BY now we’re a few centuries into a world where truth is held to be revealed through tests. The vouchsafing of fact through contingency is how we transmute the galactic and subatomic qualities of being into quantities of data and pile them up into values. Though a venerably religious concept, the insertion of testing into the most minute pores of everyday life is one of the the secular, bourgeois world’s more striking departures from its precapitalist forbearers. It’s everywhere: prenatal genetic testing, immigration testing, means-testing, you name it. The ideologues of science and rationality preach their love for testing as if it were the blind goddess of justice, meting out harmony and proportion and just deserts. In practice, testing does little more than register social fates already at work.
In his essay for this issue, Evan Kindley digs into the history of testing as a tool of population management. English scientist Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, popularized “anthropometrics,” personal data collection through questionnaires. Kindley writes, “Racial ‘science,’ per se, was not the innovation: eugenics was Galton’s dream of a discipline that would be able to not only understand human reproduction but control it, and would do it through data collection.” And suddenly, the wild popularity of Buzzfeed’s quizzes takes on a new light.
Sure, those tests are innocent, you say. But our taste for them had to be nurtured somewhere. Novelist Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice gives us the (easy) answer. This book is quite literally a test, a multiple-choice, scantron-style provocation inspired by the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. Its narrative innovation runs on the involuntary memory of filling in bubbles it will recall in readers. The sentiment it prompts will also be familiar: “The National Institute [which administers the test] is rotten, but the world is rotten,” a character offers. “You weren’t educated, you were trained.”
The subject who excels at those tests knows not only the answers, but that they are not supposed to share them. As a high school cheater, Lauren O’Neal recounts, sharing answers felt like solidarity. Cheating provided a precious moment of support — which was manifestly absent from teachers who imposed punishments driving her to contemplate suicide “more days than not.” Cheating’s “tiny filament of comradeship” was a lifeline.
Her experience is far from abnormal: one of the classic Very Special Episodes of American television, “Jessie’s Song” on Saved by the Bell, centers on a character who, like O’Neal, suffers from test-taking anxieties. Jessie Spano wants to get into Stanford University, not incidentally one of the early centers of eugenic research through intelligence and personality tests, providing the model for the SAT. Mayukh Sen’s contribution to the issue looks at how this trope — the high-achieving, tragic wreck — continues to inform journalistic interest in a series of suicide clusters in neighboring Palo Alto’s high schools. “The image of Jessie Spano is predictive — not only in the way it depicts how a generation would continue to cry for help, but also in the way those cries would always be misunderstood by the spectators looking upon them,” he writes. If these suicides pose a test for the society that creates them, that society has failed.
For some ailments, doctors can only prescribe more and more testing. In her remarkable essay for this issue, Katie Lew charts her experience with an illness that begins as vertigo, and only gets less stable. “Illness is a state of the body that demands testing,” she begins, and then walks us through the procession of tests and diagnoses as she is passed along from specialist to insurance adjuster to psychologist until she suddenly discovers she’s failed a test she didn’t know she was taking. But “for now,” she writes, “I live beside, or within, or along a set of chronic symptoms, which, gathered together, have no medical precision, but exist in my body as the residuals of a neurological event that is either ongoing or not; that will either repeat itself or not; that will kill me one day or not.”
The impotence of testing in the face of chronic illness likewise informs Ted Kerr’s historical argument against the hegemony of testing as a response to HIV/AIDS. To those populations most criminalized for and at risk of contracting the virus, testing is yet another risk to be managed. Kerr shows how testing can be a governmental tool of surveillance and quarantine, and a way to extinguish a history of life-saving communal responses. The focus on testing and treatment as prevention “can frame people living with HIV as disease vectors to be treated not for their own sake, but for the good of the public — a public which they seemingly do not belong to,” writes Kerr.
Testing and quantification always seem to be put to use to define the borders of the public. In her essay “Representation and the Working Student,” Elizabeth Newton explains how student organizing at the City University of New York often bumps up against a perception of the university system as both constantly struggling and in competition with the private universities which are taken as the benchmark of academia against which all others must be evaluated. “We don’t need to accept the reliance on reductive quantification and adherence to corporate principles,” which narratives about CUNY struggles often reproduce, she writes.
It’s an essayistic commonplace to point out that the etymology of the name of the form itself comes from essai, a French term for a test of metallurgic purity. The link between the hegemony of the essay and the ubiquity of the test has been less remarked upon, however. The New Inquiry has always been a bit of a test itself, a test of how far we can push the materials of society to reflect critically on themselves. With this latest collection, we hope we’ve passed the test.
The New Inquiry Vol. 55: Testing
Testing Beyond Control
The Unproven Body
What’s Killing Jessie Spano?
Confessions of an American Pumpkin Eater
You Weren’t Educated, You Were Trained