The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.2 (Spring 2008)
technology and ethics
scene from The Prisoner (1968)
The Tyranny of Numbers
John Matthew Fox
Anorexics and bulimics are excellent at rudimentary mathematics. They practice adding and subtracting sums all day long, whenever eating or contemplating eating. To their eyes, a buffet line is an abacus, and the goal is to maneuver through by selecting the foods that will add up the fewest number of beads. The anorexic must add calories and fat, then subtract the calories burned during the hour-and-a-half gym workout; the bulimic fastidiously counts calories while restricting, then after purging discounts the food excreted with the help of laxatives or vomited with the help of fingers. Every day is an equation to be solved. Every day the ceiling number of caloric intake hangs overhead like Damocles’ sword; and when the welter of adding and subtracting subsides, an underbidding of that number signals the hair’s sufficiency for the time being.
To accomplish all these equations, the eating-disordered first perform an act of transubstantiation. In their presence, every morsel transforms to a numeral. The fork bites into the steamed white rice and comes away with a chunk poised on the edge of the tines; before it’s raised to the mouth, it fades into a blocky 15. A spoon plunges into a plain baked potato, and when it surfaces in a cloud of steam, the number 20 appears, moist and hot. Their faith matches that of the priest, confident that the Eucharist is not food.
Not only does everything entering their body have to be transformed into numbers, but also everything leaving. Numbers go in and numbers pass out, and the difference between the two equals their body. Among the eating-disordered, exercise on machines is preferable to running in a neighborhood or swimming in a pool, because then their expenditure is not in incalculable terms, but certified to the nth degree on the digital display of a cardiovascular machine. Every watt of energy expended must be assigned a number, or else the sum of their body grows hazy.
Vomit and defecation also change into numbers. Bulimics gauge their vomit or their feces. If they don’t discharge enough, an additional finger or pill will help expunge the recalcitrant numbers. Laxatives are the henchmen of the number world; they hunker down and muscle out the stray number of a cookie eaten at a Christmas party binge or the slice of cake eaten in a moment of frailty. Wrapping the chunks and fluids in a number is the only way to guard against the disgusting nature of daily vomiting or diarrhea. The number protects: mathematics keeps the disorderliness of bodies at bay.
Not only external items but also their own bodies turn into numbers for the eating-disordered. They cannot see their bodies in a mirror. A 5’4” girl will weigh ninety pounds and complain about her fat jiggling when she walks—what she sees is not her thighs, breasts, arms, but a loose integer dangling beside her thigh. The scale superimposes numbers over her silhouette, which shields her from sensory data. The visuals of the situation—the appearance—mean nothing next to the totalitarian power of mathematics. The length of the dial swing or the composition of the red bars legislates self-image for the day. The eating-disordered walk about imagining themselves as a stack of numbers, and the identity of those numbers determines whether they contract like a corset or bulge like a barrel.
Without the scale to translate bodies into numbers, the epic mathematical struggle would fizzle. The scale is the deity of the eating-disordered, it is the patron saint, it is the icon. The scale bridges the world of the physical and the divine, bringing the numerical to mankind like Prometheus bringing fire down from the gods. The scale also resembles the Old Testament avatar of God, a deity both loved and feared: they cannot function without its sagacity, but fear every approach to its throne.
Psychologists ask eating-disorder patients to discipline themselves by refraining from weighing themselves for a week or two, and the tension grows unbearable because their image fades like a departing ghost. They clutch upon the most recent number; but when their conception of self becomes so faint that they have no idea what they look like, the desire to find their numbered identity overwhelms them and they return to their lover and enemy, the scale. Clinics that specialize in treating disorders, both in-patient and out-patient programs, ask them to step on the scale backwards, so the technician can read the number but they cannot. The given reason is so that they may not try to alter their behavior in response to weight gain (squirreling away food, refusing to eat, secretly exercising), but the underlying reason is so that they may begin to develop a self-image independent of a number.
This substitution of body image for numbers is scarily reminiscent of detainment facilities: the tattooed numbers of the Nazi concentration camps, the sewn numerals on prison garb. The similarity of using a number for identity is not an accident—those using a scale to assign themselves a numbered identity long for the security of a confined and controlled situation like an internment camp or prison. They want to embrace the rigorous schedule and rigid confines of a stable institution, and to avoid dealing with the linguistic complexities that a name confers. Jean Valjean offers such a slippery identity compared to the certitude of 24601.
What is shocking about these acrobatic feats of mathematics is not their abnormality, but their correspondence to our society at large. Eating disorders are a solar flare on the sunscape of our culture—they seem abnormal because they depart from the mean, but they rise from like kind. The epidemic of eating disorders reveals the broader cultural mistake of mathematizing the body and food, an activity so ingrained within the popular psyche that despite its ubiquity (or because of it), it is invisible.
It is considered normal to live in a land where every item of food has a rectangular bunker of numbers affixed to it, numbers that pretend to represent the essence of that food: 30 grams fat, 18 saturated fats, 140 calories, 10 grams sodium. Every package also has a bar code, a coded numbered identity. Beyond the packaging itself, a grocery store is a mob of numbers flashing a deal for $4.99 or a 2-for-1 special. Most people even cook by way of numbers, assiduously following the instructions for 2 ½ cups or 4 teaspoons. But many individuals don’t reach the recipe stage of food—they eat flash-food from fast food joints or microwave-ready boxed food, both of which promise culinary pleasures on the basis of math: quarter-pound hamburger for $2.99, now with 2 patties, 30% more fries. As food metamorphoses into a numeral, it loses all relationship to essence or quality; and although a number cannot satisfy in the same manner as food can, we readily accept this change because numbers give us a security that our palates cannot. If food does not have a number, many are stumped. How can one cook a recipe without numbers? And how can one know what to buy? When people masquerade as “healthy consumers” by constantly checking the caloric and fat numbers on their food, they are actually revealing their deep ambivalence and bewilderment about culinary affairs. A number confirms their choice. It’s the mechanized chef, able to govern their gastronomic concerns with rigid precision. Of course this is the right package of stir-fry vegetables—it has only 50 grams of sodium and 15 grams of saturated fats. More importantly, by checking the nutritional numbers, shopper-cooks are revealing a complete lack of trust in any specific historical tradition of food—a tradition such as Italian or French—and throwing their faith upon the mythology of food created by food corporations, a myth that provides a new and utterly malleable way of seeing food.
Ultimately, when food becomes only numbers, the eaters become only consumers, and forget the history of the food. Numbers are abstract, rising from the immaterial, and have no relationship with other people, times, or places, while food has a concrete history: it was planted by someone, in a specific place, and cultivated using particular techniques; it was subject to weather conditions and its sale was determined by economic factors; it was processed in a plant and trucked to the store. If food is only a number, it loses all this history and becomes something that appears (abracadabra!) on the grocery store shelf, where the consumer places it in a basket without considering the pesticides used, the long-term sustainability of the land, the economic viability of the farmer, or the price fluctuations caused by hurricanes in the southeast. The consumer loses all connection to the land, to the people that provide his food, and to the edible materials he consumes, which not only prevents him from raising a cry against irresponsible farming techniques used by myopic capitalists, but ultimately alienates him from the composition of his own body.
It is a short step from the tyranny of mathematics over our food to the tyranny of mathematics over our bodies. More than even biology or psychology, numbers dictate how we live in our bodies. An alarm clock counts the sheep of our sleep, and we rarely sleep without noting the bedtime and rising-time, which transforms our rest into a stop-watched affair. If there is something wrong with us, we ingest a pill—a 90 or 120 milligram dose of a drug which we take every 4 hours or 6 hours—which offers ironclad assurance of our future health. Numbers saturate our exercise: we lifted 70 pounds 10 reps in 3 sets, we cycled 54 minutes at 27 mph. burning 574 calories. Our shampoos and soaps and contact solutions and toothbrushes and razors all bear numerals: their length (2”), weight (80 grams), volume (40 fluid ounces), their level (Stage 3), their PH level (2.2); we apply them to our body after judging which number represents or typifies us, believing—ever so naively—in the ability of our mass-producing consumerist market to invent products not only matching who we are in our bodies, but also helping to define our bodies for us.
We minutely assign numbers to our bodies to make ourselves valuable. We monitor the scale with rapt attention, believing our weight equals our sum. Doctors tell us that we are 140/80 blood pressure, 2000 cc’s lung capacity, 70 resting heart rate. Our appendages are numbered—the average length of a man’s penis when erect is 6.1 inches and average girth 3.6 inches—men feel a need to measure up, and feel disenfranchised when they are outside the mathematical mean. A woman should fit into a 2 or 4 dress size, have breasts of C (2 ½” to 3 ½”) or D (3 ½” to 4 ½”), and not be shorter than 5’ but not taller than 6’. We do not have these numbers, our body is these numbers. Numbers have surpassed their role as a system of measurement and ascended to ontological status: these numbers are our being.
What is most unfortunate about this neo-numerology is that the numbering of the body is the first step to dehumanization. Every body can be assigned numbers, and every body can be labeled by means and medians. But to sacrifice any body on the altar of the god of math is to assert its interchangeability with the herd: 1=1=1. Individuals become lost in the crowd, and it is always crowds that become the subject of gassings and bombings. Numbering of the body means one can ship bodies in cattle cars to facilities designed to strip all individuality down to a race, and all that matters is how many bodies each car holds. It leads to justification of an atomic weapon that will kill between 3,000 and 4,000, but not over or under that figure; or it means one may imprison X number of people for Y number of years, because the undertaking is simply an equation, a matter of jiggling the two factors, and not of injustice against a father or a cousin. Casualty summations do not differentiate between the babies slaughtered or women gutted, the twelve-year-olds who had rifles shoved into their hands or the men who weren’t affiliated with politics; there is only… 118 dead. When a number falls off the earth, we subtract one number from the sum of humanity and recalculate our population, but when a wife or brother or cousin dies, we weep with the bereaved. A dead person—a brown-skinned woman with a broad smile and a levitating walk—does not merely add to the casualties of a civil war, but leaves a heritage of sorrow to her loved ones.
It is also unfortunate that this numbering can only measure the physical universe. Numbering of the body insists that a body is just a body, without any intrinsic value beyond the flap of skin and pulsing organs. A number can calculate the efficiency of a fist-shaped muscle thrusting blood in and out of arteries and ventricles, but it cannot measure the gumption of the heart. A number can count the wavelengths of mental activity, but these are not equivalent to our minds. A number can sum up the whole of our corporeal bodies, but misses such metaphysical nuggets as the soul crouching behind the mucus of our membranes. Instead of penetrating the body, numbers always skim along the epidermis, assessing every inch and ounce of the physical while glossing over the metaphysical.
Western culture is held captive under the low ceiling of integers, and everyone has fallen sick. Some are less visibly sick than others, but a cultural malady does not skip persons: it only infects to a greater or lesser degree. This fellowship of disease should lead us not only to identify with the eating-disordered, but cry with them, for we struggle under the same thumb of oppression. Indeed, recognizing the close relationship between how the eating-disordered see food and our culture sees food might initiate a movement of change.
We begin the process of change not by seizing control, but by letting go. To relax first requires a de-masking of the areas of our lives controlled by the banality of numbers. Any attempt to break the habit of math will result in the siren call to measure with numbers how well we are succeeding, and this must be resisted. Yet this process of letting go does not aim to eradicate math, only to reduce the inroads that math has made into parts of our lives where it lowers the quality of life rather than raises it. Math has a place—a provincial one, not a totalitarian one. The process of letting go must begin with celebration, a celebration of food and the body, a Dionysian exuberance that dances and eats, eats and dances, and does not remember the plus and minus signs of the god that haunts our every numbered step.
John Matthew Fox teaches at various universities in the Los Angeles area, as well as writing book reviews for publications such as Rain Taxi and California Literary Review. His website BookFox (www.thejohnfox.com) covers the short story world, including interviews, literary news, and upcoming collections.