ر.ق.م (Number)

Hisham Awad

“Arrival”, the first episode of British science-fiction television series The Prisoner, first aired in the UK, on ITV, in September 1967. The opening title sequence is a frenetic montage that starts with a shot of a cloudy sky and a thunderous boom, followed by a shot of a sports car zooming across a runway, manically heading towards the camera. The subsequent rapid-fire shots catapult a suited man across London, as he drives past the House of Parliament and into an underground park. James Bond-like, he walks along a tenebrous tunnel, casting a long shadow, against the now-percussive music. He storms into what appears to be his boss’s office, where the two have a heated, inaudible exchange. The man tosses his resignation letter at his boss, and drives out of the car park, victorious.

The next sequence intercuts shots of the man in his car, tailed by a black hearse, with shots of an unmanned, bureaucratic apparatus, cataloguing the man’s resignation. A close-up of a typewriter imprinting a series of X’s across a photo printout of the man’s face, is followed by a wide shot of a vaulted space with two rows of filing cabinets receding into seeming infinity. An electronic arm carries the print-out, now revealed to be an index card, into a filing drawer labeled RESIGNED. The man then arrives home, frantically grabs his passport and packs his suitcase, but his escape attempt is quickly thwarted when the hearse driver throws knockout gas into his home, incapacitating him. Later, he wakes up in a replica of his study, in the middle of a place referred to as “The Village”. The phone rings, a voice informs him that “Number Two” wants to meet with him at “The Green Dome”.

At the Green Dome, the control room of the Village, Number Two (the chief administrator) addresses the man as Number Six, as he asks him about the motive behind his resignation. Number Two proceeds to threaten the man, and shows him that he has compiled a hefty biographical file on him. But Number Six, our protagonist, stands his ground, refusing to negotiate: “I resigned!”, he exclaims, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My Life is my own!” Later in the episode he cries out: “I am not a number, I am a person!”, a leitmotif in the series.

The fears of becoming anonymous, indistinguishable, or “just a number”, have long-haunted literary and cinematic forms, but one can argue that they assumed particularly anxious forms in the filmic tales of identity theft, memory wipeouts, body doubles, and brainwashing, of the 1960s and 1970s. The figure of the US army sergeant, brainwashed during the Korean war to infiltrate the hermetic enclaves of Washington politics, in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), by John Frankenheimer, is one example, the middle-aged banker who signs up for a procedure that promises to grant him a new identity, in Seconds (1966) [also by Frankenheimer], is another good one. These films were a reflection of  the rise of middle management with its humdrum office culture, of pinko-hysteria with Soviet moles and infiltrators, and of political scandals with conspiratorial plots. Against this backdrop, the “individual” seemed to be under threat, targeted by these technics of (ac)counting, anonymization, quantification, indexing, erasing, and doubling.

Indeed, what is an individual in a world where processes of identification and quantification, by state and non-state actors, coexist with corporate algorithmic modeling and a calculus of literal self-worth? What is in a name, when perpetual self-tracking, taste-making, and self-fashioning, offer the promise of the boundless permutation of individuality in real time?

In addition to addressing the number as a mathematical object, and quantification qua governance, the theme within the first issue of The Derivative, prompts five artists and writers to think about articulations and processes of number and numbering, and their political dimensions. I have invited the various contributors to respond according to the following five categories: statistics, the crowd, measurement, finance, and rhythm. Over the past few months, many of us have been waking up to two sets of perturbing numbers, or ratios. The first is the exchange rate of the Lebanese Lira to the U.S. Dollar, now in free fall after being pegged at 1,5017 to 1 for over two decades. The second is the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, city-wide, state-wide, nation-wide, and globally. We look at curves and try to “bend them” or “flatten them”. We try to retrieve numbers that are suppressed, look for ways to resist capture by number, and organize to count, and name, the uncounted and unnamed. The history of numbers, statistics, and quantification, spans multiple geographies and practices, from the colonialist practice of phrenology, to the management of crowds and protest through urban design, from economic barometers as “portraits of the nation in numbers and time”[1], to credit scores.

The world of numbers is vast. Numbers, and the institutions producing them, are met with exhilaration or distrust, throughout the political spectrum. Ancestry tests, essentially a technology of liberal neo-Eugenics, promises to help you “discover you”, by, purportedly, showing your ancestral makeup— an “ethnicity sample” tells you where, and to what percentage, you are “from” (e.g. 54 % European, 28.6 % British and Irish, 0.8 percent Western Asia and North African…). A fashioning of the self via percentage brackets. In a severely misguided political move, Elizabeth Warren, a democratic contender for the U.S. presidential candidacy, earlier this year, even resorted to the test, to “prove” she has Native American ancestors. How, then, do we grapple with the perils and potentials of numbers, and their uses, in a “post-truth” era? How can we begin to move beyond blind adherence to numerical data and its promises, as well as literature from the humanities and social sciences that has, at times, imparted a view of numbers and numerical practices as mere “social constructions”, and as the exclusive property of state control?[2]

This issue does not seek to situate, say, number theory and econometrics, or double-ended bookkeeping and standardized measurement, on the same plane. It does not seek to construct an ahistorical and amorphous master plan of Numbers. Rather, it attempts to identify and analyze some discourses, techniques, and applications of number, and to sketch the historical emergence of numbering and calculation in various domains, such as government, public discourse, and music. It is an invitation, however preliminary, to think about the implications of thinking about, and with, numbers, whether for the purposes of articulating the power of the crowd, and the complementary and antagonistic terms/categories “mass” and “multitude”, or attending to the emergence and critique of the debt-to-GDP ratio as a metric of national economic health. By doing so, it invites contributors and readers to think not only of local and global practices of number in political and artistic production, but also to think of ways of constructing a critical lexicon, in Arabic and English, to make sense of the increasingly-complex world of financial instruments, health metrics, and institutional practices of calculation and ordering.

[1] Slobodian, Quinn. Globalists : The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018. P.67. For a discussion of “business barometers” and the role of graphic portraits of the economy, see chapter 2: “A World of Numbers”.

[2] For a critique on the limits of the social constructionist view, see: Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999. For a critique of state-centric accounts of statistical thinking and practice, and a history of  numerical and statistical practices as forming and informing a mode of “public political argumentation” in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, see: Deringer, William. Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018.