Data is fraught with peril.
I want to do two things today. The first is to talk about how archives enact epistemic violence on some of the subjects they preserve. The second is to talk about how DH methods, combined with insights from scholars who study marginalized people, can be used to undermine the inhumanity of that data.
This is both about not accepting the epistemologies of historical actors, and being critical about how our own work can enact violence. (I’m echoing stuff from alternative histories of dh yesterday.)
In the 1840s, Ireland had a famine. One million people died. One million people fled. You only need to know this because the vast majority of these immigrants sailed for New York.
The Atlantic crossing from Ireland could take more than a month, and the ships were rife with typhus and cholera. Irish immigrants’ experience of ships was deeply corporeal. New York City’s experience of them was as potential liabilities.
In response to the thousands of immigrants arriving in New York in the nineteenth century the city passed a law requiring that the master or captain of every ship originating outside of the state of New York commit funds in case immigrants became sick and were cared for in city institutions.
Some ships paid. Others sold their obligations to brokers. In New York, immigrants were transformed into sickness futures. Because of this, it was important for the city to produce data on them.
Simultaneously, when immigrants occupied public spaces in New York in ways unacceptable to bourgeoisie New York – either because they were ill or because they were simply the wrong kind of bodies – they were extracted and incarcerated – most often in public health institutions.
There, clerks recorded more information – name, age, profession, nationality – but also the names of the people who referred immigrants and, most importantly for nineteenth-century Americans, the ship or broker that was obligated to cover the new inmate’s fees.
Read the full post here.