Reading “Accounting for Slavery”

Rosen­thal, C. Caitlin. (2018). Account­ing for Slav­ery: Mas­ters and Man­age­ment. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Cam­bridge MA. 

I’ve read a num­ber of Caitlin Rosen­thal’s aca­d­e­m­ic papers and have been antic­i­pat­ing this book for a while. The book does­n’t dis­ap­point. It cements and builds on her past work, and draws her insight­ful ideas togeth­er. Rosen­thal con­vinc­ing­ly shows how the sys­tems of account­ing used in the (large­ly) ante­bel­lum South­ern States of the US served to man­age (and mas­ter) slaves, method­i­cal­ly sus­tain­ing the vio­lence we know too well.

I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed Rosen­thal’s care­ful exam­i­na­tion of the paper-based records, show­ing in detail how forms, tables and cal­cu­la­tions objec­ti­fied peo­ple’s bod­ies as machin­ery in a cap­i­tal project, in effect autho­ris­ing the bru­tal­i­ty. What I’d real­ly like to see in any future work is how this line of inquiry ties into con­tem­po­rary slave stud­ies, with its strong and vital nar­ra­tive forms. This will no doubt present a chal­lenge, but one worth pursuing.

Book cover for Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management - Caitlin Rosenthal
Account­ing for Slav­ery:
Mas­ters and Man­age­ment
Caitlin Rosen­thal.

HCID Seminar talk

I had the plea­sure of pre­sent­ing as part of our very own HCID Sem­i­nar Series in Novem­ber. I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty of try­ing out some ear­ly ideas about tables, a lit­tle clum­si­ly test­ing out ideas of how tables have been used in the record­ing of bod­ies, from the slave trade to the algo­rith­mic modes of bod­i­ly account­ing so per­va­sive today. 

See the abstract for the talk below. 

A return of slaves in the Parish of Jamaica, St Ann”, 28 June 1820. The National Archive.
“A return of slaves in the Parish of Jamaica, St Ann”, 28 June 1820. The Nation­al Archive.
Convolutional Neural Networks for Sentence Classification. Yoo Kim
Con­vo­lu­tion­al Neur­al Net­works for Sen­tence Clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Yoo Kim,, 2014.

The act of read­ing across and down, through the coor­di­nate grid, to find infor­ma­tion is a gen­er­a­tive act. […] 

This is not triv­ial, but essen­tial, to the per­for­ma­tive capa­bil­i­ties of tables. 

Joan­na Drucker 

ABSTRACT: Through a num­ber of routes, I’ve found myself think­ing about tables, the kinds of tables with columns and rows. These tables lie behind so much of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of data and com­pu­ta­tion we are wit­ness­ing in con­tem­po­rary life. They are also core to much of the work we do as researchers and design­ers. Yet too often we neglect the live­ly nature of these order­ing tech­nolo­gies (Druck­er 2014). In offer­ing a prac­ti­cal solu­tion for sort­ing and organ­is­ing pret­ty much any­thing (e.g., num­bers, times, dates, names, events, jour­neys, bod­ies, etc,), we over­look how they afford and autho­rise very par­tic­u­lar ways of mak­ing mat­ter mat­ter (e.g. Rosen­thal 2018; Wern­i­mont 2018). Take Excel. The tool’s pow­er­ful capac­i­ties for order­ing items in a seem­ing­ly infi­nite num­ber of rows and columns—setting var­i­ous sys­tems of organ­i­sa­tion against one another—is in no way inert. The explic­it or implied hier­ar­chies, the cat­e­gories and com­par­isons, the round­ings up or down, the spa­tial and cal­cu­la­tive trans­for­ma­tions, etc.—altogether, they are, already, telling a sto­ry. They are, if you will, techno­sci­en­tif­ic “world­ings” (Har­away 2016). 

I want to use this talk as a forc­ing func­tion to explore this line of thought and the rel­e­vance it might have to the design of inter­ac­tive sys­tems. For now, my view is that much is to be under­stood from the close exam­i­na­tion of ‘tables-in-action’. I believe we might dis­cov­er many of the assump­tions and bias­es we have in inter­pret­ing data and con­duct­ing research by attend­ing to what we do with our tab­u­lat­ing practices—practices that, at first glance, appear so neu­tral. With this as a start­ing point, my hope will be to imag­ine worlds oth­er­wise. To imag­ine inter­ven­ing in the ways we work with tables so that we might extend and mul­ti­ply the worlds we make possible. 

  • Druck­er, Johan­na. Graph­e­sis: Visu­al forms of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014. 
  • Har­away, Don­na J. Stay­ing with the trou­ble: Mak­ing kin in the Chthu­lucene. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016. 
  • Rosen­thal, Caitlin. Account­ing for Slav­ery: Mas­ters and Man­age­ment. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2018. 
  • Wern­i­mont, Jacque­line. Num­bered Lives: Life and Death in Quan­tum Media. MIT Press, 2018. 

Cycling on up

I’ve been con­tin­u­ing with my exper­i­men­ta­tions and thoughts on cycling, and in par­tic­u­lar extend­ing my reflec­tions on my first ‘Boris Bike’ jour­ney record­ed in 2014 (see this chap­ter). There’ll hope­ful­ly be more to come in the com­ing months that tie togeth­er the space-times I tra­versed with oth­er records and dif­fer­ent accounts.

A video cap­tured using the now defunct Auto­g­ra­ph­er. It cap­tures me pur­pose­ly cycling beyond the usu­al routes mapped by the rental bikes. from the Aber­feldy Street dock­ing sta­tion out through Newham to Green Street, along The Greenway/Northern Out­fall Sew­er, and then back to Bow.


Newcastle APL Talk

Talk­ing to the good peo­ple at New­castle’s School of Archi­tec­ture, Plan­ning & Land­scape (APL), I got the chance yes­ter­day to devel­op and share my slow­ly evolv­ing thoughts on bike jour­neys, bod­ies and fabulations.

Liv­ing Fruit­ful­ly in/with the con­di­tions of (im-) possibilty


In this talk, I want to revis­it a piece I wrote in 2016. The piece, a chap­ter in Dawn Nafus’ book Quan­ti­fied (2016), was intend­ed as a sto­ry of promise, a fab­u­la­tion about London’s bike rental scheme and how it might be used to re-imag­ine new fig­ur­ings of human-machine rela­tions. Think­ing across, askew, or “athwart” (Hus­tak & Myers 2013), my exper­i­ment­ing with the rela­tion­al capac­i­ties of bicy­cles, a city, (bio)sensing and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of data-every­where, aimed to resist the “agen­cies of homog­e­niza­tion” (Scott 1998) to explore the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty for oth­er world­ings (Har­away 2016).

Reflect­ing on this work, I’ve felt a dis­sat­is­fac­tion with my efforts to throw togeth­er mix­tures of data at all scales, with the attempts at thick­en­ing and enliven­ing the rela­tions. It all felt too flat, too lack­ing in vital­i­ty. So, at the risk of appear­ing self indul­gent, this talk will present some ear­ly ideas for a dif­fer­ent sto­ry woven in and through the thick­et of rela­tions. Strug­gling to weave myself into London’s lega­cy with slav­ery and the vio­lent era­sures of bod­ies and agency (Hart­man 2008), I’ll be try­ing to place myself at a much more frag­ile and ten­u­ous junc­ture of space-time, but at the same time still seek­ing to work fruit­ful­ly in/with the con­di­tions of (im-)possibility.

FoI Request: Amount paid per year to repay Slavery Abolition Act loan

In response to a sto­ry report­ed via a num­ber of news sites and explor­ing a thread in my own research, I sub­mit­ted a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion (FoI) request to Her Majesty’s Trea­sury on the 7th April. In brief, I request­ed fur­ther details on the amount paid per year to repay the Slav­ery Abo­li­tion Act loan, a loan tak­en by the UK gov­ern­ment in 1834 to ‘com­pen­sate’ slave own­ers for their loss of ‘prop­er­ty’. Shock­ing­ly, this loan was being repaid up until 2015 by UK taxpayers.

I made my request using the amaz­ing What­DoThey­Know site. I’ve includ­ed the text from my request below for context.
Screen shot of written response by HM Treasury to FOI request

To Her Majesty’s Treasury,
As wide­ly report­ed, in 1833–35 [1] the UK gov­ern­ment bor­rowed £20m, 40% of its nation­al bud­get, to “rec­om­pense” slave own­ers for los­ing their “prop­er­ty” [2] — under the Slav­ery Abo­li­tion Act. On 9 Feb­ru­ary 2018, HM Trea­sury announced (via Twit­ter) that this loan had been paid in full. A relat­ed FOI request that HM Trea­sury respond­ed to on 9 Feb­ru­ary 2018 sets the date of the loans ‘con­sol­i­da­tion’ to be the 1 Feb­ru­ary 2015: “The 4% Con­sol­i­dat­ed Loan was redeemed on 1 Feb­ru­ary 2015” [3].
Under the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion act, I request fur­ther details of this loan. Specif­i­cal­ly, I request the annu­al amount paid per year since 1833–35.
I also request to total sum paid to repay the loan, includ­ing interest.
Yours faithfully,
Alex Taylor
1. From the doc­u­men­ta­tion avail­able, it’s unclear whether the loan began in 1833 or 1835.
2. This was cov­ered by a num­ber of news organ­i­sa­tions. Two exam­ples from the Guardian follow:……

Hav­ing left their writ­ten response to the last day of the 20 work­ing days usu­al­ly allot­ted, HM Trea­sury replied with a some­what mud­dled mes­sage offer­ing some details, but not ful­ly answer­ing my request. Some equiv­a­lent to “HM Trea­sury does not hold information/records” was used four times in a one-page response:

“HM Trea­sury does not hold infor­ma­tion with­in the scope of your request.”
“HM Trea­sury does not hold records dat­ing from this period.”
“HM Trea­sury does not hold any detailed infor­ma­tion on the struc­ture or amounts of repayments…”
“HM Trea­sury does not hold infor­ma­tion on the total inter­est paid…”

The let­ter from HM Trea­sury is avail­able via What­DoThey­Know here.
I will be con­tin­u­ing this research and share any fur­ther infor­ma­tion I’m able to obtain.