Enough with numbers!

Even subjective emotions like happiness have now indices associated with them
"Even subjective emotions like happiness now have indices associated with them."
"Even subjective emotions like happiness now have indices associated with them." publicdomainvectors [Creative Commons]

The British were in the habit of codifying and classifying everything they came across. Their bureaucracy did the same when it came to the vernacular literature they encountered with in India. This resulted in voluminous catalogues; as to the number of books published, their topics, and their language.

What it left out though was more important - the experience of the reader while engaging with the text. It was for cultural and social historians to point out the flawed nature of this enterprise. They pointed out that the engagement of a reader with the text was not simple and unidirectional.

For one, a catalogic history dealing only in the number of copies published could not fully grasp that cultures like India were embedded in the practice of being read to.

With a strong oral tradition, people were even hired on handsome salaries to read out texts to people. Hence being ‘illiterate’ did not necessarily imply ‘literary unawareness’. Also, the local culture lent a very different reading to the texts, in contradistinction to Europe after the lesser revolution. 

What on paper might have been a text on mythology may as well have been read as a tract on ethics, and even politics. After all, reading in itself is a cultural practice.

A reader does not only read a text, he also reads into the text. But the bureaucratic desire to codify and manage; the desire to compartmentalise and pass convenient judgment; hoodwinked itself from a more subtle and nuanced understanding of this engagement. In dire earnestness to stamp numbers, it left out the most essential facet of the story – the reader-text engagement – the experience. 

The story, since then, has been dreary. We live in a world of ‘data’ – numbers are ubiquitous. Your boss wants numbers churned by the Excel sheet. States proffer numbers on GDP; when asked about their performance.

Resumes enlist the number of your academic achievements. Marriage proposals are penned with reference to the number of zeros in your salary. News outlets see politics essentially as a battle of numbers. Human Rights are viewed as which party outscored the other in killing and maiming more people.

Academic progress is measured in numbers on a score sheet. Even subjective emotions like happiness now have indices associated with them. You demand from the world, and the world in turn demands from you, to see everything in numbers. 

While one cannot question the utility and precision of numbers, this hastiness in enumerating every human act is preposterous. The decoloration of human experience into data sets leaves out everything that cannot be expressed in numbers. Worth, it presumes, must be expressed in integers, or it is not worthy of expression at all.              

This misplaced zeal for enumeration quells the very essence of human experience and confines it to congealed forms of quantification. Not only does it circumvent the essence of experience, but also stultifies future experience as being trivial; if it cannot be numbered. Beauty, as a result, suffers!

Roger Scruton states, exquisitely;

Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed... 

Icebergs rolling softly over vast oceans. Birds chirping in sonorous voices. Waves of clear water hitting embankments. Exquisite works of art donning the walls of Gothic cathedrals. Monasteries build with intricate craftsmanship.

Poetry that says much more than it reads. Spring flowers, old alleyways, the sound of horse’s hoofs on hard ground, and whatnot. To marvel at these, and other forms of natural and human beauty, is the most profound experience of life – pity, that it may be considered worthless because it can’t be numbered.

Romantic poets understood this well. For one, Keats famously wrote, A thing of beauty is a joy forever. The first stanza ends with the lines; an endless fountain of immortal drink, pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink. Beauty is immortal, in any way it is experienced. It is frozen in time and space. No wonder poetry and music express it more profoundly than numbers can ever do. One form of beauty, after all, can be expressed, only in another form of beauty.

On the contrary, the post-industrial habit of over-enumeration replaces this subtle art of perceiving beauty with the tedious skills of accounting. It anoints prudence over wisdom. In a concerted effort to see only that which can be put into numbers, it blindfolds itself from the most beautiful aspects of human experience.

Aesthetics it undervalues (when it is not completely overlooking it). In architecture it prefers the ugly display of power through imposing structures, over the subtle craftsmanship of the pre-industrial age; which Goethe well-referred to as frozen music. It crumples poetry as being pointless. It finds classical languages useless.

Knowledge in itself, if not instrumental, is nothing at all. The calm resignation of spirituality, it devours by a fashionable display of religiosity. The only value it sees in art is to showcase economic clout. In humans it sees machines to be measured by the currency it spits out. Its values are marked by imposition, power, and utility.

The historicity of structures, the subtlety of language, the finesse of presence, the magic of experience, the very act of being - it considers imprudent. Value resides in numbers. It announces through its tall imposing structures - if you cannot number it, it is worthless. Even in love, it dreams with eyes wide open.

Classics of romance, it considers impractical. It is over-cautious in its desire and meek in its expression. The industrial age is endemic with a lack of taste for beauty; since it sees no purpose in it. It is hard for it to believe that beauty does not require a purpose. It is the purpose itself. The pursuit of beauty is the very essence of life.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Greater Kashmir