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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Pandemic Death Counts Are Numbing. There’s Another Way to Process

What does the incalculable look like? How does the unfathomable feel? Can you listen to the unimaginable?

We are in the midst of the single largest mass mortality event in the history of the United States, and our ability to make sense of the situation is challenged by both the scale of the disaster and the dominance of a particular kind of rationality. More Americans have died from Covid-19 than from World War I, World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War combined. As of July 13, 2022, the CDC reports 1,018,035 deaths due to Covid-19 in the US. We will continue to see COVID deaths into the foreseeable future: As I write, hospitalizations and deaths in the US are beginning to inch upward as the BA.5 strain takes hold.

Yet for many of us, Covid deaths have taken place far outside of our view, often literally sequestered to institutions like care facilities, prisons, and hospitals. What we have are official mortality counts, rational accountings, and recountings of deaths certified, recorded, and aggregated. It is hard to wrap the mind around more than a million deaths. We struggled as early as May 24, 2020, when the New York Times front page described the deaths of 100,000 Americans as an “incalculable loss.” Two years later, as we approached the million-death threshold in March 2022, journalist Ed Yong asked: “What is ten times incalculable?”

In Yong’s impossible equation, I hear an echo of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of the mathematical sublime, a scale or scope beyond imagination. According to Kant, the mathematical sublime frustrates because it is too big to be comprehended in an immediate way. He goes on to argue that it is precisely this imaginative limit that is also the source of our pleasure; things of great scale demand use of our rational (he means logical and quantitative) faculty in order to measure it, so it can be comprehended.

According to Kant, the purpose of such measuring and recording is to enable the mind to hold an unimaginable scale with the aid of paper or other visual media, allowing human reason and a few tools to pull something like catastrophic death tolls under control. For Kant this process of controlling what might otherwise seem to be beyond human comprehension is both intellectually useful and pleasing.

This is a pleasure born of mastery and control. A pleasure rooted in the kind of human hubris that asserts that if we can count something then we know it, and that it’s all we need. By turning our attention instead to issues of precision and presentation (“with Covid” vs. “of Covid” and new vs. old CDC dashboards, for example), our quantitative tools risk hampering our abilities to mourn the dead, repair our communities, and grow. Such intellectual pleasures have their utility, but are often spectacularly unsuited to processes of grieving and repair.

Western use of mortality counts to not only administratively but also emotionally manage death is longstanding, dating back to at least the 16th century. But data visceralization might offer us a way to continue to track disaster deaths quantitatively while also encouraging a national process of grieving.

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Kelly Dobson first coined the phrase in the early 2000s to understand how people relate through or to machines. Her data visceralization project included designing Blendie, a “blender familiar” through which people can communicate. Media theorist Luke Stark popularized the term for a more general audience in his 2014 article “Come on Feel the Data (and Smell It).” As Stark notes, data visceralization “relies on multiple senses including touch, smell, and even taste, working together to stimulate our feelings as well as our thoughts.”

As Sara Lenzi and Paolo Ciuccarelli’s Data Sonification Archive makes evident, people working in astronomy, biomedicine, and engineering are transforming vast datasets into sound that is beautiful (engaging our affect and emotion) and can advance understanding. Sonification is just one way of offering information to the body. As Stark has noted, we can use all five senses to engage with data and more fully embrace the kinds of knowledges that run bone-deep: like that of a death that has come too soon, or of the gaping holes left in communities by those who should still be with us.

What if data visceralization can return our sense of the scale of Covid losses to our bodies, so that we can move out of mathematical sublime and toward embracing the reality of so much loss and taking the time to mourn and understand? Can visceralization help us recover from the numbing and desensitization created by a two-year flood of overwhelming numbers?

A few early memorializing efforts presented the mortality counts in embodied forms, even if they haven’t been called data visceralization by their creators. The community-created Covid Memorial Wall in London not only enabled family members to memorialize their loved ones, but also asks visitors to walk the 5 to 10 minute long stretch of the wall to take in the entire piece. Rather than use a quantitative tool to comprehend the dead, visitors experience the scale of death in terms of their own time and energies.

In Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s “In America: Remember,” 695,000 white flags were inserted in the lawn of the National Mall, creating a temporary 20-acre memorial that similarly encouraged an embodied experience of pandemic mortality. These are time- and place-bound pieces that are powerful, but limited to those who can travel to their locations when the pieces are in place.

Data visceralization need not be large to be effective. Brian Foo, for example, uses a variety of economic, racial, and geographic information in his compositions. “Two Trains: Sonification of Income Inequality on the NYC Subway” takes listeners for a ride on the 2 train and through the geographic stratification of median household incomes along the route. While subway transit is largely sequestered in a subterranean tunnel, Foo’s composition can be listened to and felt on a personal device, offering socioeconomic information back to the body of the rider who develops their own relationship to that data as they ride.

I have used sonification as a way to share the tragedy of eugenic sterilizations in the United States with sound compositions. Representing each individual recommended for eugenic sterilization in California in the early 20th century, these pieces take time to unfold. Asking audiences to dedicate their time and physical attention to the data, sonifications fundamentally differ from a visual presentation of the data and are much longer in duration than a narrativization of the information.

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Tactile experiences can also be created to be portable or be developed as piecework. I have been prototyping weavings that will allow people to both see and feel our COVID mortality data. Days correspond to individual rows in the weavings, and deaths appear as dropouts in the weft. Woven this way, individual deaths can be seen and felt by running one’s hand over the weaving. Across the length of the textile you can see and feel the various waves, including the devastating Omicron wave that manifests as largely unwoven sections within the larger piece. Even in prototype, the pandemic waves are visually striking and emotionally devastating, especially when held in the hands. Similar efforts to cocreate textile memorials are underway in the Stitching the Situation and Covid Memorial Quilt projects.

Traumatic death and grief expert Dr. Joanne Cacciatore observes in her recent book Bearing the Unbearable that grief processing “can never be rushed—including meaning-seeking.” An important part of what data visceralization does—whether by walking an exhibition, riding a train while listening to a composition, or stitching in community—is create the space for audiences to take time to grieve. Understanding the scale of loss in a disaster event cannot be only an intellectual exercise. For some the visceral sense of loss and its magnitude, and the long temporality of illness and slow recovery, is already part of their experience of Covid. But for many more Americans the pandemic has been episodic at best, and often experienced only at a distance.

Prompting a visceral response or emotional impact is one way to think of data visceralization, but we can also think of it as a new medium for understanding quantitative information. The media historian Brenton J. Malin notes that new media are often celebrated because they make emotions tangible, “allowing them to be captured and transmitted with a new kind of power.” Data visceralization insists that we return to the body data and data flows that have been rendered invisible. Doing so helps us better understand a mass casualty event that has largely remained unmemorialized and beyond our ability to grapple with.

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