Category Archives: Caitlin Rosenthal

(Capitalist) Numbers to Narratives

Lee kicked of a lively discussion Friday as he wondered what the history of capitalism had to say to the history of technology, (medicine?), environment, and science (HoTeES, or HoTMeS?). Lee postulated that the interactions of capitalism/political economy and science might be expected within the realms of shared problems and jointly produced tools. I wrote a dissertation about “tools for discrimination” and the “science of difference,” wherein life insurers are shown to be important sponsors of investigations into human difference—so I am on board. To help me judge Lee’s hypothesis, I would like to offer a few posts over the next week that point to intersections between these two fields (HofCapitalism, HofScience/Tech/Med/Env). Let’s get empirical, so to speak!

A different sort of account book, but an accounting nonetheless—from Samuel Blodget’s Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (1806)

Evidence 1: Caitlin Rosenthal’s exquisite essay in the most recent issue of Common-place, one of the hippest journals around. Rosenthal has one big argument, accented by a score of anecdotal gems. She argues that account books, whatever else they might be, are always narratives—they tell stories. This, she claims, was true for the early nineteenth century books that now populate her historical work and remains true for the accounting summaries published by firms like Countrywide Financial on the brink of its disastrous unraveling.

Rosenthal battles the false conception that keeping accounts implies a mechanical, objective system (or, really, that such a system precludes narratives). Her case rests in part on evidence that nineteenth century systems were anything but mechanical: indexes were just being invented and were hardly standardized, accounting procedures varied from account keeper to account keeper (to much consternation). But she closes the piece noting that today’s accounting system, although constrained by hosts of rules and standards, still produces narrative documents, which are trusted with peril.

Yet Rosenthal’s point does not appear to me to be destructive or skeptical—she has not come to bury objectivity, accounting, what-have-you. In fact, much of the essay revels in the details of early nineteenth century bookkeeping practices, asking, not judging. The question arises over and over: why did all these individuals keep books?

One answer Rosenthal provides is this:

Keeping accounts was a daily quest for useful information. Sometimes quantitative information was punctuated by a bit of prose, verbalizing the intentions of a book’s keeper. In 1870, Thaddeus Fish of Kingston, Massachusetts, contemplated the buying and selling of eggs in his account book. He described how a woman had “bought 150 eggs of a country man.” She sold all of the eggs, but at an array of different prices, some yielding a profit, but others a loss. Fish, puzzling over her business, supplemented his muddled calculations with text: “I Demand to know whether she Lost or gained by her eggs.” The urgency of his demand reflected neither profit seeking nor an opposition to it. Rather it revealed the daily necessity of understanding whether time was well spent and which risks were worth taking.

She also points to accounts kept to facilitate long distance management, to discipline laborers, to judge workers’ alcohol consumption (and morals, implicitly), to facilitate inheritance, and more generally to provide some antidote to the complexity of modern life.

So, how can we use Rosenthal’s piece as evidence in our general investigation? First, we might decide to conclude something not-that-surprising: that historical or sociological approaches to knowledge (like Ted Porter, who looms here, next to Michel Foucault, among others) have provided useful tools for historians of capitalism like Rosenthal (although I’m not sure if that’s a label she would embrace).

Second, we might say something more significant: that nineteenth century Americans (and lots of other people too) were interested in making sense of an increasingly complex, interconnected world. They encountered overlapping and interrelated problems of trust (how do I decide who to invest in, or who to believe?), problems of risk (how do I decide whether its worthwhile to invest or believe?), and problems of knowledge (what is true? what will work?). To solve these problems, they (whether businessmen, farmers, or scientists) turned to new tools and techniques, and especially to quantification.

Finally, we might learn a lesson from the attention to materiality in Rosenthal’s essay and apply that to our investigations of new shared knowledge practices. Rosenthal shows us account keepers writing over every corner of a book, desperate to save expensive paper, for instance. How did those account books compare to the ledgers and notebooks that scientists increasingly relied upon? Did astronomers and actuaries go to the same shops in New York (the Mutual of New York, I happen to know, bought all its accounting materials from a printer on Nassau Street in the 1850s)? My guess is: yes. In so far as the actuaries were often also astronomers, the answer was surely yes. So I will add a category to Lee’s speculations: shared problems, shared tools, and shared materials.

[Three different people sent me a link to Caitlin Rosenthal’s piece in the space of two days—it might have taken me a while longer to find it otherwise. Thanks to GH, HR, and MK.]