The Atmosphere on the Eve of Re-Entry to Paris

The nation turned to a frozen core as the entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest last month, flowing all the way to the Texas coast that overloaded electric grids and shocked weather maps that seemed out of whack even for mid-February, as even the sunbelt of the southwest turned gelid cold as subzero temperatures arrived. The shock of this map is its dissonance, of course, from the weather maps that we are used to seeing, the entire nation now, in mid-February, almost blanketed by subzero temperatures of deep blue cold, extending out in wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm.

The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. The suddenness of its entrance over four days is made manifest in a chilling snapshot of the arrival cooler air, no longer containing arctic temperatures in true north. If we had been spending a lot of time parsing the nation by the chromatic essence of counties, looking for purple America, the cobalt of the northern states faded to Egypt blue that the weather maps–“cerulean blue” is regarded the first synthetic pigment, but had multiplied in an array of chemical cobalt compounds in the late nineteenth century. And the ceruleans streaming across the nation seemed designed to shock as a wake-up call: if the haute couture assistant was chastised in Devil Wears Prada for missing the impact arrival of Oscar de la Renta’s 2002 cerulean collection, soon copied by Yves St. Laurent, the waves of cerulean frostiness that spilled arctic air onto national weather maps from February 12-16, 2021 seemed a plea for collective resolution on the even of the nation re-entering the Paris Climate Accords.

From the orange region of coastal Northern California, I surveyed the subzero temperatures entering much of the nation at a remove, but with apprehension, almost overwhelmed by concern at the sense of pathos in that deep cobalt midwest expanse. The commitment to monitor–and reduce–carbon emissions demanded a moment of judgement for the national reorientation. After eight years in which Presidential election have included debates about global warming that played out across what were “blue” and “red” state–and purple areas–there was a sense that the weather map, that most non-partisan of media, had somehow envoiced the earth to remind us that the wobbliness of the polar vortex climate change had wrought was not only rewriting the nation but disrupted the electric grids of much of the southwest and midwest. Across states once reliably “red,” the azure cold provoked by near-polar winds bearing colder temperatures, often more than ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit: at the same time as many residents without heating in Dallas and Austin burned furniture for warmth after their electricity had been cut, much of the nation seemed to be sent back in time to quasi-medieval heating systems, after ignoring climate change debates. Has the wobbly vortex not cast chill on these debates of alleged political divides? The result is more of a “frozen-core” version of the United States that seem designed to registerd the entrance of windblown gelid temperatures to send shivers up the spines of readers even in Miami.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

The focus of all those maps on blue and red counties were disrupted by the wonderfully airy visualization of wind-driven cold temperature, as the temperatures above freezing temperatures seemed limited to the southwestern states, southern Atlantic states and the state of Florida, the largest continuous stretch of super-freezing temperatures. Based on a  Global Forecast System, of national ground-level temperatures, cerulean fit the atmospheric movement of an arctic weather system dipping into the lower forty-eight to chill the United States in a fitting close to the Trump era, if a painful one: record-low temperatures in Texas and much of the United States, the arctic airs that extended south of the border created meteorological dissonances as southern Texas was at points quite colder than the Aleutian islands, and the outage of electricity over the entire Texas grid–raising questions as to why they ever separated a grid separate from the country, as their two-tongued Governor blamed wind power for endemic suffering, concealing the dismissal of a climate emergency–as many Texas residents went without their power–as the weather system intersected with the nation’s power grid, disconnecting power plants form the grid as rolling blackouts for many of 26 million Texans served by the autonomous ERCOT grid–to make one query the promise of Energy Reliability that is embedded in the ERCOT acronym–interrupted power supplies of 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses.

Abbott was readying himself to sue the Biden administration over environmental regulations he scoffed at as pure “regulatory overreach,” freezing oil and gas leasing on federal land over the objections of the petroleum industry that Abbot promised he would take it as his primary duty to protect. But it’s no surprise that Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and states of the “Gulf south” are going to be hit hard by climate change catastrophes, many of the very states where the poorest Americans dwell: the dire scenarios of climate change situation that is projected by RCPM 8.5 across the “Gulf South” suggest sustained economic damage across the Gulf states, from Texas to Florida, and portends complex questions of environmental justice in years to come, not limited by any means to the polar vortex or the climate imbalances that it portends–assuming that we conduct business as usual.

County-level Annual Damages in Median Scenario for Climate (RCP 8.5), 2080-2099
Negative damages constitute economic benefits/Global Policy Lab, Berkeley

The vortex was wobbly indeed–or more wobbly than it was even in 2014, as the anomalous displacement of cold air first shocked Accuweather charts, placing it among the “most upsetting” data visualization of winter 2014, one of the first emotional glosses of a meteorological charts. The figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes was something that was hard to narrativize, and the tendency to indicate human failure overlooks the extent of a collective failure to control the impact anthropogenic processes as a collective failure to control the human contribution to falling temperatures. As we watched the wobbly vortex in past years, the drop of arctic air was hard to map in terms of human agency, as we blamed government failure or a rapacious energy industry that sent rates skyrocketing for many Texans. Historical climate change familiar from Impact Lab sketches a different picture from 1981-2010, of course, with heating up temps across the southlands that one associates with global warming–and a warming up of the northern climes–

Impact Lab, Historical Climate Change 1981-2010

–that, to use the current color ramp, suggests a parched mid-century across much of the southwestern states, with temperature shifting just three degrees above the historical levels, but absolute levels in Texas and Arizona consistently in the eighties in the coming years, rising by mid-century to high eighties. In short, this was not supposed to be what we were expecting–but the polar jet stream that once held arctic air in the poles has wrecked havoc as its meander grows, allowing sudden southern migration of cold air no longer penned in the poles; arctic has warming created a far less clearcut atmospheric river of the jet stream leads the polar vortex to wobble, sending snow flurries into the very regions forecast to reach average temperatures in the high eighties.

Climate Impact Lab, Projected Mid-Century Temperatures for United States, 2040-2059, Winter Months (Dec/Jan/Feb)

The very cerulean colors of arctic air that that streamed across weather maps were far removed from the clear skies that cerulean was once marketed to painters to provide: if cerulean skies are barely seen in the smoke-filled cavern of the hulking train station Claude Monet explored, examining the concealment or disappearance of the blue skies he would have seen in the country retreat at Argenteuil in a series of rather haunting portraits devoted to the massive Gare Saint-Lazare, then the busiest of Parisian train stations, especially of its interior overwhelmed by the steam from coal-burning trains. The colors filtered out of the sound of engine whistles, panting of pistons, and soot that hung in the air but focussed on the new altar of industry as effect and by-product of Haussmanization by which streets welcomed increased traffic, but seem to be captured not only in the sooty interior, but how the vivid cerulean blues of the open skies were almost obscured by the billowing pillars smokes that filled the station: clouds of steam power that fill the tracks on which three trains approach obscure all but spots of cerulean blue, seen through the screen of a lattice of wires over the tracks of the switchyard, capturing the new consciousness of air pollution of the late nineteenth century.

Claude Monet, Exterior of the Gare Saint-Lazre/Musée d’Orsay (Christies)

On the eve of re-entry into the Paris Accords, the entry of arctic air across our northern border wasn’t unprecedented, but a wake-up call. Search to the map’s colors to find some purchase on the plummeting temperatures across the midwest, ceruleans brought me back to Monet, finding traces of the increased carbon pollutants that filled the atmosphere registered in a map of the sulfurs that spewed up from power plants, the modern ancestors of the sulfur emissions that are in far better need of being mapped as we enter the Paris Accords, with the sort of about-face that Monet made in leaving idyllic garden at Argenteuil to face the carbon spewing out of the Parisian train station at Gare Saint-Lazare in twelve canvases that tried to capture modern life that ponder the dissolution of clouds, steam, smoke, and even asking the station master to leave train engines idling in the switchyard so he could to capture the effects of how steam smoke obscured the cerulean skies as the train station air filled with the bitter air of burnt coal.

Shifting perspective on the sky, satellite data on the far from cerulean skies suggested the ghostly configuration of sulfur dioxide emissions emerging from what were increasingly less regulated North American power plants, refineries, cities, shipping industries, smelters and production of gypsum and fertilizer, as well as volcanos, to reveal the huge footprint of emissions released this past winter, cartographer Logan Williams showed in a snapshot that begs us to reconsider our relation to God’s green land. The continent is viewed by the anthropogenic release of airborne sulfurs registered by satellite, among the principle of climate change, where the once prominent contribution of the Cascades have been displaced by new hot spots of burning from power plants: these spots are not isolated, if there are clear concentrations of SO2 around them, but the products of a nation enmeshed in practices of carbon burning and fuel combustion, and dependent on the creation of electricity from power plants and refineries.

Logan Williams/@Obtusatom

The blurry activity of a speckling of the national map in the visualization in part results from the pointillistic geo-referenced data of remotely sensed data from the NASA satellite Sentinel-5P: but there the data here invests the map with a ghostly tenor, as its pixellated blur recalling nothing so much as an after-image burned on our optic nerves, although it is labelled to give some legibility. It is an image we have burnt onto our world: volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa are studied for their historical imprint, and volcanic eruptions that have increasingly oxidized the atmosphere have historically marked major shifts in global temperature now manifested in climate change, and the industrial uses of carbon fuels that have released as much sulfur into the atmosphere as a major volcano every 1.7 years since 1950 have created a world that we are changing more rapidly than we can grasp. Emissions from power plants and refineries dropped since 1980, when they reached a high point, as we first reckoned with the effects of acid rains that led to Rachel Carson’s work on aquatic ecosystems, appreciating the ecological risks difficult to reverse it creates; if even trace amounts of sulfur dioxide can effect the biological ecosystems and rise temperature, levels of atmospheric emissions astound.

Tons of SO2 Released into National Atmosphere/EPA

The cascading effects of all that atmospheric loading of gaseous sulfur dioxide released by combusting fossil fuel in industrialized areas wreak havoc on ecosystems, even if most often evident in inhibiting visibility by near-permanent haze. But the particulate matter combines with other pollutants create new level of obscuring smog, they not only enter human lungs to lower mortality, but sulfur acid aerosols increase pH levels to which aquatic creatures are sensitive, defoliating trees and inhibiting plant growth as increased acid rain move not through aquatic systems before leaching into the soil in ways difficult to map: the cascading aftereffect include increased in dying and dead trees across the landscape of potentially far greater combustibility. The United States, in this map, lacks crips outlines, but its global sulfur footprint glows as a deep blue blur of ultramarine that might be lapis, presenting the radiating afterglow created by widespread carbon combustion across the land. There is little differentiation we can recognize–without the tags of the Cascades, Chicagoland, and the San Joaquin valley we would have trouble orienting ourselves, but the BC and Ontario smelters, petroleum refineries, and power plants are the primary sites of orientation to red hotspots and challenge us to orient ourselves to the whole.

Logan Williams/@orbusatom

The ghostly static that might recall an old Talking Heads album cover is the anthropogenic residue of the nation, and in many ways the complimentary data vis of the intensification of climate change. The units of sulfur emissions are so staggering the best proxy for their production is perhaps not Dobson units but the active emissions of volcanic eruptions: anthropogenic sulfur emissions have created such a catastrophe in temperature rise, sulfur emissions equal to a rate of a large volcanic eruption every 1.7 years by 1962, and their carbon production exceeded that since by two or three factors, forcing acceleration of global climate change; anthropogenic sulfur emissions decreased after 1980, but rose so dramatically from 1950 through 1980 to provoke the first efforts in national policy to curtail and limit the increasingly devastating effects of acid rain. Concentrated in industrial areas, our sulfur emissions seem to be exploding by 2020 across North America, increasing industrial emission of sulfur even if these emissions were not accorded any clear contributory role in climate change models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And if we focus, as the EPA, on production of SO2 at power plants alone, in a less jarring color palette, the less jarring “data” viewer almost conceals the tonnage of atmospheric pollutants released.

almostconceaphttps://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/power-plant-data-viewer

The ease of registering SO2 from satellite scans provides a clear basis for charting the extent of anthropogenic emissions in once remote Indonesia: anthropogenic emission of such climate-forcing gasses now by and large drown out volcanic activities that constitute a major source of sulfurs’ atmospheric release, easily registered remotely, that overwhelm the Indonesia peninsula to put Krakatoa in its place among anthropogenic SO2 emissions overwhelmed the passive release of sulfuric gaseous emissions from local volcanoes, indicated by triangles in low bands of Dobson units, presenting a somewhat complimentary picture of how man-made off-gassing outweighs the passive emissions of volcanic ranges that once created the largest atmospheric off-gassing, so that the emissions of a local power plant may indeed overshadow the passive off-gassing of sulfurs, 2005-7, from Krakatoa, after all.

Anthropogenic Emissions of SO2 in Indonesia, Sulawesi, and Singapore, from A decade of Global Volcanic SO2 Emissions Measured from Space, 2005-7 
Interactive Data Language (IDL) version 8.5.1

The extent to which the passive volcanic release of sulfur gasses across Indonesia drowns out the site of volcanic off-gassing, including Krakatoa, in this remotely sensed image from NASA’s Aura satellite’s Ozone Monitoring Instruments (OMI) that the effects of gaseous emissions pale in the force of overwhelming anthropogenic releases of climate-forcing gasses. But, to end this post on an up-beat note, although all these many data-points are remotely sensed, they have been embodied in both graphics of North America with a compelling coherence that allows them to be consumed: if the planetary climate seems to be punching back across the red-blue divide due to the shift of the polar vortex, beyond the nation, global warming is far from mysteriously sourced; the increased combustion of fuels that is pumping sulfur dioxide into our atmosphere remind us of the need for regulation, and help us process, assemble and map the cascading effects of atmospheric pollution on the world.

There is luckily more than a bit of visual intrigue and pleasure to help us process a dire story of anthropogenic change: the fading of the territory of the United States to a vivid deep blue blur that recalls artificial luminescence or background radiation is a classic heat map of pressing concern, and the increasingly cataclysmic new frontiers in climate change we seem poised to confront.

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Filed under Climate Change, climate monitoring, climate sciences, data visualization, industrial pollutants

Metageographical Pavement

One of the consequences of the pandemic is a far keener sense of the rapaciousness of surveillance capitalism as we both rely on online ordering and increasingly devote time to web-searches that come to haunt us in quick succession. But if we are tracked in our daily motions, step counts, and position, I was struck by how mapping tools stared back, from the pavement, in suddenly surprising ways, offering welcome reflection on my stroll. Walks during the pandemic often re-expolore the neighborhood, navigating it as if it was reading a map of a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, increasingly empty of pedestrians or sounds, begun to reappear. A heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings, perhaps brought by sensory deprivation, was an unforeseen and almost positive by-product of the pandemic, stretching from the play of sunlight on leaves to song lyrics, and extending to budding magnolias or dropping seed pods of sweet gums and their off-red leaves.   At the same time as such spray-painted pavement markers offer ubiquitous reminders of protocols of social distancing in the pandemic, I’ve been reading marks on the pavement for far more permanent or material signs of spaces we inhabit.

And the marker that is in the header to this post, when I seemed to discover it, provided the impetus for reflecting on the changed spatiality of the pandemic; I stumble across them, pause, and see them as evidence of an earlier spatiality, as if buried in time, but traced on the pavement as a form of mapping geographic information of an earlier time. It’s as if there is a rich archeology of spatial knowledge written on the ground, as if the isolation of social distancing left me more sensitive to seeing voices on the ground, as much as pounding the pavement o my neighborhood. Perhaps this is somehow a search for escape, or momentary transcendence of the existential condition of sheltering in place, or more likely the guiding trope is the reveries of the solitary walker, but of finding transcendence not in the responsiveness of the natural world, as a sharpening of the transcendence of anxieties, but of the apprehension of traces of older cartographic regimes and markers, as something like a puncturing the regime of social distancing.

But the sign of what seemed a forgotten group of bench marks on the pavement of the street near by house seemed similar to ghosts in the neighborhood that popped out with newfound and unexpected clarity as lost but legible registers of the past. This is not only the evocation of a community with comfort. Roman Mars described how the mundane imprints of sidewalk stamps as “a fun kind of x-ray vision” into the community, from the markers of the acknowledgement of disabilities rights activists in Berkeley, or, perhaps, the immigrant communities of pavers whose firms set concrete sidewalks across Berkeley and Oakland, from the austere diamond drawn around the stamp “A. Salamid” to the blocky letters that substitute for a logo for “J. Mottino” to Oakland’s “Rosas Bros” to the old indelible traces left by “H.C. Orth” from the 1920s: some stamps suggest traces of. careers over time, like the contractor Ensor H. Buell, who often worked with architect Bernard Maybeck, who pioneered the new architectural uses of concrete as a medium in from the turn of the century, from buildings like the pillars of the First Universalist Church (1910) to the concrete fireplaces after the massive conflagration that destroyed much of north Berkeley in 1923 advanced so quickly from the region’s chaparral and grasslands across the city to destroy 600 homes over fifty blocks of desirable residences that ended the Arts & Crafts mania for residences from cedar in the “craftsman” movement: leaving an eerily apocalyptic forest of chimneys in its wake, and prompting re-evaluation of concrete as an alternative architectural medium to construct roof trusses, especially after Maybeck lost his own home, creating a series of “concrete houses” from a medium he called “bubblestone,” based on pioneering experimentation with concrete as a creative medium with contractors to respond to the disaster–appreciation of concrete as a response to disaster of fireproof construction was a fit medium to contemplate in a time of historical change, and a question about what would endure in the future.

1923 Berkeley Fire.jpg

The current spread of the pandemic marked time in a simlar caesura, but looking at the ground more than stamping the pavement provided a suitable way to The stamps offered snapshots of the urban planning as an organism. I’d long treasured the stenciled names as a form of graffito bearing hidden messages of past generations and a sort of open source memory, as if the surnames belonged to forgotten pavers, a durable if neglected repository sitting before our eyes on the pavement, offer mark a form of public memory long-neglected. An informal survey based on city walking during the pandemic suggests an expansion of the stamped signatures of contractor-craftsmen led me to posit a First Era of Sidewalk Paving from the turn of the century, after which stamps stylistically expanded in the 1920s to the Elmwood and West Berkeley, as well as downtown.

They offered a site for early morning reveries as I was on the way to the coffee shop, or a distraction as I walked the neighborhood with my daughter, as an early reading exercise gained meaning as a past geography. If of far less legal consequence, stenciled names appeared a rudimentary crowd-sourced cartography on the ground, a forgotten form of registering space that was an oddly familiar as a spatial literacy. If scarcely akin to the struggles of recuperating lost and buried memories of a removed past–to be sure not nearly so traumatic as the more intentional sidewalk commemorative plaques that interrupt Berlin pavements at residences of Jews or other deported in over three thousand “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine), marking former residences.

Image result for stolpersteine
Image result for stolpersteine

The placement of those marker redressed an intentional attempt to obliterate the place occupied by deported victims of the state, to strive come to terms with the past, the names offered stumbling stones of sorts for less buried but similarly lost memories. If those stones rose as if from the repressed collective memory of Berlin to take their place as remnants for current residents, these past voices gained greater poignancy.

Although the fluid Berkeley-Oakland area I’ve leaved has become increasingly fluid, the marks of contractors are distinct–the boundary can be distinguished by the provenance of contractors in concrete stamps, often dated, which suggested a lost but legible text–and raised questions about the endurance of memory, and seemed fit places to seek enduring memories of the past, as if in a way to catch up with the present when we didn’t know what would endure. Although they marked a past far less traumatic and difficult to confront, they became a cryptic spatial geography in the abandoned streets of the pandemic, more a distraction from current anxieties about the present, oddly familiar sites of recognition of continuity with a past, they seemed optimistically to mark the elevation and appreciation of a forgotten culture of concrete contracting that potentially sprang from a search for permanence, and marked the particular place of Berkeley in a broader panorama of historical time, stretching back to the newsreels of the 1923 fire.

I watched from afar how traces of Berlin’s former inhabitants had been recuperated collectively as a sort of shadow geography that aimed to help residents collectively respond to problems of the need to confront the past, in the far more fraught tortured process of historical coming t terms with a past, captured in the creation of the torturous compound, Vergangenheitsbewältigung —as the traces of the storefront of long-gone Jewish cafes were revealed by restorers in the quarter where Jewish refugees from Central European pogroms had resettled, the geographic marker popped out as if to provoke a more personal, less traumatic, reflection on the situation of places, and their cleansing of the past. But if the placement of those stumbling stones was in part a reaction tot he processing of refugees in modern Germany, and all memorials were about the past, there was something powerful about those pavers as a world we have lost. Berkeley was built, after all, on unceded Ohlone land of Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people, if locations of shell mounds are still actively debated. The sense of that lost world became somehow far more acute in the pandemic; the mute authority of designating and marking place in the pandemic sent me down a rabbit hole of place-making, commemoration, and the convergence of the ludic and the mission of the radical cartographer looking for the overlooked.

They reminded me of the emergence of the past in the present, akin to Attie Shimon’s melancholy luminescent projection of evidence of the forgotten marginalized into the places they once inhabited, that began from visual records of pre-Holocaust neighborhoods to engage the present through the ephemera of the past.

2005_170.JPG

1. If in far less stark or dramatic fashion, finding two faux geographic benchmarks in adjacent Berkeley neighborhoods I’ve lived seemed welcome signs of a resistance to mapping that I appreciated, if never noticed before, in a period where we’re deluged with maps of mortality, hospitalization, voting patterns, allegedly “political” polarization and social divides. For if we’re increasingly haunted by spatialities of divides, borders, and boundary lines in recent years–to which I’ver returned in this blog to offer points of reflection–the marker on the ground made me think not only of past events, and commemoration of place, but on being haunted by spatialities, by geolocation and different sorts of geo-information, and the relation between the invisible nets of points of geographic disaggregation contrast to the more material traces of reflection on the ground.

Those stamps on the pavement of often anonymous Greeks, Italians, and Latino contractors who foregrounded their craft and workmanship offered an often dated palimpsest of successive generations of immigration tot he Bay Area in crisply stenciled form–J. Catucci, Gen. Con. 1916; A. Salamid; Rosas Brothers, 2010 510-634-1077″–that seemed a new concrete poetry. The stamps that are actually “time-stamped;” if not public art are often as evocative of local history as public art, from the earliest noted stamp of J.A. Marshall of 1899 who installed “art[ificial] stone” over gravel, brick or dirt roads, evidencing the lost handiwork of master finishers or East Bay locals–Local 594 in Berkeley. While the stamps in the more elevated areas I am walking bear signed by decisively more Anglo group of pavers–J. Lindstrom; J.H. Fitzmaurice; H.O. Wilson; and the industrious Schoor Bros.–the signatrues of sidewalk stamps offered x-ray vision of individual biography and a neglected geo-information of earlier pasts, a spatially situated archive set in the concrete beneath my feet.

J.Mottino, Canning Avenue and 63nd, Oakland CA

While not so intentionally healing and interactive as art projects projecting Jewish-owned storefronts that commemorate the lost past, in the jointly depressive and keen sensibility of the pandemic, it popped out without the benefit of projection, perhaps due to sensory deprivation. I imagined recognizing traces of how an unknown radical cartographer left signs I had never noticed, looking blankly ahead, as I noted a marker placed in the pavement for no particular reason at all. To be sure, the heightened attentiveness that comes from far less ambient noise–no airplanes, no construction, limited home improvement and far less traffic and other passers-by–focussed attention on the reminders of what was to me a lost art project of somewhat absurdist meta-geography focussed on the streetwalker in ways I hadn’t had time to identify myself as before, or was less committed to devote up to even a few hours each day.

While staying far more “at place” than I had in the previous fifty odd years, the mystical aspect of walking in a city as actively engaging with place. This was the inverse of how theorist Michel de Certeau meditated on the human geography of city from the Observation Deck of the old World Trade Center that revealed a topography of the city without people: looking at the distant undulating grid, de Certeau realized the people who walk in the city bring it to life, overlooking the undulating ground surface of Manhattan from the Observation Deck of the old World Trade Center, watching the “wave of verticals” as neighborhoods form Greenwich Village to Midtown to Central Park to Harlem were “immobilized” in space, and he was “lifted out of the city’s grasp” in an eerily unfamiliar way. I had stood in the same place before, pressed against thick plate glass looking out to a dizzying expanse provoking alienation and acrophobia from a long gone aery of the WTC Observation Deck, whose God’s eye view was so uncannily removed from urban space. This marker made me consider the absurdity of placing myself by exact geospatial position.

I wouldn’t suggest that the bench mark I found on a walk recently was an outright falsification or fraudulent, but I had never really considered the bench mark being an art form, that played with one’s sense of being mapped from above, in ways were as welcome, when I noticed it, as an interruption of the sustained sense of being set in one place. The sense of discovery made it better, as I seem to have finally noticed what was lying there on Prince Street all along, inviting me to remap my position in the world, as much as the flight of historical imagination that were provoked by the less openly geo-tagged stamps of pavers like H.C. Orth, whose best stamps have been excavated by websites as “Oakland Underfoot” in an age we carry cell phones in our pockets.

It seemed about time. The marker was a send-up of the use of geographical markers at a time when they were by nature obsolete–we didn’t survey much any more as a public good, and had our bearings in maps that were in the devices in our pockets. The national geodetic survey manages about 240,00 active stations: national engineering of low-distortion projections extend from the sea-level datum of 1929, based on the North American datum of 1927, through the forthcoming 2022 revision of the “ground truth” of low distortion projections, of less distortion than the transverse Mercator used in GPS, the bench marks provided a basis for spatial reference in successive geographic datum to judge Low-Distortion Projections for surveyors and mappers. And as we still try to create Low-Distortion Projections (LDP’s) that are able to bridge the spatial positions depicted in GIS and real-world distance that will minimize the linear distortions that creep into maps, to create better matches for distances observed at elevation, the modernization of the state-plane system to best align with natural topography; if bench marks that dot Oakland and the Bay Area run along the fault lines that intersect and cross in the Bay Area, the movement of tectonic plates have led geodesists to use different grids with reference points to distinguish tectonic plates, reconcile the needed stability of geodetic reference systems with the instability of the continental drift.

Rotation of North American and Pacific Plate/geodesy.noaa.gove

The system of reference opened up from the ground up as I looked at the faux bench mark. The marker’s legend enjambed a precise global address with an absurd proposition especially apt in an age when we were increasingly addicted to maps to gain some sense of stability as the spread of the pandemic melded into social justice riots of an inclusivity and scale we hadn’t seen, full of indignation and a need to retake the streets, and the parsing of political preferences that left us wondering if we were bifurcated in two camps. Did it puncture the authority of marking fixed borders increasingly seen as an edge to the nation, increasingly mapped and militarized as a frontier of military conflict, or a separate sovereign space?

2. Concrete markers offered a sticking sort of memory traces on the US-Mexico Border, long before Donald Trump started talking about the need for a steel-core concrete walls exposed to weather were the haunting basis of the border wall. The grids of rebar that are the basis for much of the concrete places in the open were never constructed along most of the expansive border President Trump was famously loath to compromise, and the dream of building a concrete wall that led him to tour the Rio Grande There was a sense that the fault-lines and divides we have made through maps peeled apart from the global sense that the marker gave to geospatial position, by asking the viewer to embrace that random point on the globe with two pieces of bread. Perhaps the jokiness of the inscription pried apart the coexistence of different eras of marking space primed me to consider how our forms of marking as ways of making public information legible in our landscape, haunted by the spatial addresses of geospatial location. For the mundane bench mark before me played with the notion of hexadecimal spatial addresses in ways that seemed to look up to the grids that were increasingly wrapped around and superimposed upon the earth with surreal absurdity.

image-center
Proposed Steel Bollard Fencing at US-Mexico Border, Proposed in Government Shutdown of 2019

Bench marks on the southwestern border had long created legibility in the landscape, rendering geospatial coordinates legible on the international divide. One senses the excitement of these claims to legibility in the effort to meld maps and life in the markers that the United States Geographic Survey sets into the ground that mark a datum of elevation or azimuthal mark, for coastal surveys or early networks of surveying: nowhere more than in the set of markers set up on our southern border to mark the border after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, discussed in my last post, to inscribe in the sand an affirmation Mexico transferred sovereign claims to California Alta, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and much of Arizona; surveyors set cairns in the uninhabited regions for no observer in particular, “in consideration of the extension acquired by the boundaries of the United States” that had been recently expanded as the federal government bought new land from where El Paso meets the Rio Grande river due west, for the bargain basement price of $15 million that was basically dictated to the Mexican government at the conclusion to the war.

20190120 - Map - BASIC.jpg

They left as markers stone undressed mounds, without mortar, to “perpetuate the evidence of the boundary” on the 31°20′ parallel and the 31°47′ parallel, to persuade viewers of the authority of the new national map: this was a collective attempt at boundary-drawing that led stones to be amassed at regular reminders, attempting to immerse anyone on the ground with the authority of the map beyond the triumphalism of the fourteen foot high Border Monument #1 seemed set on unclaimed paradisal lands, as if determined by a process of divine reason.

The point bore the clear message, made more legible to visitors by the painting in of its legend, making its cartographic function legible by proclaiming the “staring point” of a border scarcely apparent in the terrain.

The astronomers located the exact coordinates the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty had agreed upon, because not only was the 2,000+ miles of the border agreed to be impossible to manage by human observers, but such sentinels of stone provided the only sensible way to let the people who crossed it–without GPS or maps–to know where they were as they moved across what were almost entirely uninhabited mountain ranges. Although these early markers were replaced by obelisks by the 1890s, the current attempts to replace these markers that left the boundary present in the landscape, but left borders “open,” had been treated as a way to bait racist groups of border guards and vigilantes, by being sacralized as a bulwark of alleged invulnerability, as if the “open” borders were a sellout of the nation, and a reassurance of the sacred nature of America’s geopolitical sovereign identity in ways obelisks stationed at regularly spaced intervals–or earlier border markers–had failed to provide.

The piles of undressed rocks were forms of governance, and an improvised antecedent of the boundary wall. Their pastoral presence was evidence in the landscape that a “true line shall be the record to which all disputes . . . shall be referred,” established to link the land to the map. In 1851, teams of astronomers, cartographers, mountaineers, and artists, often veterans of the US-Mexico War assembled undressed cairns, only later replaced by permanent obelisks standing every four miles in a single line of sight, making visible the arbitrary line visible by “tracing upon the ground” in the landscape to “perpetuate the evidences of the location of the boundary” on six hundred and fifty eight miles along the 31°20′ parallel and the meridian connecting it to the 31°47′ from El Paso to San Diego. The Chief of the American Boundary Commission, Col. J. W. Barlow, remembered “steadily . . . over much desert and some valleys that would be fertile if there was any way of storing water . . . over many mountain ranges,” to stabilize the boundary between both nations, chief of the American Boundary Commission, adding “a great deal of the country was rough and wild.”

The resurveying teams of 1891-94 sought to demarcate a spatial difference in more monumental terms, to correct past mistakes and ensure none were swept under sands or obliterated to view, placing sequentially numbered neoclassical obelisks that must have been ordered from quarries where the determined boundary lay.

Border Monument 185 (+32° 10′ 10.96″, -113° 45′ 4.86″) near the Reserva de Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto/Library of Congress
Border Monument no. 258, now located at the center of Friendship Park, Tijuana

–or hiring laborers to erect new monuments from masonry, all photographed for posterity.

Border Monument No. 40. International Boundary & Water Commission re-marked boundary between United States and Mexico west of Rio Grande, 1891-1896

After an initial use of marble to create neoclassical monumental markers, the poured concrete obelisks provide a reminder of the past efforts to lend stability to the border that the walker of the border, David Taylor, encountered and documented in an extended photographic essay. The monumental boundary markers of the 1890s stand today stoically beside far more brutalist border wall that transform the dots of a map earlier markers to a continuous line: La Mojonera, the first obelisk of Italian marble was set with fanfare above the Pacific, the first of what were only fifty-two border monuments, arrived by ship from New York. The laborious expansion to two hundred and fifty-eight monuments that lay in a single line of sight extend from the west bank of the Rio Grande near El Paso at exact coordinates, as two surveyors and a team of astronomers and artists covered almost 690 miles in two years, making sure that the obelisks lay in clar visibility of one another as if to render the land as visible as a map: Border Monument #1, overlooking the Pacific, now became Border Monument #258, overlooking the Pacific, but most of the two hundred and seventy-five were lugged with effort and expense as legible evidence as if dots on a border line. These markers serving to map space parallel the concrete markers of pavers I see in Berkeley, as a poignant echo of past efforts to define a fixed relation to space.

David Taylor, Border Monument 210: 32 degrees 42.352 minutes northlatitude, 114 degrees 54.596 minutes west longitude, from  Monuments: 276 Views of the United States-Mexico Border

David Taylor, Border Monument No. 207. N 32°43.082’ W -114°43.890’ Los Algodonoes, Baja California. West of Andrade Port of Entry.
David Taylor, Border Monument No. 250. N 32°33.720’ W -116°42.983’ Cañon el Padre.

Photographer David Taylor grew increasingly entranced by the sequence of monuments, now set against bollard fencing and as a vain attempt to make the boundary line impermeable as it might be imagined on a map, “captivated by them,” as a network of inanimate informants about “our changing national identity.” They offer a poetic testimony to the long open nature of the border, and a contrast to the image of security in the fantasy of restoring complete border security. Taylor’s eloquent photographs capture the overlapping spatialities of the border at the moments where they intersect, revealing an archeology of the border space in quite poetic terms as an observer who observes the archeological layering that still exists along the border, at sites where the border fence that asserts a clear divide of nations seems more of a palimpsest of the border spaces that have existed over the same terrain.

The overlap of these senses of the border markers, as they were poised to be erased by the continuity of a border wall, were photographically captured by David Taylor during the doubling of border wall built on the southwestern border, and on the eve of the expansion of the border in national debate, and the United States government built over 600 miles of new pedestrian fencing and border barriers: as the border was increasingly structurally reinforced and the size of United Stated Border Patrol doubled, Taylor’s series of photographs remapped border from the position of the border walker, as the border was redefined by seismic sensors to track pedestrian cross-border passage. Taylor walked in the project Working the Line moves from El Paso/Juarez to San Diego/Tijuana, provided not only an artistic account of border monuments in their locations, but lift the finality of the present by showing intersecting spatialities, one peeking through the other, of the 276 geodetically fixed obelisks, set from 1891-95 to mark the international boundary as if to make locally legible a globally recognized line; setting these obelisks, often along desert terrain or on mountain ranges, secured a sense of the border that could not move or be moved, more permanently legible than the cairns that might erode with time or be destroyed; at the same time as Albrecht Penck was proposing an International Map of the World as a model of global concord and shared mapping standards, and as Frederick Jackson Turner bemoaned the closing of the frontier, the obelisks marked national space on the ground set definite bearings. Turner interpreted the finding in the 1890 US Census that the “unsettled area has been so broken into isolated bodies of settlement [in the nation] that there can hardly be said to be a frontier,” lamenting the closing of the frontier as a site and resource of national renewal; the marble obelisks that punctuated the international boundary treat the border as settled and fixed in global space on a legible map.

Taylor’s walks cast these obelisks in an almost almost pastoral landscape, against the spatiality that map an enforced border fence as a a tactical line of military defense. There is an undeniable sense of tragedy in the border obelisks Taylor encounters: while Turner felt the frontier a crucial liminal space for democracy and a “gate of escape from the bondage of the past” and the dangers of social hierarchy and cultural decadence on the European continent during the 1890s, the stability of a border no longer open to pedestrian passage convey a sense of deep tragedy and loss. But those old obelisks first attempted to trace a legible line in the landscape of international boundary for all passersby who came across them, the rigidity of the installation of “barrier fence”–the immediate antecedent of calls for a Border Wall–suggest the explicitly militarized borders that had already begun to replace them, imagined as a tactical barrier to the “potential illegal alien” (PIA) who might be apprehended by the border patrol agent (BPA) in adequate time to make the request, given the needed detection and tracking coverage by which the “alien” might be tracked and apprehended by agents before s/he reaches the “vanishing point” of no return. The ability of geotrack locations of a “IA” or “PIA” coming from the south of the border became a calculus for border agents to prevent migrants from moving through open gaps, the “illegality” of whose crossing the border was presumed by the Department of Homeland Security.

3. Geodetic markers corresponded to a new geospatial notion of legibility, but are strewn across the state as far more minor monuments. As the obelisks made the border manifestly present in the landscape, the survey markers the USGS has since planted in the ground, over a million at set points on the peaks of mountains, sites of elevation and surveying, are an entrancing if opaque signifiers in the past bench marks of property lines, city planning, or earlier attempts at transcontinental triangulation, spatial address with alphanumeric codes: they promise and promote the public utility of the legibility of the land, as did the border markers that often began by including bilingual inscriptions. The legibility of the surface of the lower forty-eight still depends on attempts to reconcile the dangers of linear distortion of projections on distances at uneven elevations–either low-lying regions near the Great Lakes, for example, or the elevated areas expanding cities like Denver, where discrepancies between coordinates and natural topography might create underestimates of property.

The new spatial addresses offer alphanumeric codes overlain on the Universal Transverse Mercator better to orient ourselves along a uniform grid, superimposed over boundary lines of state sovereignty or county lines.

The degree of linear distortions that existed at the border, in Pima County, was low, but must have been a question of concern for the Border Patrol officers who patrolled the region.

Most bench marks were antequated mooring points for collective webs of security that seemed to belong to another era. Bench marks of local heights offer evidence of past spatialities one runs into by chance, set in pavement as relics or reminders of past collective efforts of measurement. In California and the Bay Area, many attempt to track the lines of fault lines that run beneath the ground –including under many California cities, known for registering occasional seismologic tremors that are intrusive (and alarmingly unwanted) reminders of our location beside fault lines. More a million such markers exist across America as relics of an earlier age when geographical datum was not readily registered by GPS, a spatiality inscribed in fixed points of elevation in the ground–and sought to prohibit their removing them from the stone in which they were set prominently displayed for what was once a hefty fine, as they would undo their accuracy as surveying points.

The city of Berkeley is not especially dense in surveying points, but a large number of classical horizontal bench marks exit near the shore, as well as downtown, with many designations of height, that were useful in city planning and property development, that NOAA allows us to scan.

National Geodetic Survey Data Explorer/NOAA

–and far denser horizontal bench marks on the old Army base of Alameda, built on landfill, which rapidly developed as a site for residences, as well as horizontal and elevation markers in downtown Oakland.

National Geodetic Survey Data Explorer/NOAA

It is hard to date the placement of USGS markers set up by the early Bureau of Land Management, but the bench marks that were sent in pavement or concrete monuments provided a needed surveying datum for construction, as well as staking property claims and mapping the west, and while many relate to the first coastal survey of 1836-78, interrupted by the Civil War but completed just before it broke out, the completion of the project of transcontinental triangulation expanded needs for such claims to the west. They are relics of a national form of mapping, but an invitation to local triangulation: these markers offer an interactive infrastructure for future development as a spatially distributed encyclopedia of orthometric heights.

Geocaching > Benchmark Hunting > Benchmark Details

Traveling the Angeles Crest Highway – Maven's Photoblog
San Gabriel Mountains, 6861.43 Feet above Sea-Level along San Andreas Fault

The geodetic markers set into the land as benchmarks of orientation recall points of surveying, but are the remaining residue of a dream of inscribing a one-to-one relation to a map, recalling Borges’ fantasy of a map coequal to the territory, inscribing locations on the ground as fixed points, predating Geographical Positioning Systems. They created a network over the terrain, preceding GPS, in the postwar period, with the adoption of he Universal Transverse Mercator projection (UTM), as benchmarks in a broader geographic system. The products of a pointillist geographical imagination of establishing a sense of geospatial security for surveyors, they moor the stability of the maps still made by surveying, and enjoy a renaissance in the age of geocaching.

The shift in the sense of mappability is suggested in the rich terrain for geocaching that the USGS bequeathed Bay Area residents, especially in the East Bay.

National Geodetic Survey Data Explorer/NOAA

Or excavate the hidden early history of laying out San Francisco, from the comfort of one’s cel phone, and the readings of the height of Knob Hill.

Geodetic mapping were modernized through a wide range of constituents by GPS in alternative surveying techniques from the mid-1990s, to share new benchmarks of a height modernization for future mapping, carting and navigation, that that made the old markers true relics of a land-based precision of the past.

4. The ground is hardly stable beneath our feet where we live in the Berkeley, if the sense of that instability had seemed to grow quite suddenly. In San Francisco and the Bay Area, the geodesic markers are, we increasingly realize, shifting in elevation on the ground underneath our feet. Despite the huge effort that went into the placement of those bench marks in the previous century, the bench marks have a half-life that the folks who placed them in concrete monuments did not foresee: plate tectonics of the California coast spaceborne geodesy allows have created a disturbing picture of shifting elevations across the region, as sediment contracts in drought; subsidence of low-lying region coastal lands reveals vertical land motion (VLM) is as much as several centimeters/year, independently of land movement of fault lines of the converging Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

Aquifer depletion can create subsidence of up to tens of centimeters per year, far beyond the ‘slow subsidence’ California experiences, droughts create considerable subsidence with sediment contraction on California’s coast–here measured in VLM of up to 2.5 mm upwards, or subsidence of the same interval.

Subsiding Cities in Coastal California, =2.5 mm to -2.5 mm: The San Francisco Bay Area, 2007-2018

In California as a whole, the sinking of a mere two centimeters annually may seem less striking, but in a population center of such low elevation, it is alarming. The picture of California is alarming, and something of a serious counterweight or undertow to the huge pull of coastward migration in the past fifty to sixty years.

Coastal Land Subsidence in California in Rates of Vertical Land Movement, 2007-18

We can now integrate a remarkably large dataset of vertical uplift in the western United States, to image the vertical velocity of uplift across the western United States, here focussing on the Sierras, that are important to investigate in relation to climate change and anthropogenic activities to get bearings on a changing world–to briefly move way from the shoreline, and place its vertical movement in a broader context of geodetic change.

Vertical Velocity Uplift in Sierra Nevada, Nevada Geodetic Laboratory/ JGR Solid Earth, 2016

The markers on the ground in the Bay Area are tokens of a residue of optimistic push for collective projects of the past, affixed as a memory in bronze disks or medallions, of eight to ten cm. diameter; they remind me of the slightly smaller antiquated media the MiniDisk, even if they are not encased in crystal but set in stone or pavement. From the 1880s these benchmarks for surveying proliferated as benchmarks for a network of national mapping, including a triangle on summits of mountain peaks, remainders of a spatiality we have lost, and also a form of my focus and absorption of discarded geographic information, as if a sort of refuge from the vacuuming up of geolocation data. As much as celebrating my own visibility as a flâneur of urban space, the markers were a sort of rejoinder to the “cyber-flânerie” of online worlds, these old geodetic markers seem to retain an old use-value in their own visibility has led me to fetishize them as a traces of a counter-spatiality that needs to be redeemed.

The markers provided something of a n evocation of local pasts and past spatialities for the city walker and flaneur, as well as a timely reminder, at a difficult time, that in Berkeley, CA, that the external world only exists in the mind of the beholder, as much as their eye. Reading the ground was taking a time-dive of sorts; this was an always open library, scattered, off the shelves distributed for collective consultation on the ground and across public lands.

The seventeen markers of the Hayward fault line that run through Oakland CA make one wonder why the fault is named Hayward, but is also a bit of a hidden landmark in the urban ground, on which we could trace outdoor walks along fault lines–a nice place for a picnic in the pandemic that promised outdoor science lessons for greater familiarity with the hidden topography of seismic risk.

Survey Marker on the Hayward Falut/Oakland Geology

The sense of these networks thrown atop the landscape, but that existed within our collective consciousness, seem to have cousins in the markers, about the same size–half the diameter of a compact disk, to use a similarly antiquated medium as a metaphor–that remind folks in Berkeley of the underground network they would do well to visualize and understand by which curbside waste drains from local points to the bay, in hopes to encourage awareness of the link between built space and environment of all urban residents.

If the shift to emulate geographic benchmarks was a visible change in the East Bay’s strategy to stave off the local entrance of the amazingly high estimate of oil residents 11,000 gallons of oil Bay Area residents send to the San Fransisco Bay daily–a guesstimate twenty times greater than the estimated 5 gallons/minute a leak of from an underwater pipeline off Richmond’s Long Wharf that spread a sheen over San Pablo Bay of up to 750 gallons of diesel fuel and water that spurted from a small hole for one and a half hours directly into the Bay, making the shoreline community smelling like a gasoline station.

SF Baykeeper

Attempt to instill consciousness of oil drains at a local level in the East Bay seemed a Sisyphean struggle.

But the shift to bechmark-like curbside disks that replaced spraypaint as a public education about pollutants, inviting us to trace clearer interconnections between road drainage and coastal pollution of nearby waters:

5. I had first noticed a set of faux bench marks while walking on a suddenly far less busy street. These pseudo-waypoints were not as part of networks of spatiality otherwise unseen, as fault lines or survey points, but days of social distancing made them seem voices of past inhabitants, written into the pavement I barely noticed in other years. If placed in the manner of a survey marker, their meta vein was a geographic joke, as if a hint at a past generation of geographers who lived in the same space, who planted the marker on the edge of the modest mini-park that a community devoted weekends to redesigning an empty parcel on weekends?

My enhanced attention to the urban environment grew as the silences of the pandemic transform my walks into explorations of birdsong as Prince Street in the early morning from about 6:15 to 8:50, when swallows, crows, and sparrows seemed to exult n the absence of the sound of driving and construction to rouse themselves collectively in a chorus happily at odds with the odd absence of street sounds. The range of birds from the magnolias and other trees seemed a soundtrack liberated from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or that suddenly transported the laboratory’s sonic residents to my doorstep, tempting me to amateur ornithological identifiication Ito discern calls of yellow-rumped warblers, California towhee, song sparrows, and finches beyond the cacophonous cries of crows punctuated by the occasional mourning doves. Aural immersion in birdsong prompts me to consider new forms of inter-connection–birds had indeed become increasingly more vocal and entered new aural registers as ambient noises reduced; I was an unintended beneficiary of a new range of their register of trills, perhaps squabbling over open airspace as they mapped the return of long-unheard aural spaces of listening not only in residential neighborhoods.

Halcyon Commons, Berkeley CA/(c)Nancy Carleton

It performed the reverse operation of being lifted out of the city de Certeau so eloquently described in the  aperçu that began his reflection on city walking, but played perfectly with a problem of geographic comprehension: the disk disguised as a USGS marker announcing being at a precise geographic location, and suddenly throwing one up into a UTM projection–if hardly in the manner of a topographical place-mark.

The winking steel disc pressed into the pavement playfully declared itself the site to create an Earth sandwich, ludically describing itself as a global point designating whatever you made of it. The marker offered instructions to its reader that seemed from another age as well, echoing the Whole Earth movement of the early 1970s, by asking you react in antipodal relation to a spot southeast of Madagascar, or asking you consider this place on the curb of an improvised neighborhood park in a global context. If the curb was poured for the mini-park circa 1998–four years after the unveiling of the “navigational utility” of GPS–it cannily channeled Stuart Brand’s “Whole Earth” thought, and seemed to predate the hexadecimal coordinates. As much as offering bearings, it relished the vertiginous sense of global interconnection GPS promised to reorganize geographical knowledge–and one’s individual experience of the global map–around inter-related individual points as a public utility, and the common man, rather than a strategic tool of military specialists.

But how to date cement? The forward facing marking of a place that had no real significance appeared a sly cartographic joke, hard to date, but questioning the utility of GPS coordinates by enjambing them with an early modern spatiality as much as a postmodern instrument of geodetic accuracy. I laughed aloud. As I envisioned how soggy bread at the bottom of the Indian Ocean could create this ambitious “Earth sandwich,” geography seemed the ultimate mind game of displacement: the metageographic conceit threw me for a pleasant loop, as I recalled the optimism of the paperback “bibles” Brand published between 1968 and 1972, promising an uplifting comprehensiveness that Steve Jobs saw as an unlikely antecedent of the internet.

The seemed a residue of the globalism of the folio-sized softcover volume that curated a database, collating a cornucopia of DIY information, made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroids as a sort of luddite samizdat for dissidents of box stores or the business world. Steve Jobs remembered their amazing appearance “before personal computers and desktop publishing,” as prefiguring the promise of personal computers: Jobs called the volume the “bible of my generation,” a series concluding with the injunction “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

The faux benchmark seemed just such an act of wide-eyed resistance with immediacy, an optimism one might expect to find in a neighborhood mini-park named “Halcyon Commons” that suggested a somewhat utopian vision of a radical geographic past. The issues of the Catalog–my late father was a proud owner; I spent hours trying to guess what I might mail order anything from its pages long before having a checking account–hardly prepared me for the distance of observation, but it seemed to jump out of the ground in the pandemic with welcome disorientation akin to looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Juxtaposing the global space of terrestrial coordinates with the mundane sandwich was the point of the marker. A USGS marker asked one to relate to the world, from where you are–“be here, now“–as much as abstract your geographic position; seeing the “sandwich” marker made my day, if it slipped from my mind. My next encounter with one of these pavement markers occurred months later into the pandemic.

But it made me wonder if I was living in the former neighborhood of radical cartographers, intent to inscribe the pavement with faux USGS topographical markers of the sort one found usually on mountain tops or in the nearby state parks, but in urban life, and made you reconsider your position as a street walker in more of a global context. Who planted these things? I was tempted to scoff at Berkeley performance art, or a distributed art practice piece, but hoped to mine the Berkeley-Oakland border by a radical geocaching, imagining kinship with a radical cartographer set markers in pavements for passersby who noticed to engage, as I met another marker just a few weeks later, that I almost missed, that promised an interest in reorienting my relation to the world.

More pasted onto a paved surface than set in the cement that had been recently poured, the marker was even more absurdist, declarative, and philosophical in tone, if it was clearly the same in its poetic address, situated in another section of pavement, not lying far off, if more clearly affixed to the ground in what almost looks like tufa. I appreciated its absurdist direct address, hungry for meaning; its message actually seemed to have gained additional resonances in the pandemic in what would have been unforeseeable ways.

“Reorientation” openly absurdly invited we shift our perspective on the world, but not by geolocation but something like its inverse: telling you that you are lost–rather than where you were–played with the whole notion of orientation, in a lovely pre-GPS way, dispensing with coordinates and asking you where you made that wrong turn that got you there, and encouraging you to wander in the city, rather than follow its straight lines, or if you were able to go back to where you came from, to leave this corner, because this simply isn’t where you ever expected to be, and if you shouldn’t have turned left on Telegraph Avenue, instead of right.

The absurdism of the direct address more indebted to Samuel Beckett than Mercator was welcome; in the pandemic, the marker spoke across time in what seemed as good a sense of orientation we have all started to feel. These were waystations that punctured any sense of confidence or assurance, acknowledging accident and happenstance of remaking one’s relation to space by improvising how one inhabited the paths that have perhaps become overly familiar to many of us, not necessarily trudging along downcast, but feeling a bit less interactive with the spaces where we live. It was so refreshing for a moment that the mapped talk back, and I relished that it did so in an openly destabilizing manner, rather than provide a promised point of reorientation at all. “Just return to exactly where you began to restart your journey again.” If only we could.

The kinship that all this made me feel was to a group of radical cartographers mapping new ways to inhabit the space I’d been living for longer than I’d like to admit. There was an archeological pleasure of unnoticed waypoints jumping out and finding a community lying before me in the ground. The public-facing waypoints–and I am sure there must be more, and became a bit desperate to find a third in the name of triangulation if not a fourth and fifth, if only in order to become part of the radical cartographer community, placed me in time and space on the Berkeley-Oakland border. These imaginary waypoints to a different sort of future than had been mapped seemed an invitation of sorts to join a project of radical cartography–a commitment to staying both hungry and foolish and resisting any sense of satiety and confidence that the world was fully mapped–lest we grow too removed from the neighborhoods and the world in which we live.

Or was the whole affair just a local adoption of a dated if recent piece of performance art? While I delighted in the juxtaposition of global and local, the marker by Halcyon Park followed how performance artist Ze Frank enjoined users to explore interactive platforms to make an antipodes sandwich over a decade back. The online performance artist sent many folks to the online mapping tool “find my the opposite,” as a path to connect to someone living in the antipodean relation to one’s position, on May 16, 2006, to use two bread slices to make an antipodean sandwich of global embrace: placing pieces of bread at an opposite one global position spark the rage for “antipodean sandwiches” as an interactive offline game, not in Berkeley.

Ze’s request to the spirited followers called “sports racers” had since 2006 prompted hundreds of “earth sandwiches” that traced lines of global embrace with entertaining abandon between Madrid and Auckland or Fiji and Mali. to “promote awesomeness” by a free online tool. Geoawesomeness, anyone?

As a luddite hack to processes globalization, Ze invited his viewers to follow a pleasurably crude platform to place themselves in a global context, in a GoogleMaps sort of hack. If Google Maps was launched for desktop as an interface to help people “get from point A to point B,” Ze’s 2006 hack was a mash-up giving new relevance to an early modern spatial conceit of antipodes that spawned a host of interactive imitators inviting users to place themselves on a global map, but by trying to making contact with someone in antipodal relation to them–in places that mapped antipodally onto solid land. It prompted a host of cartographic imitators online by 2020, search engines that had probably experienced a mini-boom in an era of social distancing. If the Tang dynasty Chinese called block-printed playing cards that were first block printed c. 1070 paper dice as they sought to find a term for these new games of chance, the hexadecimal coordinates GPS and Google put into the hands of map users allowed anyone with wifi and a tablet to use their phone hookups potential opportunity to contact someone at a specific antipodal point, or imagine them sticking their own heads into the ground in a virtual cartographic space.

As American audiences confronted the harsh fact they were in antipodean relation to the Indian Ocean, using two pieces of bread to make an “earth sandwich” seemed to come to terms with globalization with apparent DIY brio, and a bit of ingenuity while taking their eyes off the map. To be sure, the remapping of coordinates in peninsular Malaysia are currently moving with the Sunda tectonic plate, meaning, among other things, that the geodetic reference system demands some quick recalculation if existing bench marks are to be used for earth sandwiches. But it is good to know that these things happen, and that geodetic infrastructrues need remapping, even if this means potential difficulties for motorists, airplane pilots, and airplane passengers who depend in a globalized world on GPS. On a more personal note, my web-searches for “Antipodean Sandwich” disappointingly suggested the waypoint a radical cartographer had placed in the pavement near my house was but the diminished echo of something streaming globally. I could still smile while passing it.

However, given the dense accumulation of survey markers strewn around the East Bay, and the University of California, one was also a bit surprised that there was less of an attempt to stare back at the map.

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Filed under Bay Area, Globalized GPS, GPS, Urban Space, USGS

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?


Border security was the hallmark issue of the political career of President Donald J. Trump, in ways that long evoked a specter of racial division. The promise to expand the fences that had been barriers along six hundred and fifty four miles of bollard, chain link fences, and even helicopter landing pads that were military materiel from Vietnam were to be expanded to a continuous wall by the man who, Ayn Rand style, promised he was the master architect and builder of a border security system, in hopes to get the costly concrete wall he imagined would be perfect for the border built. But if he had been elected in no small part because of the assurance with which he had insisted “I’m very good at building thing,” including a wall to Make America Great Again, the President who disrupted conventions of government by provoking a government shutdown in 2019, did so largely as he was was loath to “give up a concrete wall” in government negotiations, as his Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney put it, and reluctant to have to “replace it with a steel fence” for democrats. Late in the ill-fated Trump Presidency, wall unbuilt, and looking like it would be reduced to Ozymandian fragments for visitors to look upon his Presidency and despair, desired to visit a section of poured concrete wall that seemed a testament to the achievements of his Presidency. Trump gestured to the border wall mounted on concrete as a sign to our national security, all but ignoring the

The President had concluded his presidency by disrupting conventions of governing again, by refusing to recognize the popular vote’s results and inciting a riot that invaded the U.S. Capitol by minions waving flags from the lost campaign, which they insisted was not over, amidst an inverted American flag of distress, which militia groups had been regularly raised in protests about counting votes and ballots with accuracy over the previous months in Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, and has been displayed in discontent at the outcome of Presidential elections since 2012. The distress signaled, in no small part, fear of failure to complete a continuous wall of two thousand miles in the desert that was promised to keep undocumented barbarians out of the nation.

People rioting on the west side of the Capitol with Trump flags
Pro-Trump Protestors at West Side of U.S. CapitolThomas P. Costello/USA Today via Reuters

The building of the wall may have seemed a piece of cake for someone who had little sense of the practicalities of building, if it is hard to know what he knew about building border walls and when he knew it. For Trump was habituated in the construction of hotels and golf courses to move around regulations and obtain special clearances with the ease he might move across the globe’s surface, an ease he wanted to make even smoother as President and may have seen the office in no small part as allowing himself to move across regulations that he felt had constricted the expansion of projects of construction in the past. The levees on the Rio Grande that had been built in his presidency provided the sole remaining concrete walls left of the border wall, which was mostly more vertical steel bollard fencing, beams filled with concrete that expanded areas of existing fencing, that were judged to meet the “operations requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol” in 2019, until they were found easy to be sawed through by a circular saw.

The value of “high security fencing,” Trump grudgingly noted 1.6 billion for border construction, but a fraction of the $25 billion he had desired to allocate for the border barrier, heralding the quick start of work on the wall he had promised, “not only on some new wall, not enough, [but] . . . fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences” very quickly, he had been accelerating the pace of border construction in ways that seemed to be timed to the election, and chose to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, in a valedictory manner. President Trump’s visit to Alamo to “highlight his administration’s work on the border wall” was an affirmation that he had done his hardest to keep the barbarians on the edge of the empire on the other side of the border, and was to a site near McAllen, Texas, AP and other news outlets quickly reminded the nation, in part as the White House had almost left it unclear, and not the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, but the geographic confusion seemed an opportune way to fulfill the mission of the trip to tally achievements by affirming the threat came from south of the border at his term end–and elicit continued fears that the failure to complete border construction projects would not Keep American Great less cross=-border flows of population continued to be stopped.

As if visiting an outpost on the border of the empire where he sought to protect barbarians from invading, days he incited riots that had staged an actual insurrection breaching the U.S. Capitol, he ceremonially visited the border as if visiting the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, as if it were a privileged site of national defense, near the river whose meander had long defined the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, and indeed was a return to the Rio Grande Valley he had already visited to discuss border security in January, 2019, and sought to confront questions of the need to seize privately owned land to do so by eminent domaine. If the border wall was to be tall, daunting, fitted with flood lights, sensors, cameras and an enforcement zone that was a hundred and fifty feed wide was a steep goal, Trump treated government shutdown as a small price for 450-500 miles of border wall on track to be completed by the end of 2020, promoting a border wall whose construction would be completed by March 2021.

The river delta where Alamo TX is located and which Trump visited is one of the sole places along the entire US-Mexico border where steel panels are mounted on large concrete levees, and the concrete wall that Trump did promised actually exists. The visit to the concrete levees of the Rio Grande Valley that were mounted by concrete-core steel fencing were a display of Presidential authority on a line drawn in the sandy riverbanks far from the Alamo, as newspapers had to remind their readers, but provided a tableaux vivant of sorts, eight days before the end of Trump’s presidency, to defend the necessity of drawing a firm line in the sand.

President Trump Visiting Border Wall at Alamo, TX, January 12, 2021Alex Brandon/AP

The President has long lavished attention on the projected construction of border as if inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. Without ever conceding the election–and indeed instructing those who supported his candidacy in 2020 to “never concede,” Trump visited Alamo to make a final performance of border security before the Rio Grande, and to acknowledge the depth of his commitment to boosting border security. In returning to the Rio Grande Valley, Trump announced in Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” he exaggerated as either in “construction or pre-construction” at pains to deny he had left the “wall,” the impressive centerpiece of his political promise to America, as scattered unbuilt fragments, after having rallied his candidacy behind the construction of a continuous concrete wall.

If a builder, President Donald Trump was long stunned by the prospect of building a border wall, and it seems to have been far larger and grandiose in his own mind than would ever be able to be constructed–or could be imagined to be constructed within budget across two thousand miles of open border. Before he spoke at the memorial for the 9/11 attacks on the nation, Trump described his huge admiration for the commemorative walls erected for the Flight 93 National Memorial, a 2018 visit to promote the building of the border wall half-way through his term, an opportunity to assure the public his long-promised “border wall” was being built, inspired by the towering walls of the memorial to those who died fighting Al Quaeda hijackers, as a “gorgeous wall” and promising that while he found the series of walls to be “perfect,” “I’ll be doing things over the next two weeks having to do with immigration, which I think you’ll be very impressed at,” as if to promise a border monument of awing size.

Donald Trump, Melania Trump
September, 2018

The odd elision of the monument to a terrorist attack with the planned border wall was more than notable–Trump no doubt could not spare the idea of linking the two, as it was his greatest plan for protecting America–but it suggests the deeply commemorative value that President Trump had long placed on a Border Wall. Describing the monumental commemorative structure as nothing less than an inspiration on whcih to draw for his own Border Wall, Trump engaged fantasies of monumentality and national power.

For in revisiting the border he had repeatedly visited to support the construction of a border wall–s times since August, 2017?–in his Presidency, President Trump took time to entertain myths about the border in attempts to reclaim the place of the southern border wall in the national discussion, but a tragic conclusion, also, to the collective cries for wall-building he had issued. If he had visited Yuma AZ, San Diego CA, and the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso in Texas, as well as Calexico and returning to Yuma once more, the return to the Rio Grande was an attempt to confirm that he had indeed contributed to the nation’s border security.

By January, 2021, his final border visit was both a reprise before the favored backdrop before which to perform his Presidential role, a final performance of sovereign authority, and a final attempt to remap the border in the public imaginary of Americans. For if the border wall had been a long process of adjustment to the limits of eminent domain, the environmental regulations of sensitive habitat, and the problems of mixing and moving tons of concrete at great cost to the desert, the imagined location of the border wall to Alamo, TX was a way to flatten the imaginary of the border to a single fight–the Battle of the Alamo, often memorialized in paintings, living history, board games, video games, and, most importantly for Donald Trump, in film–and a battle that could be won, as a “miraculous” battle that had been fought in the long-mythologized walls of the Alamo, in 1836, as if itw as a fight that would be fought and won on the ramparts of a single wall against collective Mexican forces.

Dawn, March 6, 1836, Siege of the Alamo - Day 13 | Texas revolution, Alamo,  Mexican american war

Despite the limits of completed “border wall” across the mountainous terrain, an expanse long defined by the Rio Grande’s course, an area of difficult building, and an area of especially sensitive habitat, President Trump devoted his final days of being Presidential to a visit to the Border Patrol officers at the border town of Alamo, TX–not to be confused with The Alamo in San Antonio, in an attempt to illustrate that the promise he had made to build a wall along the border was complete. Optics were long important to the construction of the wall’s sections, which he repeatedly visited in his campaigns, and which provided a rallying cry for rally crowds in the 2016 election–the run that first featured “Build The Wall!” as a collective cry of identitarian politics the level of “Remember the Alamo!”–and a backdrop used to jump-start his Presidency and to energize his 2020 campaign,

This Rio Grande Valley section of the border wall could be seen either as a construction project, akin to those on which Trump had broken ground in New York and Chicago as a real estate promoter with local politicians who had helped guide them–

Or as a quite complex necklace of wildlife refuges, parks, and wilderness areas in the Rio Grande Valley, whose banks were long nourished by loamy waters that regularly flooded the riparian areas of the region, making it a spot for the migration of birds, butterflies, and across the South Texas Wildlife Refuge Complex, a corridor for the travel of sensitive species.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Tracts of Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Trump had repeatedly visited boder towns as Laredo TX, McAllen TX, Yuma AZ, Calexico CA, and San Ysidro CA in the past six years, and they provided a familiar setting and a backdrop for calls for greater security. The six Presidential visits he made to the US-Mexico border surpass visits of any earlier President since Taft first met Porfirio Díaz at the border in 1909, a century before Trump’s election. He had first visited Laredo “despite the great danger” of the region in 2015 as an obligation as a candidate and an illustration of his patriotic promise to Make America Great Again–“I have to do it, I love this country“–and after prioritizing the immediate construction of a “physical wall along the southern border” only five days after his inauguration, as if to confront a clear and present danger, multiple visits were later made by Trump surrogates, Mike Pompeo, Joe Arpaio, Paul Ryan, or Melania Trump, that magnified the border and a border wall as a Presidential order of business.

The wall was a basis to prioritize a promise to put America First, and an altar for pronouncing his intent to Make America Great Again. It was a basis to define the criminality of undocumented migrants as “illegal aliens,” to construct a revision of American immigration law, all by a system of remapping the border by a “physical wall.” So when he left office, or it seemed inevitable that he would have to leave office, reaffirming the “physical wall” he had mandated was a major order of business to confirm, and even if the wall was not as clearly present, he recognized the need to monumentalize its presence. Trump was a reactionary in returning to a national system of mapping, fending off global mapping tools that promised to erase borders in a network of global coordinates, Trump’s long campaign offered a way of effectively remapping the nation–or its national attention span. The insistence on the safety of the “nation” along this stretch of border wall over-wrote the many indigenous groups who lived on either side of the Colorado River or, as it was known locally, the Rio–so densely congregated in Hidalgo county, near Alamo TX.

If not much of the border will be covered by newly built wall by the time Trump left office, a considerable amount of currently disputed projects, in pre-construction or under construction, far outweighed the amount of border barriers already existing along the Rio Grande. Trump came to claim that they would be completed, in part preaching to the choir–the very group that had first endorsed his candidacy in 2016–that illustrate the deeply transactional nature of the Trump presidency, as much as the eagerness of switching attention from the disastrous publicity of the Capitol Siege that followed his last public appearance, and may tinge forever his Presidency with a deeply distasteful malodor of domestic terrorism, more than security.

But the visit to Alamo TX would exaggerate the process of construction–and the need for its continuation–in a useful rallying cry that could be resuscitated out of office, and indeed to affirm his dedication to the dream of a Border Wall he had planted in the nation, and indeed to restate its patriotic design. Indeed, the visit to Alamo conjured the illusion that the border wall was a straight line–the line that was drawn in the ground with unsheathed saber at The Alamo in 1836, even if the actual border at the Rio Grande was particularly serpentine and difficult to define, despite the accelerated construction of reinforced concrete levees in recent months. While The Alamo was never directly invoked in the border speech that President Trump delivered at the border that recited the “historic” accomplishment of his presidency to defend the border, and sealing the country from asylum seekers and refugees while urging “we can’t let the next administration even think about taking it down,” having spent $15 billion on the border security and construction, for a project he assured was “so important to our country nobody’s going to be touching it.” The pronouncements that came on the heels of the riots that he incited that had left five dead connoted a message about country and nation, concealed that the completion of 450 miles of border wall over four years–a dismal rate of just over a hundred miles of built wall a year, after having banked on the promise that “I’m very good at building things.”

Trump had of course vaunted expertise as a builder and negotiator to construct a border wall with minimum pain or cost. For the candidate even boasted that the cost of an anti-immigrant wall was but a “peanut” given the “fortune Mexico makes because of us,” assuring he would negotiate Mexico paying all costs of the border wall to Republicans averse to government programs. The negotiation of costs for the border wall had of course fallen through long ago, but he seemed to seek to affirm something of the majest of the “great wall” he had promised to built “very inexpensively” in 2015. The promise resulted in replacement of updated fences, with first seventeen, then twenty, miles of new border wall by 2020–and securing funds by the declaration of a “national emergency” of the arrival of immigrants. He seemed to celebrate with a sense of accomplishment, hardly haunted by the 2015 assurance “nobody builds walls better than me” or the promise, “I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” Both were consigned to the dustheap of history, but the Alamo visit was a search for some redemption.

As he had promised to construct a “wall” along the two thousand miles of border, because building was something that he “knew about,” the visit to the wall had to be spun as a form of victory. President Trump’s visit to a town named after the insurrectionists who defended The Alamo by the mythic line that Lt. Col. William Travis Barrett, a native of Alabama drew on the sands of the old Mexican mission with his sword, when he was only twenty-seven, ,dying in defense of The Alamo in ways canonized in printed accounts that since1878 have mythologized the line that Barrett drew before the siege of The Alamo as a heroic defense of the Texan Revolution: the “Revolution,” but the 1836 revolt was far more “Texian” than Texan, was a struggle to extend the pro-enslavement practices that dominated the southern states’ economy that were long prohibited in Mexico–and retrograde in the world–into Texian lands, at a time when enslavement was a globally retrograde–if in danger of spreading into Texan lands.

Moral Map of the United States (January 1837)/Cornell University Libraries, Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection\

–but mapped a stain upon the nation, and not only for American abilitionists: while Mexico had prohibited the institution of slavery, the southern insurrections who fought, with Barrett, against Mexican sovereignty, were not only “revolutionaries,” but had envoiced a fight for the expansion of slavery, endemic to southern states but in need of expanding to Texian lands.

Barrett’s drawing of the line is however commemorated in San Antonio by a brass bar set in the paving stones of the mission, although its actual site remains unknown, evoked the line in the sand of the boundary of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalulpe, as if it had been drawn by the fort’s defender with unsheathed sword. Barrett’s rebellion, born from dispute with Mexico’s government over anti-slavery laws by fellow-southerners like Crockett and Bowie, as the Texas Revolution began, awaited reinforcements that did not arrive, Barrett’s commitment of himself to martyrdom became a spirit of defiance and dedication to country–

–as Barrett committed himself to martyrdom in immortal words of defending an imagined territoriality, “determined to perish in defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.” Barrett’s claim–“Victory or Death!”–was the basis for the first nationalist slogan of the Mexican American War, “Remember the Alamo!” expressed commitment, echoing Barrett, to “Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character.” One could, perhaps, forget that the border along the Rio Grande at Alamo, TX was far more sinuous and complex to construct without disturbing habitat and environmentally sensitive areas long bathed in river silt, or that the border was not simply a matter of drawing a “line in the sand.” Much as the border was not a clearly determined line but increasingly difficult to define along the changing course of the Rio Grande, even if concrete levees tried to stabilize its course, the “line in the sand” drawn at the Alamo was, if mythological, an attempt to draw a clear division of space where Texas indeed bled to Mexico, driven by land seized to expand the plantation economy.

Texas State Library and Archives”/“Moral Map of the United States

Commemorating The Alamo embodied separatist white supremacist values in defense of a national imaginary fit the spirit of the recent Capitol Riots. Trump long imagined the border wall would be a sight of national grandeur and historical memory. He had introduced it as comparable to how Eisenhower, mesmerized by the banks and multi-lane Autobahn he had witnessed in Germany as commander of Allied Forces, had commissioned 41,000 miles of interstates Eisenhower as the largest public works project of its time. But Trump must have realized the highway system had changed not only the national topography but all Americans’ relation to space in profound ways, as he had lived through it: surfaced road mileage almost doubled after World War I, 1914-26 from almost 257,000 miles to almost 522,000, the Federal-Aid Highway Act promised to pave 41,000 miles of interstates.

I had long dismissed as vanity the bizarre comparison of the wall as a project of national infrastructure comparable to the Eisenhower National Highway System survives as a personal legacy for national development, rather than as compromising national ideals. Before he took to signing the plaques of sections of border wall, the comparison to the earlier infrastructure project elevated the border wall to a central place of the national map. And Trump’s visit was an affirmation of the place of the wall in the nation, as a visit to the border town of Alamo, evocatively named after the garrison defended by Tejano insurrectionists, seemed a place to commemorate the role of insurrection in the formation of a nation, in the days that followed the attempted Capitol Insurrection by a motley assortment of flag-waving white nationalists, far right movements, second amendment supporters, and historical recreationists waving Gadsden flags, Blue Line Flags, Confederate Flags, and Betsy Ross flags similar to those flying over The Alamo in public memory as in the John Wayne 1961 Technicolor film that was designed as a special project to relaunch his cinematic career. The idealization of the sacrifice of The Alamo that seemed an elevation of nation over all, was the sort of jingoist rhetoric that the border wall was long based on, and that Donald Trump had long relished promoting. The mythologization of The Siege of the Alamo as a confrontation between the United States and Mexico, and a conquest of the American west by the dedication of a group regularly heroized in border culture as a racialized conflict, fit the barbed taunt that President Trump had made before the Capitol Riots of the need to “fight like hell” if you want to “have a country any more.”

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Mobs and Jobs

We had been waiting for barbarians for some time. The President had, for over six years, mapped the threat of the barbarians advancing from across borders as a security threat. And so we imagined that they would arrive from the edges of empire, the edges where the acting President had been mapping threats of their arrival for five years. When they did arrive on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the picture was not clear: ten thousand had entered the grounds, and some had scaled the scaffolding set for the inauguration two weeks off; even if the border was fortified by a complex system of defense, informed by threats a border that without adequate defenses would leave the nation facing an existential threat, the grounds of the Capitol were breached to protest the transition of that the Presidential election had determined. If the Republican party used the specter of the invading migrants whose presence conjured a threat to the nation’s sovereignty in their public statements and hypertrophic alarms, the tocsin sounded over the past five years seemed most successful in bringing the agitated adherents loyal to the President eager to be electrified and called into action to forestall the transition of power, or seed panic in the halls of government.

As if hoping for a last-minute reversal of fortune, Donald Trump invited these barbarians into the gates, having granted them honorifics as “patriots committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious republic,” ready to “patriotically make your voices heard.” “I have never been more confident in our nation’s future,” he said in closing, reminding the patriots assembled that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” These patriots arrived on the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol, convinced that they would present a new ideal of sovereignty, a popular sovereignty, that would overturn not only the certification of electors but the falsity of a tainted electoral process, as if they might replace it with direct sovereignty evoked in the sea of flags that so exultantly if chaotically unified the voices and identity of the mob that rushed the U.S. Capitol, streaming their success on social media, to give a transparency to their own actions that they found lacking in the electoral process.

But these yahoos were not from the edges of empire, from outside of the borders of the nation. They were, rather, crowd-sourced from social media platforms and news sources of political disaggregation, animated by the inflation of abstract values–arriving not from the southwestern border we had been warned of an invasion by gangs, druglords, child-traffickers, and illegal aliens, but from across the nation. They were different barbarians, promoting popular sovereignty. The Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy began Waiting for the Barbarians, by imaging the expectation of their arrival as government ground to a halt: toga-wearing legislators, bored, seem to wait something to break the logjam of their work to lift them from their idleness: “Why should the Senators still be making laws?/ The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.”

The crowd that progressed from the Ellipse gained new clarity as a body as they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Mall, and entered in waves into the chambers of the U.S. Capitol. They arrived to fulfilled their ambitions to fill the “our house”–occupying the architecture of the ship of state and government. They had arrived with an ease as surprising to many members of the mob as their leaders, as well as the President they would continue to support in his calls for patriotic defense of liberties. They worked to empty the U.S. Capitol of the sacrality that it commands, however, and reminds me of how C. P. Cavafy bemoaned the inability of the senators as they waited for the “barbarians” to see the large picture, and retreat into false securities, with inability to see the larger global picture of the investment of the crowd as “patriots” poised to defend their country. For “bored with eloquence and public speaking,” as legislators found that with the specter of the barbarians from across the southern border were hidden behind, senators fled from the specter of the advancing MAGA mob, relinquishing their offices in fear: after four years of affirming the sacrality of the border wall to the nation, they shamelessly cowered from these barbarians without responsibility.

Nick Anderson, MAGA Mob/Tribune Agency

President Trump had incited the crowd to occupy the sacred architecture of government, in the neoclassical Palladian capitol building that he spoke before–what Joe Biden affirmed, in the hours of the riot, as an unprecedented assault on the very “citadel of liberty” and heart of government, occupying the sacred space of government and “most sacred of American undertakings,” the “sacred ritual” of the certification of the Electoral College vote, by occupying and filling the architecture of government into which they flowed. President Trump talked of the Capitol not as a sacred architecture or citadel, but the arms and tactical gear brought to the rally made clear it was a site to be filled: President Trump described an “egregious assault on our democracy,” a strange collective, as if the Capitol were a site of a wrong, rather than sacred, where the “brave senators and congressmen and women” would be cheered on, as in a sporting event, while not cheering much for others, to “make our voices heard” and in doing so “take back our country,” shifting sacrality from the architecture of the Capitol and making it appear a site to be filled by a cheering and booing crowd, as it had been almost evacuated of sacrality in a Presidency that was committed to the sacrality of the border wall.

Storming of the U.S. Capitol/Sam Corum/Getty Images

Only less than a thousand of those attending the Save America Rally on January 6, 2021 forced their way into the doors of the U.S. Capitol, hardly a fraction of the minimum size of 250,000 Trump claimed to face, as the “low number a few hundred thousand, high 2-3 million” that the rally organizers had promoted–but the spark for the crowd was set by the urgent request to save their country, from a threat that was all too real. The social media whistleblower who urged his followers to “take action” before the Capitol Riots taunted the Capitol police on poor planning for an event he hoped would attract three million American patriots, as if they were woefully underprepared for the reckoning the Save America Rally would create over the coming days.

The apparent abdication of the President from his executive responsibility was mirrored in the refusal of Republicans to recognize the danger of advance of militant resisters of a peaceful transfer of power. If only eight hundred entered the U.S. Capitol on January 6, breaking police lines and forcing their way into locked and guarded doors, the dissolution of momentum as the crowd could no longer fill the cavernous rotunda seemed to let it dissipate energy, but the insurrectionary force of entrance had already destabilized the workings of government and shocked the nation. It seems probably the organizers expected many more would have followed, as they insurrectionists hung Trump 2020 flags atop the Capitol building, from flags of the Trump campaign to other lost causes, from the Confederacy to South Vietnam–and tore down the American flag from the flagpole, to replace it with a Trump flag. When they entered the chambers of Congress, they cried “Trump won that election!

They communicated a truly chaotic sense of exultation and arrival, as if that was their purpose. The many flags of imagined nations that no longer exist were on display at the insurrection linked the riots to an imagined heritage by radical telescoping and “umbrella descriptor” able to conjure “utopic” parallel worlds of whiteness. From the assembly of a “new American to the refighting of lost battles–evident in the many flags of the Confederate States of America; Trump 2020; Thin Blue Line–the array of flags suspended on the walls of the Capitol and from its flagpoles and windows suggest realities that were all no longer past, but, as Danielle Christmas reminds us, but synchrony of imaginary spaces which –from the Betsy Ross flag; the Confederacy; League of the South; Knights Templar; Vinland–validated a sense of belonging to a heritage of whiteness, in the attempts to give a national coherence to white nationalism, and even more a sense of authenticity and transparency to their aims. The attempts to untangle the mashup to sanctify their cause in hyper-masculine tropes eliding patriotism and militancy may explain the ebullient apparent chaos in the use of Confederate flags with neo-pagan flags, militant flags of crusaders, early revolutionaries, and diehards of the 2020 election, were images of white strength. Against the backdrop of accusations of failed transparency, an iconography of “lost causes” staked out an authenticity of faith, for all its fakeness and lack of historical accuracy.

While his social media followers may have been unmoored from any stable epistemological ground, the ability to warp the truth over the past five years may have made it incumbent upon them to respond to this lack of truth, to dislodge them from ties to any reality other than his refusal to concede the already decided Presidential race, as he sent his own troops into battle to rally against the reality of his political defeat. The flags pronounced claims to faith in lost causes that both magnified the crowd and its energetic claims to belonging to groups that were more transparent than the alleged “false media” narrative of an election defined, in contrast, by a lack of transparency. The power of belonging in a crowd no doubt attracted many to the Capitol, as it would reprise the many rallies Trump had staged nationwide since 2015. But after promising his audience that he would accompany their progress down Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump cannily left the rally he had called, gleefully watching the progress to the U.S. Capitol on television from the White House with friends and advisors, as if relinquishing center stage; he abdicated responsibility for inciting the ensuing violence he followed gleefully in the Oval Office with his son and several advisors, and seems to have waited for his Vice-President to summon the National Guard, so ecstatic was Trump in what seemed an Insurrection Party with a soundtrack of upbeat rock. The open transparency of these patriots was on view for all to see, and was being documented live on camera, evident from the map of cel phone signals from towers near the Mall and U.S. Capitol as the crowd advanced.

Animated by the defense of a sense of patriotism, if not of the delicate boundaries of the Republic, when Trump vowed “we will never give up, we will never concede,” at the very start of his speech, repeating the useful conceit “we won by a landslide,” he created a bond of collective relation to the crowd, before he affirmed that if “we don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” The tweet that arrived to the followers who all had brought their phones to stream the event to which they were amassed to follow lit up at 2:24 p.m. with the alarming news the acting President of the Senate failed to question the validity of seating electors, and indeed lacked the “courage to do what should have been done to protect our County and our Constitution” that triggered the mob to form from the crowd, waving a raucous abandon of flags semiotically difficult to process–TRUMP 2020 flags; Betsy Ross flags; Gadsden flags; 2nd Amendment flags thin blue line flags; and, of course, confederate flags–in an abandon of over-signification born of deep desire to destabilize sovereign unity, lifted by an eery undercurrent of red MAGA hats.

About a sixth of the way through President Trump’s address–and just after he claimed that the voice of the crowd of believers that would not be silenced, martial chanting filled the space that Elias Canetti, who found that history of the twentieth century a history of mass psychology–termed the “acoustic mask” of the collective, more akin to sports events than individual articulation, a subsuming of the self in the crowd, of openly martial tones. Canetti’s distinction between the “open” crowd whose expansion knew no limits and from the “closed” crowd that fills an architectural space to take it over, and fills it while sacrificing its mass size by accepting architectural definition. The crowd at the Capitol combined both aspects, as it was a crowd that had assembled at multiple earlier rallies and online, but was determined to expand to fill the architecture of the Capitol, opening a preserve of government as it was determined to make its voices heard. Architecture provided a stimulus for the crowd to gain its sense of a unity, Canetti argued in his distinction between the “open” and “closed” crowds, echoing the image of the Nuremberg Rallies of Hitler, no doubt, when he claimed that architecture “postpones [the crowd’s] dissolution,” but the limited number of entrances to the closed space where the crowd assembles not only attracts them, as a space that the crowd will fill, harnessing the power of the crowd which realizes “the space is theirs,” and its very emptiness, even if they cannot fill it entirely, “reminds them of the flood” or crucial metaphors of conceiving the crowd as a stream, tide, or waves–metaphors usually based on water, to illustrate its cohesion.

Seeking to understand the twentieth century as a history of crowds, Canetti addressed the inadequacy of a Freudian concentration on ego to understand these mass movements of fascism, and relation of self to collective. The crowd allowed him to focus on the question of the political fusion of self with crowd as a moment when all inhibitions are overcome by a drive toward greater density and physical proximity; the procession of the crowd as it moved toward the U.S. Capitol became a mob, gaining identity to cross the Capitol’s perimeter, realizing its transformation from the open crowd of online space to the physical space that it might occupy: in this case, the mass of Trump supporters that was assembled before the U.S. Capitol was it fear of the arrival of the barbarians that Trump has himself warned against, but seemed to seek acceptance as a new political unit. They gained power as a mob as they approached the U.S. Capitol, defining their power by their proximity to the U.S. President, and growing in power as their distance diminished to the Capitol building that appeared within their vision on the horizon, just out of reach of their own pressing raucous popular demands.

Drawn toward the Capitol as if to hope to fill its space, the logic of the crowd that had assembled was oriented toward the building where Trump had baited them to disrupt the votes, as if it was within their power to do so, removing and prohibition from entering the property that they were convinced was their own to possess, as they had been instructed by the leader to whom their banners all proclaimed fealty, as if they were a separate country–a nation that might be the nation of Trump 2020, of Confederate America, or of America Made Great Again, as they pursued the MAGA agenda into the halls of government to finally make their voices heard.

A mob swarmed the US Capitol and this is what some said - CNN
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency

The approached the U.S. Capitol, waving Second Amendment flags and hanging their banners that celebrated the recent candidacy of Donald J. Trump as if it was indeed marked by victory, still with meaning, not able to be consigned to a trash-heap of history. The moment of heightened proximity to one another outside the White House walls marked the transformation of the audience to a mass, identified by professions of patriotism, patches, clothing, hats, and the acoustic mask of any cry they could improvise. They wished they had brought a boom box, and had a soundtrack by which to enter the chambers of Congress in a mask of dignity.

As martial chanting was a mask, a new collective identity by assuming the power to overturn sovereignty, the flags, MAGA caps, and weapons and tactical gear were a mask of identity by which they were made suddenly visible, accountable, and politically powerful, in collective denial Trump had lost the Presidential vote of 2020: as much as perpetuating a big lie that Trump planted, they laid claim to the collective identity that would not be ignored Trump championed. The acoustic mask was mirrored in the mask of signs, flags, demands, and an interruption to politics as normal. The flags were a baiting of power, a refusal of the sovereign power of the Joint Session of Congress, and a denial of its authority to certify electors: the mass of Trump supporters offered a new form of power, a delegitimization of the sovereignty of the U.S. Capitol itself, as the crowd presented a new form of power, ready to supplant it, unassailable by Capitol police, but that had in this moment before the Rotunda assumed an identity of invulnerability, in the new identity they presented as members of a crowd, and took a new sense of their own power as a crowd, attracted to their own ability to “save America” lest it not be “Great” anymore. They had all been, after all, invited to the event.

1. Trump urged the crowd to step into the breach opened by political polarization across the nation, to right the ship of state at the site of government, by going to the U.S. Capitol. This was the dominant trope of the deep risk of the Republic that American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had channeled, as a task of righting the voyage of the Republic lest it plummet into fatal waters. And the crowd approached, as if it embodied the hopes of the Republic and of mankind, magnifying its own power as a renewal of the Union, akin to a new state of civil war, and of democratic dignity, if the collective construction Longfellow called for imagined timbres from across the nation would be used to “bring tribute, great and small/and help to built this wooden wall . . . of oak and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp,” to contain “humanity with all its fears.” For Longfellow, the shore was a site of contact, commerce, and danger of natural forces, rather than the fantasy of native purity Trump mapped as a source of fears to be contained by the still unbuilt border wall as a reimagined architecture of sovereignty. When Schoen read the envoi from “The Building of the Ship” inseparable from American Presidents standing steadfast in the face of disunion from Abraham Lincoln’s admiration of how the verses powerfully “stir men” on the eve of the Civil War to Franklin Delano Roosevelt sending them with Wendell Wilkie to Winston Churchill–“Sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union strong and great./Humanity with all its fears . . . /Is hanging breathless on thy fate”–before the United States entered World War II, as a commitment of solidarity the former Lord of Admiralty, desperate for reassurance of an Atlantic alliance, would see “applies to you people as it does to us.” (Churchill would frame the hand-written letter on the walls of his Chartwell home, “I think this verse applies to your people, as it does to us.”

In Schoen’s reading, the tradition of Presidential authority that the envoi evoked summoned an array of Presidential authority in defense of Trump’s accusation of violence that mimicked the exhibition of multiple flags arrayed behind Trump as he addressed the Ellipse on the morning of January 6, 2021. Longfellow’s poem had long provided a powerful topos of national unity, and transnational unity, any sense of the shared collective meaning of a transcendence–and the transcendent role of Presidential authority–were hard to recuperate days after the insurrection incited by an intense partisan opposition of an outgoing President, hard to read as deferring fears of the lack of consensus Trump hammered home in provoking the crowd by insisting the media suppresses “free speech” and urged them “we’re going to have to fight much harder” lest a “sad day for our country” occur and the defense of the constitution would fall to the crowd he addressed. In summoning the crowd to defend their version of false “freedoms”–freedom of speech without fear of reprisal for hate speech, at a “Free Speech Event” to protest second amendment rights to possess guns; freedom of the”right” to assemble to promote civic disunion. Schoen’s stilted reading of the trimeter of the envoi beseeched us to place faith over fears–“faith triumphant over our fears”–seemed to steel the nation against the insurrection. Longfellow’s language of righting the course of the ship of state became the language of a mob seeking to make their voices heard, in an insurrectionary slogan that granted license to trespass government property to disrupt Congress before electors were certified.

And the mob of rioters who advanced on the U.S. Capitol inspire more fears for the future of the unity of state, than a manufactured by a steel wall of concrete core might stop, impelled by the fear that America as they knew it might suddenly stop if Joe Biden assumed the Presidency, and the America Made Great Again would no longer be America any more. The invocation of the timeless precepts of a “ship of state” transcended time, and were hardly rooted in a poetics that Longfellow began: Longfellow was an ardent abolitionist, In a poem that formed the conceit “it is not the sea that sinks and shelves/But ourselves/That rock and rise/With uneasy motion,” the uncertainty of the fate of the ship that forms the dramatic tension in Longfellow’s poem–and about which he was uncertain until the proofs were submitted to the printer–was rewritten as an affirmation of the timeless constancy of the Constitution–the timbers of the ship whose sublime form and graceful design arose from its architect’s model to ensure smooth passage–and nation’s mission. Schoen’s delivery halted and broke over the triumphant trimeter of an envoi to the frigate, but the riots suggested the clear and present danger of the hurricane that in his earlier draft would not defer the catastrophe at sea, but find the ship crashed, “wrecked upon some treacherous rock” despite its “loveliness and strength,” reduced to “rotting in some loathsome dock” despite all of its earlier hopes. The addition in its place of the injunction, “Sail on! Sail on! O Ship of State!” not only clarified the Horatian metaphor but of course solidified its place in American Presidential rhetoric.

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Filed under American Politics, Capitol Riots, crowds, Donald Trump, MAGA

Coronavirus Advances

While we are increasingly deadened by data visualizations that track the infectious spread of COVID-19 across the world and country, their logic has often been implicit. As much as tracking real-time data of deaths and “hot-spots” in the world and the nation, we trust the data viz to orient us to the infectious landscape to better gain understanding of viral spread. We seek to grasp nature of the virus’ transmission, and perhaps hope that we can better grasp its spread. We depend on these daily updates to retain a sense of agency in the chaos, but realize that they are provisional, contingent, and selective snapshots, based on testing, and exist at a time delay from the virus’ actual distribution–without much predictive value. We maddeningly realize they are dependent on testing rates and reporting, and only as good as the datasets which they re-present.

On the heels of a 5% statewide positivity rate on December 5, 2020, California was declared in a state of shut down in all its counties. It almost seems that such graphics have started to fail us, as the spread of the virus overflows the boundaries of the map and permeates its space. The choropoleth renders individual counties all but indistinct, the state drowned in widespread infections, with only a few of its less populated regions as refuges. With a flood of purple overflowing the coastal counties, the delta, the Central Valley, and the entire south of the state, was there even any point in mapping the danger of viral spread beyond a state of red alert?

Dec. 5, 2020

While mapping offers little comfort in the era of saturation of heightened risk, the color-codes alert inhabitants to the danger of increased stresses on the public health system–as much as visualization challenges to translate tools of data aggregation to visualize the pandemic., as December 6 rates grew by December 19. As we shift to map a decreasingly multi-colored state by the moderate, substantial and widespread virus, and widespread cases seem to flood the state, the map offers a security of some sort of monitoring of the pandemic’s spatial spread.

The sea of purple is like Spinal Tap going raising the volume “up to eleven,” and are a sign that we are in unexplored territory that won’t be accommodated by a simple color ramp–or, indeed, a familiar cartographic iconography among our current tools of styling space. While we are used to maps embodying meaning, what the colors of the map embody–beyond risk–is unknown. To be sure, at a time when fatalities from the coronavirus in the south of the state have skyrocketed from the middle of the month, hitting records in ways terrible to even contemplate, the field of purple is a deeply human story of loss, as a surge of hospitalizations have flooded the entire healthcare community, and stretched facilities of critical care beyond anything we have known, filling half of intensive care beds in LA County at Christmas. 2020 enough to make it hard to feel any relief in the close of a calendar year, as if that unit still held any meaning, and very grim about 2021: and while the CDC allowed that there may already be a new, more contagious strain, in the nation two days before Christmas, the arrival of the more contagious strain in California and Colorado increased alarm before New Year’s.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 6 2020
SF Chronicle, December 19, 2020

How to get a handle on the novel coronavirus that we have been pressing against COVID-19 dashboards since March to grasp better, and will we able to do so in 2021?

Whatever sense agency the maps impart, it is an agency that is only as good as the compromised sense of agency that we expect in an era of geolocation, on which most maps track reports of infection. Even as we face the rather grim warning that we are waiting for the arrival of a vaccine that, in the Bay Area, rates of immunization face steep obstacles of vaccine distribution due to pragmatics of freezer space required, training of extra health care workers, and monitoring and tracking the two-stage process of vaccination, we will depend for public sanity on maintaining clear communication in maps. The actual tracking of the novel coronavirus doesn’t translate that well to a state-wide model, or a choropleth, although it is the method for public health advisories that makes most sense: we do not have small-scale public health supervision in most of the nation, although they exist at some counties. The stressed Departments of Public Health in areas are without resources to manage COVID-19 outbreaks, public health compliance, or retaliations for public health violations: and the effort to create public health councils to manage compliance and violations of public health orders may be seen by some as an unneeded bureaucracy, but will give local governments resilience in dealing with an expanding epidemic, at the same time as governmental budgets are stressed, and no body of law about COVID violations exists.

Rather than map on a national or state-wide level, we can best gain a sense of how much virus is out there and how it moves through attempts of contact tracing–even if the increasing rates of infection may have gone beyond the effectiveness of contact tracing as a methodology that was not quickly adapted by a federal government the prioritized the rush to a vaccine. The basis for such a map in LA county can reveal the broad networks of contagion, often starting in small indoor gatherings across the region, and moving along networks of spatial mobility across the city and San Fernando Valley, and help embody the disease’s vectors of transmission as we watch mortality tallies on dashboards that give us little sense of agency before rising real-time tolls.

ESRI

If such ESRI maps suggest a masterful data tracing and compilation project, the data is large, but the format a glorification of the hand-drawn maps of transmission that led to a better understanding of the progress of Ebola on the ground in 2014, used by rural clinics in western African countries like Liberia and Rwanda to stop the infectious disease’s transmission and monitor the progress of contagion to limit it–as well as to involve community members in the response to the virus’ deadly spread.

We may have lost an opportunity for the sort of learning experience that would be most critical to mitigate viral spread in the United States, as no similar public educational outreach was adopted–and schools, which might have provided an important network for diffusing health advisories to families, shifted predominantly to distance learning and providing meals, but we became painfully aware of the lack of a health infrastructure across America, as many openly resisted orders to mask or to remain indoors that they saw as unsubstantiated restrictions of liberty, not necessary measures.

Hand-Drawn Public Health Map of Ebola Transmission in Liberia (2014)

We are beyond contact tracing, however, and struggling with a level of contagion that has increased dramatically with far more indoor common spaces and geographic mobility. Yet the broad public health alerts that these “news maps” of viral spread offer readers omits, or perhaps ignores, the terrifying mechanics of its spread, and the indoor spaces in which we know the virus is predominantly acquired. The rise of newly infectious mutated strains of the novel coronavirus was in a sense inevitable, but the rising tension of what this means for the geographical distribution and danger of the coronavirus for our public health system is hard to map to assess its wide distribution, and we take refuge in mitigation strategies we can follow.

Why have we not been more vigilant earlier to adapt the many indoor spaces in which the virus circulates? It bears noting that the spread of virus in the state was undoubtedly intensified by over a hundred deaths and 10,000 cases of infection to spread in the density of a carceral network, which seems an archipelago incubating the spread of viral infections in the state. We only recently mapped the extent of viral spread across nineteen state prisons by late December 2020, tracked by the Los Angeles Times, but often omitted from public health alerts–

Coronavirus Cases Reported in Nineteen California Prisons, Dec. 21, 2020

–and the density of Long-Term Care centers of assisted living across the state, which were so tragically long centers of dangers of viral spread, as the New York Times and Mapbox alerted us as the extreme vulnerabilty of elder residents of nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities, retirement homes, assisted-living facilities, residential care homes who cannot live alone was noted across the world. The data that was not provided in the grey-out states interrupted the spread of infections among those often with chronic medical conditions was not surprising, epidemiologically, but terrifying in its escalation of the medical vulnerability of already compromised and vulnerable populations–and steep challenges that the virus posed.

unlike those greyed out states that fail to release data on deaths linked to COVID-19 infections, congregate on the California coast: while the New York Times depicted point-based data of the over 100,000 COVID-related deaths in nursing homes are a small but significant share of COVID deaths, exposure for populations with extraordinarily high probability of possessing multiple possibilities for co-morbidities is probably only a fraction of infections.

Coronavirus Deaths linked to Nursing Homes in United States, December 4, 2020

We strain to find metrics to map the risk-multipliers that might be integrated into our models for infectious spread. It seems telling to try to pin the new wave of infections in a state like California to increased contact after Thanksgiving–a collective failure of letting up on social distancing in place since March–as the basis for a post-Thanksgiving boom in many regions of the state, using purely the spatial metrics of geolocation that are most easily aggregated from cell phone data in the pointillist tracking of individual infections in aggregate.

New York Times/CueBiq Mobility Data

Based on cell-phone data of geolocation, a proxy for mobility or social clustering that offered a metric to track Americans’ social proximity and geogarphical mobility–including at shopping centers, oceanside walks in open spaces, and even take-out food curbside pickups, as well as outdoor meals and highway travel, few counties curbed aggregation as one might hope–although the fifty foot metric accepts the many outdoor congregations that occurred, well within the Cuebiq metric, wearing or without masks. A magenta California registered pronounced proximity, grosso modo, discounting any mindful innovative strategies in the state.

Increased Spatial Closeness within Fifty Feet/CueBiq/Graphic NBC News, Nigel Chiwaya and Jiachan Wu

It is stunning to have a national metric for voluntary mobility, rough as it is, to measure internalization of social distancing protocols and potential danger of a post-holiday COVID-19 bump. To be sure, we are stunned by geolocation tools to aggregate but risk neglecting the deeper infrastructures that undergird transmission, from forced immobility. While geolocation tools offer opportunities for collective aggregating whose appeal has deep historical antecedents in measuring contagion and anticipating viral transmission by vectors of spatial proximity, geospatial tools create a geolocation loop in visualizations which, however “informative” perpetuate a spatiality that may not clearly overlap with the actual spatiality of viral transmission.

Even if we demanded to map what were the novel coronavirus had “hot-spots” in mid- to late March, as if processing the enormity of the scale we didn’t know how to map, aggregating data without a sense of scale.

March 26, 2020

Across the summer, it seems best to continue to map daily numbers of cases, relying on whatever CDC or hospital data from Hopkins we had, trying to aggregate the effects of the virus that was spreading across the country whose government seemed to provide little economic or medical plan, in maps that tallied the emergence of new cases, as new hotspots appeared across the land, meriting attention difficult to direct.

We are plowing infections and mortality with abandon in a steady diet of data visualizations that purport to grasp disease spread, that were once weighted predominantly to the New York area, even as they spread throughout the nation by the end of March, but remaining in the thousands, at that point, as even that low threshold was one by which we were impressed. The tracking of the local incidence of reported cases seemed to have meaning to grasp the meaning of transmission, with a pinpoint accuracy that was assuring, even if we had no way to understand the contagion or no effective strategy to contain it. But we boasted data visualizations to do so, focussing on the nation as if to contain its spread in antiquatedly national terms, for a global pandemic, not mapping networks of infection but almost struggling to process the data itself.

After all, the John Snow’s cholera maps of John Snow are the modern exemplars foregrounded in data visualization courses as game-changing images as convincingly precise pictures of infection progressing from a water pumps in London neighborhoods is often seen as a gold standard in the social efficacy of the data visualization and information display. The elevation of the pinpoint mapping of cholera mortality in relation to a water pump from which the deadly virus was transmitted in a nineteenth-century London neighborhood:

John Snow, “Cholera Deaths in Soho”

The Snow Map so successfully embodies a convincing image of contagion that it has taken on a life of its own in data vis courses, almost fetishized as a triumphant use of the plotting of data that precisely geolocated mortality statistics allow, and can indeed be transposed onto a map of the land to reveal the clustering of death rates around the infamous Broad St. pump, that created a legible vector of the transmission of diseases in the Soho neighborhood, so convincing to be touted as a monument of the data sciences.

Open-Air Water Pumps Tainted by Cholera measured in John Snow’s Map

Snow is lauded for having effectively showed that, in ways that changed scientific practices of collective observation and public health: rather than being communicated by miasmatic infections that spread to low-lying London from the Thames, mortality rates could gain a legibility in proximity to a pump that transmitted an infectious virus, often presented as a conceptual leap of Copernican proportions (which it was, when contrasted to miasma that emanated from the Thames to low-lying areas–if it anticipated a bacteriological understanding of viral transmission). The association of danger with the water procured on errands from neighborhood pumps however replaced the noxious vapors of a polluted river, as in earlier visualizations of the miasma that lifted the noxious fumes of the polluted Thames river to unfortunate low-lying urban neighborhoods, who were condemned by urban topography to be concentrations of a density of deaths of more striking proportions and scale than had been seen in the collective memory.

Snow made his argument by data visualizations to convince audiences, but he mapped with a theory of contagion. But if Snow’s maps works on how the virus is communicated in outdoor spaces–and how a single site of transmission can provide a single focus for the aggregation of mortality cases, COVID-19 is an infection that is most commonly contracted in indoor spaces, shared airspace, and the recycled unfiltered air of close quarters. And the indoor spaces where COVID-19 appears to be most often transmitted stands at odds with the contraction in outdoor common spaces of the street and service areas of water pumps, that create the clear spacial foci of Snow’s map, and the recent remapping by Leah Meisterlin that seeks to illuminate the urban spaces of the contraction of cholera in a digital visualization as a question of intersecting spatialities.

Current visualization tools compellingly cluster a clear majority of cholera deaths in proximity to a publicly accessible pump where residents drew water where viral pathogens that had colonized its handle. But we lack, at this point, a similarly convincing theory of the transmission of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

But the logics of COVID-19’s communication is nowhere so crisp, and difficult to translate to a register that primarily privileges spatial contiguity and proximity–it is not a locally born disease, but a virus that mutates locally across a global space: a pandemic. And although contact-tracing provides a crucial means of trying to track in aggregate who was exposed to infection, we lack any similarly clear theory to metaphorically grasp the contagion–and are increasingly becoming aware of the central role of its mutation to a virus both more infection and that spreads with greater rapidity in confronting the expansive waves of infection in the United States–as if an escalated virulence grew globally in the first months of this rapidly globalized pandemic.

Our dashboards adopted the new versions of web Mercator, perhaps unhelpfully, to offer some security in relation to the nature of viral spread, which, if they served as a way of affirming its truly global scope–

NextStrain

–also suggested that global traffic of the virus demands its own genomic map, as the virus migrates globally, outside strictly spatial indices of global coverage, and that perhaps spatial indices were not the best, in the end, for accounting for a virus that had began to develop clear variants, if not to mutate as scarily as many feared, into a more virulent form.

And it may be that a genomic map that allow the classification of viral strains of genomic variability demand their own map: for as we learn that genomic mutation and variation closely determines and affects etiology, communication of the viral strains offers yet a clearer illustration that globalization articulates any point in terrestrial space to a global network, placing it in increased proximity to arbitrary point not visible in a simple map, but trigger its own world-wide network of markedly different infectiousness or virulence.

NextStrain

From December 4 2019, indeed, we could track emergent variants of the virus best outside of a spatial scale, as much as it reminded us that the very mobility of individuals across space increased the speed and stakes of viral contagion, and the difficulty to contain viral spread, in the interconnected world where viral variation recalled a flight map, set of trade routes, or a map of the flow of financial traffic or even of arms. Mutations were understood to travel worldwide, with a globalism that a spatial map might be the background, but was indeed far removed, as we moved beyond questions of contact tracing to define different sizes of genomic mutation and modifications that we could trace by the scale of mutations, not only the actual places where the virus had arrived.

Was place and space in fact less important in communicating the nature of COVID-19’s increasing virulence?

The maps of genomic variation traced not only the globalization of the virus, but its shifting character, and perhaps etiology across some thirty variants by late April, that show both the global spread of the virus, and the distinct domination of select strains at certain locations, in way that researchers later theorized the ability to “track” mutations with increasing precision. If researchers in Bologna defined six different variants of coronavirus from almost 50,000 genomes that had been mapped globally in laboratory settings to map variants of the virus whose signatures showed little more variability than strains of the flu in June, variations of signatures seemed a manner to map the speed of coronavirus that had traveled globally from by February 202 to the lungs of the late Franco Orlandi, an eighty-three year old retired truck driver from Nembro, Italy, whose family could not place China on a map when, following diagnostic protocol, attendant physicians in Bergamo asked if Orlandi had, by chance, happen to have traveled to China recently.

NextStrain

Despite lack of serious mutation, thankfully, the data science of genomic sequencing of the COVID-19 cases triggered by genomic mutations of SARS-CoV-2 genome of just under 30,000 nucleotides, has experienced over time over 353,000 mutation events, creating a difficult standard for transmission into equivalent hot spots: some hot spots of some mutations are far more “hot” than others, if we have tried to plot infections and mortality onto race, sex, and age, it most strikingly correlates to co-morbidities, if all co-morbidities are themselves also indictors of mortality risk. While the mutations have suggested transmission networks, have the presence of different levels of mutations also constantly altered the landscape of viral transmission?

Global Distribution of Sars-CoV-2 Variants, March 15, 2020/Los Alamos National Laboratory

It makes sense that the viral variant was tracked in Great Britain, the vanguard of genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus as a result not only of laboratory practices but the embedded nature of research in the National Health Services and the monitoring of public health and health care. Enabled by a robust program of testing, of the some 150,000 coronavirus genomes sequenced globally, England boasts half of all genomic data. Rather than being the site of mutations, Britain was as a result the site where the first viral variant was recognized and documented, allowing Eric Volz and Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London to examined nearly 2,000 genomes of the variant they judged to be roughly 50% more transmissible than other coronavirus variants, magnifying the danger of contagious spread in ways feared to unroll on our dashboards in the coming months. As teams at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied the variant in late 2020 in southeast England, they found it to be 56% more transmissible than other variants, and raised fears of further mutations in ways that rendered any map we had even more unstable.

The virus SARS-CoV-2 can be expected to mutate regularly and often. While England boasts about half of all global genomic data on the virus, of the 17 million cases of SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States, only 51,000 cases of the virus were sequenced–and the failure to prioritize viral sequencing in America has exposed the nation to vulnerabilities. And although California has sequenced 5-10,000 genomes a day of the novel coronavirus samples by December, and Houston’s Methodist Hospital have mapped 15,000 sequences as it watches for new viral variants; an American Task Force on viral variants will be rolled out early in 2021, as the discovery of viral mutations haves spread across five states in the western, eastern, and northwestern United States. While it is not clear that the viral variant or mutations would be less susceptible to polyclonal vaccines, most believe variants would emerge that would evade vaccine-induced immunity.

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Filed under Coronavirus, data aggregation, data maps, data visualization, global pandemic

A Socially Distanced Franchise?

While I was phone banking in Texas, Nevada, and other states in months before the 2020 election, I fielded a surprising number of questions of access to absentee ballots and mail-in voting, as well as being assured by many voters that they had refrained from mailing in ballots, and were planning to drop their ballots off directly in polling stations, or brave the lines, to ensure their votes counted. I’d like to think they did. (The woman I reached in Texas who had moved from Nevada and was awaiting an absentee ballot to arrive two days before the election, past the deadline of registering in Texas, may have not.) Even as we advance through “Trump’s final days of rage and denial,” and charges of fraudulence and the robbery of red states from the Grand Old Party’s self-appointed King haunt public White House pronouncements and social media posts, the electoral map that provide the formal reduction of how votes were tallied is cast as a contested ground, questioned on the basis of voting machines, absentee ballots, and socially distanced voting practices, as if these inherently distance the franchise and undermine democratic practice. Donald Trump invites the nation to squint at the map, examine its mediated nature and instability, querying the resolution of any election as, shockingly, only a handful of congressional Republicans admit he lost a month after voters cast seven million votes for his opponent, whose victory 88% of Republicans in Congress refuse to acknowledge.

Unlike other elections, for a month after Election Day–November 3, 2020–the nation waited in eery limbo, uncertain about the legitimacy of the election so that even by December 2, CNN was projecting victors in several “swing” states. Although the New York Times and AP projected the conclusion of the election on paper, announcing late-arriving news of electoral victory almost a full week after Election Day, seeking to invest a sense of conclusion in a protracted debates–if oddly channeling “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

New York Times, November 8, 2020

The inset map still indicated three states still “not called.” But the new President Elect appeared boosted by the classic alliance of Democratic voters that Donald Trump saw as unlikely, and had failed to align in 2016.

Months after Election Day, CNN was still “projecting” Biden’s surpassing the electoral vote threshold of 270, shifting two midwestern and one southern state to the Democratic column, with Arizona: the delay of verification in a range of legal gambits still being followed by the Trump campaign, which raised over $170 million to press its case for recounts, investigations into allegations voter fraud through the Save America PAC, disorientingly stubbornly refusing to admit the validity of the electoral map, and even repeating, into December, hopes that  an opening for a Trump victory materialize if one state select electors, to reassemble the swath of red that flooded the national map back in 2015 as if playing a puzzle: “If we win Georgia, everything falls in place!” The electoral map was something of an idol of the Republican Party, as Donald Trump’s hopes for electoral victory faded, but refused to recede into mid-December.

CNN, December 2 2020

Weeks after Election Day, we entered into a weirdly protracted attempt to game the electoral map, long after the initial tallying of votes had ceased. A range of recounts, hand-counts, investigations of absentee ballots and even querying of the legitimacy of voting machines have been launched to challenge the representational validity of the electoral map in ways that should give us pause for how it aimed to undermine the representational value of the voting practices. In querying the functions of the map as representation–by querying the tabulation of votes that comprise the electoral map–Trump has stoked tensions in representational democracy. With unsettling abandon, Trump stoked national tensions by refusing to acknowledge he did not win the election, as if determined to break with Presidential decorum for a final time, as if seeking to leave a legacy of disruption in his wake.

To be sure, gaming the electoral college has emerged as a recognized campaign strategy in 2020, increasingly distancing the franchise of the nation, as campaigns focussed with assiduity on the prospect not of “swing state” voters as in the past, but in flipping or holding a slate of states, that left the electoral map rendered as a sort of jigsaw puzzle that would add up to 270 votes from the electoral college, as the Wall Street Journal reminded us by mapping the Republican “game plan” that Donald Trump long knew he faced for holding onto tot the states where often slim majorities put him in office, as Democrats aimed to flip states to their column: the rhetoric of “gaming” the map to create the victorious outcome was echoed in the news cycle,–and not only in the Journal–in ways that seemed to have dedicated the distribution of public rallies that Donald Trump held long before announcing his candidacy officially, almost as soon as he entered office, in an attempt to solidify the bonds of the red expanse he celebrated as America’s heartland with his political charisma.

If Trump may have wished he didn’t take the southern states so much for granted, he had targeted Pennsylvania, Florida, and Montana–as well as Arizona and Nevada–by staging rallies, in those pre-COVID years, as if to shore up his support as if investing in the electoral votes of 2020.

https://www.npr.org/2019/06/18/733505037/trump-set-to-officially-launch-reelection-but-hasnt-he-been-running-all-along

If that map from National Public Radio, based Cook’s Political Report and the White House, only takes us through 2019, the campaign stops of Biden and Trump show a density to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina that suggest the depths of commitment to the gaming of the electoral map, and a deep battle in Arizona between the population centers in Phoenix and its suburbs and more rural regions.

The metaphor of “gaming” the map was hard to stop, and its logic seems to have inevitably led to the endless endgame that may result in clogging the nation’s courts with suits about the circumstances of mail-in voting in multiple states. Trump’s insistence in claiming the election not “over,” as if unfamiliar with someone else setting the parameters for television attention, speechless at the unfolding of a narrative shattering conviction of his inability to lose–that “in the end, I always win“–is not only a deepest reluctance to admit losing.

The logic of the gaming of the electoral map clearly has him and his campaign in its sway. The deeply personal sense of the election as a referendum on him and his family may have been rooted in a sense o the legal difficulties that his loss might pose: among the many emails that were sent to his base, pleading for campaign donations to the “Save America” PAC, which seemed the last line of defense to Make America Great Again,” supporters were begged to do their part in “DEFENDING THE ELECTION” and hope they hadn’t “ignored Team Trump, Eric, Lara, Don, the Vice President AND you’ve even ignored the President of the United States” given how much was on the line. The sense of impending alarm reminds us of the confidence that Trump lodged in preserving the red electoral map of 2016, a confidence that seemed almost born from his ability tot game the electoral map yet again, and overcome the polls even after they pollsters had tried to recalibrate their predictive strategies and demographic parsing of the body politic.

1. The very close margins voting margins suggest we narrowly escaped an alternative history of a second Trump term, and can explain the tenacious grip that Trump seems to have had on an alternative outcome, an outcome that he has tried to game in multiple ways and strategies that eerily echoes with the strategies of gaming the electoral map that seems to have occurred through the orchestration of telling postal delays, delayed returns of absentee ballots, and the strategic gaming of the distribution of a distanced franchise. It forces us to contemplate the counterfactual history of the far darker reality of a scenario where his expectations came true. Indeed, it should make us consider the closeness of overturning democracy. In was as if the reporting of the timestamped electoral map of Saturday, November 7 that was an inset of the Times only encouraged resistance to admitting the failure of Trump to preserve the “red swath” of 2016 across what coastal elites long bracketed as “flyover country,” where the effects of economic recession had never stopped.

New York Times, November 8 2020, “Results as of Saturday at 10:30 Eastern/ Map Shows Maine and Nebraska statewide vote

It had almost happened. In Trump’s White House, a boisterous watch party was underway, crowded with FOX anchors, watching the big screen that FOX results showed to the audience, anticipating the reality of a second Trump term. But all of a sudden, Trump was so incredulous he refused to admit seeing Arizona called at 11:20 as a Biden victory, shouting to no one in particular, “Get that result changed!” Hoping to calm her triggered boss, who must have been catapulted into alternate scenarios of having to leave the White House where he had expected to encamp, former FOX employee Hope Hicks fretted about the newsfeed.

Could the map be changed? Trump was frustrated at his in ability to manipulate the news, and already apprehensive at what endgame was in store. At this point, it seems, Trump’s every-ready servile son-in-law, Jared Kushner, hurriedly placed a direct call to Rupert Murdoch to rectify the call, assuring better data would arrive from Arizona’s COVID-denying governor, Doug Ducey (R), to restore the state’s redness on the electoral map, in desperate hopes of jerry-rigging his electoral fortunes. Back in 2016, Trump had indeed only won Arizona by the narrowest of margins–by about half of the margin by which Romney won in 2012–and only third-party candidates’ popularity concealed that Democrats boosted margins of victory in precincts beyond Republicans, flipping seventy precincts to their column–perhaps as Maricopa County featured a PAC that attracted millions of dollars to defeating Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s bid to consolidate an anti-immigrant agenda.

Trump quickly recognized the danger a flipped state posed to hopes for another red swath, as the contestation over the state that he had hoped to pry from the Democratic map was a poor omen of the election, and needed to be stayed.

In 2017, Trump was so enamored of the expanse of his electoral victory to given paper copies to White House visitors–until he framed a version for the West Wing, five months after the election. And if the state is visibly fragmented in an identical mosaic in the map that Trump framed in the White House, the brilliant red of nearby Nevada and bright red diagonal suggest the state was more firmly in Republican hands than we might remember. After hoping that The Washington Post might celebrate his hundredth day in office by featuring the “impressive” the electoral map on its front page, his pride in the map led it framed the map in the West Wing, a reporter from One America News Network obligingly showed.

This alternate world of electoral victory created what must have been a prominent counter-factual map that had dominated the Trump team’s plans for victory in 2020. The White House watch party must have been haunted by the very same map of which Trump was so proud.

Trey Yingst (ONN), May 11, 2017/Twitter
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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, Donald Trump, electoral maps, Presidential Elections