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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 177-203

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Statistical Panic

Kathleen Woodward *

Probability and statistics crowd in upon us. . . . There are more explicit statements of probabilities presented on American prime time television than explicit acts of violence. . . . Our public fears are endlessly debated in terms of probabilities: chances of meltdowns, cancers, muggings, earthquakes, nuclear winters, AIDS, global greenhouses, what next? There is nothing to fear (it may seem) but the probabilities themselves.

(Hacking 4-5)

By the year 2000 cancer will be the leading killer of everyone.

(Rainer 109)


The dominant and unsettling characteristic of the global financial market of late capitalism, as Fredric Jameson points out in his essay "Culture and Finance Capitalism," is that it is not linked to the object world and thus does not have any material--real--referent. Globally the generation of wealth is no longer connected to production in a local or even a national economy; it is literally deterritorialized. Money no longer changes hands; instead financial pluses and minuses flow in intangible digital streams around the world. And indeed, as it was reported in Forbes in August 1999, the figure for global trade currencies is $1.5 trillion daily (Androshcik). With free-floating capital of such mind-boggling proportions, immateriality is virtually everywhere.

What in contemporary culture can be said to represent this articulation of capital at the end of the century and the turn of the millennium? What is the cultural logic of late capitalism? For Jameson the quintessential expression of postmodern culture, or what he has elsewhere called the geopolitical aesthetic, is the image fragment. The postmodern image fragment, he argues, differs radically from the image fragment of modernism: whereas the surrealist image fragment expresses the evacuation [End Page 177] of meaning, paradoxically the image fragment of postmodernism contains meaning, albeit the banality and reductiveness of contemporary culture. If Luis Buñuel's work epitomizes the former for Jameson, the work of the late filmmaker Derek Jarman embodies the latter. 1 What I find particularly suggestive is Jameson's point that in postmodern narratives each fragment "has now become capable of emitting a complete narrative message in its own right" (264). Full-length narrative is compacted into an image fragment.

It is from the history of experimental art, specifically film, that Jameson draws his examples. If we turn our attention to contemporary culture in general, to the culture we breathe in and out every day, we find everywhere deployed an altogether banal and reductive language, one that continuously offers itself up as a way of understanding our lives and the world and condenses itself into a single figure--that of the statistic. It is the language of our global capitalist public culture, one that we have all internalized. Like the image fragment, even more so, the statistic can also be understood as a preeminent expression of late capitalism.

Statistics are routinely used to make a certain kind of sense of an event or moment in time, in the process often creating the contours of history, whether it is the history of economics or the history of politics. Consider, for instance, the endless statistical reports of consumption figures (a high percentage of a market share may itself stimulate demand). Consider the announcements of the political ratings of presidents, prime ministers, candidates, and would-be candidates (a low rating in the polls may precipitate a politician's rating even further). Desires and preferences are quantified, reduced to arithmetical expression. Statistics have also become a form of entertainment and exhibition. They are invoked whimsically, as we see, for example, in the Guinness Book of World Records. Virtually any issue of a newspaper--ranging from USA Today to the Wall Street Journal--can be seen as a postmodern numerological analog to the sixteenth-century curiosity cabinet, which displayed all manner of peculiar and exotic objects. Consider a few statistics, ranging from the bizarre to the banal, in a January 1998 issue of the Wall Street Journal Europe concerned, of course, with global financial markets and the business of investment, production, and consumption...


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pp. 177-203
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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