the politics of large numbers (june 2021)


But what do these averages prove ? Only that one abstracts more and more from mankind, that one dismisses more and more real life…Averages are real offenses inflicted upon real, particular individuals.”

– Karl Marx – 1844 Manuscripts

(quote not in original)

Deepl translation of the first article here

From the outset, the management of the Covid-19 epidemic by the authorities has been logically marked in our latitudes by a predominance of economic imperatives and the preservation of the social order, which even the much-invoked medical reason of the State no longer manages to conceal.

But what is also striking is that the infinite forms of self-organisation that could have arisen from individual singularities to face the virus and continue to act in spite of it, were immediately paralysed by the quicksand of contradictory recommendations and staggering figures: mortality and lethality rates, positivity rates, incidence rates, emergency room and reanimation occupancy rates, persistent antibody rates, re-infection rates… and so on. This highlights once again that by taking the field of the politics of large numbers rather than starting from oneself – with one’s doubts as well as one’s burning desires – the rethinking generally ends up getting bogged down in a managerial logic, where productive calculation quickly takes the place of life and its dispersive excesses. There are no thirty-six solutions to break the very pattern that presides over any statistical reduction of human complexity, to make uniqueness exist beyond averages and to recreate diversity by undoing the aggregates of data. This is the very terrain in which each individual is summoned to bow to a collective higher interest that must be rejected. It is the individual’s own sensitive relationship with life, death, illness, the risks to be taken, mutual aid, the stars to be picked, that must be defended in the face of the social demand to sacrifice it on the altar of quantity. Whether this quantity is called homeland, economy, common good… or even collective immunity.

If the medical method of statistical apprehension is certainly constitutive of the contemporary relationship with epidemics, as shown by the old debate between contagionists and infectionists during the Cholera epidemic of 1832 (some advocating that the disease is transmitted by contact with the sick, others by insalubriousness), it is not surprising that the medical method of statistical apprehension is not used, The first mathematical modelling based on the plague epidemic in India (1927), this authoritarian relationship that encapsulates singularities has even more distant roots. It could perhaps even be traced back to the origins of writing in Lower Mesopotamia, where this invention was not conceived as a means of representing language, but directly for the lowly purposes of administrative and commercial accounting, intrinsically linking the first numbers engraved on tablets to the emergence of state domination (with its need to enumerate, tax, measure, classify, uniformise, manage and discount). So much so that one might even wonder whether it was not with the very notion of calculation and the desire to quantify the world that the process of domesticating our senses began.

Today, it will surprise no one that in medical matters as in many others, this statistical policy of large numbers has become a master in the administration of our lives by the powerful, as the Covid-19 epidemic has once again revealed. In the case of the public approval of vaccines (and drugs), the criterion is quietly called the benefit/risk ratio, basing the studies on small, representative samples, from which extrapolations are then projected onto all of our fellow human beings, reducing living beings to a collection of more or less standardised and functional machines. Even if it means turning the world’s population into guinea pigs in a giant experimental laboratory with mixtures based on genetic chimeras, one of the current scientific miracles of which is not to prevent those vaccinated from being contaminated or contagious, but only from developing serious forms of the disease.

By the same token, in order to sort out vital, heavy, expensive, emergency or crisis care, between who might survive and who is no longer worth it anyway, statisticians in white coats assign personal scores to patients on a daily basis. These scores are of course not related to the complexity of each individual, which the hospital factory does not bother to consider anyway, but to the average probability of potential survival at the time of this decisive selection: there is the frailty score (from 1 to 9, with the last steps attributed according to “statistical life expectancy at 6 months”), the WHO score (from 1 to 4, for example based on the fact that one remains bedridden “more or less than 50% of the day”) and the GIR score (from 1 to 6, determining the level of dependence, linked to the fact that an individual can carry out a certain number of tasks “spontaneously, totally, correctly or usually”). It is this combination of scores, which is as performative as it is arbitrarily normative, that officially determines who can live or die, here between a Covid patient and a person who has suffered a car accident or a heart attack, and there between two Covid patients. This sorting is known as selection or prioritisation, and it is better to know the evaluation grids in advance in case of concern.

Of course, it is possible to point out that these management tools, which claim to be scientific and objective, are above all the reflection of a world which has driven out quality and the individual to the benefit of efficiency and mass, after having deprived each person of all autonomy, within an environment which is increasingly degraded and which, in turn, calls for a multiplication of crisis or emergency situations. And that when fear and death loom, it is certainly more reassuring for many to take refuge behind the known of the cold state rationality than to face the experimental unknown of individuals freely associated to face it. To which one could retort with a little smile, that when one has no pretension nor will to manage the existing shit on a level as global as that of a society, including in an alternative way, one can on the other hand self-organise to try to put an end to it.

* * *

Now, this authoritarian relationship of the quantitative does not only concern the immediate clinical management of the current unstable situation – which also involves the absolute priority given to Covid-19 over other serious illnesses with heavy consequences postponed in time, but also includes another dimension whose premises are barely glimpsed: the rapid adaptation of the state apparatus to an epidemic that is not ready to stop, creating a new type of sanitary and productive order marked for a little more than a year by an acceleration of the technological artificialisation of our lives.

Leaving aside China, which is too easily made into a convenient scapegoat, the very democratic South Korea, for example, established total contact tracing of the population in March 2020 by exploiting data such as bank statements, detailed telephone bills, geolocation history, public video surveillance images or information transmitted by administrations and employers during vast health surveys. The information is collected and then integrated into a national and freely accessible register, indicating the nationality of the persons, their age, their sex, the place of their medical visit, the date of their contamination, and more precise information such as their working hours, the respect of the wearing of masks in the metro, the stations used, the bars and massage parlours frequented. This is a fine example of the coupling of computer algorithms to build an epidemiological model and allow for optimal management by the authorities, complemented by compulsory individual quarantines, implemented via a geolocation application that rings and alerts the police directly if the individuals concerned move, or if their smartphone is switched off for more than 15 minutes, to form an ‘electronic fence’ around the plague sufferers, with random police calls and SMS notification to the neighbourhood of the presence of a contagious person.

As caricatural as this real-life example is, it is perhaps no coincidence that a senatorial report released in early June in France to outline some prospects for future epidemics (or “natural or industrial disasters, and terrorist attacks”) requiring mass confinement, has also just put forward some proposals in this direction. In the age of permanent connection, when everyone is already voluntarily walking around with an electronic bug in his or her pocket, and is gradually getting used to teleworking, telemedicine and distance learning, what better way to achieve this totalitarian dream of every digital democrat than to finally be able to deactivate a person’s computer, What better way to achieve this totalitarian dream of every digital democrat than to be able to remotely deactivate transport passes, turn smartphones into electronical bracelets (with selfies to the police to prove one’s presence) or issue/withdraw all kinds of different passes in the form of QR codes thanks to a centralised Crisis Data Hub?

For those who, for example, began to disguise themselves when they saw police drones patrolling during the Great Containment; for those who froze when they saw new devices for controlling bodies in public space, such as thermal detectors, travel certificates and vaccination certificates, added to the intrusive video surveillance cameras; for those who concluded more often than not that it was better to be alone and safe than accompanied by algorithmic nets. … it is certainly high time to look up at those great copper cables stretched across the sky or to bend over all those gullies where the chains of the twenty-first century are spinning under our feet at the speed of light.


One Response to the politics of large numbers (june 2021)
  1. From a friend:

    “here’s a phrase I liked from Buber’s difficult, complex and
    poetic “I and Thou”, which I’m currently reading:

    “Primal man’s experiences of encounter were scarcely a matter of tame
    delight; but even violence against a being one really confronts is
    better than ghostly solicitude for faceless digits! From the former a
    path leads to God, from the latter only to nothingness.””

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