Abstract

Abstract:

Recent work in the history of science and epistemology has illuminated the rhetorical nature of the "anti-rhetorical" arguments of seventeenth-century political arithmetic, which turned to quantitative reasoning as a method for formulating state policy. This article examines a different aspect of political arithmetic argumentation—its ambivalent relationship to popular engagements with number during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—in order to achieve a more sensitive account of its method. By considering John Graunt's Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality (1661) alongside two literary histories of plague that draw upon printed mortality bills, albeit with a high degree of skepticism, to represent the spread of plague through London's urban environs—Samuel Pepys' Diary, and Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)—this essay demonstrates that the institution of the bills of mortality to combat the social and epistemological crisis of plague initiated a cultural consciousness of membership in a numerable body politic, and inspired new ways of visualizing the space of politics. Read in terms of form, imaginative and philosophical writing on plague alike reflect a dependence on number to counter the problem of witnessing the plague in viably empirical terms—and, more broadly, speak to its increasingly important role in representing social formations as quantifiable entities open to strategic policing and manipulation by state power.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0201
Print ISSN
0193-5380
Pages
pp. 391-410
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-12
Open Access
No
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