Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Questioning the Quantified Life

Quantifying Vitality

The Progressive Paradox

Jackson Lears

“The Architecture of Digestion” (detail) by Fritz Kahn (1888–1968) from Man in Structure and Function I, 1943; reproduced in Fritz Kahn: Infographics Pioneer by Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz; Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2017.

Our days became numbered long before the rise of Big Data and algorithmic governance. Indeed, the creation of statistical selves in the service of state and corporate bureaucracies was well underway by the early twentieth century, in the midst of what US historians still call the Progressive Era (in deference to the self-description of the reformers who dominated it). Eli Cook, Sarah Igo, Dan Bouk, and other gifted young historians have begun to explore sorting and categorizing institutions that branched out from their nineteenth-century predecessors, which had focused mainly on criminals and deviants. The new sorters were more catholic in their scope—life insurance actuaries quantifying the risks of insuring individual policyholders, pollsters using survey data in an attempt to construct a “majority man” or “average American”—with their efforts culminating in the most ambitious tabulating scheme of all, the Social Security system, in 1935. (This was about the same time, the mid-1930s, when the economist Simon Kuznets was developing the concept of gross domestic product—which became the default metric for measuring the health of the body economic, down to the present.) The difference between Progressive Era biopolitics and contemporary biopolitics involves the intensification and acceleration of tendencies underway for more than a century—more powerful technology, but similar strategies for management and surveillance of the population.11xMichel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, ed. Michel Sennelart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York, NY: Picador, 2004), summary, 317–24, lecture 7, 159–84; Eli Cook, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Sarah E. Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Dan Bouk, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Yet that was not the only difference. The meaning of statistics was complicated and darkened by the catastrophes of the mid-twentieth century. Before the 1940s, such government practices as issuing identification cards to individuals, even fingerprinting, remained bathed in a social democratic aura. What could be more benign (except to Republican Party ideologues) than Social Security? No wonder many ordinary folks, especially men, had their Social Security numbers tattooed on their biceps. The furnaces at Auschwitz had not yet been fired. During the postwar decades, in the shadow of Nazi and later Soviet dictatorship, government statistics would never look quite as benign as they had earlier in the century.

The Emergence of Statistical Selves

Statistics in the Progressive Era were more than mere signs of a managerial government’s early efforts to sort and categorize its citizens. The emergence of statistical selves was not simply a rationalization of everyday life, a search for order (as Robert Wiebe taught a half century of historians to say).22xRobert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1967). The reliance on statistical governance coincided with and complemented a pervasive revaluation of primal spontaneity and vitality, an effort to unleash hidden strength from an elusive inner self. The collectivization epitomized in the quantitative turn was historically compatible with radically individualist agendas for personal regeneration—what later generations would learn to call positive thinking.

Then as now, positive thinking underwrote entrepreneurial ambition. Consider the career of Helen Wilmans, who abandoned her life as a rancher’s wife to become a prolific author of inspirational books celebrating the creative powers of mind. No captain of industry could have asked for a more committed apologist for unregulated capital or a more acidulous critic of labor. “The slaves of Capital are where they are, not because capital oppresses them, but because they will not use their brains…they can scarcely be called men,” she wrote in The Conquest of Poverty (1901). By the time she reached young adulthood, she wrote, “I had found that thought was a force, and bore a direct relation to the thing it was centered upon. I began to experiment with it. Before long I received the absolute assurance that a man is as he believes; that the thoughts in which he believes create his body and his external conditions also.” This faith in the individual mind marked a great leap forward in the history of the emotions, Wilmans thought; we humans had reached the point where we realized that “fear is the only thing of which we should be afraid; it is the only real, live devil; all others are dead.” So when the specter of poverty loomed, she dismissed it: “I will not pinch down in my money spending. I will not economize…. This is my constant affirmation.” Wilmans, like many of her positive thinking contemporaries, offered fresh sanctions for free spending in an emerging consumer society—even as she implicitly urged compliance with that society’s ethos of individual striving.33xHelen Wilmans, The Conquest of Poverty (Seabreeze, FL: Wilmans Publishing House, 1901), 38–40, 54–55, 65.

Yet there was also an antimodern dimension to the quest for regeneration—a yearning to recover exuberant intensities of feeling that had allegedly been lost en route to modernity. This involved recapturing components of the self that had been characterized throughout the nineteenth century as “animal spirits” and had been assigned primarily to children, criminals, charismatic public figures, dark-skinned peoples, and animals themselves. These were all creatures to whom upper-class white people felt superior (except for the charismatic public figures) yet also secretly envied. By the early twentieth century a broad transvaluation of values was under way, upending familiar hierarchies of civilization and barbarism, even humanity and animality, appropriating hidden strengths from previously derided primitives.

This ferment, with all its Nietzschean resonances, roiled cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic. After the turmoil of the fin de siècle, the overcivilized man of the 1880s was becoming the man without qualities of the 1910s, arising from his neurasthenic’s bed to go out into the world, but lapsing into a kind of bland detachment when he did so. In Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities (1930–43), set in a thinly disguised Vienna in 1913, the first time we see the protagonist, Ulrich, he is looking out his window, “ticking off on his stopwatch the passing cars, trucks, trolleys and pedestrians…timing everything whirling past that he could catch in the net of his eye…calculating the incalculable.” Later in the novel, the tables are turned: Ulrich becomes the object of calculation when he is arrested on a false charge of insulting a police officer. “He felt as if he had been sucked into a machine that was dismembering him into impersonal general components before the question of his guilt or innocence came up at all.” Yet “he could, even at such a moment as this, himself appreciate this statistical demystification of his person and feel inspired by the quantitative and descriptive procedures applied to him by the police apparatus as if it were a love lyric invented by Satan. The most amazing thing about it was that the police could not only dismantle a man so that nothing was left of him; they could also put him together again, recognizably and unmistakably, out of the same worthless components.”44xRobert Musil, The Man without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins (New York, NY: Picador, 2017), 6–7, 168–69. First published, in German, as Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1930–43. This recognition scene puts us on the cusp of the contemporary.

One could hardly find a more appropriate slogan than “calculating the incalculable” for a historical moment when statistics have slipped the leash of social utility and become instruments for probing the public soul. It should come as no surprise that Ulrich is a professional mathematician, but not a practicing one; he has no sense of identity, individual, communal, or professional, no inner life, no convictions or even tastes (“he simply left the furnishing of his house to the genius of his suppliers, secure in the knowledge that he could safely leave the traditions, prejudices, and limitations to them”)—not to mention no commitments outside the self, and no self.55xIbid., 16.

Yet as Musil makes clear, the man without qualities inhabits Vienna at the very time, the aftermath of the fin de siècle, when artists and writers were obsessed with the creation of a vibrant free-floating self—with personal liberation from ossified cultural values, with spontaneous, overflowing vitality. This was even truer in the United States. The years leading up to World War I constitute a prolonged vitalist moment in American life, culminating in 1913—when Europe was poised on the brink of conflagration, and no one had a clue.

The year 1913 was not only the year Musil chose to set The Man without Qualities; it was also the year when rivulets of life worship in America converged into a torrent. Recent Columbia graduate Randolph Bourne published Youth and Life, his paean to “the great rich rush and flood of energy” embodied in young people like himself, who were seeking to live “the experimental life.”66xRandolph S. Bourne, Youth and Life (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), 25. The vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson came to New York to lecture at Columbia and City College of New York, attracting ecstatic throngs and creating the first traffic jam in America, on upper Broadway. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung came to New York that same year, entrancing bohemian audiences while he redefined the Freudian concept of libido as undifferentiated psychic energy rather than simply sexual energy. And the queen of bohemia, Mabel Dodge Luhan, helped promote two phenomenal outbursts of what she deemed revolutionary energy: the Armory Show, which introduced Marcel Duchamp and other modern artists to the American public, and the Madison Square Garden pageant in support of the Paterson silk workers’ strike. As Luhan said of the pageant, “I have never felt such a high pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since.”77xMabel Dodge Luhan, Intimate Memories: The Autobiography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, ed. Lois Palken Rudnick (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 134. The intellectual sponsor of working-class vitalism was Georges Sorel, whose Reflections on Violence (1908) promoted the value of vital energy for the oppressed masses, not merely the avant-garde bourgeoisie.

Personal Vitality Is National Vitality

But from the moment they were felt in public, the pulsing vibrations of energy were merged with the needs of big, emerging institutions—the national security state and the corporate capitalist economy. Theodore Roosevelt was a key figure in this process. “The preservation of national vigor should be a matter of patriotism,” he said.88xTheodore Roosevelt quoted in Irving Fisher, Bulletin 30 of the Committee of 100 on National Health: Being a Report of National Vitality, Its Wastes and Conservation, Prepared for the National Conservation Commission (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923), 51. No one was more obsessed than Roosevelt with personal and national vitality, yet he could not imagine either without incorporating them into a militarist agenda. He demanded the revitalization of national (and masculine) will through imperial adventure, and eventually through American entry into World War I. This was the drift of things—the incorporation of vitalist impulses into larger institutional agendas.

For decades, even vitalists themselves had recognized that spontaneous energies—animal spirits—were potentially disruptive to existing hierarchies and had to be harnessed to managerial ends. As early as 1844, the journalist Parke Godwin noted in the New York Tribune that while industrial leaders “have resorted to associated effort in the execution of almost every kind of enterprise, it has never occurred to them to organize the human forces, the vital energies by which alone all useful results are brought about.”99xParke Godwin, “What Is This Association?” New York Daily Tribune, March 16, 1844, 2. By the early twentieth century, industrial psychologists and personnel managers had finally begun to respond to Godwin’s challenge. The task, as one of them, R.B. Wolf, noted in 1922, was “Making Men Like Their Jobs” (as he titled his contribution to the book Practical Psychology for Business Executives). “The only kind of an organization that will have a permanent esprit de corps is the kind where the creative spirit of the individual is free to express his real inner spirit,” Wolf wrote. “Why not, then, pattern our system of control after the nervous system of the human body, through which the life impulses or vitalizing forces are distributed in the body structure?”1010xR.B. Wolf, “Making Men Like Their Jobs,” in Practical Psychology for Business Executives, ed. Lionel Danforth Edie (New York, NY: H.W. Wilson, 1922), 113. Why not, indeed?

Progressive educators and social engineers had already come to this conclusion. They were committed to teaching children how to fit into an increasingly corporate society by allowing their animal spirits free play within carefully circumscribed limits. This was the rationale of the “play movement” during the Progressive Era—young ruffians would be transformed into useful citizens through the regular discharge of excess energies in harmless games and sports. And in 1913, Walter Lippmann put vitalism in the service of social engineering when he criticized the Chicago Vice Commission’s stance on prostitution: “For what might be called the élan vital of the problem they had no patience,” he complained.1111x Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics (New York, NY: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914), 135. He urged the channeling of lust into socially useful pursuits—canalizing the life force, in Bergson’s terminology.

The monumental projects that came to fruition in 1913—the Woolworth Building, the Panama Canal—epitomized the harnessing of vital energies through the convergence of private and public power. When President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button in his White House office, the entire Woolworth Building went ablaze in light, epitomizing the mysterious force of electricity—invisible, pervasive, and apparently limitless. When Wilson pushed another button, on another staged occasion that same year, an explosion occurred 4,000 miles away, in Panama. “Gamboa dike, the last obstruction in the Canal, was swept away, and the dream of centuries became a reality,” the New York Times reported.1212x“55 Story Building Opens on a Flash,” New York Times, April 25, 1913; “Canal Is Opened by Wilson’s Finger,” New York Times, October 23, 1913.

To the Progressive journalist Ray Stannard Baker, the achievement pointed to a larger moral. “Until we went to Panama, the nation was like a youth who first ventures upon feats of strength or daring; we did not realize how strong we were. We bungled to start with, doubtful of our own abilities, not trusting the new attitude toward public work which it seemed necessary to take. But we finally succeeded in focusing the energies of the nation, and by arousing an ‘irresistible and irrepressible spirit of enthusiasm,’ discovered within ourselves hitherto untapped sources of power.”1313xRay Stannard Baker, “The Glory of Panama,” The American Magazine 76, November 1913, 33.

The merger of personal and national vitality, the incorporation of energy and spontaneity into institutional identities, culminated in the concept of “morale,” coined by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall in the aftermath of World War I. “According to Dr. G. Stanley Hall, there is a chief goal of man,” the New York Tribune reported in 1920, “though it took the awful psychic earthquake of war to reveal it.” It was, Hall said, “to keep ourselves, body and soul, and our environment, physical, social, industrial, etc. always at the very tip-top of condition. This super-hygiene is best described as morale…the one and only true religion of the present and future”—which we practice “when we thank whatever gods we believe in that we are alive, well, young, strong, buoyant, and exuberant with animal spirits at topnotch,” and which is most perfectly embodied in the ideal soldier, on alert and ready for action. In this figure, the incorporation of vitalism was complete, at least rhetorically.1414xG. Stanley Hall quoted in “The Supreme Standard of Life,” New York Tribune, August 29, 1920, 11.

The Pricing of Everyday Life

Progressive reformers thus were about nothing if not channeling potentially explosive energies into conventionally productive practices. The question arises: How does one express this relationship between vitality and containment, control and release? We can reject duality at the outset, and other, more appropriate words quickly come to mind—dialectics, ambivalence, coexistence, blending and merging. The two entities become one, but not quite. There is still room, as Simone Weil observed in her penetrating exploration of human consciousness, for “a sort of dialogue between the continuous and the discontinuous”—between computation and continuity, numbers and flow. But the dialogue can turn into territorial warfare.1515xSimone Weil cited in Roberto Calasso, The Unnameable Present, trans. Richard Dixon (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), 80–81.

Perhaps the best way to show the uneasy cohabitation of those two modes of thought in one mind is to examine the most influential quantifying vitalist, the Yale economist Irving Fisher. More than anyone else, Fisher brought the emerging science of statistics into the arena where political economy and public policy meet. Fisher pioneered not just in categorizing people but in monetizing them, body and soul. He moved statistics from mere counting to cost accounting and cost-benefit analysis. Everything had its cash value; money could be used to measure the value of anything.

Fisher’s views inspired the New York Times to publish a full-page article about him on January 30, 1910. It began: “An eight-pound baby, is worth, at birth, $362 a pound. That is a child’s earning power as a potential wealth-producer. If he lives out the normal term of years, he can produce $2,900 more wealth than it costs to rear him and maintain him as an adult. The figures regarding earning capacity are given by Irving Fisher, Professor of Political Economy.” Stunned by the inevitable outcry from outraged parents, Fisher tried to explain himself in a follow-up letter to the Times: “Human life is much more than a moneymaking machine, but it is only as a moneymaking machine that it has a calculable money value. The figures…were naturally not intended to include any sentimental human values in human life. What a baby is worth to its mother could never be calculated; but its value, or rather the value of the average baby as a prospective breadwinner, can be and has been calculated many times.” As Eli Cook has argued, Fisher resorted to the pricing of everyday life in order to win the support of business, professional, and political elites for a larger program of promoting personal and national vitality. Cost-benefit analysis was a tool for putting across a utopian agenda of regeneration.1616x“What the Baby Is Worth As a National Asset,” New York Times, January 30, 1910; “The Money Value of Human Beings,” New York Times, March 19, 1916; Eli Cook, “The Neoclassical Club: Irving Fisher and the Progressive Origins of Neoliberalism,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 15 (2016): 255, doi:10.1017/S1537781416000104.

Fisher had always been a zealous quantifier. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was an ambitious young mathematician, confident in the capacity of numbers to explain the world. As a Yale graduate student in economics, he made calculating the incalculable the core of his dissertation. He focused on subjective desire as the basis for his version of marginal utility theory. For decades, he wrote, marginal utility theorists “have been taunted with the question: what is a unit of pleasure or utility?” His answer was consumer desire, which translated itself into the price the consumer was willing to pay for the desired object. As he later wrote, “Prices are determined by the actual desires of men.” Value was, in effect, dependent entirely on price. Reducing consumer desire to quantifiable utility required Fisher to postulate an isolated, calculating, autonomous self, denuded of the dense network of social relations that Adam Smith and other classical economists had assumed surrounded all business transactions. This was how Fisher put the “neo” in neoclassical economics.1717xCook, “Neoclassical Club,” 251.

If this had been all there was to Fisher, there would been no “paradox” in the title of this essay. But Fisher was not just another rationalizing Progressive bureaucrat, searching for order through managerial expertise; he also worshiped at the shrine of energy and vitality. A brush with tuberculosis when he was a young man had transformed him into a lifelong advocate of fresh air, exercise, and total abstention from all intoxicants and stimulants, down to and including a cup of tea. “To spread the gospel of good health became his guiding fetish,” his son wrote years later. Fisher helped organize the Committee of 100 on National Health, which issued reports on national vitality; he won the ear of Roosevelt, who praised his work as a contribution to the critical work of revitalizing the American people. Like many other Progressives, Fisher became an enthusiastic advocate of eugenics, certain that “we are the trustees of the racial germ plasm that we carry,” and committed to isolating “defectives” so that “we can save the bloodstream of our race from a tremendous amount of contamination.” The path from eugenics to mass murder had not yet been cleared. In the 1910s and ’20s, eugenics advocates were aiming at “perfecting the race.” Whether it was the human race or merely the Anglo-Saxon one was an open question.1818xIrving Norton Fisher (henceforth I.N. Fisher), My Father, Irving Fisher (New York, NY: Comet Press, 1956), 82; Irving Fisher and Eugene Lyman Fisk, How to Live: Rules for Healthy Living Based on Modern Science (New York, NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1917), 165, 300, 322.

Fisher summed up his hygienic (and eugenic) wisdom in How To Live: Rules for Healthy Living Based on Modern Science (1917, cowritten with Eugene Lyman Fisk), which sold more than 500,000 copies and was intended “to include every practical procedure that, according to the present state of our knowledge, an athlete needs to keep himself superbly ‘fit,’ or that a mental worker needs in order to keep his wits sharpened to razor-edge.” This was a demanding goal, as Fisher knew. “Our health ideals,” he wrote, “should rise from the mere wish to keep out of a sick-bed to an eagerness to become a wellspring of energy.” Fisher’s highest and most fervent ambition was to overcome death itself. “So far as science can reveal, there seems to be no principle limiting life,” he wrote in How to Live. “There are many good and bad reasons why men die, but no underlying medical reason why they must die.” When his daughter Margaret was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Fisher had her treated at Trenton State Hospital by the psychiatrist Henry Cotton, who believed that mental illness resulted from bodily infection, and could be cured by surgical removal of infected tissue. Cotton removed sections of Margaret’s bowel and colon, and she eventually died. Yet Fisher remained convinced of the rightness of Cotton’s treatment. After Margaret’s funeral he announced, “There aren’t going to be any more deaths in this family!”—speaking with “fierce determination,” as his son recalled. One can only imagine what he meant by this outburst, absurd on its face, yet revelatory of his deepest obsession—the conquest of death through the careful cultivation of spontaneous life.1919xFisher and Fisk, How to Live, x, 5, 142; Andrew Scull, Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 81–86. I.N. Fisher, My Father, 181–82.

Fisher believed he was an example of William James’s “religion of healthy-mindedness,” but his wife, in moments of impatience, sometimes referred to him as a “health prude.” He conceded the justice of this characterization: “As you say, it’s all wrong to make a burden of Hygiene. True Hygiene means serenity and unconcern.” Yet Fisher’s quest for vitality never quite brought him serenity, despite his constant self-admonitions to cultivate it. He thought he was a Jamesian, but he clung to a monistic conception of the universe that James would have found profoundly unsatisfying. Whatever the meaning of life might be, he wrote in 1903, “of one thing I am convinced: that it is for us to approve and not disapprove. It is perfect because it is impossible of variation by a hair’s breadth. The wheels of time never jump the track…. The program of Fate is never altered.” Compare this assertion to one of James’s own, that “‘ever not quite’ has to be said of the best attempts made anywhere in the universe at attaining all-inclusiveness.”2020xWilliam James, A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present State of Philosophy (London, England: Longmans, Green, 1920), 321–24.

Two decades later, in 1924, Fisher wrote, in a letter to his wife, “I’ve been reading a biography of Frederick Taylor and felt throughout as if I were reading my own biography.” His affinity for the father of scientific management came from their shared anxieties and their common obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but also showed up in Fisher’s Progressive prescription for ending the strife between capital and labor. The Industrial Workers of the World member, he wrote, was “the naughty boy of American industry”—healthy outlets should be found for his energies, so as to turn him from a potential hooligan into a model worker.2121xFisher and Fisk, How to Live, 114; letter from Irving Fisher to Margaret Hazard Fisher, from Dresden, 1911, reprinted in I.N. Fisher, My Father, 151–52; letter from Irving Fisher to Margaret Hazard Fisher, from Peacedale, RI, 1903, reprinted in I.N. Fisher, My Father, 86; letter from Irving Fisher to Margaret Hazard Fisher, from Minneapolis, MN, 1924 reprinted in I.N. Fisher, My Father, 214; Irving Fisher, “Humanizing Industry,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 82 (March 1919), 85.

Fisher’s social vision exalted superabundant vitality in the service of economic productivity and national greatness. This was G. Stanley Hall’s “morale” but with a difference: Fisher’s version of animal spirits could be quantified (not to mention monetized), hence rendered “scientific” and objective. In this it resembles the present-day efforts by behavioral economists and bankers to calculate the incalculable—such as Wells Fargo’s quixotic “animal spirits index,” which reduces the slipperiness of human motives to the parsimonious precision of numbers.2222xWells Fargo Securities Economics Group, “The Roar of the Animal Spirits: A New Index,” January 18, 2018, I am indebted to Joseph E. Davis of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture for pointing this out. These gambits have the appeal statistics always have had: They seem to be objective, beyond politics, prejudice, and power—veritable messages from God, as Florence Nightingale thought. “To understand God’s thoughts,” she said,” we must study statistics, for these are the measure of His purpose.”2323xQuoted in Eileen Magnello, “Florence Nightingale: The Compassionate Statistician,” Plus Magazine online, December 8, 2010, Nightingale wrote at a time when Providence and Progress moved forward hand in glove; some people think they still do. But if we were to replace Nightingale’s God with the money god of capital, we would have a better sense of where we are today. It is, among other things, a world where quantified information serves the system Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism,” and where human beings have been transformed into human capital—persons without qualities indeed.2424xShoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2019).

Irving Fisher is mostly remembered today as the man who, six days before the Great Crash of 1929, announced that the stock market had reached a permanently high plateau. But from our longer-range perspective, surrounded by signs and portents of monetized data, we can draw a different conclusion: Despite his defects as a short-term prognosticator, Irving Fisher had seen the future.