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COVID Accounting

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Alyson Brickey

June 19, 2020

Image of an outside brick wall of a prison, with a window featuring two Black hands pressed against it and the text "Help We Matter 2."As an Americanist teaching in Canada, I’ve been watching the recent events in the United States much like everyone else I suspect: horrified by policies that prioritize corporate profits over people’s lives and administrative failures that ensure those disproportionately affected by the coronavirus—black and brown communities, incarcerated people, and undocumented migrants—are dying in great and terrible numbers. New York City has become the bellwether of this crisis; its neighbourhoods, prisons, and hospitals swiftly warping into the traumatizing front lines of a national disaster whose death toll just surpassed 100,000.

The New York Times published a massive list of names on May 24th accounting for just 1% of Americans who have died from the virus, calling it “an incalculable loss.” How ought we to respond to a list like this? Part of my research is about lists in literature—encyclopedic lists of whales in Moby-Dick, lists of items owned by impoverished tenant farmers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and anaphoric, subversive verbs in Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Lists confront us with a reading problem. It becomes difficult to fully account for each item—each name, each life—when they are amassed together on the page. Lists overwhelm us, and so they should; maybe that’s part of why we use them to mark atrocities. Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls this kind of gesture “keeping accounts but never taking the final toll … a litany, a prayer of pure sorrow and pure loss”1. The list is always incomplete and incalculable. We cannot fully account for some losses.

I study nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, a specialty that probably seems far-removed from this dystopian pandemic. It’s true though, I think, that literature can allow us to look again at those structures of meaning that surround us every day; to the care and concern being paid to the Dow Jones and Amazon instead of homeless shelters or ICE detention centres. Detainees there have been forced to isolate in cells for 23 hours a day, some of them on hunger strikes because they have been denied access to soap and water to clean themselves. The Eighth Amendment was passed in 1791 to protect prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment, but there have always been populations—enslaved people, non-citizens, prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib—for whom the US Constitution refuses to account. 

Ever since Donald Trump got elected on his promise to build a “great wall” at the southern edge of his country, I’ve been thinking a lot about America’s walls. Not just its borders (those too), but also its cultural and juridical processes that incarcerate, redline, segregate, isolate, and detain. One of the stories I write about is Herman Melville’s 1835 “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” whose protagonist is an “unaccountable” young man who arrives at the doorstep of a lawyer’s office in answer to a job ad for a scrivener, or law copyist. Initially a tireless and efficient scrivener, Bartleby decides one day that he would just “prefer not to” do any of the tasks assigned to him, an act of passive resistance that sends the world around him into turmoil. Confounding the capitalist imperative that defines the emerging office culture of Wall Street in the mid-1800s, Bartleby continues to “prefer not to” as the story progresses. Eventually he chooses to sleep and live in the office, much to the lawyer’s chagrin.

Wall Street, of course, is itself a rich text, and we can read many of America’s walls back through its history. Originally inhabited by the Lenape people who were forcibly removed from their land, Wall Street began as a wooden stockade wallbuilt by enslaved Africans to fortify the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. The stones that eventually replaced the wood were used to build New York’s first City Hall2 on Wall Street, outside of which stood whipping posts and other structures designed to publicly punish prisoners.3 In the 1700s, “Meal Market” sat at the foot of Wall Street, a place where human beings were bought and sold alongside grain and corn. Wall Street contains within itself the remnants of the twinned and interlocking bricks of colonialism and slavery that built America.

Eventually, Bartleby is forced to leave Wall Street, when his frustrated employer charges him with vagrancy and has him detained in the infamous New York prison nicknamed “The Tombs,” formally called The Halls of Justice. The Tombs, built from the stones of The Bridewell that held prisoners of the Revolutionary War, still exists, and it is now known as the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC), a centre with 900 beds that primarily incarcerates detainees awaiting trial. Its morbid nickname persists.

Melville condemns his protagonist to die in The Tombs quiet, and alone, refusing to eat; his body found “strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones.” Nicknamed “the silent man” by his fellow prisoners, Bartleby slips wordlessly from the world of this story, the lawyer/narrator finding “little need for proceeding further in this history.” No one, in the end, is held to account for this death.

Predictably, the COVID outbreak in US prisons has spread rapidly. At Riker’s Island alone, one case became 200 in two weeks. As of April 21st nearly 5,000 inmates and 2,778 staff had been diagnosed nation-wide, and 103 people had died. Those incarcerated at the MDC are struggling with irregular access to soap, non-potable drinking water, and showers that don’t work. Many are being forced to quarantine in a wing of the jail that was deemed uninhabitable in March because it’s covered in black mould from a recent flood. Some of these men will die behind walls that for them are inescapable, but for the virus are all-too porous. Prisons become tombs. 

The remains of some inmates who have died from COVID-19 lie now in unmarked graves. Judith Butler recently remarked that any “institution that creates increased mortality rates for a group is engaged in a form of death dealing … the vulnerable class is left to die by a policy that has decided in advance which lives are valuable—productive, useful—and which lives are dispensable.” As the virus continues to sweep through disenfranchised communities here in Canada as well, we must ask ourselves: who are we failing to count, and who are we failing to hold to account?

1 Nancy, Being Singular Plural, p. xiii (2000).  

2 See Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018).

3 See Charles Sutton, The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and Its Mysteries (1874).

Alyson Brickey teaches in the English Department at UWinnipeg, and in her new book project, America’s Walls, Dr. Brickey traces American literary representations of thresholds—including doors, walls, windows, fences, borders, and gates—as a way to engage contemporary American political conversations around incarceration, border security, immigration, citizenship, and abortion rights.

Essay image credit: Cook County Jail in Chicago, April 10, 2020. Tannen Maury/EPA, reprinted with permission.

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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