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  • Counting Success and Measuring ValueMoney, Numbers, and Abstraction in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie
  • Ulfried Reichardt (bio)

While realism and naturalism have been rediscovered for a while, naturalism seems to be even more in sync with present concerns than realism, as it implicitly negotiates and dramatizes several of today's important theoretical concerns, such as posthumanism, actor-network theory, quantification, and what Randy Martin calls "the financialization of daily life." In its insistence on external forces and its materialist reduction of the psyche, naturalism seems remarkably contemporary. In the following, I will explore the role of data in naturalism by focusing on the role of quantification in Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie (1900). More precisely, I will examine the relationship between self-quantification and the money economy in the late nineteenth century as analyzed by Georg Simmel at the same time that Dreiser was writing his novel. Quantification underlies many social phenomena of our daily experience because it is the basic model of today's algorithmically based information society, and because it has become the dominant epistemological model for producing and navigating knowledge. The late nineteenth century in the United States is highly significant in this context. With immense changes in the social fabric due to processes of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, and with money gaining an ever greater importance as the power of descent and status declined, the late nineteenth century is a period in which measuring and counting came to structure many areas of public and private life. Since then, quantification has entered the experience of individuals on all levels of self-formation and self-control. As Sister Carrie negotiates decisive developments in society at a time in which the scale and speed of communication and information systems were experienced as pervasive, the novel is a good starting point for thinking about self-quantification in a historical [End Page 89] perspective—and thus about how numbers entered the narration of the self.

Quantification and the Quantified Self

The epistemological and ultimately political impact of the reliance on data is one of the main characteristics of Western modernity. Michel Foucault argues that

the general area of knowledge is no longer that of identities and differences, that of non-quantitative orders, that of a universal characterization, of a general taxinomia of a non-measurable mathesis, but an area made up of … internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function. … So that we see emerging, as the organizing principles of this space of empiricities, Analogy and Succession.


Vertically and thus hierarchically ordered levels of meaning are restructured horizontally; no longer depending on a transcendent "center" or origin, meaning has to emerge from the juxtaposition and relationships between elements. Things no longer have a fixed position in the world. While many critics have traced the move to empirically based knowledge, my theoretical focus here will be mainly on the ways in which empirical data have been processed by way of quantification, a development that is defining our own historical moment, where Big Data has become the battle cry of those who claim that we are experiencing a paradigm change in terms of knowledge production.1

The focus on data and their aggregation in naturalist fiction has to be explained in the context of the rise of the quantifying approach as a successful epistemological method. Alfred W. Crosby points out that quantitative thinking may be seen as the main advantage of Western societies, in particular "their utilization of habits of thought that would in time enable them to advance swiftly in science and technology" (xi). Since the beginning of the shift to quantification, one of the most important media for measuring quantity was money. Using numbers to determine the "value" of things, money is relational and allows comparing all objects on a conceptual level. Crosby argues that "[p]rice quantified everything," and that "a new and abstract measurement of worth appeared in Western Europe" in the late thirteenth century (71–72).2 The crucial innovative economic technique was double-entry bookkeeping, which was given its definitive formulation by Luca Pacioli in the late fifteenth century: "techniques for reducing the world to pluses and minuses, for reducing the world to...