Diane M. Nelson is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and the author of
Chapter Minus One
This chapter builds on guesstimating the toll of the civil war by saying every extended family had lost at least one person—so everyone is minus one. But it also introduces the way some Mayan people have come to count, including feeling welcomed at the luxury Camino Real hotel and accepted by nonindigenous people, through participating in the complex accounting procedures of direct sales. It sets up both negative and positive valences of number and suggests that numbers traverse and transect all terrains of life. They offer powerful tools of generalization and equivalence, but they are also deployed in particular instances through situated and singular practices. This book engages Guatemalans’ experiences via number but also strives to unsettle readers’ relations to counting, especially the idea that mathematics is the only true universal language.