Mindful of other deadlines, I finally applied pressure to my felt-tipped pen while in transit, on a quiet Sunday morning subway-car. I felt unsuited, ill-prepared, to start writing. No notes to work from. Just a folder full of documents unrelated to this blog post. I did have, for better or for worse, an inky pen with a soft point (ballpoints are better for business) and the blank surface of a manila folder. I began drafting this contextual blog post for the “Writing About Numbers” faculty roundtable that Bill Ferns and I will co-run next week. I ended up with this: drawing out, crossing out, sketching again, a recurring discomfort I’ve had since grade school. The story of this recurring feeling is not particularly remarkable, one that is not so dissimilar from my impulse to avoid the freshly opened new word-processor document on my laptop screen (blankness). The story: I am immediately stunned by numbers and, in defense, my mind triggers a blank.
This anecdote is a roundabout way of saying that the initial discomfort I sense when writing in a familiar language is, in some ways, akin to the perceived challenges I feel when encountering figures and languages that I am less literate in (i.e., numbers, data, French). It is, quite frankly, the discomfort–some blending of vulnerability and responsibility–that arises when one communicates while learning, thinking, processing. There is always recourse, though, to leave things blank or to remain silent.
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But what does writing, discomfort, and silence (blankness) have to do with numbers and data? I’ll try to explain by turning to a context, by relating my academic work in literary study to the subject of numbers. I study Atlantic slavery and its relationship to literary production. The archival materials and texts affiliated with the Atlantic slave trade have been read as documents that reveal the ways in which lives of the enslaved were reduced and dehumanized by violent abstraction. That is, ledgers, balance books, nautical journals and other accounts of the transatlantic slave trade converted captives into commodities, lives indexed by numbers and figures. Take for instance Stephanie Smallwood’s description, in Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007), of how ledgers rationalized the violent logic of the slave trade:
“The ledger’s double-entry pages and the neat grid of the invoice gave purposeful shape to the story they told. Through their graphic simplicity and economy, invoices and ledgers effaced the personal histories that fueled the slaving economy. Containing only what could fit within the clean lines of their columns and rows, they reduced an enormous system of traffic in human commodities to a concise chronicle of quantitative ‘facts.’… Instruments such as these did their work, then, while concealing the messiness of history, erasing from view the politics that underlay the neat account keeping” (98).
In spite of the violent accountings of the slave trade, practitioners of the humanities–historians and literary scholars in particular–have been able to supply nuance, variation, and interpretation to realities that are gestured at but not revealed by the neatness of numbers, charts, and graphs. In the area of slavery studies, robust and incisive work has emerged from scholars who engage with and rethink the politics, ethics, and historical contexts that adjoin the quantitative facts and the administrative records of the slave trade. This is evidenced by recent scholarly gatherings, like “‘Against Recovery?’: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive,” and digital projects, like Vincent Brown’s cartographic narrative of an eighteenth-century slave revolt.
To return to the question: what does writing, discomfort, and silence have to do with numbers and data? Writing is a practice in working through the discomfort of learning whatever our subject of study might be. If there’s discomfort, I’ve told students who are silent or on the brink of giving up, it’s because learning is challenging and that thorny realities are involved in subjects we choose to study. Whether working on a formula, or analyzing a set of statistics, or deciphering the mind of Milton’s poetry, writing sets into motion a cycle of processing, self-assessing, and renewing material.
Because writing is a striving for the precise combination of words and signs that correspond to a thought and, simultaneously, an exercise that invites feelings of vulnerability and responsibility, it seems to me that writing is a practice of ethics and politics. In other words, through the process of writing, we reflect on the matter that characterizes whatever our study might be and, as a result, learn a bit more about the limits and the possibilities in what matters to us.
Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Source of image #2 and #3: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record (Click on images for exact url address).