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3. We Don’t Do Body Counts

Published onApr 01, 2020
3. We Don’t Do Body Counts
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The power of a table or bill to remediate someone from an individual with moral and legal status into a financial product is of course familiar to those who work on the history of the Atlantic slave trade. It was first “merchants on slave ships [that] tracked and enumerated people kidnapped and deported across the Atlantic in the service of someone else’s wealth.”1 The transport and tracking of white British subjects—itself informed by English mortality bills—helped to further establish the media ecology in which the practices and media of the slave trade flourished. But there were crucial differences in how the mediation of white British citizens worked compared to those that appear in marine insurance and slave trade. English shipping manifests and colonial settlement reports collapsed white settlers together with livestock and goods in auditors’ reports, but the corresponding insurance for such ships rarely covered the mortal risks to white passengers. Insuring travelers’ lives, which entailed both enumeration and valuation, was rarely practiced except in the transport of enslaved black people, even among the English, who were far more open to life insurance than other Europeans. This disparity in mediation was one of the ways in which early modern quantum media were racializing technologies, rendering lives valuable and visible in different terms. “Slavery fostered new forms of human accounting” that drew on and coexisted in a media ecology with other tabular media to enable a violent form of human-techno becoming.2

Continuing the aesthetic rationalism of mortality bills, the media used by colonial and slave trade bureaucrats had devastatingly powerful effects on Anglo-American ideas about whose bodies mattered to British imperial and, later, American enterprises. In these contexts, quantum media transformed the lives and possibilities available to enslaved people, displaced indigenous people, immigrants, and those considered American citizens. The violence of colonial quantum media was constitutive not only of the lived possibilities for black and indigenous people but also of the construction of Anglo-American whiteness.3 Understanding the effects of a historical generic segregation within quantum media is absolutely essential to understanding how these and related media work today. The histories of colonial quantum mediation of black and indigenous people are as much a part of our modern counting of the dead as the more obvious English mortality counts. They are also a critical element in understanding why The Nicholas Shadow suggests that we need to again perform/remediate body counts if we want to understand the (nonteleological) media history that precedes twenty-first-century representations of war casualties, gun violence deaths, and everyday mortality in ways that create weird as well as difficult distances between readers and the body counts that they encounter.

Colonial Quantum Media

The aesthetic rationalism of Atlantic colonial accounts helped procolonialists render the often-violent and dangerous settler life as beautiful and controlled—a move that was especially important to those back in London.4 Experiences of an arithmetic sublime, of control over unpredictable and novel experiences, was produced by a range of broadsides that publicly and privately counted living bodies, much like the bills of mortality enumerated the dead. Take, for example, the popular “bills of adventure,” which recorded the monetary investments—or money “adventured”—by wealthy British citizens.

<p>Figure 3.1 Report of adventurers made to the Crown as seen in the papers of the Virginia Company Court Books. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.</p>

Figure 3.1 Report of adventurers made to the Crown as seen in the papers of the Virginia Company Court Books. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.


Lists like the one seen in figure 3.1 included the name of the investor as well as the amount invested in pounds and shillings. When published, bills of adventure functioned as public announcements of investment opportunities seized by fellow citizens, enticing readers to join the speculative boom. If early modern readers found emigration unimaginable, they too could turn to the powers of reason—to the work and media of quantification—and in that moment experience the sublime powers of mathematics. In the case of quantifying media discussed here, the broadsides and pamphlets were all working to give shape to link the arithmetic sublime to the prospect and promises of colonial settlement. Rather than help to make sense of the rather-immediate past as the mortality bills did, the promotional counting of the colonial period provided would-be settlers with a vision of the value of an investment articulated in concrete, if limited, terms.

These mediations operated in both public and private settings, and as private documents, bills of adventure were official legal records between the colonial enterprises—in this instance, between the Virginia Company and British Crown. The same media that functioned as public advertising, in a sense, was used as paperwork in legal settings; the bills were receipts and evidence within the context of royal account keeping. In addition to recording monetary investment in the colonial enterprise, accounts like these remediate people in terms of financial investments or risk. Named as “adventurers,” these wealthy British subjects took a place in the financial accounts of the imperial nation by sharing in the risk of the colonial enterprise. The larger genre of shipping bills name the goods or value transported by the ships of the Virginia Company, and were designed to certify that the owner of the ship was acting on behalf of others. Such certification limited the liability of a ship’s captain, rendering him liable only for the transport of goods owned, procured, stolen, or produced by others.

The simple tabular format used in shipping registers and bills of mortality and adventure became part of expected practice for colonial accounting, as seen in the records of the Virginia Company and its colonies. Achille Mbembe theorizes about “the colony as a formation of terror”—one in which the quantum media shaped what it meant to live and die in an occupied land.5 While colonies varied a great deal in their operations, I will be using those of the Virginia Company as exemplary here with the hope that others will fill in the variations across colonial sites. In the account of Virginia for 1619, quantum mediation entailed the collapse of “shipping, men, and provisions” into a single table, in which the ships are named and then quantities of people are organized according to their function on the plantation.6 Six hundred and fifty persons were “sent over for public use as Tenants,” with a hundred boys included “to make apprentices,” and “ninety young maids to make wives,” along with ironworks, cordage, timber, silk, and other commodities.7 In 1621, the then Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, submitted an excellent illustration of the use of the account table, which places men and cattle in a composite account (see, for example, entry 9 in figure 3.2).

<p>Figure 3.2 An account table. From <em>Note of the Shipping, Men, and Provisions.</em></p>

Figure 3.2 An account table. From Note of the Shipping, Men, and Provisions.


Counting and enumeration were important tools in “translating the colonial experience into terms graspable in the metropolis”—one where the terror of colonization was obscured in favor of familiar and reassuring accountings.8 Even as they did this work, they enabled an epistemic collapse performed between certain people and goods. The tables placed men, boys, and women in the same spatialized frame as the goods that were being transported, rendering their “use” as instrumental as that of clothing and timber. The accountant’s table thus became a structuring logic and major media of communication between the colonies and London, and were often the source material for the narrative accounts that flow around the Anglo-American circuits, thereby creating a media ecology that remediated people in terms of use value within the colonial enterprise.

Formally similar, a colony auditor’s account opens with a header that clearly names the earl, company, and “private investors” as the business agents. Below the header is a table structurally similar to the bills of adventure, if different in kind. In the bill of adventure, the heading marks everything that follows as the official business of the Virginia Company, including individual investment as a function managed by the company. Using a similar structure but to different ends, the people enumerated in the records like those of the Virginia Company are listed as assets rather than agents. For the colonial auditors who wrote these accounts, people are assets of the nation, company, or both risked in the colonial endeavor (versus agents making risks on their own behalf).9 By placing goods, livestock, and English bodies on the same line, these inventories render people not in terms of money contributed but instead as an investment value. This is achieved with a subtle shift in the relationship between content and form; in the colonial inventories, people are listed in the far-right column, which is the spatial and conceptual locus where the money invested appears in the bills of adventure. Additionally, where bills of adventure list individuals in colonial inventories we find the ships themselves, which formally suggests that the ships, as proxies for the risk made by the company, are the agents in the table rather than the persons enumerated. A bill of adventure recorded the money that named wealthy citizens put forward, and by contrast, colonial accounting media recorded the people that ships (synecdoches of corporate or national organizations) put forward. Placing people in the position usually occupied by a monetary investment, these documents both reflect and produce people in different legal and agential positions. Unlike adventurers who could hope for profit, and had legal recourse if fraud resulted in losses and could use the bills as evidence, the less wealthy people figured in company accounts enjoyed almost no guarantees and could not hope for recompense if they were lost in the transaction.10 This media ecology was not unique to the North American colonies. Literary scholar Molly Farrell reads the ledgers in Richard Ligon’s History of Barbados, for example, as enacting the same kind of collapse of human and commercial cargo seen in American colonial accounts, but with a specific emphasis on the ways in which the bodies of slaves become legible not as settlers or adventurers but instead as breeding stock like horses and agricultural starters.11 Geographic and travel narratives rendered indigenous and enslaved peoples equivalent to livestock and commodity goods through mixed media texts like Ligon’s, which included colonial accounting reports along with carefully measured objects, places, and communities.

The matrix of mediated human-techno becomings is always complex, and colonial settlers and émigrés were counted and recorded in multiple genres. In addition to colonial accounts, ships’ registers listed and enumerated people, and functioned both as legal and fiscal documents, but with different effects from the colony accounts discussed above. Registers listed freemen and women along with their children, and each registered party had to bring a certificate indicating that they were in good standing as members of the Church of England and were not in subsidy debt to the Crown (see the example in figure 3.3). They were also required to take an oath of allegiance before boarding.12 Official registers attested to the moral and legal standing of those listed, gave their names and ages, and in some instances indicated familial relationships. Such registers certified the loyalty and debt status of those who sought to emigrate. Should the ship be lost at sea, such tabular accounts could also function as documentation for an insurance or support claim, but only for a ship’s owner. Except in extraordinary circumstances, emigrating individuals and their families were not covered by any kind of marine or life insurance, but the ship’s owner could make claims regarding the value of goods used to support the individuals on board.13

<p>Figure 3.3 Reproduction of the 1635 ship register for the <em>Elizabeth</em>. From Hotten, <em>Original Lists</em>.</p>

Figure 3.3 Reproduction of the 1635 ship register for the Elizabeth. From Hotten, Original Lists.


As is the case with mortality counts, ships’ registers only include those who are considered lawful subjects, and it is likely that nonconforming colonial settlers were on board as unaccounted passengers as well.14 Because these documents had to testify to the moral and legal status of certain people before they were taken across the Atlantic, they eschew the same kind of collapse between British subject and commodity goods seen in other colonial reports. As media that negotiated the boundary between criminals and heretics and legal, loyal subjects, the ships’ registers depended on the particularity of the individual. In contrast, colonial auditors were paid for by the Crown or provided by mandate, and were less interested in the legal and moral status of the settlers. Instead, they were more interested in settlers’ value to the colonial effort and/or the company. For the auditors, both free and enslaved people were as much an asset as any goods conveyed across the Atlantic.

Counting Bodies as Insurable Property

As noted at the outset of this chapter, the remediation of human bodies transported across oceans and lands is familiar to those who study the slave trade. Less attention has been paid to the ways in which the bills of adventure, ship manifests, and official colonial accounts were racializing media for white freeman, white indentured servants, and white colonial adventurers. Freemen were constituted as investors to whom money, land, or both was owed in the case of a successful colonization. Using similar media forms but to different ends, white servants and émigrés, many of whom left England under some kind of pressure, were constructed as good, honest, and loyal citizens (having made the requisite pledges). Nevertheless, government and corporate entities saw them as akin to other assets adventured by British men of means and the British Crown. Each of these media types constructed the white subject differently based on wealth; poorer whites were remediated as human assets ventured by the Crown or a venture company. Even this disadvantaged remediation stood in contrast to the media transformations of enslaved bodies into chattel or property, and is a prime example of how media technologies enabled not only the class/wealth-based becomings discussed previously but also racializing human-techno becomings. It is important to recognize that the forms that create trust between state/corporate agents and wealthy individuals emerged at the same time as they were being used to render people as property. It is historically inaccurate to understand the history of accounting and colonial commerce as separate from that of slavery and human oppression. The abstraction and ready substitution enabled by tabular forms made it possible to refigure the theft and transportation of black and brown people as a sanitized, objective contract regarding goods transported. White bodies may have been figured as royal assets but in that position they remained part of the imagined British national body. Black and brown bodies were afforded no such status. To be white and Anglican was to be counted, others were invisible or insured as another man’s property.

The Western history of life insurance traditions is remarkably varied, and the Anglo-American uptake of insurance practices occurred much earlier than in many European countries, where it was considered uncouth, if not outright sacrilege. Life insurance in France, for instance, was not legally recognized until 1850. Across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the practice was banned on cultural and/or religious grounds (with a few exceptions).15 The English were less reticent. By the eighteenth century, it was possible to insure a range of life events, including death, marriage, birth, and even cuckoldry.16 These early insurance practices, including those of life insurance, focused on the already well-established marine insurance industry that was so important to British imperialism.

The tabular form appears again in maritime insurance supplementary pages known as “schedules” (they began as “property schedules”), which were quickly standardized and adopted to new uses. In particular, the schedule that had previously listed physical property was now used in ways similar to those seen in manifests and colonial accounts, collapsing both human and animals into the category of insurable property. The schedule and insurance contract constituted another media technology used to determine the value of the insured goods, thus rendering the enslaved body legible only in terms of a property value and insurable risk. This mediation was well understood by eighteenth-century commentators. French jurists, for example, argued that “the life of a freeman not being susceptible of appraisal, it therefore cannot be the subject of an insurance contract.” Enslaved black people, however, were understood not as freemen but rather as chattel whose “monetary value could be estimated without an ethical breach.”17 By relegating insured lives to an attached table, the insurance policies also established those lives as outside the interpersonal contract enacted by the insurance policy form itself.18 Insurance policies covering slave cargo used the same standard printed forms that were used for all marine insurance through the late eighteenth century.19 This meant that both enslaved people’s lives and any other cargo on the ship, such as perishable goods, merchandise, and livestock, were insured using the same tabular media. While American anti-insurance agitator George Albree argued that “we do not want man … to be made an article of merchandise,” this is precisely the remediation that the insurance of slave ships performed.20

The particular preprinted form, known as the “SG policy form,” has been in existence since at least the 1680 insurance policy for the Golden Fleece ship and remained stable through the eighteenth century (see example in figure 3.4).21 Such insurance covered losses incurred during “the Adventures and Perils” of sea voyage that were directly or “actively” caused by an extraordinary or violent event, such as extreme weather, war, piracy, or insurrection.22 The single page frames the policy as a legal oath, with its opening “In the Name of God, Amen,” and the signature of the attorney drafting the agreement just to the right of the invocation. Declaring legal counsel as acting on behalf of “all and every other person or persons” who “cause” the ship to be insured, the preprinted text indicates that “any kind of Goods and Merchandizes” as well as any “Body, Tackle, Apparel, Ordnance, Munition, Artillery, Boat, and other Furniture, of and in the good ship” will be insured for the length of the voyage, including twenty-four hours for disembarking once at destination. The first clause covers what were understood as the retail goods of the ship, including in this case human chattel or enslaved persons, and the second covers the ship itself along with any material or people necessary to its operation (including its defense). The preprinted text that forms the large block on the lower half of the form outlines the kinds of loss hazards that the insurance covers, and requires inclusion of the route to be traveled as well as the valuation of the ship and its goods. Forms express value, and the SG policy form articulated a greater concern for the route traveled than for the humans trapped within.

<p>Figure 3.4 A photographic reproduction of the oldest extant original preprinted S.G. policy form from Lloyd’s of London. Other, older instances of this standard form are attested to in scholarship. Image from Wright and Fayle, <em>A History of Lloyd’s</em>.</p>

Figure 3.4 A photographic reproduction of the oldest extant original preprinted S.G. policy form from Lloyd’s of London. Other, older instances of this standard form are attested to in scholarship. Image from Wright and Fayle, A History of Lloyd’s.


In this particular case, we can see that the ship was valued at thirty-five hundred pounds and the “goods,” or enslaved people, were valued at forty-five pounds each. Travel narratives and bills of adventure placed textiles, tobacco, and other products in the same conceptual space as the bodies of people. The insurance bills went much further by explicitly describing enslaved people as “goods” to be bought, transported, and sold, and offered abstracted and insurable values on those bodies. Written on the vertical of the policy is a modification that rendered a small degree of loss by “insurrection” uninsurable; such clauses rendered the insuring agent/entity “free from particular average” and limited the liability of the insurer. In this case, the insurer was not responsible for covering loss due to insurrection, or losses under 5 percent of the value of the goods and ship. Such clauses were (and are) conventionally used to cover conditions where the goods are susceptible to rot or other damage, as in the case of agricultural goods and livestock. Here, the language is limiting the insurance company’s liability for the loss of human life in the case of mutiny or other rebellion, and rhetorically and economically aligning something like fruit spoilage with human resistance.

Maritime media articulated two different relationships for their passengers/captives. White affluent citizens, like merchants, could expect to appear in the ship’s manifest as a certified English subject, and in rare cases could also appear in insurance documents as a value risked on his own or his family’s behalf. Less affluent white citizens in good standing with the government could appear in a ship manifest or colony account too, but were only expressed as assets. White English nonconformists and debtors traveled more invisibly on company ships, appearing neither as assets nor agents. Black enslaved people could only appear in these media as cargo. On insurance forms, they were explicitly rendered as the property of a single individual—a position even further debased than that of the white colonists who were understood as human assets of the Crown. In contrast to the ship’s registers, which established a contract between two legally recognized people, the insurance policies schedules covering enslaved persons used the same formal strategies (tabular layout, naming, and enumerating) not to express the debts of one to the other but instead to express the value of enslaved lives in exchange value terms.23

The British newspaper tradition was in full swing with the regular publication of the London Gazette by the end of the seventeenth century, and a similar newspaper boom in America began in the eighteenth century. From the outset, “the forced-servitude business was a steady part of their revenue stream. American newspapers and slavery helped grow each other.” In fact, by the nineteenth century, “spending liberally on advertising, (slave) traders helped anchor the Upper South’s newspaper industry, running ads in every issue, all season long, of every small-town paper.”24 Drawing on the practices of British colonialists, early American commodification of enslaved people as cargo or chattel had become the standard practice by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and had moved quickly from private insurance documents into mass media forms.25 To offer only one example from among many, just above an advertisement for raisins in the first edition of the Louisiana-based True American, a nineteenth-century newspaper, an ad ran reading, “A Bargain—for sale, first-rate female cook and general house servant. For sale low for cash.”26 The unnamed cook was written into the long history of quantifying media as part of the news of commercial business available in 1837. As with other commodities such as lard, whiskey, or “lots of ground,” the terms of her sale were articulated at the close of the ad.27 Like the body counts that were reported in the London Gazette, these newspaper features were much more compressed versions of the longer tables or lists—inventories or accounts—of enslaved peoples. Echoing the language of “seasoning” seen in early colonial accounts, enslaved people were often described as “valuable acclimated slaves” with names, ages, and occasionally areas of expertise or capacity, such as cook, nurse, or laborer.

While the broadsides and news notices announcing slave auctions share certain formal attributes with the emigrant/settler lists of early colonial America, they also circulated in different ecologies and expressed a different set of power relations. While many of the white people who appeared on ship manifests were poor or came as indentured labor, they retained basic human rights not afforded to enslaved persons. As Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette have demonstrated, “The modern 19th century American slavery industry made laborers into financial products: merchandise, cash, productive capital, collateral, and even, at the end of the chain, bonds.”28 Where the tables and lists of the ship manifests and colonial inventories firmly situated English settlers as royal or company assets, the quantifying media of Anglo-American slavery turned already-commodified people into money. Enslaved black people were recorded and circulated as a means of conducting transactions, store of value, and unit of account—in the nineteenth-century American economy. In a horrific illustration of mediated becoming, insurance policies, property schedules, and newspaper ads remediated enslaved blacks as money.29

Counting Bodies and the Body Politic

While quantum maritime media tended to enumerate a relatively small number of living bodies, they coexisted with the larger-scale colonial media used for census tracking and communication. In some ways, census media represent a convergence of two precursors: insurance media and early modern mortality bills. They also share with other tabular media their many different audiences, speaking to bureaucrats and popular media readers alike. The responsibility for mortality counts in the United States shifted much more quickly than in England. In the United States, death registration work was relocated from churches (as in parish registers) to civil courts as early as 1639.30 This does not mean that parishes stopped keeping track of deaths (burials); indeed, the use of those registers continues in some communities today. It does mean, however, that the legal responsibility for recording and tracking human mortality shifted away from religious institutions toward civic offices. While the legal responsibility shifted early with the census established in 1700, it was a slow and uneven process. Full census registration was not accomplished until 1933.31 Mortality bills were used longer as the official record in the United Kingdom; the General Register Office did not become the official entity responsible for death registration until 1837, following the 1800 establishment of the British census system.

The census in Britain and the United States is a bureaucratic genre, but it also circulated as popular media. Condensed or selected censuses often existed alongside selected mortality bills and burial numbers in early American and British periodicals. This included the long-running Gentleman’s Magazine, for instance, which “published tables of burials and christenings, not only from London but also from Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Philadelphia, and other places.”32 Founded in 1731 by Edward Cave and published continuously into the early twentieth century, the Gentleman’s Magazine was available to the general public through independent booksellers.33 The miscellany enjoyed sizable readership in England and perhaps beyond.34 In the December 1749 example (figure 3.5), a colonial state census and a city burial count are colocated on a single page. Like the mortality bills, the reports in the Gentleman’s Magazine included a comparative element, but with no crisis like the plague, the comparative impetus focused on rates of population increase (this periodically changed when a new crisis, like yellow fever, hit). Unlike the English mortality bills, this report of Philadelphia burials explicitly acknowledges “strangers” and accounts for a number of different religiously affiliated burial grounds. As a miscellany, the Gentleman’s Magazine included reports of parliamentary proceedings, birth and marriage announcements, book reviews, meteorologic tables, and investment prices alongside not only the London bills of mortality but population reports from the colonies too. Like the newspaper publication of the plague deaths, the Gentleman’s Magazine helped to create a reader’s sense of what “news” was important for readers, and it is clear that colonial mediations of both population growth and mortality rates were considered valuable news.

<p>Figure 3.5 A sample population table from the <em>Gentleman’s Magazine</em>. Image courtesy of Internet Library of Early Journals.</p>

Figure 3.5 A sample population table from the Gentleman’s Magazine. Image courtesy of Internet Library of Early Journals.


As a rather-long (eighty to a hundred pages), bound monthly volume, the Gentleman’s Magazine was an additional quantum media genre within the rich mortality media ecology of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-America. As such, it echoed the tabular conventions and aesthetic rationalism of the mortality bills even when reporting population data. This was strategic on the part of the editors; the tables were familiar and suited readers’ expectations of having a view of the whole all at once when thinking numerically. The affective and intellectual consequences of this formal remediation were well recognized by an anonymous reviewer of the eight-volume Census of Great Britain, 1851 Report and Population Tables. He noted that by bringing the numbers together in easily read tables, they “are scarcely appreciated in their full import,” in part because “when we see these enormous numbers on paper only we forget how large they really are.”35 The aesthetic rationalism of numerical tables had conquered the mind-boggling size of a national population count. In addition to rendering the counting of bodies as a disinterested and necessary endeavor, publications like the Gentleman’s Magazine fostered horizontal connections that placed the bodies of settler-colonialists in the same formal frame as those in London and other major European metropoles. As Farrell suggests, this enabled colonists to imagine themselves “more closely connected to the enumerated dead appearing in the Bills of London than to the living indigenous bodies that walked beside them on the streets.”36 In England, an equal and opposite operation was at work for readers, who could imagine that British imperialism essentially extended the terrain of the English population without needing to account for indigenous populations that were being violently displaced and/or killed.

Governmental nonwar body counts gradually phased out of mass media publication and popularity, making way for the eventual ascendancy of the census—a count that is focused more on the living bodies that make up a citizenry (I’ll look at the incompleteness of this transition shortly). While what was being counted shifted, slowly, the table remained a popular media format with important consequences, and counting bodies continued to be central to nation-state formation and human becoming. Like other quantum media, the census “does not simply reflect an objective demographic reality, but instead plays a constitutive role in its construction.”37 In noncrisis situations, early Anglo-American mortality media tend to serve as a mechanism to track fiduciary responsibility to either the Crown or the democratic government, ensuring that benefits for the living were not expended after death, and any and all debts are disposed. The US census, by contrast, was designed to be “tied to two fundamental modalities of government: representation and redistribution. Census counts determine voting districts and the apportionment of seats in many representative democracies. Census data also help determine where government money should be spent.”38 In both the census and mortality media, the counting of bodies is used to mediate real-time and ex post facto experiences of epidemic disease within national and/or state contexts. The textual media used to collect and share census information remain tabular, and the categories the tables structure are used to produce particular ways of understanding and enumerating people as raced bodies. The American census, for example, has asked some sort of question about race or color since 1790.39 I turn now to the specifics of the American censuses, which are an instance of the kind “becoming-with” that we have seen throughout this book as well as another touchstone for in the ways in which the particular, enumerable body becomes legible to the state in both its own historical moment and subsequently to posterity.

Like the tabular, spatialized information in early modern mortality bills and aggregated life tables, the modern American census is schematic and predicated on classification. As Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star observe, “Classifications are powerful technologies. Embedded in working infrastructures they become relatively invisible without losing any of that power.”40 We’ve seen how the categories for the cause of death in the mortality bills made it possible to expose death on particular terms. In the case of the American census, the schematic forms change over time but continue to render sex, race, marital status, age, ability, reproduction, and occupation as categories of interest to the nation-state; they define ways of being that matter. Formalized in the table, a spatial and relational media form, the census questions are an expression of national interests that require the variable and messy reality of American life to conform to a defined set of data fields. This is a fundamentally disciplining mediation—one that classifies components “according to definite objectives.”41 The main census table and the separation of the other asset schedules express a governmental interest in economic activity that is supplemental to the count of the nation; they also place enslaved peoples and displaced Native Americans in the same conceptual space as the property and agricultural assets (again relegated to the addendum or schedule). Even as the slave and native schedules placed black and indigenous bodies outside the schema of the main census, they still enacted the racializing categorizations that held such peril. The function of racializing media under the Foucauldian model of biopower is to “regulate the distribution of death and to make possible the murderous functions of the state.”42 The early census placed citizens within its scope as a measure of state power and placed others as appendixes to the national body, valuable as assets and subject to destruction if so needed.

The census schema was largely established early on and accrued new categories over time. The regularized, rule-bound (in both a visual and logical sense) schema and magically clear categories embedded therein helped to render “invisible the work, conflict, discord, and uncertainty undertaken in the process of its creation.” Census media carefully categorize, control, and contain the unruliness of everyday lived experience, and mask the “features of the state that enact and sustain white supremacy, masculine power, elitism, and/or heteronormativity … [which] are often submerged, largely invisible to the general public.”43 For all their power, these media are deceptively banal; preprinted forms were not in use until 1830, so census takers used either preruled or blank notebooks with guides penned in to create tables for keeping track of counts as they traveled. While the 1790 Census Act mandated federal aggregation of population statistics, the work itself happened at the local level within the original thirteen states along with the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (which would later become Tennessee).44 The goal of the first census as outlined in the 1790 Census Act was to “cause the number of the inhabitants within … districts to be taken” with the following adjustments: exclusion of “Indians not taxed” and distinguishing “free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, from all others; distinguishing also the sexes and colors of free person, and the free males of sixteen years and upwards from those under that age.”45 The distinction between freemen above or below sixteen years old was specifically geared to give the still relatively new nation’s president and Congress a sense of the number of men available to fight. As with other mediated becomings, the census created the categories of “free” and “able” as much as it reported them; it was critical as a mediation of an emergent national political imaginary.

While the speculative strength of the US military was clearly a topic of interest, the census operated within an emerging national media ecology designed to apportion both rights and responsibilities in the new nation, and this had a strongly racialized component. As Farrell notes, the logic of the census enumeration enshrined “slavery and its peculiar forms of counting people into the nation’s founding documents.”46 Article 1 of the US Constitution, which establishes the legislative powers of the US Congress, grants those powers and the national taxation structure (to help fund both the defense and well-being of the citizenry) with a numerical referent: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.”47 Farrell points to the generative power of media, remarking that in order “for the whole number of free persons to become visible in Article One … another confounding three fifths of all other persons had to appear as well.”48 In order for the category of freemen to have meaning, a category of not free had to exist too. This was produced and performed through the whole and fractional numbering of the census. Even more radical than the fractional numbering was the refusal to even count Native Americans, who were effectively zeroed out by census media. Gendering categories also created distinctions between free white women and girls and their male counterparts, thus marking out distinct defense and reproductive functions for “whole” US citizens.

Beginning with the 1790 census, the count was conducted every ten years by enumerators who traveled on foot, by horse, or by vehicle as the terrain and technology allowed. From the beginning, appointed marshals oversaw the census process, a role they continued as the census grew increasingly complex over time. By the time the 1830 preprinted forms were created, the original six questions derived from the constitutional language and Census Act had been significantly expanded by Congress, and necessitated both sides of a logbook.

<p>Figures 3.6a and 3.6b Examples of a two-page, preprinted census schedule—in this case, used in Alabama’s census count.</p>

Figures 3.6a and 3.6b Examples of a two-page, preprinted census schedule—in this case, used in Alabama’s census count.


Proceeding from left to right in figures 3.6a and 3.6b, the preprinted 1830 schedule asked enumerators to fill out the following in prose: the name of the county or city, the name of the head of household, and then a count of the free white persons by gender and age with five-year increments between zero and twenty, and ten-year increments between twenty and a hundred. On the right-hand side of the page, we see shifts in the ways that black American life mattered to the federal government. Enumerators were asked to distinguish between enslaved people and “free colored persons,” and were asked to break down each group by gender and age (in ten-year increments). They were also asked to indicate at the far right the number of whites who were “deaf and dumb” in three age categories (less than fourteen, between fourteen and twenty-five, and over twenty-five), those who were blind (of any age), and individuals who were “Aliens—foreigners not naturalized.” The same rubric exists at the far-right edge for “Slaves and Colored Persons” with the notable exception of “Aliens,” suggesting that all free blacks were naturalized or born citizens in the national imaginary. Moreover, the absence of the historical category of “mulatto” or mixed-race persons required that people either self-report as black or white or that enumerators make that distinction for them. Census media would not admit the possibility of interracial coupling and mixed-race identities until 1850.

In addition to using the “three-fifths clause” in order to make “whole” free persons meaningful, the census collection documents along with subsequent reports and publications were essential to emerging notions of national identity and the nuclear family. As noted earlier, concepts of national sovereignty and race were further articulated beginning with the 1790 census through the exclusion of “Indians not taxed,” a phrase that effectively placed Native Americans who did not pay taxes, regardless of citizenship status, outside enumeration, and therefore ineligible for representation and defense.49 The racializing imaginary of the early census tracked race in a limited way throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, largely acknowledging only “slaves” and “free black” as the possible nonwhite citizens—thereby excluding all those who didn’t fit into the limiting black/white dichotomy. In the mid-nineteenth century, the forms both established and mirrored increasing complexity in the US population. “Mulatto” first appeared in the 1850 forms, and twenty years later the census included “Indians” and “Chinese” for the first time within the “Description: Color” category. The increasing complexity of this particular data field allows us to see the racializing categories of people who mattered to the state, offering “white, black, mulatto, Chinese, [and] Indian” as the possible answers. While this permitted certain kinds of inclusion, we can also read the new categories as collecting “rates of genocidal extermination and paternalistic assimilation,” which Debra Thompson observes were subsequently used to support colonial violence, including the extended theft of lands in North America. The “racial classifications proved useful to measure the success of indigenous assimilation (performed by the change from Indians not taxed to those who are) and to monitor the influx of ‘Orientals.’”50 Such conceptually and formally disciplined entries were also a mode of training/disciplining state agents across the country in the “appropriate” kinds of categories into which American citizens could be grouped. Census categories taught census takers how to see race at the same time that they defined what a citizen could be.

As with the “color” category, the way the census understood and created the American family grew in complexity across time. Prior to 1850, census forms allowed only for the names of the head of the household, thereby entrenching the idea of the nuclear, heterosexual family as the default mode of understanding those living together in a home or other domicile. While the 1850 census finally made room for the naming of individuals who lived in a home, it also required the sequestration of all enslaved persons to the separate “slave schedule” and did not allow for their naming. Instead, all enslaved persons were captured by the census only as property belonging to the head of the household. Other “assets” similarly captured in the 1850 schedules included those of “Schedule 3: Productions of Agriculture,” “Schedule 4: Products of Industry,” and in Schedule 5, aggregate values of real estate and personal estate. The structure of the census forms, with the main form for those considered whole and free people, and then attached “schedules” for “products” and assets, made it clear that enslaved persons were not counted as full citizens.

The 1880 census more deeply tracked familial relationships with a new question on the “relationship of each person to the head of this family.” As soon as the preprinted forms became standard, the enumeration process not only counted what legislators understood as kinds of people but their “quality” as well. In an explicit effort to enumerate what they saw as a fiscal burden to the nation, legislators inserted a series of questions about disability into the 1830 census, asking enumerators to count the numbers of blind and deaf citizens and enslaved persons. This expanded with the 1850 enumeration to encompass “deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict.” It is a telling collapse of physical and mental disability with states of poverty and criminality—one that reflects not the presumed burden on the nation but instead the structural biases that criminalized poverty and disability.

Census forms increased in complexity and size throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What began as a six-question, hand-ruled book that could be easily carried was transformed by 1940 into a large folio-size form that necessitated a legend (figure 3.7).

<p>Figure 3.7 Image of a 1940 preprinted census table; note the more extensive data fields.</p>

Figure 3.7 Image of a 1940 preprinted census table; note the more extensive data fields.


By the 1940s, location data were much more detailed, asking for state, county, and division data in the upper-left corner, and information such as house number and street as part of the first three columns in the table. Additionally, columns were included to capture the nature of household relationships, educational status, homeownership, place of birth, citizenship and employment status, income, military service, languages spoken, and social security registration. For women, the 1940 tables also sought to capture age at first marriage, number of times married, and live-born children, suggesting a national interest in the martial and reproductive status of its female citizens only. “Color or Race” is a single column in the 1940 sheet, and it conflates not only race and ethnicity but also religion: the legend allows codes for white, “Negro,” Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, and Korean, and indicates that all other “races” can be spelled out in full. Mixed-race categories like “mulatto” fell completely out of the census at the turn of the twentieth century and do not reappear until the 2000 census, when respondents were allowed to check more than one race/ethnicity category.51 Where the earliest population counts (offered in tables) were largely measuring the ways in which citizens could contribute to martial endeavors, the increasingly granular modern census forms segmented citizens into gendered, raced, and ability-based groups in order to assess citizen’s contributions to the growing US economy.

A similar but separate effort was undertaken in order to provide a black accounting of black lives. W. E. B. DuBois’s work, including his The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study published in 1899 and collaborative work on the “Georgia Negro” exhibition for the 1900 Paris Exposition, draws on larger twentieth-century media trends in institutional surveillance as well as more distant forms of tracking and certifying like the census. Commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Negro was designed as a single-canvasser survey of the black population of Philadelphia at the close of the nineteenth century. DuBois designed and executed the study himself, walking house to house with set self-made schedules intended to gather data on “family,” “individual,” “home,” “street,” and “institution.”52 As the term schedule suggests, DuBois’s survey of black life in Philadelphia operated much like the governmental census (discussed in relation to mortality schedules earlier in this chapter).

<p>Figure 3.8 One of DuBois’s many tables from <em>The Philadelphia Negro</em>, this one details rental prices for black Philadelphians. From DuBois, <em>Philadelphia Negro</em>.</p>

Figure 3.8 One of DuBois’s many tables from The Philadelphia Negro, this one details rental prices for black Philadelphians. From DuBois, Philadelphia Negro.


In fact, The Philadelphia Negro includes tables, charts, and assessments that are based not only on DuBois’s interviews but also on the state and city censuses of Philadelphia as well as other enumerative projects like the “Number and Distribution of the Negro Inhabitants of Philadelphia in 1793” conducted by the local “Plague Committee.”53 The histories of media that quantify human life and death are deeply and perpetually entangled.

Among the metrics used by DuBois’s counts are population numbers, age and sex, conjugal condition, birthplace, education, and employment, each of which also appears in contemporary census data. Expanding beyond the census, DuBois counts family size and type (single mothers get special attention), property ownership and value, social organizations, and what he calls “social maladjustment and individual depravity.”54 That DuBois felt the need to capture much of the same data covered by the state-national census suggests that he found what data had been collected about black Americans wanting in some respects. Additionally, it is apparent from both his survey and analyses that he was interested in finding ways to quantify the social, moral, and political realities of black Philadelphians. The Philadelphia Negro contains numerous tables of data along with elegant graphs, and like other tabular approaches to knowledge discussed here, they aim to render “bewildering complication” in clear view (see figures 3.8, 3.9a, and 3.9b). Similarly, the stunning hand-rendered tables and graphs that DuBois and his team produced for the 1900 Paris Exposition sought to use numbers about the lives of black Americans to make the argument not only that “the negro is here to stay” but also to point to the severity of the crime of slavery as well as the continued systemic and personal racism.55

<p>Figure 3.9 (a) The diagram shows the value of taxable property owned by African Americans in Georgia between 1875 and 1890. From DuBois, “Assessed Valuation of All Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes.” (b) The graph shows the percentage of African Americans and whites in various occupations. From DuBois, “Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia.”</p>

Figure 3.9 (a) The diagram shows the value of taxable property owned by African Americans in Georgia between 1875 and 1890. From DuBois, “Assessed Valuation of All Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes.” (b) The graph shows the percentage of African Americans and whites in various occupations. From DuBois, “Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia.”


As DuBois explained,

If in the hey-dey [sic] of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal another, drag them helpless across the water, enslave them, dabuach [sic] them, and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earth—if the consummation of such a crime be possible in the twentieth century, then our civilization is vain and the republic a mockery and a farce.56

DuBois turned the tables by using quantum media and hand-rendered data visualization to speak back to power.

The Census and Death

Considering the census forms in the context of mortality tracking allows us to see the ways in which they continue to be one of the major mediations of American citizens—asking either the respondents or census takers to fit people with a range of complex identities into neat, legible categories. They clearly provide a particular kind of snapshot of the nation every ten years and so might seem more aligned with my other topic—the tracking of human activity—and indeed, an additional analysis would likely yield all sorts of interesting connections between the ways the census forms remediate lived experience. But I have included my analysis of the census forms with mortality-tracking media because of the historical continuity with the practices and media forms used to count the dead. As I suggested earlier, in the United States the census and mortality tracking coexisted in localities for a long period. Full American census registration, however problematic that idea of “full” might be, did not happen until the 1930s, despite having begun in 1790. During the time that the census was still emergent, it was continually tangled up with mortality tracking.

Consider, for example, the 1850 Census Act, which mandated the inclusion of six different schedules. The first was the census form for enumerating “free inhabitants,” the second was for “slave inhabitants,” and the third, fourth, and fifth were for counting various kinds of agricultural and property assets. The final schedule, “Schedule 6: Persons Who Died during the Year Ending 1st June 1850,” fell into the category of “other statistics” gathered by the enumerators.57

<p>Figure 3.10 Sample of an 1850 preprinted mortality schedule. From US Census Act of 1850.</p>

Figure 3.10 Sample of an 1850 preprinted mortality schedule. From US Census Act of 1850.


Using an identical formatting, layout, and even rhetorical style, the mortality schedules of the mid-nineteenth century counted living bodies in the same ways that they counted the nation’s dead (see figure 3.10). The temporality of the count was a bit longer—in that the mortality schedules allowed for anyone who had died in the last year while the census counts focused on those present on a single day (but required that it be their “usual” domicile). Like for the living, the census collection forms articulated a rather-narrow range of being—one marked by binary gender, age, and a limited set of racializing categories. The instructions issued to marshals in charge of taking the census make it clear that even in death, the categorical entries have political and social meaning. Under the header “condition,” the default was free, unless an S was entered to indicate an enslaved person. Enumerators were only to record the marital status of free inhabitants and were to use special categories for the “occupation” category when recording enslaved people’s work.58

Like the earlier British and American mortality bills, the mortality schedules reveal a governmental interest in knowing how much of its labor force it was losing, asking for information on the “profession, occupation, or trade” of the deceased. Also in keeping with earlier mortality tracking, the schedule asked for information about the cause of death. According to the instructions used for both the 1850 and 1860 censuses, the American census mortality schedules were understood to be more granular and therefore to supersede any mortality bills still in use. Reflecting this continued coexistence of forms, enumerators were instructed that “the bills of mortality must not be resorted to unless they give all of the facts contemplated by this census for the entire year.”59 Unlike the institutional records for the insane or criminal, which could be consulted reliably and silently, enumerators were to directly interview citizens regarding mortality events, and if they were unable to do so, they had to report the sources of their alternative information. Such data were made public, and would have then been available to those interested not only in developing life tables for assessing risk but also new epidemiological approaches to understanding disease and death. Death and its causes remained an object of state knowledge, trailing all of the attendant evidentiary expectations.

The mortality schedules were designed to be a more granular or complete compilation of mortality events in the United States, but they clearly did not entirely replace the long-standing tradition of local reporting with mortality bills. In fact, the mortality schedules were a relatively short-lived element of the census media; they were included in the four national censuses between 1850 and 1880 as well as some state censuses conducted in 1885. While the mortality schedules were dutifully being collected, once again the lived realities of human bodies required a new media intervention. This time the precipitating outbreak was the Cuban American yellow fever epidemic of 1878.60 As the nation had continued to grow and develop into a major international trade partner, the balance between the local or state management of mortality monitoring shifted, and the yellow fever epidemic created enough national concern that the federal government passed the 1878 National Quarantine Act, which required reports of the sanitary conditions of vessels departing for the United States. The act resulted in the publication of the first-ever Bulletin of the Public Health, which was designed to give notice to both federal and state officials regarding incoming vessels and cargo.61 Born from anxiety about international trade and the yellow fever epidemic, the mortality reports that supplanted the census mortality schedules were continuously published as part of the Public Health Reports until January 1950. In 1952, the National Office of Vital Statistics (which later became the National Vital Statistics System) changed the name of this publication to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

Digital Death Registers

The MMWR is the modern mortality register in use in the United States and is managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Initially the publication was available as a print subscription sent via domestic mail services. As the costs of this came under scrutiny in the late twentieth century, mortality statistics again became part of a larger periodical publication. This time, the New England Journal of Medicine started selling subscriptions to reprints of the publication—an arrangement that at the cost of $189 per year, remains in effect, and the journal continues to reprint all series of the MMWR for approximately 5,500 paid subscribers. In 1983, the Journal of the American Medical Association began publishing notable articles from the MMWR in its own weekly publication. As the weekly reports increased in size and complexity, they were broken up into a series of four publications, the MMWR weekly, annual Summary of Notifiable Diseases, CDC Surveillance Summaries, and Supplements. In the early 2000s, the MMWR was delivered in either print or email to nearly 50,000 subscribers.

Like the yellow fever epidemic that helped push for mortality recording and reporting, a flurry of public health emergencies during the early 2000s led to the development of the Dispatch, an urgent report that could be emailed to subscribers at any time.62 The first decade of the twenty-first century also “brought other changes as MMWR strove to adapt to the rapidly changing communications world. The MMWR series became more Web-centric, adapting its editorial policies to match Web-based publication. In 2001, MMWR’s graphical appearance changed from its longstanding 6- by 8-inch black-and-white format to a new 8½-inch by 11-inch two-color format.”63 A shift to easier online subscription and public interest in the 2009 pandemic (H1N1) “vaulted MMWR’s electronic circulation from approximately 50,000 in 2007 to 100,000 in 2010.” By 2010, the circulation of the full MMWR was nearly 115,000, with further reach happening through the “approximately 1 million monthly visits to the MMWR website and podcast downloads of 50,000 per week.”64

While the MMWR might well be reaching more people using twenty-first-century publication methods (in some ways mirroring the move from mortality bills to early newspapers), the structure of these media are quite different from those slender running tallies of deaths in regular newspapers. Among the differences are that the newspapers were considered a popular, if still relatively elite, publication, whereas the Journal of the American Medical Association and New England Journal of Medicine are specialized publications unlikely to be widely read by members of the public not in the medical and health professions. In addition to a different readership profile, the context of each mortality count is important to the ways in which they make meaning. If colonial mortality counts collapsed the difference between colonists and their fellow citizens in the metropole of London, the publication of the MMWR performs no such work. Mortality is not part of the regular day’s news, nor is it part of the business of being alive and active in a city. Instead, the MMWR is sequestered within a periodical dedicated to understanding health and medical trends. Weekly mortality reports are hardly the stuff of everyday life in the context of late twentieth-century print news, although they remain important media for institutional knowledge creation.

Web delivery of the MMWR might change this kind of conceptual quarantine, but there is little in the digital media iterations to suggest such a shift. Mirroring the complexity of national mortality events and shaped by the sheer size of the population in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s web presence can be dizzying, even for a user well versed in health and mortality media (figures 3.11a and 3.11b). The landing page for MMWR Online offers up an MMWR navigational menu on the left that breaks down into nine categories with a menu of six different areas under “Publications.”65

<p>Figure 3.11 (a) Screen capture of the <em>MMWR</em> interface with the menu on the left. (b) Links for a single issue in the center. From Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>

Figure 3.11 (a) Screen capture of the MMWR interface with the menu on the left. (b) Links for a single issue in the center. From Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


A user clicking on “Weekly Reports” is taken to another index page that includes PDFs of the last six month’s worth of weekly reports as well as links to each of the stories in each weekly report.66 Nowhere is the mortality count embedded in the business of everyday life, even on the web. What’s more, the long-standing table format for reporting is significantly de-emphasized. Published as a stand-alone document, the weekly table is separate from the “main” report and its stories on specific health/mortality topics. In the online publication, the tables are the last link for each week’s report. One can understand why; while the tables deploy much the same format as Graunt’s early “perspicuous” tables, spanning twenty pages, they are hardly something one could grasp “all at once” as Graunt had hoped.

Like their historical predecessors, the tables only report a portion of all mortality events. The modern innovation is to signal this exclusion with the heading “Notifiable Diseases and Mortality Tables,” which includes the 120 different “notifiable diseases” as defined for 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.67 In addition to clearly only counting diseases that the center has determined are noteworthy, the national weekly reports depend exclusively on state level reports, which are governed by a variety of local regulations and practices. The historical examples that I have been discussing throughout this book suggest that we should be looking for the ways in which the reporting structures may privilege the deaths of certain people over others. Early modern British mortality reports exclude those outside the Anglican church and were primarily concerned with economically enfranchised persons, and the early American bills made clear distinctions between US citizens and immigrants, Native Americans, and people of color. While public health scholars have written on the poor infrastructure for reporting the health conditions of people of color, a more complete understanding of who is left out of the mortality counts of the twenty-first century is work that to my knowledge still needs to be done.68 Given that race, gender, sexuality, and disability categories are historically contingent and socially embedded, this will not be a “simple matter of measurement” but nevertheless bears tackling.69

The print publication of the tables (and PDFs) is supplemented online with access to “various machine readable formats” with two tables broken up across eighteen alphabetically organized sections. Given the size of the data collected in the MMWR, there is little to indicate that the tabular interfaces give a view of the whole, although the tabs that bring forward annual data for each disease category give a sense of the change of disease over time in a manner reminiscent of the old “increase/decrease” line of the newspaper accounts and mortality bills. The visualization tools offer another way into the collected information, but are sophisticated enough to thwart the nonspecialist user.

<p>Figure 3.12 Screen capture of the <em>MMWR</em> tables, including the tab structure at the top and detail in the lower third of the screen. From Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>

Figure 3.12 Screen capture of the MMWR tables, including the tab structure at the top and detail in the lower third of the screen. From Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


While the machine-readable formats are welcome mediations for those working in health and medical policy, research, and delivery, the data structures and interface produce a space that is inhospitable for those who are outside these professions. The pleasures of aesthetic rationalism seem here to be the sole purview of experts, institutional officials, and health professionals. Perhaps the relative invisibility of regular mortality counts in the twenty-first century means that the general public has little need for such salutary mediations. Or perhaps it points to an effect of aesthetic rationalism: human mortality has been rendered less or differently newsworthy in twenty-first-century media ecologies.

The mortality bills of seventeenth-century England were a media innovation in response to a major crisis, thereby demonstrating the power of counting for both understanding and tracking the plague epidemic, but also empowering citizens with a certain degree of control over what must have felt like rapidly breaking waves of death. Similar tables were used to produce fiscal and legal accounts of persons involved in transatlantic imperialism. The insurance contract form took precedence over the table of persons and attributes in the slave industry, relegating the accounting of enslaved people to an addendum or written-in element that explicitly expressed the dehumanizing impulse behind slavery. As the colonial invasion became the establishment of a new nation known as the United States, the enumerating of people and bodies continued as a more complicated media ecology in which the census, with its carefully defined categories and preprinted tables, coexisted with the older parish registers along with state-level birth and death certification. As the nation grew and new epidemics emerged, the states and national government coordinated mortality information in a range of configurations, including the mortality schedules attached to the census and variable state reporting of mortality counts. When epidemics like cholera or influenza broke out, national and local mortality reports in newspapers would appear again, but the public bill of mortality had transformed into a professional and bureaucratic record-keeping practice that was kept largely out of the public eye.

With these changes came a shift in dissemination modalities as well; where the mortality bills were published for the public in the same form that they were given to the British Crown, the census tables were largely a collection device that was then the basis for reports in journalistic venues as well as atlases and encyclopedias. Graphs and maps became the way that most Anglo-Americans engaged with population data—a mediation shift that deserves its own full history. Tabular and numerical media became the professional tools of the demographer, numerator, insurance broker, and health provider. While tables enumerating deaths mainly became the province of bureaucrats and backroom information keepers, there was a context in which public running mortality counts once again became part of the public news—war casualties.

Quantum Mediation as Rememory rather than Remembrance

War casualties and the quantum media of remembrance brings us back to my opening of chapter 2 with Gurman’s The Nicholas Shadow. The genre of war memorialization is large and deserves its own study. Instead of opening up a new area of argumentation in this book, I conclude this chapter by thinking about the connections between quantum media and memory. The work of remembering has historically been entangled with that of counting, and given the historical elisions and violence performed through quantum media, we would do well to think carefully about what it is that quantum media allow us to remember and why. Take, for example, John Bell’s 1665 text London’s Remembrancer: Or A True Accompt of Every Particular Week’s Christnings and Mortality in All the Years of Pestilence within the Cognizance of the Bills of Mortality Being XVIII Years.

<p>Figure 3.13 Elaborate frontispiece for <em>London’s Remembrancer</em>.</p>

Figure 3.13 Elaborate frontispiece for London’s Remembrancer.


The book predates the more well-known compilation of Graunt discussed in chapter 2, but does similar work presenting a span of mortality bills with much the same information as the weekly handbills. Published in the midst of the outbreaks of the 1660s (as well as the searing battles of the civil wars), Bell’s text has always stuck with me for its self-description as “London’s Remembrancer.” It is an active titular phrase, marking the book as both a device and an agent, a maker of memory.

While it reads as archaic today, “remembrancer” named a clear official role and set of objects in the early modern period. The British Exchequer included two remembrancer positions from at least the twelfth century on: one for the Crown, and the other for the treasurer. In both cases, remembrancers operated as officers responsible for recording and pursuing debts along with other fiscal duties. Initially, both the king’s (or queen’s) and treasury’s remembrancers were charged with recording and pursuing debts and other matters.70 Over time, the two positions took up different responsibilities, with the King’s Remembrancer responsible for collecting and recording Crown revenue from various and occasional sources, while the treasurer’s remembrancer handled the ancient and fixed revenues, such as feudal reliefs. These roles continued through to the nineteenth century, when they were significantly reconfigured. In the early modern period, the King’s Remembrancer handled expenditures across the full range of routine and current Crown business, and was “the custodian of a wide variety of documents sent into the Exchequer for action or record.”71 We might say, anachronistically, that the remembrancer was a professional bureaucratic office dedicated to tracking finances staffed by what we might pejoratively refer to as a paper-pusher who helped people remember their debts to the Crown. Tasked with collecting the debts of those who died and those who participated in colonial business, the remembrancer would have been well acquainted with not only the accountant’s tabular media but the media of mortality and colonial bodies too.

As we’ve seen in the quantum media, accounting and the presentation of religious or moral standing have long been connected. Similarly, the role of remembrancer as a financial bureaucrat sat rather comfortably alongside the remembrancer as a biblical watchman as described in Isaiah 62:6: “Ye that are the Lord’s remembrancers, take ye no rest, and give Him no rest, till He establish, and till He make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.” Appearing in the 1611 King James Bible as a marginal gloss, this particular verse was a favorite of nonconformist preachers in the period like John Hoskins, who argued that oversight of the “treasury” of Christian doctrine was the responsibility of preachers, including reminding the laity of their debts to the church and the need for fidelity to the textual representation of Christ’s word.72 Consequently, for Anglo-American readers, London’s Remembrancer would likely have evoked not only the collection of debts at death but also the work of colonial business and a mercantile metaphor for Christian devotion.

Bell was a member of the Company of Parish Clerks, and as such, part of the only organization officially tasked with enumerating and reporting burials and christenings in London parishes. If religious remembrancers were reminding preachers of the divine word, Bell as remembrancer was minding the “trove” of data that was collected first by women searchers and then shared with the Company of Parish Clerks. Concerned by the “errors of diverse papers” on plague mortality “published by many confident and inconsiderate writers,” Bell offered his text as “an exact computation since the year 1592” drawn “out of the undeniable records of those times.”73 Like the king’s/queen’s remembrancer, it was Bell’s professional obligation to collect and maintain tabular, numerical records and remind the public of their veracity. Religious considerations were central as well, and London’s Remembrancer pursued religious debts of a sort. Bell joined many of his Royalist-minded contemporaries in arguing that the plague was divine retribution for the British rebellion and execution of King Charles I.74 To his reading, the plague of 1665–1666 was a divine calling in of debts, in the form of human life, for “shedding the blood of their lawful sovereign.”75 As a textual media, a remembrancer functioned both to record events in tabular, numerical format and publish reminders of debts or duties. In many ways, the textual media and professional/religious roles were so intertwined as to seem near to collapse. Royal remembrancers functioned as official agents and religious remembrancers as divine agents on earth, and both made extensive use of narrative and tabular accounts in order to fulfill their duties. Remembrancers—the people as well as the textual media—direct our attention to the complicated ways in which the slippery boundaries between media and people mediate how we understand human death, debt, and loss. Accounting and memorial functions are collapsed in remembrancers, subjecting both finances and death to the aesthetic rationalism of Anglo-American media. Perhaps most disturbing are the ways in which remembrancers suggest that at least certain kinds of memory work have always been about keeping account, attesting to reputation, and controlling wealth.

I began this section by invoking the resonant data-driven bell of The Nicholas Shadow, and asking why such a remediation of war casualties might be useful or necessary for Anglo-American audiences. Quantum mortality media have always been “custodians of orderliness” working in the service of nation-states and on behalf of an epistemology that sought the comforts of objectivity in the face of catastrophe.76 These mediations are everywhere entangled with racialized and gendered ways of becoming. The examples of remembrancer and insurance media suggest that quantum mortality media are also remediations of human death as financial and moral concerns. In this context, efforts like that of Iraq Body Count (IBC) can be read as a kind of resistant or counteruse of the media—an effort to hold Western governments to account both morally and financially. While IBC clearly operates as such, and has been leveraged in news reporting and human rights advocacy efforts, the existence of The Nicholas Shadow testifies to the need to represent the data in a way that is less distancing and orderly—a way that literally resonates more than the cool, rational tabular account.

For me, The Nicholas Shadow is an example of deploying our quantum media not in the service of remembrance but rather as what Toni Morrison has described as rememory. Marianne Hirsch notes that rememory is “repetition + memory, not simply a recollection of the past but its return, its re-presentation, its re-incarnation, and thereby the re-vision of memory itself. Through the rememory of Beloved, the past again becomes present but its presence does not re-engulf, it does not kill. It can be survived.”77 I am interested in the powerful, transformative but nondestructive dyad of rememory and creative critique—two sister theories and practices that enact care and restoration even as they embrace incisive and clear-eyed historicization of our quantum media. In many ways, rememory is embodied; it is living, it is a process of techno-human becoming. Exceeding the “archive’s ability to capture it,” rememory is a performative process. To borrow from Diana Taylor’s work on repertoire, it is “in a constant state of againness … transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next.”78 Anglo-American media have fully embraced the forms and effects of remembrance, but perhaps what we need if we are to upset inherited systems of oppression are more acts of rememory.

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