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, arX​iv​.org, 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.


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:
 — https://​www​.the​guard​i​an​.com/​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​i​sfre...
 — https://​www​.the​guard​i​an​.com/​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​i​sfre...

3. https://​www​.gov​.uk/​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​atio...

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.