This Academic Life
Let's take a quick look in the "Outlook" section of the Washington Post this morning (free subscription required). There we find this editorial on the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated communities all around the Indian Ocean this past week, in which the author -- who used to be a "manager of disaster education" (fascinating job title; I wonder how the position differs from, say, "press secretary" or "public relations coordinator") for the Red Cross -- opines:
But I'll wager that 5, 10, 15 years from now, the single word "tsunami" will trigger in any who hear it a near-total recall of the fearful events of Dec. 26, 2004. … That's because the scale of death in that catastrophe, occurring without warning and in a matter of minutes, and striking so many nations, has catapulted it into a class of its own. In my experience, the single factor that most underscores the significance of any disaster is the number of lives it takes. News reports of constantly changing, rapidly rising numbers in South Asia have made the deaths hit home, and our psyche is responding to the further suffering we know these lost lives will cause. … That's why we have such a deep-seated need to know how many people died in South Asia. That's why relatives of the victims search so desperately for information about what precisely happened to their loved ones.
The article then goes on to discuss, in illuminating detail, the technical obstacles to generating this kind of definitive count of casualties: the lack of a good baseline population count to begin with, the absence of bodies because of the sheer force of the water, different national accounting systems for reporting dead and missing, and so on.

The article makes a good point that obtaining such a count will likely be impossible, even concluding that "Every life counts. But sometimes, tragically, not every life lost can be counted." But what strikes me is the fetish for numbers that animates the piece, as though an "objective" count could tell us precisely how bad the tsunami had been and justify its place in our collective memory. [I am leaving aside for the moment the whole issue of the causal narrative that blames "the tsunami" for the mass death and destruction, and leaves aside the issues of poverty, overpopulation, shoddy construction, and the absence of a reliable early-warning system; there's a whole politics of disaster-construction implicated in the personating of natural events (like hurricanes, which are even more obvious examples since they get names, unlike this tsunami) which allows us to ignore the complicity of our social arrangements in making these disasters possible in the first place … but I digress.]

Two points.

First, I question the linkage between numbers and the presence of a disaster (or any event of mass death) in our collective memory. Does anyone remember a minor event about three years ago in which about 3000 people died as a result of some airplanes crashing into three buildings on the East Coast of the United States? Hmm. We remember the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, along with other "undesirable" categories of the population; we even have museums devoted to remembering it, and it is taught in classrooms throughout the world. Quick show of hands -- how many people remember, really remember, that Stalin killed more people in the gulags? Or that the Khmer Rouge emptied whole cities and buried their inhabitants in mass graves? 150,000 or so dead as a direct result of this tsunami is certainly a large number, but five million children a year die of malnutrition, and 852 million people world-wide suffer from chronic hunger. Something more than numbers must be going on here; temporal duration is probably implicated, but I doubt that suffices to explain why some events stick in our collective memory and others don't. [Arguably, the error here is thinking of "our collective memory" as a kind of large filing-cabinet or bulletin-board in which "events" are simply recorded; if we shift to thinking about "our collective memory" as a field of contestation, a site for ongoing efforts to produce and reproduce a way of worlding, we can get out of this problem.]

Second, the universalizing of the desire for hard numbers seems decidedly unfortunate. The "deep-seated need" that the author refers to applies to us, the inhabitants of a post-industrial world in which statistics popular equate to Truth and "coping" means constructing a detached, unshakeable picture that allows us to comprehend the event. And yes, I mean "comprehend" in both senses:

  1. To take in the meaning, nature, or importance of; grasp. See Synonyms at apprehend.
  2. To take in as a part; include. See Synonyms at include.
Comprehending an event thus means both understanding it and subsuming it, both grasping it and in a way disposing of it by distancing ourselves from it: mastering it, getting a grip on it, processing it. Numbers represent a good technique for doing this, since one no longer has to operate in the realm of immediate and personal details; numbers transmute the event into a "disaster," a big systematic happening that we can wring our hands about and make solemn promises about how it will never happen again -- at the cost of the immediacy of the personal stories of suffering and survival.

I'm not saying that such comprehension is a bad thing. There is probably an upper limit to personal stories that any one person can read before becoming very numb to the whole thing; my limit seems to be about one a day. But we need to be more self-conscious about what is involved in such a strategy, and what kinds of remembrance it yields -- and above all we have to remember that this is a strategy, and not something that flows self-evidently from the dispositional character of "the disaster" itself.

In other news, Ralph Nader (yes, that Ralph Nader) offers what seems to me to be an eminently sensible proposal for the ownership of the new D.C. baseball team: let the team be publicly owned.
The District could find the financing to buy the Nationals by selling 49 percent of shares publicly, as the Cleveland Indians baseball team and the Boston Celtics basketball team have done. The District also could float Class B stock or sell small-denomination -- of say, $100 -- bonds redeemable only for face value. The idea would be to tap into regional enthusiasm for baseball, and let the fans pay for -- and own a chunk of -- the team. … The Green Bay Packers -- one of the most venerated and successful teams in professional football -- is community-owned. The nonprofit Packers is financed through the issuance of stock, and more than 100,000 people own shares in the team.
Go Ralph. Public ownership might help to prevent the potential disaster of a taxpayer-funded giveaway to cover overage costs of stadium construction and the like, and there's more than enough local enthusiasm to sustain such a program; folks in the district have been waiting long enough for a baseball team that I suspect that many of them would rush out to buy a share or two. Where do I sign up?

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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