In my last post, I drew on Jesse Ball’s lovely, world-expanding novel Census to recast the census, which too often summons to mind dry facts on yellowed paper, as something more like a quest, one mobilizing hundreds of thousands of ordinary individuals to record the lives of millions and millions more. Ball’s novel confirms my own hunch that each census brims with narrative potential.

(Ahem: Every census has a story. Every census is a story. Say it with me!)

Yet the novel matters to me less because it shows us what a census is than how it imagines what a census could be. Ball plugs into the latent power of fiction—and maybe science fiction especially—to critique the world we know and imagine one very different, hopefully one that would be more humane.

In some ways, the census in Census looks quite conventional: the census takers receive instructions from a centralized bureaucracy; they are charged with gathering details about the nation’s inhabitants. A laminated card with rules for the census takers includes the entirely ordinary: “Once each month send complete documents to the center from which you came.” (74)

But for the most part, Ball’s census is an odd beast. Among the other rules on that placard are those that strip census takers of ordinary protections from harm.—They are “the new class of martyrs” as a result.(73)—Each census taker also carries a tattooing needle to ensure that person questioned bears a specified mark on a specified rib for each count.

Over the course of their journey, the father and son slough off initial practices and methods. They begin skipping homes, no longer aiming at completeness. With time, they depart from preordained questions. The father described his “new method”: “I would go into each house and home, each town and village, and try to discover what was worthy of note.”

All the while, the father insists that he hews (more or less) to the spirit and purpose of the census. We have little reason to doubt him on that point. When first recruited, his supervisor chastised him for being too mechanical, for just asking his questions. The real purpose of the census, he explained, lay in its potential for self-understanding:

“When you ask a question you are not looking for the rote answer stored in the brain. Why, you could have that yourself without asking—save everyone the trouble. Instead, you are looking for a reconsideration of that question in light of the person’s entire lived experience, something you cannot know until you are told.
“Your body, your extended hand, the tautness of your face, the turn of your foot—it must all shout: I here and now give you permission to live an examined life, beginning now with this moment in which I ask you a question and you, poor soul, may examine your life in the light that it sheds…
“…Not, where were your parents born—but, what is the meaning of a national boundary? When your parents crossed such a thing to come here—how did it change them?” (99-100)

The census taker should be considered “a sort of archaeologist, a scientist, an artist, a priest” and on top of that a “vagrant fool.”(104) Each interviewer (since enumerator hardly fits this version of the job) contributed to “the work,” a work that belonged to all humanity, a work that brought tears to the supervisor’s eyes. The census, he insisted, “is a matter of humankind in general—past nations, which, after all, bloom here and there like flowers, each one to its own paltry epoch.” (104) In the central office, the bureau’s slogan adorned a wooden board: “The Community of Work Goes Beyond the State it Serves.” (48)

Ball’s is a census that flatly contradicts, in quite a few ways, our actual modern censuses in the United States and around the world. Those censuses exist precisely to meet the demands of the state, to apportion money and power, and to define those it governs and to mold national identities. The postcolonial theorist of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, does note that many censuses precede the state, but that is because they are tools of other, colonial states. Since the late nineteenth century, according to Anderson, such censuses in Southeast Asia all presumed not only to supply lists of taxpayers and possible conscripts (as censuses had done for thousands of years), but to be complete (to count women and children, for instance), while at the same time insisting that each person fit within one and only once state-defined category—often racial categories intended by colonial and then national authorities to subordinate existing religious identities and communities. These aren’t just characteristics of Asian censuses, either. In his recent book on the U.S. census, Paul Schor argues that the racial and country-of-birth questions in the census were critical to nation-making projects and served “a political aim that is, in the final analysis, simple: to identify and count those who are surplus.”(4)

The radical dream at the heart of Ball’s census is that no institution can impose a singular, defining identity and that no one can ever be considered surplus.

P.S. Is “census fiction” a subgenre of “science fiction”?