidden to count Israel, even for the performance of a mitzvah.” Don’t answer the census, don’t even answer the door. The Talmudic discussion mentions another verse, Hosea 2:1: “The number of B’nei Yisrael will be like the sands of the sea which cannot be measured or counted …” Remember that God promised Abraham that his descendants would be beyond counting. Nu, you’re counting now?
The aversion may originate in the plague at the threshing floor of Araunah. In 2 Samuel 24, King David presumes, at God’s command, to hold a census, thereby transgressing by assuming the role of He who counts. Maybe. The meaning of the story is obscure, honestly hard to square for a reader living in an era of mass numeracy.
David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.
Through a prophet, God gives David three options: “Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.”
These are strange—or else ironic—enumerated punishments. Repetition suggests oral transmission, which is to say reveals the theatrical agendas of documentary conventions. Because the story has come down to us, we know that counting may bring about any number of disasters. David chooses plague. “So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died.” The dead must be alone countable, then, or else the sight of a TK was worse than the wrath of God. (The editor pounding on his desk at the Araunah Daily: “How many?”)
Finally, there is the mania for enumeration which may be explained, or at least described, in the joke about the old cowboy, always half-drunk in the saloon, who was rumored to count cattle improbably fast. A wealthy rancher heard the rumor and was skeptical. He brought the cowboy out to his pasture one spring day, a kerchief tied around the man’s head as blindfold, and made a large wager against his talents. The cowboy removed the kerchief and took in the herd at a glance. “Three-hundred and forty-two,” he said. The rancher was stunned. “That’s exactly right! How on earth do you do it?” “Easy,” the cowboy said. “I count their legs and divide by four.”
Published this month: an essay I co-wrote with Omar Sheikh Dieh for Refugees Worldwide 3, a German-language anthology of reportage. Thomas Brückner translated. Until next time.
P.S. A few searchable sources, unstandardized:
Hall, John W. “Procedures for Sampling in Villages that are Consistent with Probability Sampling.”
Ingol, Tim. Hunters, Pastoralists and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and their Transformations.
Muchena, O.N. “An analysis of indigenous knowledge systems: Implications for agricultural extension education with particular reference to natural resource management in Zimbabwe,” 59-60
Park, “Census and Censure: Sacred Threshing Floors and Counting Taboos in 2 Samuel 24.”
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. “From the Margins,” Cultural Anthropology 9(3):279-297