U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“The only thing I can count on now is my fingers”

We are lucky to be living amidst so much breathtaking essay writing.

Today, I would like to call attention to two extraordinary texts, published in the last few weeks.

First: Anne Boyer, “Data’s Work Is Never Done,” Guernica, March 13, 2015


“The databases would be empty without us. The work of abstracting a person into a patient is women’s work—it only appears, at first, to be the work of machines.”

“These women are the paras in the thresholds, weighing the bodies of patients on digital scales, measuring vital signs in the staging area of a clinic’s open crannies. Then they lead the patient—in this case, they lead me—to an examining room and log into the system. They enter the numbers my body generates when offered to machines: how hot or cold I am, the rate at which my heart is beating. Then they ask the question: Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? I try to answer, but the correct answer is always ‘a-numerical.’ Sensation is the enemy of quantification. There is no machine, yet, to which a nervous system can submit to transform into a sufficiently descriptive measurement.”

“In the intensive medicalized abstraction of cancer, I become a barely, my person subsidiary to the body’s sensations and to medicine’s informatic systems.”


Second: Shuja Haider, “Johnny Paycheck and the Return of the Repressed in Country Music,” Viewpoint, March 10, 2015.


“(Aubrey) Mayhew had heard of Lytle and his remarkable singing voice, and set out to Nashville to track him down. Finally finding him sleeping under the Shelby Street Bridge, Mayhew christened him Johnny Paycheck, ostensibly after a Chicago boxer, but perhaps really after his wishes for the singer’s role in his own future. He borrowed the rest of George Jones’s touring band for sessions, and stood back while his new employees produced some of the greatest country music on record.”

“The pitch black humor of the Little Darlin’ material is unparalleled, reaching nihilistic depths that bring it closer to film noir than to most popular music. The band swings like a drunken lurch and twangs like an anguished howl, bursting at the seams without dropping a stitch. The singer, who makes no attempt to disguise his unrefined accent, moves from a fragile sigh to a lustful growl and back, often within the same syllable.”

“Like many of their contemporaries, Mayhew and Paycheck wrote and selected material that dealt with despair, betrayal, and self-destruction, themes that took country music further from its gospel roots than ever before. As Mayhew would later tell journalist David Hoekstra, ‘I didn’t want to do what any­body else was doing, so we came up with the most extreme things we could.’”

Lin­guists have a name for a state­ment with a seem­ingly inevitable des­ti­na­tion that ends up some­where else: a garden path sen­tence. It’s typ­i­cal in com­edy, as in a mil­lion Grou­cho Marx lines: “Out­side of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” This device is also called a “para­pros­dokian,” which means “contrary to expec­ta­tion,” though there is some con­tro­versy over whether this is really a term from clas­si­cal rhetoric or a mod­ern neologism… Liz Anderson’s “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” as sung by Merle Hag­gard, includes a line in which both the fig­u­ra­tive and lit­eral con­no­ta­tions of an idiom are simul­ta­ne­ously at play: “The only thing I can count on now is my fingers.”